Minette talks about her life in a recent interview with Anne Cattrell:
AC: Your father died in 1960 when you were 10. That must have been a difficult time for your family.
MW: It was. I remember my childhood being very light-hearted when he was around, although that may be a rose-tinted memory. He was a jolly person who used to take us blackberrying or swimming when he felt well enough, also on caravan holidays. After his death, life became rather serious. He had been ill for a long time as a result of his war service, and there were no savings to carry us through. The only money we had after his death was my mother’s War Widow’s pension (equivalent to the dole) and whatever she could earn by painting miniatures. It was a stressful and unhappy period, made worse because my brothers and I weren’t allowed to go to the funeral or even know when it was happening. I’m sure my mother did this with the best of intentions, but it left me confused about what I was supposed to feel.
AC: Eighteen months later, in September 1962, you were sent away to boarding school. How did that affect your life?
MW: It made me very independent. I certainly don’t regret going, although the outcome wasn’t what my mother expected. She hoped for a pliant, conservative daughter who would marry into money. Instead she got an unconventional, self-sufficient one! The irony was that I was only able to go to private school because my father was dead. As a ‘semi’ orphan of an Army Officer, I was eligible for a foundation scholarship that cost virtually nothing but which gave me an excellent education. I’m still struggling with that conundrum. Godolphin was the springboard for the rest of my life but, if my father had lived, he couldn’t have afforded to send me there or support me through a degree.
AC: You took a gap year between school and university which was unusual in 1968. Where did you go and what did you learn from it?
MW: I went as a volunteer to Israel with a group called The Bridge in Britain. It was founded by Greville Janner MP and grew out of his desire to introduce Israel to non-Jewish English youngsters who knew little or nothing about Judaism or the Jewish state. Several hundred applied and 23 of us were selected — 12 boys and 11 girls. We spent nearly seven months working on a kibbutz and in Jerusalem.
On a personal level, I learnt never to judge anyone by his or her outward trappings or because of what I’d been told about them in advance. But it wasn’t just a Jewish/Gentile thing, it was also a ‘class’ and ‘sex’ thing. A private-school education counts for nothing when your job is to shovel chicken-shit. Not every 18-year-old male is a rapist, and girls don’t break out in green pustules when they lose their virginity. (You have to remember I was at an all-girls’ boarding school, run by elderly spinsters!)
AC: You went to Durham University to read French. Was that an influential time?
MW: Yes, although I regret reading French. Psychology or politics would have been a better choice. I took the advice of my teachers who told me to read what I was good at, and I happened to be good at French. The trouble was I wasn’t interested in it and only stuck it out in order to gain a degree. (Sorry, France!) I went up in October 1968 and left in June 1971, having refused to spend a year in France because I knew I’d never come home.
I moved out of college as soon as I could because the rules were Draconian! It was single-sex and horribly reminiscent of my boarding school. I spent more time on extra-mural activities than I ever did in the French department, but I gained a broader education as a result.
AC: Something else that was unusual about you is that, in 1972, as a single, 22-year-old, you committed yourself to a mortgage? Why did you do that?
MW: I was earning good money as a magazine journalist, and I wanted the security of my own roof over my head. Also, I recognised that it was a good investment, even if it meant I had to hammer on a lot of doors before I could persuade a building society to take a chance on me. There was no equality in the early ’70s, and single women were viewed as potential risks because they might give up work to get married, and so default. (The same did not apply to single men!)
After ten rejections, I walked into the Fleet Street branch of the Abbey National and told the manager I was going to sit on his desk until he lent me the money. When he saw that I was earning more than most of my male contemporaries, he decided to take a flyer on me. He never regretted it, and neither did I. It was the best investment I ever made. As Jane Austen might have said, a woman of property is desirable. And my husband always claims he only married me for my house!
AC: What did you do when you left university?
MW: Headed straight for the lights of London. My first two jobs were secretarial positions at the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the Public Schools Club (now amalgamated with the East India Club). I loathed being a secretary, particularly as I did most of the work while my bosses sat with their feet up. However, I left Durham with a hefty overdraft and had to take any job on offer to pay it off. The PSC were prepared to pay me £1 per week more than the IBA, hence the change after 3 months.
When I cleared the overdraft (in six months) I took an evening job as a barmaid in the Parachute Regiment Officers’ Mess in Aldershot, which allowed me to write during the day and earn money in the evening. Sadly, my writing efforts (mostly one-act plays) were rejected by everyone and, as barmaiding paid a pittance, I decided to apply for a ‘proper job’ within the field of writing. I was given an introduction to an editor at IPC, and, to my eternal gratitude, she took me on as a trainee sub-editor.
AC: This was Woman’s Weekly Library, which published romantic novelettes in paperback form?
MW: Yes. I did some other sub-editing jobs as training, but my principal responsibility was to sub or abridge manuscripts into a 30,000-word format for WWL publication. This was another institution where the rules were Draconian. The watchword for our romances was ‘innocence’, and the restrictions were onerous. The hero and heroine had to be virgins, unless the man was a widower. (Widows were frowned on because knowledge of sex in a heroine was considered disgusting!) No kissing, except on the last page. No strong language. No strong drink. No words with smutty double meanings — e.g. ‘balls’, ‘tits’ etc.
In effect, authors were asked to construct romantic plots, using unrealistic, wooden characters who couldn’t touch or show emotion until the last page when they were allowed to ‘steal’ a kiss. It meant you had to be a skilled and professional writer to make it work, yet most of the manuscripts we received were from amateurs who thought it was easy.
AC: So you started writing them yourself?
MW: Yes. I began with a prototype to show potential authors. The trick was to have a ripping good yarn as the main plot (e.g. a crime story) while keeping the romance to a sub-plot. That way, the two protagonists could meet tangentially, develop a feisty relationship, and only recognise they fancied each other on the last page. The characters were strong and vibrant, the plot gripping, and the romance satisfyingly real because the reader knew exactly what was going to happen after the story finished. Yet it remained within the WWL ‘rules’.
In the end I wrote some 35 of them, also short stories and serials for other magazines. I turned freelance when I realised being an author was more enjoyable than being an editor… and paid a great deal more!
AC: Yet you stopped writing for seven years after you married. Why was that?
MW: In fact, I stopped in 1980 after my first son was born. Alec and I married in 1978 and I continued working freelance until I discovered how demanding — and noisy — babies are. I don’t know how anyone can concentrate with young children around. I have two sons, and they took it in turns to break my train of thought. It wasn’t until my second, Philip, started full-time education that I was able to return to writing, which is when I began The Ice House. Of course, I was lucky that Alec was earning enough to support us, which meant I could take the seven years off, but it was a useful break because I was able to choose a different path when I returned. I’d written myself out of light romantic fiction and wanted something more challenging.
AC: You and Alec married in 1978. How important has he been in your success?
MW: I couldn’t have achieved it without him. He’s always been my strongest champion. We met on Freshers’ weekend in Durham in 1968 – and it’s one of the longest friendships either of us has had. It’s certainly the best and closest. He was even more thrilled with the success of The Ice House than I was, but that may have had something to do with the fact that it took two years to write and two years to sell, and there was no money coming in! I should have gone back into paid employment, but he told me to keep going because he had more faith than I did.
AC: All your books deal in different ways with dysfunctional families. Would you describe your own upbringing as dysfunctional?
MW: To be honest, I think most families experience periods of dysfunction because the dynamics are so variable, particularly when children reach adolescence. Let’s just say I know what it’s like to live in a single-parent household where constant stress leads to constant headbutting.
My mother chose to live near my brothers’ school because she thought boys would be more affected by a father’s death than a girl would, and I was left to fend for myself at boarding school. The result was that I unwittingly upset the family dynamics whenever I went home. It’s why I believe so strongly that two parents (whether they live together or apart) are important in a child’s life, not because children need role models necessarily, but because they need someone to intercede when the abuse (physical, sexual or verbal) becomes excessive.
AC: You were a weekly prison visitor for 12 years and now you visit prisons to give talks. What have you learned from it?
MW: That catastrophic dysfunction in families is devastating. Between 50 – 75% of prison inmates are illiterate or semi-literate because there was no structure or discipline to their childhoods and they fell behind or truanted from an early age. Few of them know their fathers, although a procession of stepfathers is common. A shockingly high percentage have lost touch with their mothers by the time they reach 20. Most begin their criminal behaviour before they reach their teens. A high proportion of male inmates have several children themselves whose names they can’t remember. Drug addiction is common and is often the reason for their crimes. Most commit the crimes under the influence of alcohol to give themselves ‘Dutch’ courage.
Principally, it’s taught me that taxpayers’ money would be better spent on education than on building new prisons to lock up yet more illiterate people. The link between crime and illiteracy was proven years ago, and we should have addressed it long before we entered the 21st century. On a very simple level, an illiterate man cannot apply for a job; and that forces him into society’s underclass whether he wants to be there or not.
AC: You list ‘Do It Yourself’ as one of your hobbies. Why do you enjoy it so much, and how good are you at it?
MW: Pretty good! I’m an excellent interior designer and decorator, an above-average plumber and carpenter, a halfway useful roofer, and a completely hopeless bricklayer and plasterer! The last two jobs are always done by Alec who is excellent at both. He’s also a brilliant carpenter and plumber, although his interior design and decorating leave a lot to be desired. We make a good team. I enjoy it because it’s a different creative discipline from my work, and it’s fabulous exercise when I’ve been sitting in front of a computer all week!
We would probably never have started doing things ourselves if the builder I’d contracted (and foolishly paid) to add a kitchen extension to our first house hadn’t done a runner after he built the shell. With no money left, we had a choice of finishing the interior ourselves or living without a kitchen. We took some DIY books out of the library and got started. Since then, we’ve renovated five more houses including our current house, a listed 18th century Manor house in Dorset.
AC: Finally, why did you move from crime to historical fiction?
MW: I like new challenges, and I’ve always been interested in history. Good or bad, we are what we are because of those who went before us, and it’s impossible to live in Dorset without walking through time. Our county is home to the Jurassic Coast and dinosaur fossils, iron age hillforts, Roman roads, fortifications and aqueducts, Norman castles, the remains of medieval land strips, the entry port for the Black Death, Jacobean manor houses, Civil War battles, the Monmouth Rebellion, the brutal punishments meted out by Judge Jeffreys… The list is a long one, and I wanted to capture some of our colourful past in fiction. The research intrigues me and to convert historical fact into a fast-paced story, which is accessible and exciting to readers, is immensely rewarding. In reality, the two genres aren’t so far apart. There are, after all, many worse criminals in history than there are in crime fiction!
Minette talks to Good Reading Magazine about her historical novel The Last Hours and its sequel The Return of Midnight, set during the time of the Black Death in the 14th century.
Q: At what point did you become interested in the Black Death, and when did you know you wanted to write a novel about the disease?
MW: When my husband and I moved to Dorset nearly twenty years ago, one of the first things we learnt about our village was that it has a plague pit. No one’s entirely sure where it is but the 12th century church still stands and visitors can still see the mounds that delineate the medieval settlement. I’ve been fascinated by the Black Death ever since, particularly when I discovered that its first port of entry into England was Melcombe (Weymouth) which is 9 miles from where we live, and that 14th century chroniclers reported barely one in ten being left alive in Dorset by the time the pestilence passed. I wondered what that meant. Had the others died? Had some fled? More importantly, who were the ‘bare’ few who managed to survive? And how did they avoid it?
Q: Were rational responses to the epidemic in 1348 common?
MW: No, but that’s not to say they didn’t exist. The ports of Venice and Dubrovnik introduced the idea of quarantine in 1348, refusing to allow foreign ships to unload their crews and cargoes for forty days, but it was another twenty years before the word ‘quarantine’ entered common parlance and became an accepted way of preventing the spread of sickness. In creating Lady Anne, I drew inspiration from 14th century dissident scholars like John Wycliffe who argued that if men wanted to know the truth about God, they must read the Bible for themselves and not have it interpreted for them by clerics. A tragic, but influential fact in terms of how I conceived The Last Hours, was that Jews were blamed in many parts of Europe for causing the Black Death. They were seen to suffer less than their Christian neighbours and this brought inevitable persecution. Reasons for their better survival rates are thought to have been their strong regimes of cleanliness and enforced ghetto isolation, and I drew on those ideas for the novel.
Q: What methods or sources of research where the most effective in gathering detail about the disease and the fourteenth-century society that it swept through?
MW: The internet is a treasure-trove of information about the Black Death, both in the 14th century and today since it still recurs from time to time in some parts of the world. A few websites even carry photos of recent sufferers which give an idea of how terrible the disease is. As for the people and landscape of the 14th century, most of those are imaginative constructions from pictures, maps, parish records, Chaucer’s tales, and lists of common names and occupations during the medieval period. I was also grateful for the help and support of the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester which is a physical and online resource for anyone interested in the county’s archives.
Q: How did the disease affect Dorchester and the surrounding region near where you live?
MW: Very badly, I think, because Dorset was the first county to be afflicted and no precautions were taken against it. However, it’s impossible to know for certain because so few records were kept. Contemporary chroniclers reported 90% dead though modern historians would probably argue for 50- 60%. The highest death rates were amongst clerics and serfs; the former because they were bound by their vows to tend the sick, the latter because they were tied to the land and had no means of escape.
Q: Did the shift in your writing genre also occur in your reading taste? Were there any particular books or writers that influenced The Last Hours, and its sequel The Turn of Midnight?
MW: No. My tastes are very wide and I’ve always loved history. One of my favourite books is The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. It’s a wonderful blend of the 14th and 20th centuries and certainly played a part in sparking my interest in the period around the Black Death.
Q: Aside from the shift in genre, do you think your writing has changed or evolved between The Chameleon’s Shadow and The Last Hours?
MW: Not that I’m aware of. I like page-turners so set out to make The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight as gripping and suspenseful as any of my crime novels. The only conscious change I made in the writing of the novels was to use words, both in dialogue and prose, that were current, or almost current, in the 14th century. By doing so, I hoped to give my readers a stronger sense of time. For myself, I would have found it unnecessarily disorientating to come across ‘disorientated’ (etymology 1860) in the text rather than ‘confused’ (etymology early 14c)!
Q: Do any of the themes that are recurrent in your crime-thriller novels – family dysfunction, isolation, revenge – occur in The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight?
MW: They all do. Any reading of history shows that human nature never changes. A modern-day Cain will probably not kill Abel out of fear of legal consequences, but his jealousy and rage will be the same… and his parents’ inability to control him as great.
Q: Was Lady Anne of Develish a real person, or based on a particular historical figure? How did you go about characterising her?
MW: No. For a woman to be educated at that time was very unusual. She’s a figment of my imagination, based on the belief that, since evolution is painfully slow, women’s intelligence must always have been the equal of men’s. So much progress was – and still is – wasted by confining ‘inferior’ females to the kitchen and depriving them of an education. Imagine how much faster our knowledge would have advanced had men not been so frightened of sharing their authority, both inside the home and without!
Minette talks to the BBC’s History Revealed about her third historical novel The Swift and The Harrier
Q: This is your third historic novel, after mainly writing crime fiction. What made you want to delve into historical fiction and are there any similarities to crime writing?
MW: My two favourite genres growing up were crime and historical fiction, so both subjects – criminology and history – have always fascinated me. There are many similarities between the two, not least motivation. Why is any victim murdered? Why do governments see war as a solution? And then, of course, the fingering of the culprit or culprits. Who was responsible? In each genre, there’s as much grey as there is black and white. Murderers aren’t all bad. Victims aren’t all good. War may be a necessary evil to keep a country safe. Or it may be a reckless squandering of life to shore up an unpopular government. For an author, to explore and balance such ideas is intriguing, challenging and exciting.
Q: What is it about the British civil wars that made you want to set your novel then?
MW: They were as important to our history as Henry VIII and the Reformation, yet appear to be less understood. Historians interpret them differently. Some see them as religious wars, some as Parliament’s attempts to curb the King’s power, and some as the people’s desire to have their voices heard. Whatever the reason, and I believe there are elements of truth in each interpretation, the wars caused terrible division throughout the British Isles and resulted in the deaths of 200,000 soldiers and civilians. Proportionate to population that was equivalent to the number of lives lost during World War 1, which gives some indication of how devastating they were. My county of Dorset changed hands several times during the first Civil War and saw fierce fighting, particularly during the sieges of Lyme Regis and Weymouth, and I wanted to write a novel that showed how such turbulence might have affected communities. The Swift and the Harrier follows the stories of people from both sides of the divide and how they cope with the triumphs and defeats in what seems to be a never-ending conflict.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from The Swift and the Harrier?
MW: That our hard-won democracy is a beautiful thing. That jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war. That even in conflict, people can find common ground. That the enemy is never as vile as those in authority want us to believe. That trying to heal division is preferable to making it worse. That our country should never consider going to war with itself again.