Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Conversation with Christi Phillips

Christi Phillips is the author of The Rossetti Letter, an historical novel set in seventeenth-century Venice that has been translated into seven languages. Her newest novel, The Devlin Diary, takes place in 1672 London and present-day Cambridge. The main character, Hannah Devlin, is a female physician who attends Charles II’s mistress while a killer is stalking the members of his court.

1. Why did you set The Devlin Diary in the place and time that you did?

The Restoration Era—which begins in 1660 and ends in 1685, essentially the reign of Charles II—can be thought of as the 1960s of the seventeenth century. Both eras ushered in sweeping social changes, a heightened creativity in the arts and sciences, and greater freedom for women. There was also lots of sex, drinking, drugs, and really, really bad behavior, which makes for great stories.

2. Your novel is tremendously engaging and can easily be read in one sitting. Claire and Hannah go through a whirlwind through the course of the book. Did you work on the book for a long time or finish it very quickly?

In the broad scheme of things, it didn’t take long: a little over two years. But there were occasions when it felt like much longer. I have a (completely unproven) theory that the natural limit of the human attention span is nine months. Anything that takes longer than that really begins to feel like work.

3. The characters in your novels seem so vibrant – from your protagonists Hannah and Claire to minor characters such as Seamus Murphy and Mr. Pilford. How do you manage to breathe life into such a wide and varied group of characters?

For the historical characters, researching the period is crucial. The more research you do, the more you have to draw upon. Conflict is always key when it comes to character. Whether historical or modern, characters who “breathe” usually want something. They want it very much, and some sort of obstacle keeps them from getting it. From this conflict, all action arises—and characters reveal themselves through their actions.

4. As you relate in your author’s note, much of the book is centered on actual history. What was your research process like?

I started with general English history, so I could understand how the past lead up to the Restoration. Then I read books on the seventeenth century and the Restoration, and numerous biographies of the people of the time—Charles II, Pepys, the Cabal (Charles’s ministers), Thomas Sydenham, and many others—and books on seventeenth-century medicine. For The Devlin Diary, I relied primarily on books aimed at a general reader—popular works, not scholarly articles—many of which are listed in the author’s note. I also relied on reprints of seventeenth-century works: Aubrey’s Lives, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Culpeper’s Herbal, The London Spy. I have found that anecdotal history is usually more helpful for creating stories and characters than, say, an academic treatise. To write an historical novel, it’s essential to learn about the people: their occupations, their passions, their concerns, as well as what they wear, what they eat, what they admire, what they believe. Restoration London by Liza Picard and 1700: Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller are two wonderful compilations of the revealing details of everyday life, and they were invaluable.

A sense of place is also very important to me. I went on a two-week research trip to London and Cambridge and toured the sites I would be writing about. I also went to the British Library where I could take a close look at some of the primary sources for the books I’d already read. In the Rare Manuscript room, I examined the Clifford Papers, which includes an early draft of the Secret Treaty and letters exchanged between Charles II and Louis XIV. They’re considered so valuable that I was asked to sit at a desk where I could be watched over by two librarians, and I was not allowed to leave them alone for any length of time.

I also visited museums for background information. The Old Operating Theatre in London was particularly helpful. It’s this wonderful old attic decked out like an apothecary’s garret, with alembics, jars of dried frog legs and bird beaks and so on, adjacent to a Victorian operating theatre. It’s called a theatre because it actually is a theatre; it’s a small amphitheatre made of wood, with stair-stepped bleachers overlooking the floor upon which stands only one item: the operating table. The table is not very big, about two-and-a-half feet wide by four feet long, because only the unfortunate patient’s torso was situated on the table; his or her limbs were held by the surgeon’s assistants. The operating table reminded me, rather nauseatingly, of a butcher block table. Next to the theatre is a lovely display of really gruesome antique surgical instruments.

5. What authors do you enjoy reading?

A short list of my favorite historical authors:
  • Iain Pears
  • David Liss
  • Philip Kerr
  • Rose Tremain
  • Arturo Perez-Reverte
  • Sarah Dunant
6. Do you have plans for your next book?

Yes, I’m already working on it. My next novel will be set entirely in the past, in seventeenth-century France.


Thank you for that engaging Q&A, dear Author! Readers, your thoughts / comments are most welcome.

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