INTERVIEW WITH PRIYA PARMAR
When one of my new Facebook friends happened to mention that she was a writer, too, I was naturally curious. Much to my delight, she said she was working on a novel about Nell Gwynn, the most famous and most appealing of Charles II’s mistresses. Charles has always been my favorite non-medieval king and what little I knew of Nell was all to the good, so I asked Priya if I could have an ARC (advance reading copy) of Exit the Actress. All I can say is that Priya’s writing career is off to a roaring start! I loved this book. Nell is a wonderful character and Priya manages to capture Charles in all his charming complexity. Her Restoration England is so vividly drawn that I truly felt as if I were an invisible eye-witness to one of the most interesting eras in English history. Exit The Actress was published this week and is already attracting attention–just as Nell herself did. So….may I present Priya Parmar and Nell Gwynn.
INTERVIEW WITH SHARON KAY PENMAN
SKP: How did you happen to choose to write about Nell Gwyn and the Restoration period?
PP: I really fell in love with Nell Gwyn and moved to Restoration London because it was her period but once I got there I was fascinated by the setting. It is an extraordinary period of shift and innovation. Charles II returned to England and rather than seeking to punish the country that revolted against and ultimately killed his father, he did everything he could to foster peace and unification and tolerance. Of course he also dug up the long dead Oliver Cromwell, the man personally responsible for murdering his father and held an execution for his dead body in Hyde Park.
It was an exciting time to be in London. Charles II brought ideas and clothes and customs and architecture from continental Europe and set about building a new and wonderful country. Unfortunately he had plague and fire and raging prejudice to deal with but he handled it all brilliantly. He invited women to perform on the stage for the first time, founded the Royal Society and he and his gardener, John Rose, grew the first pineapple in England. He was a thrilling king and his rowdy circle of libertine friends were wild and extreme but all gifted, brilliant people. And Nell was at the center of it all.
SKP: This book is not written in a straight narrative style but rather a collection of documents, diaries and letters of the period. How did you come to write the novel in this format?
PP: The style just sort of presented itself and refused to budge. I tried to coax it into narrative prose but it was so stubborn. I think because I had been studying primary documents for so long, first as an undergraduate and then during my doctorate, that I just became fascinated by stories in their elemental forms; before all the strands of ribbon get woven into a single braid.
I first met Ellen Gwyn when I was researching my Ph.D. I read: her bills for shoes and lace and clothes and a bill for a fantastic silver boat shaped bed and her will as well as all the diaries of the period. A complicated, contradictory, whimsical, genuine, talented, compassionate, layered woman emerged from those bits of paper. All the contradictions can coexist happily at that level and a real person steps forward. She can be a woman who leaves huge amounts of money to charity in her will, scolds her son for spending too much money on hats and then goes hopelessly into debt over a Venetian mirror.
SKP: It is interesting that as a reader, we get accustomed to the writing style immediately and forget it is even there.
PP: Oh good. I wanted it to feel really natural and not intrusive. I wanted it to be a fall down a rabbit hole sort of reading experience but I had no idea if it would work or not. It was a huge gamble!
SKP: And you never second guessed it?
PP: Actually, the first agent I sent it to said she loved the writing and the story and wanted to take it on if maybe I would change the format. It was the scariest thing I ever did to say no!
SKP: I am always interested in what parts of characterization or plot an author chooses to fictionalize and what to keep purely factually based. How closely did you stick to the history?
PP: I kept to the history as much as possible. Even the bits that seem far fetched are often rooted in fact. John Wilmot actually did have a servant called Alcock and Charles had a spaniel called Dot. Even Ellen’s shoes are actually based on her surviving shoe orders! I really enjoyed tracking down the obscure stuff like the names of the footmen who carried her sedan chair and exactly what the remedy for a cold was circa 1665. I like when all the small details are right but at some points friends got tired of my beginning conversations with “Did you know that in 1660, ground fox lung was thought to cure a fever?”
I did have a section from the plague year that listed the people who died near Ellen’s home. It did not make it into the final book but it was so interesting and heartbreaking to research. All these people, young women especially, of just her age died; mostly because they were often ones who stayed to nurse their families. Ellen must have known some of them.
The most glaring bit of history I chose to dispute was the idea that Ellen was illiterate. I just didn’t see how it would be possible for her to keep the company she kept and be unable to read. Also she often had three plays to memorize in a week!
SKP: Your Nell Gwyn cuts a very different figure from the bawdy, cockney, flirtatious Nell Gwyn we normally meet in popular culture. You have Oxford rather than London as her birthplace and she is called “Ellen” in your book. Was that her name?
PP: No one is sure where she was born. There are strong cases for Hereford, London and Oxford. I chose Oxford as it seemed the most likely given her Grandfather’s association with Christ Church and her father’s military history. There is no evidence that she had a cockney accent at all. Her looks, dancing, acting and singing were all widely commented upon during her life. It was said she had terrific feet and a lovely voice but no one ever mentioned a London accent. Home county accents were very popular at the time, so it was possible she had what was a trendy Oxfordshire lilt.
She only signed her name to a few documents and when she did, she used the initials “E.G.” and then her dear friend Aphra Behn dedicated her play to “Ellen Guin” so I decided that Ellen must have been the name she used in her personal life. As for being flirtatious, she most likely was, but more than anything, she was a woman ruled by loyalty. After Charles II died, she never took another lover. I really love that about her.
SKP: First lines always intrigue me because so much hangs on them. How did you find your first line?
PP: The first line of the Prologue arrived very early and never changed. It is a moment about collecting yourself and leaping forward, which is exactly what I was doing in writing the book, and so I just wrote the moment I was living. The first line of the diary was much trickier and kept changing. I was giving it too much weight and it would not settle. Finally it told me to go away and just let it be and so I did.
SKP: It sounds like you began at the beginning and wrote straight through. Did you?
PP: Surprisingly, I did. I would go back and constantly revise, but I never wrote a scene I had not reached yet. I am sure it would have saved time if I had but I sort of had to live the book with Ellen and think through what was happening to her as it was happening in the story. She sort of moved in and would tell me all about what was going on with her eccentric family and her day at the theatre and her love life. It felt like having your best friend over for coffee every morning. I couldn’t write ahead because I could not see that far. It hadn’t happened yet.
SKP: Do you have a writing routine or any rules for yourself that you follow?
PP: I turn on the computer at the same time every day and only let myself write four pages—however long that takes me. And then, even if it is going really well, I stop and go off and research. It is terrible when it falls in the midst of an exciting scene but I know if I leave it alone, I will have something fun to come back to tomorrow…
SKP: And are you working on a new book now?
PP: Yes. My second book is looking for a title at the moment but is set just before and during WWI. It is extraordinary to be writing about the last moments during the twentieth century when a world war was unimaginable. They thought it would be over by Christmas.
Thank you, Priya. I think this was one of my best blog interviews. Nell has been waiting a long time for someone to tell her story.
February 4, 2011