Historical Fiction Week: Author Q&A with Lucy Ribchester

The next guest on my Historical Fiction Week is Lucy Ribchester, author of The Hourglass Factory and The Amber Shadows. Read all about her writing, her novels and the inspiration behind her stories in this interview:

Hello Lucy and welcome to Alba in Bookland. First of all could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Alba, thanks for having me! Where do I start? I live in Edinburgh and I write novels and short stories set in the past with a mix of history and fiction. I love researching hidden or lost stories of women and also letting my imagination run riot among bygone ages. I studied Shakespeare for my masters and it was then that I discovered rather than taking an academic approach to literature and history I preferred to respond creatively to things that I was discovering. 

You have recently released you second book, The Amber Shadows, which is a mysterious story about a typist during WWII who transcribes the decrypted signals from the German Army and one day starts receiving pieces of amber from Russia. What sparkled this idea?
Loads of things tend to blur together in my mind to spark an idea, but I suppose for this story it was a combination of my intrigue at the life of secrecy lived at Bletchley Park and an intrigue into the disappearance of the Amber Room. When I first began reading about the park I became fascinated by the extreme nature of the secrecy: the act of doing such secret work that you weren’t allowed to talk about it even between the various huts within the park. I began to wonder how that would affect your emotional life – old relationships, new relationships, your trust of loved ones and the things they tell you, paranoia that people are spying on you or testing you. I first read about the Amber Room when I was doing a copywriting project for the National Trust for Scotland and it was always at the back of my mind. When I started looking into Bletchley it kind of bobbed up again. 

Each of your novels is set in a different time. How do you research your settings? 
I use a variety of sources, but I try to get my hands on as many primary sources as possible, partly to avoid having to see the time period through the lens of a historian, who will invariably project their own narrative onto it, but also just because it’s more stimulating to see, hear (and if possible taste and smell) the things you’re writing about. For both books I visited the National Archives and looked through records, memos and old letters. I also made visits to museums – the Museum of London has great resources on suffragettes, and the Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration exhibition was extremely useful for The Amber Shadows. For that book I was lucky enough to be able to spend a few days at Bletchley Park just soaking up the atmosphere and trying to absorb details of place, and the little day-to-day details in the reconstructed huts. In the evenings after the museum closed, I’d wander round the town looking for locations to use, like pubs and billets. I noticed recently that someone from Bletchley has posted a lovely review of the book saying that they’d been inside Honey’s billet! Luckily they were happy with all the details, so phew, I think I passed. At the end of the day however, I’d always prioritise the story over historical fact – with fiction I’m looking for emotional truth or truth within the story. 

One of the topics in your debut novel, The Hourglass Factory, is the suffragette movement. Why did you chose this?
I didn’t learn anything about the suffragettes or the wider women’s movement at school and I only had a smidgen of patchy and dodgy knowledge about it when I decided to look into it. It was really my interest in music halls and cabaret that came first with Hourglass. I liked the idea of a space where women could perform and subvert the boundaries of social expectations – be bawdy, muscular or sexual for instance. But at the same time I wanted to look more overtly at the history of feminism. One day I just made the connection that music hall’s golden age –a time when it segued into the more respectable ‘variety’ – was the same time the suffragettes were fighting for votes. This seemed to me to be a natural juxtaposition – both involved stunts and bravery, and both gave voice to women. Then Frankie just popped up out of nowhere and started barging about taking over the story. So I also had to look into journalism…

While reading it, I especially enjoyed reading about the fashion of that period, how some girls chose to wear pants and were regarded as too manly or how wearing a hat with a taxidermied seagull glued to it was seen as elegant. What role do you think fashion had during that time?
I think fashion has always had great scope for self-expression, alignment to a cause and exploring new identities. I was interested in Edwardian fashion because of the paths it was beginning to take into unusual or subversive ways of dressing. Orientalism had become fashionable due to the emergence of the Ballets Russes and the designer Paul Poiret, and this meant ditching corsets for a more shapeless fluid style. In addition, corsets themselves were becoming more elongated and boyish, rather than the pinched Gibson Girl look of the early 1900s that Ebony still wears – a bit like wearing 90s clothing today. For Frankie I was inspired by the music hall male impersonators of the era. I think it is a terrible shame that this tradition has died out in mainstream culture, for we still have the figure of the pantomime dame. I love the idea that genders can poke fun at and celebrate each other’s stereotypes – I think that is healthy, if it’s two-sided. Putting all these elements together I wanted to try to create three very distinct women: Ebony, who expresses herself through traditional strength, and for whom the corset is a kind of body armour; Frankie, who expresses herself through masculine style which complements her attempts to survive in the cutthroat world of journalism; and Milly for whom freedom means the ability to celebrate the body’s sensual side, through sheer, loose clothing and nudity. It was just really a way of trying to present a plural view of women and how you can be a fashionable woman in very different ways. 

What made you start writing historical fiction? 
As above, I was studying for my masters at the Globe and while I loved placing Early Modern plays in a historical context, I found myself yearning to do something creative with the material, rather than academic. I distinctly remember writing an essay on the persecution of perceived witches during the Jacobean era and thinking it would be way more fun and stimulating to write a short story about it instead. I’m glad to have studied the period from an academic point of view, and I think the masters taught me a lot about research in general, but I realised then that I would far rather explore my interests through fiction, than try to package up and articulate a historical analytical narrative. I think both are creative disciplines but I prefer the former. 

Which authors have inspired or influenced your writing?
I have really eclectic tastes in reading, and this changes all the time. For Hourglass I was inspired partly by wacky Edwardian authors like GK Chesterton, and for Amber Shadows I loved getting to grips with the wealth of brilliant 30s and 40s female authors writing at the time, like Ethel Lina White, EM Delafield (absolutely hilarious) Stevie Smith, Daphne du Maurier and of course my favourite, Agatha Christie, whose careful social commentary is hugely overlooked in favour of her flashy twists and puzzles (see N or M and After the Flood for wartime issues, from the treatment of refugees to post-war anti-climax in young people). I also absolutely love Anais Nin and Angela Carter. And my Scottish Book Trust mentor Linda Cracknell has hugely influenced my short story writing. I would really recommend her stories and her beautiful novel Call of the Undertow. She builds structure with precision and makes it seem so naturally done, you’re always left thumped in the heart. 

Could you recommend us a novel that has stayed with you? 
Ooooo God I have so many! No, it’s got to be Wise Children. I love that book to the moon and back. Angela Carter takes no prisoners when it comes to pretensions. Her books, that one in particular, really taught me about the glory of our tradition in popular entertainment, and how snobbery has driven a wedge down the middle of British culture. 

And finally, are you working on a new project? 
Yes! But I can’t tell you about it. (everything is a secret until at least the second draft). I was recently very honoured to receive a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship from The Scottish Book Trust, to enable me to go and work on it in France during July, so I’m planning on hauling a stash of research books out with me and I will know more about where I’m going after that.

You can find out more about Lucy Ribchester and her books on:

About the book:

Title: The Amber Shadows
Author: Lucy Ribchester
Published: April 7th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Blurb: In a place where everyone is keeping secrets all the time, how do you know who you can trust? A brilliant novel of lies and intrigue at Bletchley Park by the author of the bestselling debut The Hourglass Factory. Perfect for all fans of The Imitation Game.

On a delayed train, deep in the English countryside, two strangers meet. It is 1942 and they are both men of fighting age, though neither is in uniform. As strangers do in these days of war, they pass the time by sharing their stories. But walls have ears and careless talk costs lives…

At Bletchley Park, Honey Deschamps spends her days at a type-x machine in Hut 6, transcribing decrypted signals from the German Army. One winter’s night, as she walks home in the blackout, she meets a stranger in the shadows. He tells her his name is Felix, and he has a package for her.
The parcel, containing a small piece of amber, postmarked from Russia and branded with two censor’s stamps, is just the first of several. Someone is trying to get a message to her, but who? As a dangerous web weaves ever tighter around her, can Honey uncover who is sending these mysterious packages and why before it’s too late…?

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