An interview with… Simone St James

I am lucky enough to sometimes have the chance to ask other novelists questions about their work for the Historical Novel Society and write up feature articles. There’s always something more in the Q&A that I can’t work into the articles though. So here’s a chance to read the whole conversation.

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You are the author of five novels, all set at the close of World War I and the early 1920’s. What draws you to this period for your fiction?
There is so much to love about that period – not just the beautiful clothes and the wild parties, but the fact that much of the hedonism was in response to the end of a long, brutal, bloody war. The world had changed irreversibly. The women of the 1920’s were the first generation of recognizably modern women, who were beginning to have higher education, jobs, and votes. Yet their own parents, in the generation just before them, had lived very different lives. There is a rich amount of conflict there for a writer.

rebeccaIn Lost Among the Living, your main character, Jo Manders, finds herself living in a mysterious house in Sussex, not far from the sea. Is her name a conscious nod to Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca?
It certainly is! Rebecca is one of my favorite books. I first read it when I was twenty, and recently I did a reread at age forty and felt like I was reading an entirely different book, one that said things I’d never picked up before. That is the sign of a true masterpiece. In an indirect way, Lost Among the Living is a sort of tribute to Rebecca and my love for it.

Reading the novel I was (very pleasantly!) put in mind of de Maurier, Mary Stewart, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and also a little of Jane Eyre. Are you aware of other novelist’s influence in your stories? Are any of these writers favourites of yours, or do you have other favourites you could share?
I have read all of those authors and consider all of them influences. I reread Mary Stewart frequently, alongside Victoria Holt. Dracula is another favorite of mine, though I have not (yet) written a vampire book. I also love Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale.

stewartAll of your novels have supernatural elements to them. Do you believe in ghosts?I have never seen a ghost personally, but my books are all about the possibility. I think even cynics have had, at some point in their thinking, wondered what if. My books are about the what if moment – I explore it and take it in all kinds of directions. What does that what if moment say not only about ghosts, but about the character’s own wants and desires? That’s fascinating to me.

Jo Manders is an intelligent woman but the only opportunities for work she has found are as a typist and paid companion. Dottie also works, and is an entrepreneur, buying and selling art. Is the changing role of women after World War I an important theme for you?
It is, and another theme in this particular book is the idea of a woman’s power over her own life, whether she can make her own choices. Jo was very trapped at the beginning of the story, and Dottie is also trapped in her own way. Jo was also trapped before she met and married her husband, and she wasn’t sure whether marriage would free her or trap her further. I think both women gain in strength and autonomy before the story ends.

Can you tell me something about your research processes for this novel – for example about the recruitment of spies, photography, the Sussex coast – or anything you just found particularly interesting?
My research is haphazard, usually consisting of wandering through masses of history books and letting interesting things jump out at me. My creative brain doesn’t like methodical research, though I’m capable of reading an entire thick history book in order to get two or three details right. I read a great deal of history of MI5 for this book, and some of the quirkier details, like the early worry about a German invasion of England, made it into the novel. My favorite sources are always primary sources—letters, diaries, autobiographies, instructional manuals, novels that were written during the time period. You get the best insight that way.

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I feel like I would like Simone St James! I certainly enjoyed her novel and share a lot of her influences. I loved picking out that cover photo for Touch Not the Cat, one of my favourite Mary Stewart books. That’s the edition I first read in my Granny’s house in Falkirk.

For more info on Simone and her novels, go to http://www.simonestjames.com/