What is the first book you remember reading?
There were always books in the house and I remember my parents frequently discussing what they were reading at the dinner table. My younger brother and I had a traditional 1950’s childhood with a mother at home, apart from her glamorous forays into the modelling world with Hardy Amies, and she read with us every day.
Ant and Bee by Angela Banner is the earliest book I remember. I can still picture the blue and white striped cover with a smug-looking red ant waving a walking stick and a moustachioed bee with his umbrella. I kept the book for my own children, who loved it, and it’s time I went up to the attic to find it for my grandchildren’s pleasure.
What are you currently reading, or planning to read?
I have a towering stack of books on my bedside table and a Kindle bursting at the seams because I’m just emerging from long months in my writing cave. I can’t wait to catch up with my reading! There’s Katherine Webb’s latest, The Night Falling, set in poverty-stricken Italy in 1921 and Carol McGrath’s The Betrothed Sister. This is the last in her well researched Daughter’s of Hastings trilogy and I’m privileged to read it before publication in October. Then there’s The English Marriage by Maureen Waller looking at marriage, adultery and divorce through the ages. I have Rosanna Ley’s The Saffron Trail on my Kindle, set in Cornwall and Marrakech. And that’s only the beginning!
If you could have only one book with you on a desert island, which would it be?
I thought long and hard about this trying to chose between two particular favourites of mine, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I love the sense of brooding unease in Rebecca but finally chose Girl with a Pearl Earring. It’s economically written and I like the unspoken subtexts and Griete’s gradual awakening to a whole new way of looking at the world.
Which is the best book you have received as a gift?
Although I mostly read novels or history books, a dear friend gave me a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for a birthday some years ago. It’s a marvellous book to dip into when you have a few minutes spare. I find that it inspires me when I’m searching for the idea for a new novel and it’s especially useful when looking for a title.
Do you have a favourite literary hero/heroine?
It’s an unoriginal choice but I shan’t apologise for it. Jane Austen shows all the world in a tea cup and her sharp sense of the ridiculous has stood the test of time and always makes me laugh. I wish I’d known her.
Are you working on another novel at the moment?
I’m working on the copy-edit of The House in Quill Court, which will be published in January 2016. It is set in 1814 and is perhaps best described as Sense and Sensibility meets Whitechapel! I wanted to show the stark contrast between life in the elegant drawing rooms of Regency townhouses and the filthy warren of slums under the rule of organised crime.
This is the story. Venetia Lovell’s father dies of a heart attack when thieves break into his shop. Her family is left without means of support and she takes over his interior decorating business. She discovers that her neighbouring shopkeepers have been paying protection money to a vicious gangland boss and, after he threatens her livelihood too, she is determined to end his terrifying tyranny. However, when a street war breaks out Venetia soon begins to regret interfering.
Who would be your ideal dinner party guests (living or from history)?
For the reasons mentioned above I would invite Jane Austen. It might be interesting to sit her beside Cleopatra and Napoleon Bonaparte. I’d like to see her observing the egotistical sparks fly between them! Then I’d like to invite the actor Bill Nighy, whose self-deprecating humour amuses me and Boris Johnson to liven things up a bit.
Is there an issue or plotline you haven’t tackled in a book yet, but would like to?
I’d like to write a story with an unreliable narrator. The intellectual exercise of guarding what information you release to the reader, and when, fascinates me. I haven’t yet summoned up an original plotline clever enough to use but I’m still working on it.
Who is your favourite fairy-tale character? Do they inspire you?
I’ve never been a great fan of fairy tales. As a child I had a beautiful copy of Grimm’s Fairy tales and the illustrations of witches, trolls and hobgoblins terrified me as I thought they might live under my bed! The most memorable character was Rumpelstiltskin. If I’m honest, fairy tales don’t particularly inspire me.
What is your favourite flower, and why?
I love all fragrant flowers but the intensely heady perfume of sweet peas almost makes me swoon. Sweet peas have also been bred with showier blooms but no scent but I simply can’t see the point of that! The delicately coloured pastel blooms only last a day or two but, if well fed and watered, they are prolific. One of the great joys in my life is picking sweet peas early in the morning with the dew still on them and burying my nose in the bunch to inhale the perfume as I return to the house. That really sets me up for the day!
1792. After her English mother and French father are brutally murdered, bluestocking Madeleine Moreau travels to France in search of relatives she hadn’t known existed. When France declares war on England it becomes unsafe to return and Comte Etienne d’Aubery offers her shelter in his chateau. Impulsive and self-opinionated, Madeleine favours the people’s revolution in France but her views are severely shaken after she witnesses Louis XVI’s death by the guillotine. The revolution gathers momentum and as passions of the populace are inflamed, Madeleine sets off on a dangerous race against time to save the man she loves.
The Chateau on the Lake is a breathtaking historical novel; rich, evocative and immersive. ‘Atmospheric, eloquently told and full of rich detail.’ Kate Furnivall. Perfect for readers of Philippa Gregory, Joanne Harris and Patrick Suskind.
Read Charlotte Betts interviewing Michelle Diener from Monday 27th July.