Essie Fox, author of The Last Days of Leda Grey, tells us more about life as an author

Essie Fox discusses her experiences as an author, after writing three beautifully crafted Victorian novels.

Essie Fox discusses her experiences as an author, after writing three beautifully crafted Victorian novels.

Essie Fox was born and raised in Herefordshire. She studied English Literature at Sheffield University, going on to work in London, first in the world of publishing and then as a freelance artist -  eventually becoming a writer. Now published by Orion, Essie has been featured on Channel 4’s Book Club, has been shortlisted for the National Book Awards, and her debut The Somnambulist has been optioned for film/TV. Essie often speaks at festivals, has written articles for the national press, and has lectured at the V&A, as well as the National Gallery. Her latest novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey was featured as The Times Historical Book of the Month.

For more information: www.essiefox.co.uk

Twitter: @essiefox

Facebook: Essie Fox Author

The Interview

1 | Describe what you do on a daily basis as a writer and a historical blogger?

Writing fiction takes up most of my day. I wish I could say that I work in a grand library or café as so many writers do. In fact, I simply wake, go downstairs for a cup of coffee, and then return to bed to work - until around about lunchtime, when I take a few hours off for lunch or meeting friends. The coffee is quite a ritual, with freshly ground beans and using a press, but that activity tends to be the buffer zone between sleeping, and the dream-like trance that writing fiction often feels like to me.

I don’t plan out novels in advance. During the first draft stage my mind is continually holding the details of the characters and plot. With every new day I must decide what each upcoming chapter will contain. So, this is a concentrated creative time during which I try to have as little distraction as possible.

When researching my novels I often discover fascinating details that I may not use in the story itself, but which I then decide to use as material for blog posts. This work I tend to do in the evenings, writing factual historical articles, or reviewing novels I’ve read and loved.  In addition to this, I’ll then take time to post the new blog material on social media - and more often than not what I intend to be no more than an hour drags out to be even longer, because of responding to reader comments, or replying to Tweets. But, as writing is such a solitary process I cherish these interactions. It’s really something special to ‘meet’ up with people who share your professional passions.

2 | What made you choose writing and more specifically, where did your passion for the Gothic Victorian era come from?

I’ve always loved to read - and I think reading makes a writer.  Also, as a child I always had a story going round in my mind. I remember going to bed at night and plotting out the next ‘episodes’ until I drifted off to sleep. I never considered writing them down ... it was just ‘what I did’ to amuse myself.

“Luminous … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling.” The Times

“Luminous … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling.” The Times

When I went to university and read English Literature one of the modules on the course was the Victorian novel. This immersion in the genre was something I came to relish, and as time went by I always looked out for any neo-Victorian novels that might be newly published with a sense of great excitement.

I’m not sure when I suddenly realised that I wanted to write one of my own, but I do recall reading Jane Harris’ The Observations and Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes at The Museum  (one Victorian, and one set in the time when I myself was growing up, with many references that rang a chord. There was something about the voices, the settings, the twists, the atmospheres of the books that made me long to create my own ‘new world’.

Why set it in the Victorian era? Well, there was that passion I mentioned before for reading books set in that particular time, with all of its vision and adventure, it’s new invention - and moral discrepancies. I also wanted to explore some of the history from my own childhood. So, I combined the two together ... writing The Somnambulist, which draws on experiences from my teenage years when I worked as a cleaner in a large Herefordshire country house; a house surrounded by mysterious woodlands which I’d often walked through as a child. I also used my later experience of living in London, using places I’d visited and loved, such as Wilton’s Music Hall. I tried to recapture the glory and grit that gave such a place its character.

3 | What do you love about being an author and are there any aspects which you love the most on a daily schedule?

I am a solitary person by nature. I really don’t mind if I don’t talk to another living soul for days on end. That suits the writing life very well, giving me ample time and space to imagine entirely alternative worlds. Once a novel is three or four chapters in, there’s nothing I like better than to totally immerse myself and see the plot developing, and to get to know my fictional characters.

I enjoy the freedom of my writing life - being able to break off whenever I want to catch up with real life neglected friends, or to walk local woodlands and riverbanks. I find that walking actually helps to move a plot on inside my head. It might look as if I’m swanning around, doing nothing, but my brain could be fizzing with new ideas.  

4 | The complementary subjects of History and English literature go hand in hand as can be seen by your thought-provoking and compelling works. What led to your choice of incorporating History into writing?

Writers of fiction are not historians and the prime motive is to tell a story. However, if you write in a particular historical era there’s obviously a certain amount of research to be done. How much or how little depends on your style. Sometimes a novel is sparser, with a more ‘internal’ or psychological construction, so the historical elements are there to add authenticity, but are selected with restraint. At other times the descriptions are as much a part of the story as the characters and plot. Even then it is important not to be too heavy-handed or to tip the balance away from the true essence of the story-line. In either case you really need to know your era and subject well. There’s nothing worse than badly researched fiction. Someone will always spot mistakes and pull you up on them. And the more you research the less likely you are to use clichés in your writing style.

5 | What advice would you give to aspiring students wishing to embark on an English related career such as being an author or a journalist?

I’m less qualified to advise on journalism at this point in time, but for any aspiring writers I would again suggest reading as much as possible - the very best in the genre you’re particularly interested in, but well beyond that area as well. Read the classics and novels that have stood the test of time. You will learn so much about themes, structure, plot, and voice.

Build up a social media presence with fellow writers, agents, and publishers. Be prepared to engage and share news and events. Go to literary evenings. Meet other people in the industry. Listen, watch, and learn.

Some writers have taken the route of new book reviewing to engage with the public (and publishing houses) before they write, or submit their own novel. This is another way to build an online presence. But, I feel it’s important to be aware that reviewing and blogging can take up huge amounts of time. Balance is the key.

“The glee with which Fox approaches her material is infectious.” The Guardian

The glee with which Fox approaches her material is infectious.” The Guardian

Which leads to my final advice - to write, write, and write again. When you’ve completed a first draft that’s not the end. It’s barely the beginning. Go through it again, and again, until you feel sure there is not one single thing you could change. Only at that point should you be submitting your work to a trusted reader, or an agent, or publisher. Some writers show their work to several beta readers, but I would guard against too many different readers at this point. We all have different tastes and opinions, and the danger is that you may try to apply every new view to your manuscript, resulting in neutered or muddled work. Take advice. Listen. But, also trust your own instincts.

6 What tips for young writers going about their first book/novel and what preparation do you do (if you do) when starting a new piece?

Much of my answer to question 5 is relevant here. But, moving on from that, if the novel is contemporary and based on situations you have direct experience of, then you can jump straight in. But only after you’ve really thought long and hard about the actual plot, its themes and its settings. You must consider your characters carefully too, their motivations, their surroundings; their intentions and reasons for actions.

If the novel is historical and conveying themes or experiences of which you only know a little, then you need to start reading widely, also visit museums and exhibitions, and go along to any talks with relevance to your subject matter. Basically, you need to learn as much as you possibly can to give your novel authenticity. Only when you feel you know the subject matter inside out should you start to write your story. And, even then, you should be prepared to stop here and there to do more research as the story progresses and deepens - often in ways you may not have considered when you started out. Novels tend to develop organically, taking on lives of their own.

So, regarding preparation - first of all comes the inspiration; that sudden ‘Eureka’ moment when you feel: ‘yes! I’ve had this brilliant idea which will make a fantastic novel!’ Sounds a little too optimistic? Well, if you’re not thinking about it that way, if you’re remotely uncertain or luke-warm at this point, then it probably isn’t the novel that you should be thinking of writing. You’ll have ample opportunity during the writing process when you’ll be thinking ‘this is total rubbish!’ or ‘Why did I ever start this book?’, because writing a novel is a little bit like falling in and out of love, several times with the same person. If the initial love isn’t strong enough you’ll probably never reach the end of it - or, you will but the story will lack all heart. Readers and publishers will sense that.

When does the Eureka moment come? Well, Every book I’ve written has started with visual inspiration. In the case of my first, The Somnambulist, it was a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a woman walking in her sleep, and also a visit to Wilton’s music hall, when the imagery and venue of my opening scene both came together in my mind. With the latest, The Last Days of Leda Grey, it has been the same. First, quite by chance, I noticed an old black and white print of an actress, dating back to the era of silent film in a junk shop in the Brighton Lanes. From that point on I was inspired to find out more about Edwardian film. Again, by chance, I realised that Brighton and Hove had a very rich part to play in the history of early film, which is why I then decided to set my story there, but to create an imaginary to actress.

Before I began to write a word I visited the Brighton Museum, and the BFI Archives in Berkhamstead. I went to the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Cinema Musuem, both in London. I watched as many early films made in the era as possible, some of which are quite astonishing - though, sadly, most of the films made then have now been permanently lost, due to the medium of celluloid which ages and is volatile: a fact I then went on to use as a useful ploy in my novel’s plot.

7 | Do you have a reading list of books that you think would be helpful for English or History students?

I must confess that I have never used any ‘How To Write’ books, preferring to read as widely as possible. However, I know that many writer friends have found Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft to be invaluable. Others have recommended Robert McKee’s advice, and I believe he also gives regular lectures and courses in London. There is an excellent blog I would recommend here with just about everything needed in the Writer’s Toolkit and that is Emma Darwin’s This Itch of Writing, with articles going back over years and with an excellent search facility for specific concerns.