The Lady's Slipper, discusses her book, her journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.
DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about The Lady's Slipper?
DEBORAH SWIFT: The story is a tale of love, murder and revenge. My heroine Alice Ibbetson is passionate about painting wild flowers. When she discovers a single rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in a wood belonging to Richard Wheeler, she is captivated by its beauty, and is determined to preserve it for posterity. But Richard Wheeler is a Quaker, and fired by his newfound faith, is determined to keep the Lady's Slipper where God intended it to grow.
But he is not the only one interested in the flower—the local cunning woman, Margaret Poulter, wants to use its medicinal powers, and the unpredictable Sir Geoffrey Fisk, Alice's patron, sees it as a way to repair his ailing fortunes. Alice knows that the orchid is unique—the last of its kind—so she steals it, little dreaming of the consequences that will unfold from this single act—an act which will turn friends into enemies and enemies into friends, and change her forever. For possessing the orchid is only the beginning, and Alice’s peaceful painting days are over.
DAVID WISEHART: What first drew you to the subject and period?
DEBORAH SWIFT: The Lady's Slipper is the name of a wild orchid which until recently was almost extinct in Britain. Only a single plant remained. It is still so rare that it has round the clock police protection whilst it is flowering. When I came across the flower, complete with guard, I thought it was one of the most bizarre-looking wild flowers I had ever seen, though of course it is much more common in other countries such as the US.
I combined the idea of the rare flower with an interest in seventeenth century history—specifically Quaker history. The seventeenth century is a time of great political and religious upheaval in England, and this supplied the necessary background of unease I needed for my plot to flourish. The story is about characters who come into violent conflict over the fate of the orchid, and it is also a love story.
DAVID WISEHART: How did you do your historical research?
DEBORAH SWIFT: I do a lot of research in libraries and museums. I am lucky in that Lancaster University near where I live houses a great collection of Quaker writings and diaries and also has lecturers who are local experts on Quaker history. Many of the buildings I describe actually exist and can be visited. I love the smell of old panelling, and the dark nooks and crannies of period buildings! I used a heap of non-fiction books too—if readers are interested, a good general guide to this period is Liza Picard's Restoration London.
DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?
DEBORAH SWIFT: The characters often come from my research. I researched women artists for my heroine Alice Ibbetson, and also found out that many Quakers had chosen a simple lifestyle and given up big houses or land to live a simpler more honest life. This inspired the character of Richard Wheeler. In a novel you always need conflict to drive the story so the contrasting characters were born out the need to provide antagonists for the two main characters.
DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?
DEBORAH SWIFT: I don't really have one, but oddly enough when it came out in the UK a lot of people said to me, "I gave this to my mother to read, and she loved it!" Though I don't think it is something only suitable for women of a certain age! In fact, several men I know also read and enjoyed it as it features three main characters who are men. But I hope the novel has a broad general appeal as well as being of particular interest for historical fiction fans.
DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?
DEBORAH SWIFT: I have written stories since I was a child, and have several unpublished things laguishing in a drawer, none of which are historical. I studied for an MA in Creative Writing and during it started The Lady's Slipper. Suddenly, it felt that I had found my voice—I really enjoyed writing it, and doing the research, so historical fiction is obviously my thing.
DAVID WISEHART: How did your work in theatre help you as a novelist?
DEBORAH SWIFT: I like to find a way for each character to have their time centre stage, and obviously the setting and atmosphere is very important to me. Theatre is essentially team work, so for me it was immensely reassuring to work with an editor. I was used to having creative discussions with directors and scenic artists about design. So I enjoyed the input of other people who were intent on making the book shine. I think unpublished writers imagine that there must be pitch battles whilst the writer fights to keep their original idea—I never felt that at all, my editor was someone with an objective eye, a bit like a producer, who had "got" what I was trying to do and was alerting me if I had gone astray. And I loved it—I like all that nit-picking over small details.
DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?
DEBORAH SWIFT: I like to do the bulk of my research first to get an overview, then more as I write. I'm best writing in the mornings, but only after two cups of tea, and I like to write a bit every day. But it can't always be like that, so I just fit it in wherever I can in between my other bits and pieces of work. If I have a good idea and can't get back to it, it feels like torture to wait for the next "writing slot," so I carry a notebook for these desperate moments.
DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?
DEBORAH SWIFT: Mostly it's plays that have influenced me. I spent years analysing texts to create set and costume designs—everything from Shakespeare to Pinter, to Tennessee Williams, to Mamet and Ayckbourn. So there is a strong sense of drama that wants every character to have a moment in the spotlight, and for the curtain at the end of a chapter to come down with the reader wanting more.
Book-wise, I have been impressed by Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Tracey Chevalier, and Geraldine Brooks. I love Rose Tremain and Philippa Gregory who write historical fiction in very different ways, and because I've read so much of both I would love to think perhaps they are influences too. I was staggered by Wolf Hall, though at times I struggled to stick with it, I found it a phenomenal achievement—to make Cromwell live for the reader in that intimate way.
DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?
DEBORAH SWIFT: That question is way too hard! I'm so often impressed by other writers. Perhaps Restoration by Rose Tremain, or The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
DAVID WISEHART: How has your experience been with your publisher?
DEBORAH SWIFT: St Martin's Press have been fantastic, despite the fact I am all the way over in the UK, keeping me in touch with things like promotion and the progress of the (gorgeous) cover design.
DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?
DEBORAH SWIFT: Through library tours, speaking to anyone who will listen, but much of it through blogs and trying to keep an online presence in historical fiction forums and discussion groups, and online writers and readers groups such as SheWrites and Goodreads.
DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?
DEBORAH SWIFT: So far, more advance copies of The Lady's Slipper have been purchased for the Kindle than in paperback, so I think St Martin's Press were right to suggest a Kindle version. The great advantage of its portability and the ability to download a title instantly are a great attraction for many readers.
DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?
DEBORAH SWIFT: Go for it! I would say particularly if yours is a niche market. With many mainstream publishing houses embracing it, it is now a platform for both mainstream and more specialized titles. I would love, for example, to have my research books, mostly weighty non-fiction, available in such a great format alongside my fiction. The diversity this will encourage will be fantastic. My only caveat would be to make sure your book is edited to death before you upload. Readers will soon tire if work has not been properly prepared, and then everyone loses out, but other than that I would always encourage writers to find their readers somehow, and this seems such a simple and obvious concept.
DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Lady's Slipper.
"The Gilded Lily, a companion book to The Lady's Slipper, set in the smoke and coffee houses of Restoration London will be published in the UK by Pan Macmillan. I was born in London, and did my Bachelor of Arts in Scenography and Costume Design there, so it was a pleasure to re-visit it during my research. Though I have to say, it has changed quite a lot since the 17th century!
"You can discover more of what I am working on now through my website or blog."
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