By Meredith Allard
Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?
Emma Rose Millar: I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. As a child I was painfully shy; back then writing was a means of expressing my feelings, a way to take myself off to an imaginary world. As I grew older though, other things seemed to take over and I found myself writing less and less. When I was in my thirties, I became mixed up in a very bad relationship and it was then that I began writing my first novel. Strains from an Aeolian Harp was a dark tale of opium addiction and domestic violence, set in 1920s England when women weren’t allowed to get divorced on the grounds of cruelty alone. I wrote that novel in secret; I was terrified of my partner finding out, but it was something I felt I needed to do. Thankfully my life is a much happier place now and I think that shows in my writing.
M.A.: What is your latest novel? How would you describe it to potential readers?
E.R.M.: My latest novel, Five Guns Blazing is an historical adventure based on the true story of pirates Anne Bonny, Mary Read and John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham:
1710: Convict’s daughter, Laetitia Beedham, is set on an epic journey from the backstreets of London, through transportation and grueling plantation life, into the clutches of notorious pirates, John Rackham, Mary Read and the treacherous Anne Bonny. In a world of villainy and deceit, where black men are kept in chains and a woman will sell her daughter for a few gold coins, Laetitia can find no one in whom to place her trust. As the King’s men close in on the pirates and the noose begins to tighten around their necks, who will win her loyalty and her heart?
M.A.: What makes your novels different from others about similar eras?
E.R.M.: Five Guns Blazing is a multi-layered story, not only one of piracy but also a tale of slavery in its various guises. Whilst writing the novel, it quickly became clear to me that I would need the help of a co-writer. I approached Jamaican-born author Kevin Allen and asked him if he’d read my half-finished manuscript. Fortunately for me, he liked the story so much that he agreed to work on it with me. Kevin wrote all the plantation scenes and changed some of the dialect. That was the beginning of our two year transatlantic writing affair. It was a long hard road but together I think we created something I could never have managed alone. The novel recently won first prize in its category in The Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction. It was an incredibly proud moment for both of us.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?
E.R.M.: It was such a rollercoaster ride. I wholly believed in the novel and I put it through a professional edit before submitting it anywhere. Quite a few big agents in London asked to see the full manuscript after reading a sample. They all said that they loved the story but didn’t know what the market was for a book like this. It seemed it was always going to be a case of ‘close but no cigar’. For a while I’d been hearing good things about Crooked Cat Publishing in Edinburgh but they were closed to submissions at the time. As soon as they opened their doors again though I sent them Five Guns Blazing and I was thrilled when they accepted it. All of their authors were so welcoming. We work as a team; I’ve made so many lovely new friends.
M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?
E.R.M.:I love history, especially 18th and 19th century and I couldn’t imagine writing in any other genre. Writing historical fiction takes a tremendous amount research, but I love uncovering all those nuggets of history, stories and characters which I know will make a fantastic novel. While writing Five Guns Blazing I also discovered some fabulous old words: ‘bastardly gullion,’ ‘jerrycummumble,’ and ‘flaybottomist,’to name but a few.
M.A.: What is the research process like for you?
E.R.M.:I absolutely loved doing all the research into eighteenth-century piracy. In Anne Bonny I found the archetypal anti-heroine: treacherous, double-crossing and fiercely independent. Then there was John Rackham, a rake, devilishly handsome, the Casanova of the seas. Some sources suggest Rackham was captain in name only and it was Anne who ran the ship, terrorising all who sailed close to her. Their pirate adventure came to an abrupt end in 1720 when their ship, Revenge was captured and the entire crew sentence to death. But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. There is no record of Anne’s execution or of her release or escape from jail. What became of her is still a mystery. The more I read about the villainous pair, the more intrigued I became.
M.A.: Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your writing process?
E.R.M.: I’d have loved to go to the Caribbean as part of my research for Five Guns Blazing, but I’m a single mum and my son was far too little at the time to take a trip like that. Kevin regularly visits the islands though and he has a wealth of knowledge about their history. A lot of my own research came from the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. They have an old court room there where they do reenactments of famous cases, an eighteenth century jail, complete with cells, exercise yard and gallows, and a fantastic transportation museum. My visits there were invaluable.
My next novel is set in Vienna and is based on a painting by Gustav Klimt. I’m hoping to go there for a few days in October with my son. He’s six now so I’m sure he’ll enjoy the zoo and the aquarium. Hopefully I’ll find some time to soak up the atmosphere and to see some of Klimt’s work while we’re there.
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
E.R.M.: I really admire Sarah Waters, Alice Walker, Philippa Gregory and Joanne Harris. Their writing is sublime. I did an Open University degree in English Literature about fifteen years ago though and my bookshelves are still heaving with novels by the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, etc. I do love a good classic!
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?
E.R.M.: I think good historical fiction starts with meticulous research and a great story. As with any genre, it takes a massive amount of work for an idea to blossom into published novel. The best thing I did was to find a good editor. He took the manuscript to another level; without him, it may never have been picked up by a publisher. Most of all, don’t give up; nothing worth doing ever comes easily. It’s an amazing feeling once you’ve completed a novel.
M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?