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Author Interview: Gillian Bagwell

by Richard Sutton on August 5, 2011

We’re in for a real treat as I interview historic fiction author, actress, director and stage producer Gillian Bagwell. Gillian brings a unique perspective to her wonderful novels. Her first book, The Darling Strumpet, received one of the most glowing debut reviews I’ve ever read, and she brings an outstanding scholarship and sense of humor to her work that readers remember.

Today, we’ll discuss Gillian’s books, her background, her research and how she addresses her writing. Here’s that review:

“… an absolute triumph as a debut novel…. The Darling Strumpet is an absolutely brilliant addition to the historical fiction genre and might be the best novel on Nell Gwynn ever…. Nell would have applauded in approval and probably done a little jig to celebrate her tribute.” – Kayla Posney,  Pittsburgh Historical Fiction Examiner

See what I mean?

The Darling Strumpet US Version

USA Version

The Darling Strumpet is based on the life of Nell Gwynn, who rose from the streets to become one of London’s most beloved actresses and the life-long mistress of King Charles II.  The book was released on January 4, 2011 in the U.S. and will be release on August 4 in the U.K. Nell Gwynn is an amazing character. I’m sure more Americans will become acquainted with her as a result of your writing. But Gillian, it’s a long way from the Bay Area of Northern California to the gutters of Covent Garden, London. How did you discover Nell’s incredible, true story?

I have always been an Anglophile. Grew up with my mother reading us Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins, The Wouldbegoods, and watching Upstairs Downstairs and anything historical I could find! So England – and especially London – have always held great appeal for me.

When I was 14 both of my parents began working for the organization that produced the Renaissance Faires in both Northern and Southern California (the original event which has spawned so many imitations!) and the Dickens Christmas Faire in San Francisco. That was where I began acting – the faires were a big playground for me – I spent all day long in costume and in character, speaking with a British accent (Cockney at the Dickens Fair for sailor’s abandoned wife Becky Trundle and Scottish for Miss Catriona Morrison McLelland MacNab giving her lecture on “How to Give a Burns Night Supper; a reconstruction of 16th century English accent at the Renaissance Faire).

And I had an early introduction to and love of Shakespeare, so I both felt like I almost knew England, and longed to get there! When I was a wild-eyed and ambitious young actress of 23, just finishing a year-long professional acting program at The Drama Studio London at Berkeley, one of the teachers, a young British actor who had recently come over from England to teach, got an astonishing amount of notice for his performance in a one-man show.  In fact, that work catapulted him into a career that has kept him busy ever since.

UK Version

I thought he had a good strategy, and decided I’d write a show for myself to perform.  But what to write about?  My father suggested Nell Gwynn.  I didn’t know much about her, but as I began researching her life, I fell in love with Nell and her story, so I set out to put Nell’s life on stage.  I did write the script, but never completed it to my satisfaction. And no wonder – I found it was impossible to cover the richness of Nell’s story – which encompassed not only the dazzling worlds of the theatre and court, but also the devastating plague of 1665 that killed a third of the population of London, and the Great Fire of 1666 that destroyed most of the old City – in such a brief format.

So I put my script aside and embarked on an acting career that encompassed a lot of stage work and some film and TV. Eventually I began directing, and then founded The Pasadena Shakespeare Company, producing 37 shows over nine seasons.  There was no time for writing during those years, but Nell stayed in my mind and heart and sometimes at the back of my mind I could hear her whispering “Someday….”

So your writing career was put on “hold” for a spell?

In January 2005, I learned that my mother, living alone in London, was terminally ill, and went over to take care of her.  As it turned out, I was in London for almost a year and a half.  It was a difficult time, with my own life on hold, halfway around the world from friends and family, and facing my mother’s death.  There were also many positive aspects of my life in London.  I spent more time with my mother than I had in many years, I made many good friends, and I became very familiar with a city that had enchanted me in so many books and movies all my life.  Also, for the first time in my adult life, I had no career demanding my attention and no creative focus.

So I decided that I would finally take up Nell again, and present her life in a way that would do it justice, as a novel.  I read biographies of Nell that had been published since I had first learned about her, reread the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys, which not only gave a vivid picture of daily life in London in the 1660s, but also preserved for posterity Sam’s reviews of Nell performing some of her most famous roles as well as their occasional friendly encounters.  I scouted out the sites of the old theatres where Nell had performed, and walked the streets that she had known.

My mother died on Mother’s Day 2006, and I returned home to California in June.  By that point I had written quite a lot of the first draft of my novel, and I was determined to complete it and sell it.  I signed up for writing class at Vroman’s, a local bookstore in Pasadena, taught by author Kerry Madden, which gave me not only the benefit of Kerry’s teaching and weekly critique of material I submitted to her, but also the opportunity to get feedback from my classmates.  They were encouraging, and I continued to work on the book.

Gillian Bagwell

What other classes or workshops did you attend?

I took Kerry’s class a second time in the spring of 2007, and shortly after that attended the bi-annual Historical Novel Society conference, which was held that year in Albany, New York.  The conference was valuable not only for the panel discussions and presentations, but because I met other aspiring and published authors, and began to feel like a writer myself.

That fall I attended another conference, and had the opportunity to get critique from an agent on the first 20 pages of my book.  She liked it a lot, and asked to see the first 100 pages. She liked that, too, and passed it on to a colleague, who said she was very interested and was willing to work with me and guide me as I completed the novel.

The book went through four or five drafts, but finally, in July 2009, I thought it was ready, and sent it off to the agent who had given me so much support – Kevan Lyon of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency – who officially became my agent, and very quickly sold The Darling Strumpet to Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin.

Sounds like a writer’s idea of a perfect progression!

I guess I‘ve had a much easier time than many writers in finding an agent and a publisher. But lest you think that it happened overnight, let me assure you that that’s really not true.  I had been thinking about Nell for more than 20 years when I began writing the novel, picking up the odd bit of knowledge about her life and times in which she lived. The years I spent working in theatre gave me the perspective that enabled me to bring vividly to life the theatrical conditions and performances of Nell’s time.  Then too, the loves and heartbreaks I endured, as well as that amazing time living in London, which was both terribly difficult and also an opportunity for personal growth, contributed to my ability to tell Nell’s story.  I could not have written this book when I was 23; it had to wait.  And I think that my joy is fuller, my satisfaction deeper, at this accomplishment that took so long, than anything I could have imagined so long ago when I first learned about dear Nell Gwynn.

I know in my own work, every little detail I’ve lived through informs the work in ways I can never really explain. What event crystallized the Restoration Period in England as a setting you had to develop fiction for?

As I fell in love with Nell I grew astonished by the events she had lived through. She was born into poverty in London in 1650. She was ten years old when Charles II came back from exile and the monarchy was restored. Virtually every aspect of life and society in England changed at that point. The period brought a special change for any lover of the stage.

One of the first things that Charles II did upon his restoration to the throne was open the theatres, which had been closed, (acting was forbidden, under Cromwell) and Nell began working as an orange seller at the brand-new Theatre Royal in Drury Lane 1663. Before the theatres had been closed, boys had played men’s roles.  And that custom continued when the theatres were first opened again in 1660.  But Charles had seen actresses in Frankfurt, and apparently liked them, because he very soon gave permission for women to appear on the stage.

Perky little Nell got noticed as she sold oranges, and soon became the lover and protégé of Charles Hart, the leading actor of the King’s Company.  Nell became one of the very first English actresses, and her gamine sex appeal and saucy personality made her an instant hit with London audiences.  Nell’s career took place during some of the most intriguing and important years in the history of the English theatre.

I absolutely believe in the importance of establishing a sense of place in fiction writing. Your work is redolent with a highly developed, multi-sensory sense of place. Does your experience in the theatre help in creating the incredible accuracy of your fictional settings?

Thank you!  Yes, I think my years working in theatre, especially as an actress, help my writing.  When you’re working on a role in a play, you’ve got to incorporate into your performance the character’s sensory experience.  What is she hearing? Smelling? How do her clothes feel?  Are her stays uncomfortably tight and she wishes she could take a deep breath?  When she runs a finger over the silk of her dress does it remind her how far she’s come in the world? Does the look in the eyes of the man she’s sitting with remind her of another experience, good or bad?  When you’re doing this work as an actress, much of it is necessarily imaginary, and not something that an audience will know about, but still, it informs your character and performance.  So when I’m writing I’m putting myself in the character’s place and thinking about all these things, only I can let the “audience” – the reader – in on them, and so into the character’s mind and heart. [Interviewer’s aside: This is a great technique for every fiction writer, IMHO.]

Also, I know London pretty well, both from having lived there for almost a year and a half and from numerous other visits both before and after that, and I’ve sought out all the places where Nell lived and worked – the setting of her world.  Sadly, none of her haunts in London are still standing, but the layout of the streets hasn’t changed significantly in much of central London, and it is possible to figure out more or less where some of the old places were.  No one knows exactly where she was born, but it was likely in what was then the maze of slums around Covent Garden, and her early life didn’t take her far from there.

Lewkenor’s Lane, the site of Madam Ross’s brothel, featured in the book, is now Macklin Street, just off the north end of Drury Lane.  Other book locations, such as The Cat and Fiddle and Cock and Pie taverns and inns were near the south end of Drury Lane.  The Maypole in the Strand stood just about in front of the church of St. Mary Le Strand, which is still there, and Maypole Alley, which led to Drury Lane, would have passed through approximately the location of Bush House, which used to house the BBC and still houses some parts of it, I believe. Of course the present Theatre Royal in Drury Lane is in the same spot as the theatre Nell acted in but it’s about the third building on the site. Nell once had a house in Newman’s Row, in the northeast corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The passage is still there, and the square not too much changed from her days, though the house is gone.

There is a blue plaque on the house at 79 Pall Mall, which is where Nell lived from about 1671 to the end of her life, but that, too, is a different building. The Banqueting House is all that remains of Whitehall Palace, but Nell certainly knew that building. By comparing old maps with contemporary maps and the layout of the ground, I’ve come to the conclusion that Charles II’s bedroom, the site of so much intrigue, was probably right about at the location of the statue that stands behind the Ministry of Defense, just off the river. There’s a building in Windsor that is allegedly where Nell stayed sometimes, and, very incongruously, it now houses a Chinese restaurant.  Burford House, which Charles gave her, is still on the grounds of Windsor Castle, but has been much altered from her time.

Even though much has changed, it still helps me to feel like I’m standing in Nell’s shoes when I’m following in her footsteps on the streets of London.

Your enjoyment of your subjects is contagious. I also enjoyed Nell and her friends’ very bright, peppery speech. Your novels seem to have captured just the right degree of authenticity in vernacular expression without bogging the reader down in arcane linguistics. How do you arrive at the mix of modern speech and period, regional voice that works so well in your books?

This is another way in which my theatre experience has been very useful to me. When I’m writing dialogue, I’m almost unconsciously checking how it would feel to say the lines out loud if I were playing the scene on stage or how I would direct an actor speaking those lines.  If the dialogue seems stilted or anachronistic or “faux period” I know it isn’t right. I’ve got to get it to where I could play the scene.

I’ve spent a lot of time acting and reading plays and other material from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, so to some extent the language feels natural to me.  One of things I really had a lot of fun with was using period phrases, especially slang.  I found a great slang dictionary from 1699, titled:

A New Dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew in its several tribes of Gypsies, beggars, thieves, cheats, &c, with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches &c useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives, besides very diverting and entertaining being wholly new.

[Interviewer’s aside: The publisher’s printer’s typesetter must have loved that one!]

Because Nell was a child of the streets it was perfect for her to use a lot of this kind of language.  I tried to use it in such a way that the meaning was clear even if the reader hadn’t heard the word or phrase before.

There were so many great bits of colorful slang in there, many of which I couldn’t work in.  Of course a lot have to do with sex and drinking.  A few of my favorites having to do

Cover Preview: September Queen

with drinking are “shooting the cat,” meaning to vomit from drunkenness; “surveyor of the highways,” someone who is so drunk they are crawling along the road; and “admiral of the narrow seas,” meaning a drunk person who vomits into their neighbor’s lap.

Which is more fulfilling? A great review of your stage work, or a great review of your writing?

Hard to say!  I haven’t been doing any acting lately, but I have to say that the enthusiastic response to The Darling Strumpet has been very gratifying and exciting.  Also, as a writer you have more control over your artistic product than you do as an actor.  As an actor, your reviews are likely to be influenced by how the critic feels about the play, the direction, the design, the other members of the cast, the experience of being at the theatre, and sheer orneriness!  And as a director and producer there are also many things that are out of your control.  But when someone is critiquing a book, it’s just them and the words, and the words are yours!

After your second book is published later this year, what can your readers expect from your future work? Will you carry the themes of women in unexpected roles through your future novels? Will you continue working in the historic genre?

I’m pleased to say that my wonderful agent Kevan Lyon has just made the deal for my third book, tentatively titled My Lady Bess, based on the life of Bess of Hardwick, 1527-1608, the formidable four-times widowed Tudor dynast who began life in genteel poverty and ended as the richest and most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth.

Congratulations!

Thank you. I’m just a bit daunted by the prospect of fitting her whole life into one book.  Nell Gwynn died at 37, Jane Lane at 63, but Bess lived to 80, knew every monarch between Henry VIII and James I, and seems not to have had a dull moment in her life.  But I’m looking forward to telling her story!

I have lots of ideas for future books, and the more I read, the more interesting characters I come across.  My research for The Darling Strumpet introduced me to Jane Lane, the heroine of my second book, The September Queen, which will be released in the U.S. on November 1.

In researching The Darling Strumpet I read with great interest about the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651 (from which Charles barely escaped with his life) and his six-week odyssey trying to get to safety in France. We’re very fortunate that many years later, in 1680, Samuel Pepys sat Charles down for two three-hour sessions at Newmarket and took down the story in great detail, in his famous shorthand, and went to quite a lot of effort to edit it, collect other contemporary accounts, and bind them all together in one place.

But there just wasn’t a way to get into much depth about these events in The Darling Strumpet without slowing the story down.  I had Charles say, “That’s a story for another time,” not realizing that the story would become my second book.  Later in my research for The Darling Strumpet I read All the King’s Women by Derek Wilson.  He spends about three pages on Jane Lane, and lays out the evidence for his belief that she and Charles were lovers, which I found pretty compelling.

When my agent asked what I was going to write next, and I was casting around for ideas, I remembered Jane.  Kevan loved the idea too, and we were both astonished and delighted to discover that apparently no one had ever written a novel about the really unbelievable story of her journey with Charles.

So, it seems that your ongoing research leads you to outstanding story lines within larger tales. Your readers are fortunate that you’ve responded by giving those stories each a life of their own between the covers. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for giving us your time. For further information about Gillian’s books, other articles, and blogs of her research adventures, please visit her website, www.gillianbagwell.com.

2 Comments
  1. Crowe permalink

    Really interesting interview, Richard!

    • She’s a great interviewee, and her writing voice is just as entertaining!

Comments are closed.