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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Dolores Gordon-Smith

As if by Magic by Dolores Gordon-Smith

I was so interested in Dolores' book I asked her to answer a few questions, which she nicely agreed to. Enjoy!

Q: Did you have a prior interest in aviation, or did it come about as you were writing? I appreciated the notes at the end of the book.
 A: My Dad, who's still very much with us, I'm glad to say, was a pilot in the Second World War, and perhaps it's because of him that I have such a strong interest in early flying. I never had the money to do it for real—I was born in a very small terraced house (more about this later!)—but one of my earliest memories is sitting with Dad watching grainy black and white pictures of Spitfires scrambling on a TV programme called All Our Yesterdays while he told me what was happening. I was only about three at the time and I think that was my first encounter with History, as such; the idea that life had once been different. As I grew older, I read the Biggles series—I don't know if they're known in America—about the WWI fictional flying ace. W.E. Johns, the author, had been a WWI pilot and all sorts of middle-aged Brits (usually men, I have to say) go soggy when Biggles is mentioned. Naturally, it's one thing to have an interest in a subject and quite another to amass the sort of detail need for a book, so I had to do a lot of research, but, because of that life-long interest, knew the sort of thing I was looking for. I don't know why I go wobbly at the sight of a bi-plane, but I do!

Q: What's your writing process? Your plot was very complex with many details neatly dovetailing, so I am wondering how much advance planning you do.
A: I tend to start off with an opening scene that I find intriguing, such as poor old George at the beginning of As If By Magic. George is clearly a gent but destitute and he witnesses a murder. I live those first scenes in my head. CS Lewis likened this part of the process to bird-watching and I know exactly what he means. You have to be very still, and let it all unfold. Then come the questions; who are these people? what are they doing and why are they doing it? There's a lot of trust at this stage; you think out answers and trust it will carry you along the 80 to 100 thousand words or so, but you get a sense for the sort of "thickness" of the material. I play the fairness game with myself; the murderer doesn't murder in a playful sense of fun to make life complicated, but as the most obvious solution to a problem. His or her actions have to be logical. Actions always have consequences though, and the consequences are the plot.

Q: Lots of my favorite adult books seem to have roots in really good children's literature—a good story, well told, just can't be beat, in my opinion. And that's what all really good children's books do—tell a great story. Any children's influences that you feel carried through to your present writing? The reason I ask is I was so strongly reminded of C.S. Lewis' THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW in the scene when Jack goes from one row house to the next through the connected attics.
A: I couldn't agree more about good children's books. They have clarity, simplicity and economy and also let the reader do enough work to fill in details and make them live the story rather than beat you to death with details. I first read THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW at the age of eight, by which time I was an experienced attic explorer in the terrace I mentioned earlier! There's whole rows of terraces in my home town that I, together with friends, burrowed through. As a householder (and mother!) I'd play merry hell with any kid, mine or otherwise, I found trying it as it's dangerous, apart from anything else, but we were never caught. It's part of that rich, secret world of childhood which is such a brilliant resource for a writer. Lewis was certainly an attic explorer and he uses the attic eaves to explain the Wood Between The Worlds in THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW. The eaves are part of the house or world but not in the house or world. In one of his theological books he uses the image again, to illustrate the difference between being interested in religion and actual belief. In AS IF BY MAGIC the attics were a perfect solution to get Jack (and, later, the club raiders) into the dodgy club. I still live in a terraced house and went and sat under my own eaves before I wrote the scene, absorbing the smell and the feel and noticing how the wind and the sounds from the street come up under the slates. This left me with a) a lot of material b) the thought we should get some decent insulation!

Q: I liked the emotional connections you set up in this novel with George and his family—that's very powerful stuff. Do you plan to include George in future books, or will Jack go on his own path?
A: I absolutely loved George and got so attached to him that this can't possibly be his only outing. Besides that, although "old friends" are a very convenient way for Jack to get into the story, Jack's not so single-minded as to only look up old pals when they've been troubled by sudden death. It would make any old pal look askance at poor Jack if he was always a harbinger of mortality!

Q: How did you come up with the character of Jack?  It's interesting that he's a writer—I especially liked the part where he proves to George that writers actually work. You included a lot of attitudes that would have actually been present in 1922 in a very subtle way.
A: Inventing Jack was like watching paint dry! I knew what sort of person I wanted but getting there was very long-winded. I wanted him to have been in the war, so although young he could be mature, know a great many sorts of people and he had to be a pilot, which sounded exciting. He's half-Spanish, to make him a bit of an outsider, as all classic detectives are and a Catholic, which puts him outside the mainstream too. He needed well-off relations so he could do country house mysteries (which I love) but I didn't want him to be rich himself, as to be unconcerned by money is a state of affairs I find nearly unbelievable! Poirot's Belgium thrift is, I think, a very endearing characteristic whereas Wimsey's careless wealth does irritate me. So he had to have a job but what? The obvious choice is policeman, but I so loved private eye stories, that I wanted him to be independent. However, you can't run round detecting if you're constantly begging time off work. Doctor, architect, lawyer? My favourite choice, for a while, was artist, but it's difficult being a Twenties artist. You're either traditional, which is dull, or a Cubist or Neo-Vorticist, which is too radical. There was an "Uh? Duh?" movement when I realised he was a writer and, naturally, he writes detective stories. In MAD ABOUT THE BOY? the second book, there's a whole sequence in which the mystery at hand is analysed by strict detective story rules. I found that tremendous fun to write. Oh yes, and I wanted to fancy him rotten. All of this was worked out before I wrote a word. The "writer" sequence is my response to all those who think writing is like literary knitting—a mere pastime—filtered through the attitudes of the Twenties.

Q: On that same note, how difficult is it to get into the head of someone who existed in 1922? Is it like being possessed by the past?
A: I find it dead easy! I've read shedloads of early Twentieth century books and stiffened them up with real history. It's not possession, as such—I usually remember what year we're in—but there's a real double vision.

Q: I noticed on your jacket flap that you have 5 children! How do you manage your life? What's a typical day for you?
A: When the children were young I couldn't do anything but be a full-time Mum but, now the youngest is 15 and the eldest (and still at home) is 22, life's a lot more relaxed. I'm very lucky in that we all get on very well, so it's all fairly smooth, really. Once I've seen everyone on their way, I do any outstanding housework jobs, then get cracking. If I hit a snag, I can always do some more housework, as it's fairly endless, and mull things over at the same time. If they gave out gold stars for ironing, I'd have a constellation by now! However, I think the real writing heroes are those who have a "proper" job as well. I find that really impressive.

Q: Is there any element of fantasy at work here?  I know Dorothy Sayers, when she was struggling financially, gave Wimsey a butler and a glamorous life so she could live vicariously through him. What's especially appealing to you about 1922?
A: Fantasy? In a way, yes. I've always loved the Agatha Christie/PG Wodehouse type world and can't help think that the stork stopped off at the wrong address when he dropped me in the middle of the Twentieth Century rather than the end of the Nineteenth. I should have been partying in Mayhem Parva by 1922. However, we can't have everything in this life!

Why the Twenties? It was war that changed everything (you get the same idea about the South in Gone With The Wind). The Twenties, marked by a reckless love of sensation, sense of fun and deliberate flouting of previous shibboleths is an attempt to drown out the memory of mud, blood and heartbreak. At the same time, the old world of convention and formality is vigorously alive. What emerges is an edge; a clash of two worlds and the idea that nothing is ever quite what it seems. It's heady stuff.

Q: And finally, any contemporary writers you especially admire? (I say "contemporary" because I was tired of getting the answer "Jane Austen" when I asked this question).
A: One of the nice things about going to Crime-writing festivals is meeting new (to you) authors in the flesh. I try to read as much as I can before I go and have discovered some real stars. Louise Penny was one, with her richly imagined world of Three Pines, Suzette Hill, with her very funny "Bones" books, Lesley Horton with compelling stories of Yorkshire crime with a racial element and another Yorkshire woman, Jane Finnis, who writes terrific stories set in Roman Britain. Terry Pratchett is an absolute favourite. Discworld is a stunning creation, a place to lose yourself in, wise, moving and very funny. The Counting Pines in Mort are up there with the best of Wodehouse. And did I love Harry Potter? You bet. Oh, and by the way, I love Jane Austen too!

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