Historical Fiction Week: Author Q&A with Dinah Jefferies

The first guest in my Historical Fiction Week is the Number One Bestselling Author of The Tea Planter's Wife, Dinah Jefferies. She has recently published her third novel, The Silk Merchant's Daughter (available in paperback July 14th), and today she has stopped by to talk about her books and her love for historical fiction:

1) Hello Dinah and welcome to Alba in Bookland. First of all could you tell us a bit about yourself? 
Thank you so much for inviting me. Well I live in Gloucestershire now with my husband and Norfolk terrier, and close to family, but I do love popping down to London to see my publishers. I was born in the East and only moved to England when I was nine, and my early experience influences the books I now write. I enjoy travel and have really loved going to Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India to research my books.

2) You have recently released your third book, The Silk Merchant's Daughter, which is about a "m├ętisse" and her struggles with identity and belonging in French Indochina in 1952. What sparked this idea? 
My late mother-in law was born in India of a mixed race mother and her tales provided the seed from which this novel and The Tea Planter’s Wife grew. 

3) You were born in Malaysia, where your debut novel was set, and have lived in several countries and lived quite an eventful life since then. How do your own personal experiences influence your writing? 

While I am not mixed race, I certainly felt like I didn’t belong when we first came to live in England. So the issues of identity and belonging are within me. I lost my son when he was fourteen, so the knowledge and understanding of that awful experience also informs much of my writing. I’m sure personal experience usually influences a writer, one way or another. For me it is the deeper experiences of my life that influence the novels, so living in Andalusia for five years has not touched my writing. At least, not yet.

4) Each of your novels is set in a different country in a different time. How do you research your settings? 
Firstly I read about the country’s history so that I can choose a time period that will work for the kind of story I want to write. Then I read travel books and eventually memoirs if I can lay my hands on any. When I’ve done all that I visit the country. To research The Silk Merchant’s Daughter I went to modern day Hanoi which is vastly different to Hanoi in in 1952, so I sought out old photographs while I was there and found books I’d never have uncovered in England and they helped me re-create the period.

5) Which one did you find the most difficult to recreate in your novels?
None of them were difficult because I love conjuring up the past and imagining a setting as it once was. It’s the plotting that’s difficult. And it’s not just the setting that matters, it’s the mind-set of the period too and the way people would have been with one another. You have to take so much into account.

6) Your second novel, The Tea Planter's Wife, was picked by Richard & Judy for their autumn book club 2015 and became a huge success. What did that mean for you? 

When the book became a Sunday Times Number 1, it meant I got very very busy and had to learn how to say no. But more than that it was a truly thrilling time and that sort of success gives you the confidence and impetus to go on. No matter how many novels you’ve already written, it’s still a very up and down business and books don’t get born without a fair old amount of anguish.

7) What made you start writing historical fiction? 
It was all to do with the story that I wanted to use for The Separation, my first book. I decided that the heart of the book would be a mother’s search for her lost children and that would be more exciting if it took place at a time of war, and with no mobile phones! As I’d known Malaysia when it was still known as Malaya, and when it was in a declared state of Emergency, I chose that.

8) What do you think makes a historical fiction novel stand out?
That’s hard. What makes any book stand out? I suppose with historical fiction the period detail must be truly authentic, but really the human stories I write could take place at any time and are universal. So the characters still have to resonate with a modern audience. Reading is an act of empathy and you either empathise with certain characters or you don’t. The period gives you the chance to be more original or unique than if the books were contemporary.

9) Could you recommend us a novel that has stayed with you?
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. When I read her books I feel as if I’m inside the characters’ heads. I think that’s important and it’s what I attempt to.

10) And finally, are you working on a new project? 
Always! That’s a writer’s life. As one book is published you’re finishing off the early drafts of the next. The book I’m working on now, my fourth, is set in India and will be published in 2017. I’ve been asked to speak at the Galle Literature festival in Sri Lanka next January which is so exciting and very handy because I’m going back to Ceylon for book five and I can’t wait.

You can find out more about Dinah Jefferies and her books on:

About the book:

Title: The Silk Merchant's Daughter
Author: Dinah Jefferies
Published: by Penguin UK 
                    February 25th 2016 (Hardback)
                    July 14th 2016 (Paperback)
                    Amazon | Amazon UK

Blurb: Dinah Jefferies' stunning new novel is a gripping, unforgettable tale of a woman torn between two worlds... 

1952, French Indochina. Since her mother's death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule - and her own family's involvement shocks her to the core... 

Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she's always dreamed of. But who can she trust in this world where no one is what they seem? 

The Silk Merchant's Daughter is a captivating tale of dark secrets, sisterly rivalry and love against the odds, enchantingly set in colonial era Vietnam.

The Silk Merchant's Daughter was my first book by Dinah Jefferies and it won't be the last for sure. What an amazing and captivating story it is. I love the kind of books that transport you to another place, to another time (one you have no idea about) and make you part of it. And this is one of these reads.

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