Thursday, 9 December 2010

Interview: Beatrice Colin author of The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite and The Songwriter.

If you haven't read Beatrice Colin's books, then you're missing out.  I'm forever recommending The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite to friends - it's an amazing read and one of my all time favourite books.  I recently reviewed Colin's latest book The Songwriter on this blog, and was again impressed by the stunning writing and intricate plot details in this one. Read on to find out more about the author and her books.

photo credit: Paul Harkin.
Can you describe The Songwriter in just one sentence for my readers? 

It's a novel about love and bombs set in Jazz-age New York. 

The Songwriter is a complex tale, and one which must have required a lot of research. What kind of research did you do for this, and how long did the research process take?  

I actually lived in New York (Brooklyn) from 2001-4, so I thought I knew the city pretty well.. The starting point for me was that downtown New York had been hit by terrorism in 1920 - a bomb exploded outside a bank killing about three dozen people.  I did do a lot of research in a whole range of different places. I looked at the lives of John Reed's wife, Louise Bryant, the radical Emma Goldman, plus the lives of Russian who lived in exile in New York including Trotsky. I also looked at the birth of jazz, the aeronautical industry and fashion in 1920s. So basically, all sorts of things using books, archive newspaper, films and photographs. I used a Baedeker travel guide from 1914 to get all the specifics on travel and prices. The internet is also an incredible resource. There is so much very specific information that you can find very quickly and for free such as archive footage, old photographs and maps. But mostly I buy a lot of books.  

It always takes much longer than you anticipate but I wrote and researched the book in about a year and half. 

What is your favourite aspect of writing historical fiction? Are there any other particular genres you might be tempted to delve into in the future? 

I love writing about the past as I am nearly always surprised by the things I find. The past is indeed a different country. So much of what we know about history is very singular- the narrative we learnt at school - the wars, the battles, etc. What I like about writing fiction set in the past is that there are always other stories that haven't been told, what happened to women or the losing side, for example, that throw a completely different light on the past.  

I have written contemporary novels in the past and do intend to go back to them at some point. I am also writing another book for children.  

 Both The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite and The Songwriter take place at the beginning of the twentieth century, a time of great change in society. What particularly attracts you to writing about this time period? 

I am much more interested in the 20th century than any other. I think it's because my father's family came from Russia in 1920 and I feel a real connection to that period. I am, however, drawn to periods of war and turmoil. I like to go somewhere else when I write, somewhere that is not the here and now. My next children's book is an adventure book about pirates. Maybe all my books are adventures, in a sense. So far, I've never wanted to write about ordinary times. But you never know, in the future I might write about dinner parties in the West End of Glasgow, where I live.  

The ending of The Songwriter is  ambiguous and leaves the reader wanting to know more. What was your intention when writing this ending?  

I am intending to write a sequel set in Russia. So it is not the end for Inez and Monroe.  

 Can you name three other books that you think readers of your books might enjoy? 

I loved The Secret River by Kate Grenville, which is set in Australia in the early 19th century.  

I also really, really enjoyed The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, one of my favourite writers.  

A Moment of War by Laurie Lee is a memoir about the Spanish Civil War. It's amusing, touching and brilliantly written.  

Your new book is set in 1936 Edinburgh, Paris, and Spain. I’m already intrigued. Can you tell me a little about the storyline for this one? 

It is about a love affair between a school teacher from Edinburgh and a Glasgwegian communist. Their path, via Paris takes them eventually to the conflict in Spain. I hope to finish it by next summer. 

Thanks to Beatrice for the great interview!


  1. I was intrigued after your earlier review of her books but now I'm definitely desperate to read her! Heading to the library tomorrow to see what my chances are -- thanks for this lovely interview!

  2. Thanks for the interview!
    I was introduced to Beatrice Colin after your review for The Songwriter. I recently ordered The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite.I am really looking forward to reading The Songwriter too.

  3. Fabulous interview, I love her thoughts on writing historical fiction and how there are so many stories other than the ones we hear about in school. I'm very interested in the story she has coming up in Edinburgh, Paris and Spain, I'll be on the lookout for that one!


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