The Friday Slot - author Jane Harris

Jane Harris's Gillespie and I was one of my 'Books of the year' choices last year, and I'm still amazed it didn't make it to the Booker shortlist - more fault the Booker, really. In a year where they stressed the 'readable' aspect of a book, it seems extraordinary that this superbly readable doorstopper of  a historical novel should have been omitted, but then, I always loved huge novels. I started with R F Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind when I was in my teens and have loved them ever since. As Delderfield himself said, he hated it when a novel he was enjoying came to an end, so he made it a rule to defer the ending for as long as possible.

Jane herself first came to prominence in 2006, with the publication of her debut historical novel, The Observations, which was narrated by the irrepressible Irish maid, Bessy Buckley. Along with Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, Jane's work has helped herald a whole new era of literary- historical novels, typified also by Hilary Mantel. It's an exciting time for readers of this crossover genre when there are such good exponents of the art to choose from - The Observations  itself was a huge hit, shortlisted for the Orange Prize and winner of the US's Book of the Month First Fiction Prize.

It took Jane five years to follow up that success with Gillespie and I but the wait has been well worth it. Born in Northern Ireland but brought up in Glasgow, Jane has set both her books in Scotland - this second novel is set in the world of the Glasgow art exhibition of 1888. But only partly, as this world is conveyed to us through the eyes of the elderly spinsterish Harriet Baxter from her vantage point in Bloomsbury almost fifty years later. Harriet has arrived in Glasgow as an orphan, but an orphan with money. She becomes close to the family of mercurial, talented artist Ned Gillespie, but her involvement with that family leads to disaster and an infamous court case.

Here is what Jane had to say about it:

LM: Gillespie and I is set in Glasgow in 1888 and London 1933. You were brought up in Glasgow - have you always wanted to set a book there? I find cross-over periods, or fin-de-siecle moments always fascinating - in 1888, Glasgow is showing an International Art Exhibition, but it's also on the cusp of the new century. Is that what made you choose that period?

JH: I did grow up in Glasgow, yes. I'm not sure I always wanted to set a book there. I have a bit of a fear of the whole 'Glasgow novel' thing. However, once I had the idea to write a book against the backdrop of the great exhibition and the Glasgow Boys, it was inevitable. I chose the period because I'd written down as a barebones idea years ago "Glasgow, 19th Century, Artist" was what I wrote. I like the style of the Glasgow Boys more than the art that came earlier in the century and so - again, it became sort of inevitable.

LM: In that novel, your central character, Harriet Baxter, becomes involved with Glasgow artist Ned Gillespie and his family. What was it about this relationship that you wanted to explore?

JH: Having read a few particularly deluded biographies, I became interested in the notion of a character becoming acquainted with someone who was well-known or very talented. I enjoyed the disparity between what the writer was telling us in these books and what seemed to be closer to the truth, something that could be read between the lines of what they were saying. I set myself the challenge of writing a story from one point of view which would reveal one particular story or take on events, but which could be interpreted in a number of different ways if the reader read between the lines. It was a technical challenge as much as anything.

LM: You've written two highly acclaimed historical novels, The Observations and Gillespie and I. What do you think the historical novel is for? It might seem obvious - to show us something about the past - but do you think it has a bigger purpose than that? What attracts you to it as a literary form? Is there anything it lets you do that a present-day novel can't?

JH: I write novels in order to tell a story. I have no ambition other than that. Presumably some authors write historical fiction in order to comment on or illuminate the present day. I rarely do that and if I ever do it's only in the most glancing way. I'm just a storyteller. I don't write to educate either since my novels are purely works of imagination  i.e. they aren't about kings or queens or (usually) real people. It was an accident that I ended up writing historical fiction but having discovered it I realised that I enjoyed the immense challenge of it. The only thing that I can think of that it allows me to do that a present-day novel can't is to escape into history. I love history - social history, that is, the lives of ordinary people and people on the fringes of society. I love to imagine their lives and I love the research.

LM: Tell me a little bit about that research and your methods - are you the kind who discards lots of material, or do you always find just as much as you need? When you finished Gillespie and I - all 500 pages of it - did you want a break from research, or were you desperate to jump right in again?

JH: I tend to do a big chunk of research at the beginning then research the rest as I go along and double check it all at the end of the process. This stops me getting too bogged down (though I do spend too much time staring at photos and maps!) I did want a break after Gillespie and I as I had begun writing it very soon after The Observations and, as a result, had been thinking about one big book or the other for several years. I'm now well into my third book, however, and having fun so far. The difficult middle bit is yet to come!


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