Toying with times past

By Stephanie Merritt

Historian Miranda Carter talks to Stephanie Merritt about what inspired her to turn to historical crime fiction.

British writer Miranda Carter.
British writer Miranda Carter.

Miranda Carter read history while at Oxford and came to writing after a career in journalism. Her first book was a multiple award-winning biography of the spy Anthony Blunt, which she followed with a second non-fiction work The Three Emperors, a study of the power struggles leading up to World War I.

Now, as M. J. Carter, she has written her debut novel, The Strangler Vine, the first in a series of historical adventures. She lives in London with her husband, the novelist John Lanchester, and their two children.

What was the attraction of writing fiction after two successful non-fiction books?

"It was brilliant to make stuff up," she says. "It took me 15 years to write those two books, and after the last one I felt I wasn't ready to bury myself in another giant non-fiction project. I wanted to go on writing history, which I love, so it was a way of writing about a period but without taking years over it. I also love crime novels, so there was the learning curve, too - I didn't know if I could do it."

Did you read detective novels as a child?

"I really came to crime fiction after university - I read a lot of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers. I'm a great admirer of Christie - there's something very concise and tight about her writing. But I was also obsessed with Westerns as a child, and with historical fiction - Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Laura Ingalls Wilder, I read all those over and over."

Do you remember the book that made you want to be a writer?

"There isn't one, because I never imagined I would become a writer. I ended up in journalism and then started writing because I was ill for two years, so writing was something I stalked rather than openly admitted I wanted to do."

What kind of characters are you drawn to?

"I wanted to create a character who was quite reticent and cool because I'm not, my instincts are always to blab and blurt. I like that in a character, to have all that subtext, I think that's the most interesting to read. The hardboiled loner with the wound, I do very much like that, especially in a detective. They have to be an outsider and fallible but not too morally compromised."

What are the advantages or disadvantages of living with another writer?

"The great thing was being able to ask him for advice, especially on plot. I'd say, 'They're here and they need to get here, what do I do?' Apart from that, it's nice to have someone else shuffling around the house because writing can be very lonely. But it's also annoying because we work in very different ways. He'll come and stand in the doorway when he's done his words, whereas I'm in front of the computer all day going, 'Leave me alone!' It doesn't get competitive because what I'm doing is so different."

Which classics are you embarrassed not to have read?

"Oh, all of them. I've never finished any Rushdie and probably never will now. Or any of those European classics like The Man Without Qualities. But I'm not at all embarrassed about the fact that I never intend to read any more Henry James."

Have you ever pretended to have read a book to save face?

"I'm constantly pretending to my book group that I've read the books so I look like a know-all, when often I just go on Wikipedia and look up the plot. The last one I did that with was Canada by Richard Ford. I also pretended I read The Slap, though I actually just read the reviews and formed an opinion."

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be?

"I don't want to meet my heroes any more - too often it's disappointing. Great writers often aren't very nice people. But I would like to have met Barbara Tuchman, who is my great hero in terms of history writing."

What are you going to read next?

"I'm in the middle of my next novel and when I'm writing I have to tear myself away from books I want to read and concentrate on research. I'm reading a brilliant book at the moment called The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney. After that I want to read The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison."

- Observer

The Strangler Vine (Fig Tree $37) is out next week.

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