Historical Fiction Week: Author Q&A with Rebecca Stonehill

The next guest in my Historical Fiction Week is Rebecca Stonehill, Bookouture author of The Poet's Wife (September, 2104) and The Girl and the Sunbird (June, 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 Rebecca and welcome to Alba in Bookland. First of all could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hello Alba! Thanks so much for hosting me on your blog. I have been writing for many years but my first novel, The Poet’s Wife, was published by Bookouture in 2014. I am from London but for the last three years have been living in Nairobi with my husband and three children, aged 10,8 and 5. My husband’s job in international development working as a water and sanitation engineer brought us here. When I’m not working on my own current writing projects, I run creative writing sessions for school-aged children and also volunteer at a vocational training centre for girls doing motivational and life writing activities.

2) You have just released your second book, The Girl and the Sunbird, which is about an eighteen year old who is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger, Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land in East Africa and chooses the second. What sparkled this idea?
My female characters are always strong women. Iris, my protagonist in this book, is left with a very unappealing choice: to marry a pompous Lord who far from supports her desire to go and study at university (this is 1903, so very few women of that day went to university), or to wed a man she knows nothing of in a far-flung British colony. Headstrong Iris also has a terrible relationship with her mother, thus opting for a new start in Africa. Living in Kenya these past few years, it made sense that I set my novel here. Many years ago I wrote a historical short story about a girl called Iris who has to watch her elder brother go off and study whilst she has to stay at home and prepare herself for marriage. Whilst not the same person, the original Iris provided inspiration for my new Iris and a story slowly built around her.

3) You are currently living in Nairobi, where your novel is set. How do your own personal experiences influence your writing?
My experience of living here in Nairobi has influenced my current novel hugely. Sitting at my desk and writing, sunbirds used to flit around outside the window and would only stay there for a short while, and if I stayed extremely still. They are the most beautiful little birds and the sunbirds in my novel became a central motif and a metaphor for the love story that develops between Iris and Kamau.
A Sunbird in Kenya - Image Source
The birds aside, ever since arriving here I have been fascinated by the fact that Nairobi, this vast, teeming metropolis, is not much more than one hundred years old. When Iris arrived here in 1903 it was a tiny little township, in fact Nairobi was never intended as capital. I loved pouring over old photographs and maps of Nairobi in the early twentieth century, bleak and windswept plains over which roamed wild animals and Masaai herders, a start contrast from the Nairobi of today.

4) Each of your novels is set in a different country in a different time. How do you research your settings? 
Apart from living in Granada for eighteen months many years ago (providing the original inspiration for The Poet’s Wife) I researched a great deal of my first novel from the fantastically stocked British Library in London as I was living in the UK at that time. Here in Kenya, the historical research has proved far more of a challenge! There are a few small libraries here but they are a little chaotic so most of my research has been through books I have begged, borrowed and stolen from people or via kindle. To research the second half of The Girl and the Sunbird in the 1950’s, I have been lucky enough to talk to some fascinating people in their eighties and nineties (with astonishing memories) who have filled me in on what life was like in Nairobi during the Mau Mau Emergency.

5) Which one did you find the most difficult to recreate in your novels?
Both novels have come with their own challenges. Because the Spanish Civil War happened between 1936 and 1939, few people are still around to give me first hand accounts of what they went through, which is why reading a wide variety of books around the subject was so important. As for The Girl and the Sunbird, as Nairobi is so built up now, I had to really exercise every ounce of my imaginative powers to envisage the Nairobi of the early twentieth century, no easy task!

6) How did you feel when you held your first book in your hands?
I felt really, really proud of myself, that this was what all my hard work and perseverance was for. Ever since I was a young girl, it has been my number one dream to see my name on the front of a book so it’s a stirring, emotional feeling to finally hold that book in your hands.

7) What made you start writing historical fiction? 
It’s interesting you should ask this because I wrote a blog on this very subject not long ago. Here is the link to the blog: http://rebeccastonehill.com/the-poets-wife/read-historical-fiction/

In short though, I fell into historical fiction a little by accident! The setting of Granada came first from when I lived there, and when I started playing around with ideas for a story set in Granada, it was almost as though the novel wanted to be set in the past and I just had to follow it. As soon as I started hearing murmurs about the Spanish Civil War, which ended so long ago but remains highly taboo and deeply controversial, I knew I had a story there.

8)What do you think makes a historical fiction novel stand out?
A combination of a fascinating, well-researched historical period and setting and believable characters that jump off the page are really important. The second a reader thinks It wouldn’t have been like that, or they wouldn’t have said that, you’ve lost their trust. Belief in a writer’s created worlds must be seamless, no matter the genre.

9) Could you recommend us a novel that has stayed with you? 
A favourite historical novel of the past year has been Longbourn by Jo Baker. I wasn’t particularly drawn to it by the blurb but am so glad I gave it a chance: exquisite prose and delightful characters and plot combine to make this a wonderful and memorable read. Inspired by the Bennet’s house Longbourn from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker re-imagines the intricate workings of the lives and relationships of the servants. Think Downton Abbey, with none of its clunkiness!

10) And finally, are you working on a new project? 
Yes! I grew up looking at dozens of photograph albums of my mother’s adventurous travels around the world during the 1960’s and 1970’s. I particularly loved looking at the time she spent on the island of Crete in 1967, spending a short while living in some Neolithic caves that had evolved into a kind of hippy, utopian community! Using this as the inspiration springboard, this novel will have three timeframes: Crete during WW2, 1967 and the present day. I am loving writing this! And the middle timeframe is certainly a great deal easier for me to research!

The Girl and the Sunbird is out now. You can find out more about Rebecca Stonehill and her books on:

About the book:

Title: The Girl and the Sunbird
Author: Rebecca Stonehill
Published: June 17th 2016 by Bookouture

Blurb: A haunting, heartbreaking and unforgettable novel of a woman married to a man she can never love, and drawn to another who will capture her heart forever… 

East Africa 1903: When eighteen year old Iris Johnson is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger, Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land, she bravely decides on the latter. 

Accompanied by her chaperone, Miss Logan, Iris soon discovers a kindred spirit who shares her thirst for knowledge. As they journey from Cambridgeshire to East Africa, Iris’s eyes are opened to a world she never knew existed beyond the comforts of her family home. 

But when Iris meets Jeremy, she realizes in a heartbeat that they will never be compatible. He is cold and cruel, spending long periods of time on hunting expeditions and leaving Iris alone. 

Determined to make the best of her new life, Iris begins to adjust to her surroundings; the windswept plains of Nairobi, and the delightful sunbirds that visit her window every day. And when she meets Kamau, a school teacher, Iris finds her calling, assisting him to teach the local children English. 

Kamau is everything Jeremy is not. He is passionate, kind and he occupies Iris’s every thought. She must make a choice, but if she follows her heart, the price she must pay will be devastating.


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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4 comentaris

  1. So hard to choose one historical novel but I just reviewed Florence Grace by Tracy Rees and it's a beautiful C19th setting.

    1. Oh Tracy Rees is taking part in Historical Fiction Week too with a post about what inspired her to write Florence Grace. It is scheduled for tomorrow! I'm very curious about this story, it sounds like a great read :)

  2. I've read a few historical romances recently and loved them, The Poets Wife was superb and I've recently read a debut novel by Lenora Bell How the Duke Was Won which was addictive.

    1. I've heard great things about The Poet's Wife, I really need to pick it up. Also, Lenora Bell is taking part in Historical Fiction Week and she'll be stopping by this weekend to talk about How the Duke Was Won and her next book! :)