By Daniel Ford
As Peter Sherwood, author of The Murdery Delicious High Seas Horror: A Ghastly Getaway, will tell you, I’m a sucker for an investigative duo.
M.J. Carter’s historical thriller, The Strangler Vine, features a pair of inquisitive chaps (Blake and Avery) in an exotic locale (India), which made me happier than a history grad student who just finished his thesis (I’m just assuming, I’m still working on mine).
Carter took time out of promoting her book’s U.S. debut to answer some of my questions about her love of history, her research process, and her travels in India researching for The Strangler Vine.
Daniel Ford: What came first: Your love of history or your love of writing?
M.J. Carter: Good question. I was a massive bookworm as a child, but I never thought I’d end up being a writer. That seemed utterly impossible. But I also loved history. I had a very simple romantic sense of the past together with a nerdy fascination with just knowing all about it, and even now that’s still the background of my engagement with history. Also I’ll tell you a secret: Quite a lot of the time I really don’t love writing. I mean, it’s great when it’s done but brain-curdling when you’re doing it.
DF: You come from a nonfiction background, so was your research process drastically different while writing fiction?
MJC: No, the research is my comfort blanket when I write fiction. I know where I am with it. The difference with The Strangler Vine and my previous nonfiction work was that I could pick and choose what I took from my research and didn’t have to make sure that I had every fact for every phrase covered. So I had a lovely few months immersing myself in India and the East India Company, and then I had to write the damn thing.
DF: Related to that, you traveled to India while researching the book. What was that experience like and how did it shape your narrative?
MJC: I did. I took my whole family—husband and two kids, then about 8 and 12, and a big bag of pills and medications that we never used. We went to Madhya Pradesh, a little-visited state where The Thugs were most active, and their nemesis William Sleeman, who is a character in my book, operated. We started out in Jubbulpur, which Sleeman put on the map, in a really grim hotel where my son found a cockroach in the bed, and ended up in a magical palace by the river Nerbudda. That kind of summed it up; India gives everyone sensory overload. You see wonderful magical things and grim chaotic things. For me the most useful thing was getting a sense of the landscape, the smells, the heat, the vegetation. We drove up the same road that Blake and Avery take to Jubbulpur and we saw tigers and monkeys and birds. I couldn’t have written the book without that trip.
DF: Which literary influences did you revisit (or visit for the first time) when you decided to make the jump to fiction writing?
MJC: I didn’t consciously revisit anything, but subconsciously, 40 years of reading came to bear on it. For the relationship between Blake and Avery I realized halfway through I had been thinking about the books of Patrick O’Brien. After I finished, I reread Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone, and realized that though I thought I’d completely forgotten it, certain little elements from it had seeped into the book, which seemed really extraordinary. Also, a bit of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is in there knocking around.
DF: When you actually sit down to write, what’s your process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
MJC: I get my kids off to school and go and sit in front of my computer from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., or 4.30 p.m. if it’s my turn to do after school. It’s mostly perspiration and not inspiration. Music is too distracting. With the novels (I’m now on my third Blake and Avery) I try and plan it out as much as possible. With The Strangler Vine I thought I had a plan but actually I really didn’t know what I was doing and had to keep rewriting bits that didn’t work. But that was part of the learning curve.
DF: How long did it take you to complete your debut novel?
MJC: With the reading and research and working out the world around Blake, who was the character who came first, about three years, which is much shorter than my two nonfiction books. That was two books in 15 years!
DF: Despite the fact that The Strangler Vine takes place in India, a country and culture you hadn’t experienced before your trip, how much of yourself, and family, friends, etc., did you put into your main characters and themes?
MJC: There’s a bit of me in Avery—keen, clueless, blurting things about before thinking about them. I found his voice much easier to get than Blake’s.
DF: Now that you have one novel under your belt, what’s next? Are you making any plans to return to nonfiction?
MJC: I will eventually, but I’m actually really enjoying the rhythm of fiction, and making stuff up (it’s so great!) even though I like to qvetch about it. I’ve written a second Blake and Avery novel set in London in 1841 among journalists and pornographers (which came out of another bit of good research I stumbled on), and I’m currently on the third that is about the Alexis Soyer, an actual French chef who was Britain’s first celebrity chef.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
MJC: I love food, but I’ve had to go gluten free recently and it’s given me a really immoderate obsession with Victoria sponge. I am in quest of the perfect gluten-free Victoria sponge…