Talking Books with Historical Fiction Author M.M. Bennetts

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Educated at Boston University and Saint Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social, and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist—regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is also a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.The author is married and lives in England. Her latest book is titled, Of Honest Fame.

Q. Thank you for this interview, M.M. Can we begin by having you tell us why you chose to write historical fiction?

I suppose the simplest answer is that it’s always been my favourite thing to read—it has been since I was about ten or eleven.

There’s a theory that we love historical fiction because it takes us back to a world of certainties—a slower world where speed was a fast horse (that’s about thirty or forty miles per hour maximum).Which may have something to do with it too—I’m more comfortable on a horse than in a car.

But I’d like to think that now, as a writer and a historian, I write it because more than anything, I want to see people today realize that the past isn’t names and dates—it’s people. Good people and bad people—all of whom loved, lived, fought, triumphed, had families, contributed, didn’t contribute, died, or survived to fight another day.

And if skillfully written and well-researched, historical fiction can bridge the gap between our modern day lives and views, and theirs—however many centuries ago they lived. It throws open the shutters of our minds, show us their lives—their strengths, their courage, their fears, their failures—and in the process, teaches us not only about the challenges of the past, but about answers for the present.

Q. Did you outline before you wrote your book, or did you just go with the flow?

I wish I were that organised!

I had the basic plotline of one of the stories in the book—that of Boy Tirrell, the boy spy—pretty much from the outset. But, none of the details. I knew where he started, generally where he went in Europe, and where he ended up and how. And I also had elements of the story line for Captain Georgie Shuster.   

But the whole story line that begins with Thos Jesuadon, the dissolute and disgraced gentleman spy, well, I had his first appearance, and then nothing. Absolutely not a clue.

So I just started writing. Then, several other characters appeared on the page—generally without a “Hello, do you mind if I’m in this?” And it just unfolded, growing organically, each chapter out of the last, each emotional change built on what went before. All the plot lines folded together and interwove into this complex tapestry, which I quite enjoyed.

Q. Who was your favorite character in Of Honest Fame and why?

Well, possibly because I’m a coward, I tend to write only characters that I want to spend time with. And in this novel, I’m spoiled for choice, because I have more than one main character. I loved writing Thos Jesuadon—he’s just so snarky, and hard, and he’s got such an edge. So he was a gift of a character. But the character who is my favourite is probably Boy—the nuances of his character, the depths, the facets of deep hurt, rage, and compassion all tumbling together—which have grown out of all he’s seen and experienced in his young life—those stay with me, and echo in my head. I also like his restrained sense of humour and his intellect.

Q. Who was your least favorite character?

Probably the French assassin who killed all the foreign office’s intelligence agents by beating them to death. Or maybe Napoleon—I don’t like him much at all.

Q. Can you tell us about the setting and why you chose it?

Well, I’m fascinated by the parts of history we don’t tend to look at. And in the case of the early nineteenth century, we have this Jane Austen type of view of Britain—which is true in some ways, but pays no attention to this war which was raging across Europe since the 1790s.That affected every part of their daily lives in Britain. Nor was London the neat, orderly place that costume dramas present—it stank! There were street children everywhere. There were problems with mobs. And I wanted to bring all that to life.

I also—and this is really a matter of conscience—wanted to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands who died directly as a result of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.They were not combatants, but civilians. I wanted to honour them. So the story needed to take in parts of Poland and eastern Germany.

Q. What was the hardest part to write?

Well, I always think writing a good love scene is the most difficult thing. 

But the scenes where Boy Tirrell is travelling through Germany and Poland after the French army had moved on—leaving it completely barren and devastated—those scenes were harrowing to write. And probably required more rewriting and editing than most of the rest of the book, because I had to get it right. I had to create a stark, terrifying literary beauty, and convey all of that loss and despair. But, it still had to have drive within the novel.

Q. What was the inspiration behind the story?

Well, as I mentioned previously, I wanted to honour the civilian uncounted casualties of this war—I’d stumbled across all this information by chance as I was researching for this novel, and that became an important element. But I also wanted to write a more Dickensian novel than we’re maybe used to today—one with multiple story lines interweaving throughout. I also wanted to look at the role of spies in this war.

Q. Do you plan on writing more historical fiction novels?

I’ve already started in on the research for the next novel, which follows on from this one—we’re starting off in Italy this time, and will travel onto Austria by the end. So it’s all new territory, not just for me, but for the general reader of historical fiction based during the Napoleonic Wars. 

Q. Thank you for this interview, M.M. Do you have any final words?

Only thank you have having me. And I hope that readers will truly enjoy Of Honest Fame—because that’s the main thing, isn’t it? A great read. 


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