Interview With Frances Quinn - Author Of The Smallest Man
Regular readers will know that I recently reviewed Frances Quinn’s debut novel The Smallest Man
. Historical fiction can be as dusty as the facts that scaffold its narratives, desiccated contrivances sometimes bereft of the humanity precipitating their events. Some impressively erudite authors, dry-eyed from hours spent in the quiet sanctuary of a research library, amass facts like mince meat to be stuffed into the sausage of their story. Reading works of this character may not leave a mouth unpleasantly coated in grist and grease, but they are equally unpalatable nonetheless. Fortunately, this genre often sparkles with works exuding historical verisimilitude, whilst also capturing our hearts as well as our minds.
Quinn may be a debut novelist without historical legacy or indeed literary provenance; however she need not concern herself with such details. Eschewing the temptation to worship facts, rather than humanity, Quinn is my kind of historical fiction writer…one who seamlessly blends fact with fiction to alchemise insight, understanding and joy.
Her debut is a tender-hearted triumph exploring difference in all its jagged forms and a book celebrating the ineluctable power of compassion, altruism and selfless courage. Her diminutive protagonist, Nat Davy bridges the divide between our own century and that of the English Civil War and in so doing, Quinn illuminates both epochs, not with stolid empiricism, but the indefatigable force of self-actualisation. Put simply, Quinn knows her stuff and she knows how to pen a story every bit as diverting as it is entertaining and gloriously uplifting.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Fran for our readers and discovered that the creator of Nat Davy echoes many of his qualities in no small measure, if you will forgive the pun. Unassuming, warm and resolutely tenacious, Quinn has battled her way to a debut and perhaps found out who she really is …a rather fine author and a woman of intelligence, who does her thinking with her heart.
Quinn read English at King’s College, Cambridge and is a journalist and copywriter by training. She has written for magazines including Prima
, Good Housekeeping
, Woman’s Weekly
and Ideal Home
. Her words have graced pizza packaging for Waitrose through to the EasyJet brochure. She lives in Brighton with her husband and two Tonkinese cats. I’m not sure what they are either!
The literature influencing an author tells its own scintillating tale, shedding light both on their work and their persona. I was keen to explore this proposition with Quinn. ‘In terms of direct influences, I love Diana Norman’s historical novels and I’d certainly be happy to write as well as she does. She brings the periods she writes about alive, but she wears her research lightly - you don’t get details shoehorned in just to show she knows about them, which I’m afraid some historical fiction is guilty of. And there’s always humour in her novels – I don’t think historical fiction has to be po-faced and serious all the time’.
‘Other influences come from all over the place. I read a lot of crime fiction, and even though it’s very different from my books, there’s nothing better than a good murder mystery to show you how to keep readers turning the pages. I’m happy to learn from any genre – with The Smallest Man
, I knew the key to making the story work was to get readers rooting for Nat within the first few pages, so I went back to the first book that ever made me cry to try and figure out how the author did that. It was Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse
by Ursula Moray Williams and I was probably about six or seven when I first read it, but it stayed with me’.
So, gripping yarns, emotive characters and more plot twists than a roller coaster. Fusing such components seems perfectly reasonable and indeed attractive. I wanted to know why 1625 and the two decades following this auspicious date galvanised our visceral, big-hearted author. ‘I’ll be honest – nothing did. In fact, if you’d asked me what historical periods I’d like to write about, the English Civil War would be a long way down the list. I’d studied it at school, and all I could recall was a load of deadly dull stuff about religious factions and taxes. What hooked me was the story of Jeffrey Hudson, Nat Davy’s real-life counterpart, which just happened to be set against that backdrop.’
‘When I started researching, I was fascinated to discover the personal stories behind the whole situation: the king, who was convinced God had made him right about everything and thought he could outwit his opponents right to the end; and the queen, pushing him on, and herself becoming involved in gathering arms and deciding strategy. They were real soulmates by then, yet their marriage started so badly, they made Prince Charles and Princess Diana look like love’s young dream. That made it a lot more interesting, and I had a main character with a ringside seat for all of it’.
Once again, it seems that Quinn has a talent for animating the past, for humanising it. A corollary of this has been her conscious attempt to not only capture the zeitgeist, culture and events of an epoch lived over four hundred years ago, but to find in its nefarious machinations humanistic truths. Quinn’s thematic interest clearly eclipsed political tumult, religious division and societal governance. She wanted to share an entertaining romp through the seventeenth century, but focus upon something more important than power and its vacillations.
‘The theme I set out to explore was difference, and in particular, visible, physical difference: what it’s like when the person you are on the inside isn’t the person people see when they look at you. Although society’s attitude to disability has improved by comparison to Jeffrey’s, it’s still the case that people with visible disabilities have to suffer stares and comments on a daily basis’.
‘Once people have lived inside Nat’s head for 370 pages, they might think twice about that casual stare or off-colour remark, although I know it won’t do anything to dissuade people who are genuinely nasty. The other theme that came out of the book was the importance of friendship – I didn’t necessarily intend to put it in there, but my friends are very important to me, and I suppose what’s important to a writer creeps into their work whether they intend it to or not. Nat’s friends are worth more than gold to him, and I’m with him on that’.
As is commonly the case, penning her book presented Quinn with a myriad of challenges. ‘Writing a story based on real life events is not as easy as it might sound – yes, you’ve got a framework to hang your story on, but the thing with real life is that it doesn’t have a direction. A novel needs to start somewhere, be heading for somewhere else, and get there by an entertaining route. Real life meanders around, heads off at tangents, some of them quite boring, and has no respect for the need to tie up all the loose ends in the last chapter. There are a lot of events in the run-up to the English Civil War, and most of them are not the stuff of a storyteller’s dreams – arguments about religion and political theory don’t get people turning the pages’.
‘What saved me was writing the whole thing in first person – that way, Nat only needed to talk about the events that affected him directly. My rule was to include those real life events that Jeffrey Hudson might mention if, years later, you bumped into him at an inn and he regaled you with his life story’.
In following ‘Lord Minimus’ as Sir Jeffrey Hudson, the ‘Queen’s Dwarf’, was known, Quinn found another challenge. His real-life story had ‘meandered’ into twenty-five years captivity at the hands of pirates and he was spirited off to Morocco. Following him bifurcated the narrative and left most of its characters beached on another continent. A perspicacious and rather astute editor and a cadre of stalwart friends helped Quinn junk the final section of her book. Thirty thousand hard-won words were jettisoned, to be replaced with the narrative we now read in her debut. This change of course resulted in a narrative with cohesive force and a hugely satisfying denouement four years in the making. As challenges go, this ranks as huge, and the overcoming of it bears testament to Quinn’s resilience, creativity and verve.
Quinn, having found her stride as a published author, has exciting plans. ‘My next book, due out in 2022, is set in Georgian London. It’s about a girl who wants to be a bonesetter, a job that wasn’t usually open to women because it required brute strength, and her sister, who’s ridiculously beautiful and becomes an early example of celebrity culture – the Georgians were all over that, in a way that actually foreshadows our obsession with celebs today. God knows what they’d have done with Instagram! There’s also a baby left at the Foundling Hospital, a gold-digging husband, and the lions at the Tower of London – it’s been a lot of fun to research and write!
‘My goal is to keep writing books that people want to read – I’m quite a late starter with fiction, at 57, and to have a new career at this stage of life is amazing, so as long as I can keep it going, I’ll be very happy’.
Whilst her protagonist may be small, I’m sure I’m not alone in believing that Frances Quinn has a very big future ahead of her. I await her next authorial outing with eager anticipation!