Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Maggie. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about TALLAND HOUSE.
Thank you so much for inviting me.
Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story, as a prequel and in the interstices of Woolf’s novel, interwoven with fictional versions of Woolf’s life, friends, and family. Lily lives through one of the most momentous periods in UK history, falling in love with her artist tutor, becoming an independent woman artist, a suffragette, and a nurse in WW1. Mourning her dead mother, Lily loves her surrogate mother Mrs. Ramsay while painting her portrait. Later, finding out that Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Lily must solve the mystery of the death, and decide if love or art is more significant in her life. Talland House combines a detective story with romance and history with echoes of the present moment and solves a literary mystery which has puzzled twentieth-century readers.
What about Lily appealed to you as a writer? Why did you feel her story worth expanding?
I chose Lily because she is almost certainly present in many scenes To the Lighthouse but not actually described as being so by Woolf. For example, I asked myself ‘where is Lily’ in the opening scene in which Mrs. Ramsay watches James cutting out pictures from the Army and Navy catalog (Lily could be en plein air painting Mrs. Ramsay indoors using a window as a frame while being unable to hear what Mr. Ramsay is saying) and then in subsequent scenes. My aim was to create a character rather like Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz or Guildenstern who deserved a novel of their own. Also, she is the one character in Woolf’s novel who would most want to know how Mrs. Ramsay died. In a larger sense, Lily realizes that she needs to put her own dead mother’s presence, as well as Mrs. Ramsay’s, behind her, to become an independent woman artist and that requires finding out how Mrs. Ramsay died.
Lily is an independent woman at a fascinating historical moment – in many ways a new woman whose life needed telling.
Were you intimidated writing in Woolf’s shadow?
Yes – terrified! In my first draft, I situated the reader inside each character’s consciousness as does Woolf. Luckily, on my Diploma in Creative Writing course the wonderful tutor Gillian Slovo, the novelist, and dramatist, told me to stop being a second-hand Woolf and focus on Lily. I am still very worried what Woolf scholars will think of my interpretation but hopefully, since Talland House stands alone as a mystery and romance novel in its own right, they will be intrigued.
What can you tell us about the friendship Lily shares with Mrs. Ramsay?
In my novel Lily admires Mrs. Ramsay from the moment she first sees her (looking exactly like Woolf’s own mother Julia Stephen) when Mrs. Ramsay buys Lily’s painting at the Studio Day. Mrs. Ramsay becomes Lily’s surrogate mother and they share an empathetic understanding. And Lily is very defensive of Mrs. Ramsay especially when her sometimes violent and always abrasive husband Mr. Ramsay appears.
Do you have a favorite scene in TALLAND HOUSE?
Too many! Some are moving like the scene where Lily first meets her tutor Louis Grier and falls instantly in love. Other scenes are very intriguing – particularly the opening when Lily meets Louis after several years and hears about the suspicious circumstances of Mrs. Ramsay’s death.
Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing TALLAND HOUSE?
Talland House is just a little longer than Woolf’s original - approximately 93,000 words. My first manuscript was 125,000! Lily’s first friend in St Ives, as a student, is Emily Carr the Canadian painter, who did visit St Ives but later than is possible in Talland House. I would have loved to spend more time with Emily. Mrs. Ramsay introduces Lily to Eliza Stillman who then becomes her best friend. Eliza, or ‘Lisa’ Stillman, was an actual friend of Woolf’s. Marie Spartali, Lisa’s stepmother, also in my novel, was a Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ and painter although my description of Eliza and Marie Spartali’s house is taken from an art journal’s description of Holman Hunt’s house (who was also a friend of the Stephen family). Marie is such a striking figure she threatened to take over my novel and had to be reined in.
If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of TALLAND HOUSE, who would you cast?
My dream is that Emma Thompson or Eileen Atkins would play Mrs. Ramsay and Emma Watson play Lily. Louis Grier is so dashing, witty, and handsome it would have to be Rufus Sewell for the older Louis and for the younger Eddy Redmayne
I love everything about these casting choices.
What do you hope readers take from their experience of TALLAND HOUSE?
That female friendships matter. As I say about Lily ‘She felt supported by her friendships, sometimes thinking friendship as good as marriage, perhaps even better. She and Eliza were two women who saw each other daily, and were together not from a physical attraction but by a shared love of painting, their agreement to continue in a life devoted to art as best they could without complaints, encouraging each other whenever possible, and for as long as they might need to’. And that being an independent woman can be fun!
What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?
I continue to write papers about Bloomsbury – two chapters out this year. My next novel is about another artist – Gwen John - and her tumultuous affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The style is somewhat different – written in the present tense, and the content differs too – there is a great deal of sex in Rodin’s Mistress!