Historical Fiction Week: Author Q&A with Debbie Rix

The next guest for my Historical Fiction Week is Debbie Rix, Bookouture author of The Girl With Emerald Eyes (March, 2015) and Daughters of the Silk Road (April, 2016). Read all about her writing, her novels and her research process in this interview and don't forget to enter the giveaway to win a book bundle from Bookouture:

1) Hello Debbie and welcome to Alba in Bookland. First of all could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am married to a writer and journalist, and we have a daughter and a son. We live in the countryside with four cats and six chickens. When I’m not working I love to spend time in my garden – it’s something of a passion. I started my professional life at the BBC and was the first newsreader on Breakfast TV. I worked as a presenter/reporter for many years until I had my children. Whilst they were small I moved into production, working mostly for charities helping them to raise money and profile through events. But a common thread throughout was writing. I wrote articles, I was an agony aunt, I had a gardening column for a long time. I wrote my first novel aged about thirty, but I didn’t try very hard to get it published. I don’t think I had enough confidence at that time. But writing is central to my life now.

2) You have recently released your second book, Daughters of the Silk Road, with a dual time frame between modern day London and Venice in the fifteenth century and a Ming vase as the connection between them. What sparkled this idea?
I’ve long had a bit of a passion for blue and white china. I had a little blue and white tea set as a child which I played with endlessly. Then as a teenager I began to collect bits and pieces of English blue and white – plates and bowls and so on. As a young reporter I was lucky enough to visit Japan and Hong Kong. I bought a few more pieces there – especially in Hong Kong which has a great antique district called Hollywood Road. I came home with four large storage jars, which are in my sitting room now. They are not Ming of course, but they do have a bit of age. I did a little research on how Chinese porcelain was made and thought it would make a good core to a novel. I was interested in what might happen if someone inherited an antique – like a vase – but didn’t understand how valuable it was. That seemed like an interesting scenario. It was important to find the ‘right’ vase. I looked in lots of museums and online, until finally I found a blue and white vase with a dragon that snaked around its centre. It was made in 1440 under the reign of Emperor Xuande. It was perfect. The next part of the puzzle was to work out how this piece might have arrived in Europe from China. Whilst researching merchant/explorers of that time, I discovered Niccolo dei Conti – a little known Venetian explorer who spent twenty five years travelling in the Middle and Far East between 1419 and 1444. He wrote his experiences down in a diary on his return and these formed the basis for the first part of my story. His two children Maria and Daniele came back to Venice with him and I was interested in what might have happened to them – as really nothing is known of their lives once they had returned. I decided to ‘follow’ them and with them the fortunes of their family and the Ming vase. The modern character, Miranda, inherits the vase from an aunt, but doesn’t understand how valuable it is, until it disappears from her life. The modern story is a race against time. 

3) You also used a dual time frame for your first novel, The Girl with Emerald Eyes. Why did you chose that?
My first novel had a dual time frame and it was a framework that I enjoyed. I think the modern character helps to connect the reader to the historical story. It also can add a complexity to the novel as a whole, as the two stories have to blend and intermingle, which is always quite an enjoyable challenge. Lastly, it keeps the story fresh as you move from old to new. It’s important not to jump around too much though. I have learnt that. I tried with this novel to let one part of the old story unravel completely before dashing back to the modern story. Hopefully that works – I think it did…

4) Each of your novels is set in times that are not widely well known. How do you research your settings? 
With the first novel – ‘The Girl with Emerald Eyes’, I started with some research that my husband had done for a film he was making about the rescue of the Leaning Tower. He also introduced me to the Professor of Medieval History at Pisa University, who told me about the woman who left the money to build the tower. Her name was Berta di Bernardo, and the Professor showed me a copy of her will; it was witnessed by a fascinating group of men – some very well connected, so she was obviously a woman of some influence. But also present at the signing of the will was a master mason named Gerardo di Gerardo who worked on the Tower. I was interested in why he was there. What was their relationship? Unfortunately, very little is known about her – she has been rather overlooked by history. But I knew that I had found my central character. The Professor also explained what life would have been like in twelfth century Pisa. Everyone at that time lived in tall ‘tower houses’ – mostly with just ladders between the floors. But there were one or two larger houses where grander families lived. Many of them have been re-built over the centuries, but you can still see the echo of the original house beneath the later Renaissance fa├žade. I found a lot of fascinating research material at the British Library too and read widely about architectural technique, stone masonry etc. I am also the daughter of two architects, which helped – as I had a solid background of knowledge to draw upon. But you are right in as much as the twelfth century is quite under-researched and written records are quite rare. 

With ‘Daughters of the Silk Road’ I was able to read Niccolo dei Conti’s diary, which is kept at the British Library. I visited museums and studied the manufacture of porcelain – the V & A has a great exhibition. A porcelain expert recommended a wonderful book that I found second hand in the US – which contained beautiful ‘plates’ of the manufacture of porcelain, painted in the 18th century - and these formed the basis of the sections in the book where I describe the long process of how a pot was actually made. I read widely about the merchant classes in 15th – 17th century Venice, Bruges, Antwerp and Amsterdam; fortunately many academics have made a study of that time period as these cities were at the centre of mercantile development. And the internet is a fantastic resource. Many academics have made their studies available on the net and that was hugely useful. And I visited the cities where the book was set of course. It’s vital to see the place where your characters would have lived. To walk where they would have walked, to see the buildings, smell the scents and so on. 

5) Which one did you find the most difficult to recreate in your novels? 
I’m not sure I really found either setting difficult really. I spent a lot of time in Pisa – as my husband was ill in hospital there for several weeks, so I knew the city like the back of my hand, and it’s remarkably unchanged. And I know Venice quite well too – which is also much as it was in the fifteenth century. But of the two, perhaps the second book was the most challenging, as I had to ‘recreate’ four cities in that book and not just one. 

6) Do you think that one of the main aspects of a historical fiction novel is that the reader also learns about the past or that is not as important?
I think it’s definitely part of the attraction for the reader. Of course, you hope you have created a compelling story and interesting characters, but your research and knowledge does also open a door in the readers mind to a subject, or time, or place that they didn’t know about before. But that also applies to contemporary fiction. If you read a good ‘spy thriller’ you learn what it would be like to be a spy…

7) What made you start writing historical fiction? 
Really it was just chance. My husband, as I just mentioned, was taken ill in Pisa whilst making a film about the Tower. I lived there taking care of him, and once he had recovered I realised there was an interesting story there. My own modern heroine – Sam Campbell – also has to rush to Pisa to care for her sick husband. So there was an element of auto-biography there I suppose. But her husband was very different to mine. But it was when I met the Professor of medieval history and he told me about the woman who left the money to build the tower – Berta di Bernardo – that I knew I had found my heroine and it just became a story I had to write. 

8) Which authors have inspired or influenced you as a writer? 
So many, it’s such a hard question to answer… but in no particular order: Olivia Manning, Maggie O’Farrell, Mary Wesley, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Jane Austin, David Lodge, John Le Carre, Robert Harris, John O”Farrell… I could go on and on.

9) And finally, are you working on a new project? 
Yes. I am working on a new historical idea. It really is just an idea at the moment. I have a subject that interests me but am looking for a heroine. And I’m writing a more contemporary story too – which is about one third finished…

Daughters of the Silk Road is out now. You can find out more about Debbie Rix and her books on:

About the book:

Title: Daughters of the Silk Road
Author: Debbie Rix
Published: April 15th 2016 by Bookouture

Blurb: ‘She crossed over to the shelf where her father kept the dragon vase. He had placed it there when they first arrived in Venice. She took it down carefully, feeling it cool and comforting under her shaking fingers.’ 

Venice 1441: Maria and her brother Daniele arrive in the birthplace of their father, Niccolo dei Conti. An Italian merchant who has travelled far and wide, Niccolo has brought spices from India, lengths of silk and damask from the lands east of India and porcelain; a vase of pure white, its surface decorated with a cobalt blue dragon, the Chinese symbol of good fortune. 

Maria settles in her new home, watching the magnificent and bustling city come to life each morning from her bedroom window. But while her father is away travelling, she soon finds herself and Daniele in terrible danger. She must protect her brother at whatever cost, and she must guard the delicate vase. 

London 2015: Single mother Miranda is struggling to make ends meet and build a new life for her and daughter Georgie. When Miranda meets the charming but mysterious Charles, she is intrigued. Could he be her second chance at love? And why is he so fascinated by the old vase sitting on her hall table…


Thanks to Bookouture, I've got an ebook bundle to giveaway to one lucky winner. The Giveaway is International and the winner will be contacted via email and will have 48h to claim their prize: 

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