Today I’m please to welcome M.J. Carter to the blog. M.J. Carter is the author of two novels to feature private detectives Avery and Blake, The Stranger Vine and The Printer’s Coffin, and her latest novel, The Devil’s Feast, was published by Fig Tree on 27 October 2016.
M.J. Carter kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Devil’s Feast.
It’s the third book in my series about the clever working-class private inquiry agent Jeremiah Blake and his younger posher sidekick Captain William Avery.
It’s set in the newly opened Reform Club in 1842, the new Pall Mall home for rich Whigs and Radicals, in opposition to the Tories’ Carlton Club across the road. The Club has, however, quickly become more famous for its creatures comforts—especially its kitchens, presided over by the most famous chef in London, Alexis Soyer ‘the Napoleon of Food’ — than its politics. Then a horrific death throws the Club into chaos, and Avery—visiting by chance—is persuaded to investigate, but without his mentor Blake, who has disappeared…
2. What inspired the book?
Well, because the series is set in the 1840s, I’m constantly reading everything I can find about the decade, looking for things that might inspire a new story. I happened upon Alexis Soyer, this real life celebrity chef, an irrepressible, charming, crazy, impossible character. He was a mix of Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver—an amazing self-publicist, genius cook and logistician, obsessed with being at the cutting edge, and he opened the first theme restaurant during the Great Exhibition. He also expended tremendous amounts of effort and money campaigning for the poor to be better fed. He tried to improve the food in workhouses and hospitals, reinvented the soup kitchen on a mighty scale and set up in Dublin during the Irish famine—serving thousands of meals a day. He published a series of cookbooks, including the brilliant Shilling Cookery for the People, and went to the Crimean war with Florence Nightingale, where he completely reorganized the provisioning of the British army. I just thought, I’ve got to write about him.
At the same time, I knew that the 1840s was a time of scarcity and food scares—it was often known as ‘the Hungry Forties’, and it was also the beginning of the ‘Golden Age of British Poisoning’. Chemists were starting to find reliable tests for poison and so murders that had gone previously undetected, started to end up in the courts in all their lurid detail. So the book’s background became food and chefs.
3. How much research do you have to undertake when writing your novels? Do you plan all of the story or see where the words take you?
I read as much as I can before I start. So with this book, I read all the biographies of Soyer, plus histories of the Reform Club, and various books about Victorian food culture, kitchens, food scares and the history of adulteration, and poisoning. I find this kind of reading a great help with plotting: little details give me lots of ideas of where the book will go, and in building up the background. I love the reading bit, I’m good at absorbing a lot of information relatively quickly and picking out details that will work and surprise.
As for planning, when I turned to writing fiction (I started out writing non-fiction), my husband who is a novelist, gave me a piece of advice: try and plan as much of the plot as possible. It was good advice for me, because I know that if I didn’t do some planning I’d meander all over the place, and the books would take me even longer than they already do. But I find it hard. I try and sketch out as much in advance as I can, but there are always things I find I just can’t work out and that develop and become more complex as I go along. In one book I thought I’d sorted out the bad guy in the planning, but in the end it didn’t work and I had to completely rewrite and ended up with the culprit being someone else completely!
4. The Devil’s Feast is the third Blake and Avery novel. What do you find are the benefits and downsides to writing a series? Is the fear there that you know the characters too well or can they still surprise you?
In some ways writing them and putting words in their mouths gets easier, because they are familiar to me, but at the same time, I want them to feel fresh so I am always on the lookout for my writing getting repetitive.
When I set out to write the books, I liked the idea of the two characters developing over the books, that you would find out about their backstories, especially the more mysterious Blake, slowly over the books, and that they would change too, especially Avery who is so young and naïve in the first book. The idea of their developing relationship and their changing lives has become a kind of story arc over the individual books and cases, and I like the idea of writing that very much. What I also find, though is that I’m starting to think about writing the books from different viewpoints. The first three books were narrated by Avery, but I find, I want to see him with a bit more perspective, and show a bit more of Blake not all through Avery’s eyes. I’m currently working out if and how I can do this. The great Lee Child has written his Jack Reacher novels through first person and third person narratives. I reckon if he can, mere mortals like me ought to be able to play around with narration too.
5. What did you discover about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?
When I switched from non-fiction to fiction, there were several things that were pleasant surprises: how much fun it was making stuff up, and not having to check the facts for every half sentence before I wrote it. How much I enjoyed creating the world of the book, the background. How caught up in the lives of my characters I got.
The less welcome surprises were how clueless I waas about writing fiction! I got terribly caught up in continuity. My first draughts were full of endless descriptions of people standing up and sitting down and leaving and entering rooms! It was dreadfully lumpen and dull. I had to learn to cut it all out, and drive the novel with plot. I found plot hard, I still do. But I work really hard at it.
6. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
Well, there’s not a huge amount of time for relaxation as I have two hulking great sons who seem to take up a lot of time and the house doesn’t clean itself…well, I do watch shamefully large amounts of TV: I’m currently watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, finishing off Outlander (definitely a guilty pleasure), am about to start Narcos, and am not 100% certain whether I am going to stick with Westworld. (I have to add that my health has been a bit rubbish recently so I have been doing extra TV watching). Also, I do like my dinner, so I do cook a lot and eat out as much as I am able—which was one reason why I so enjoyed writing about the food in Devil’s Feast. And when my health is good enough, I’m a keen walker (or rather stroller, we’re talking the Thames path not the Pennines), and traveler.
7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
No no no that’s an awful question! I hate having to choose favourites, and I’d go mad if I could only read one book for the rest of my life. What if I got bored with it? Argh! But since you’re twisting my arm, it’d have to be v long, so we’re talking all of Proust, though I think it would leave me a bit blue, or Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (a bit of a cheat as it comprises about 12 novels).
8. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
What historical novel do you wish you’d written?
Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost —a terrific, chunky, ideas-filled historical mystery. Set in 1660s Oxford, four narrators tell what they know about the murder of Robert Grove, fellow of New College, and how a young woman, Sarah Blundy is involved. Pears creates a wonderfully rich world, full of real characters, it’s terrifically intelligent book, and drags you through to the very last page —gripping, stretching and pure pleasure, exactly what I’d like my books to be.
About the book:
“For lovers of Sherlock, Shardlake and Ripper Street. A hugely enjoyable heart-pounding Victorian thriller- murder, a celebrity chef and a great detective double-act.
‘Richly detailed and smartly plotted’ S J Parris, Observer on The Printer’s Coffin
London, 1842. There has been a mysterious and horrible death at the Reform, London’s newest and grandest gentleman’s club. A death the club is desperate to hush up.
Captain William Avery is persuaded to investigate, and soon discovers a web of rivalries and hatreds, both personal and political, simmering behind the club’s handsome façade-and in particular concerning its resident genius, Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’, a chef whose culinary brilliance is matched only by his talent for self-publicity.
But Avery is distracted, for where his mentor and partner-in-crime Jeremiah Blake? And what if this first death was only a dress rehearsal for something far more sinister?”
Read more on the Penguin website.