I read a lot of SFF, but every now and then, I love a good historical (especially one with lots of suspense), and The Paris Winter is just the thing to scratch that itch. That said, I’m thrilled to welcome Imogen Robertson to the blog to answer a few questions about her brand new book, The Paris Winter (out tomorrow)!
Will you tell us a bit about The Paris Winter and what inspired you to write it?
With pleasure! Paris Winter is the story of a young English woman, Maud, who comes to Paris to train to be an artist at the Académie Lafond. She finds herself almost destitute and is too proud to ask for help, but finds a place working as a companion to a young woman in ill-health. It seems her problems are over. Unluckily for Maud what seems a refuge is anything but, and she is pulled into a dark, dangerous plot. It’s a story of revenge and betrayal and the shadows cast in the City of Light.
Why Paris of 1909? What kind of research did you do for the book, and what was one of the most interesting things you learned?
I read about the floods in Paris of January 1910 and at once I realised I wanted Maud’s story to be set against that background. Paris was a very modern city, but its sewers and underground tunnels were turned against it by the waters and the streets started giving way. It had all the drama and symbolism I wanted.
I spent hours in the London Library reading the reports of the Paris council on the flood, read any number of contemporary reports, visited artists and diamond merchants, made files of weather reports, collected thousands of images and – of course – went to Paris to walk the streets my characters knew. I think the thing that surprised me most was learning about the numbers of American and English girls who were destitute in Paris at the time and about the people who tried to help them.
I always admire writers that take on characters from another era. How did you gain insight into Maud, and what was one of your favorite things about writing her character?
It was easier to get to know Maud in some ways than my characters from the late 18th century. Getting to know an artist who was trained in the same way as Maud was key, and also reading everything I could about women artists of the time gave me an idea of how she might look at the world. I think what I loved the most was learning the vocabulary of oil painting and working that into the novel.
Your other novels take place mostly in London and the surrounding areas. Was it fun making the switch to Paris?
I love Paris and it was very interesting to go there with the novel in mind rather than just enjoying it as a tourist. One of my other books (Circle of Shadows) is set in Germany, and another in the Lake District (Island of Bones), so I’ve done a few trips out of London in the past. The most important thing is choosing when to go. You need to have some clear ideas about the book so you go and look at the right things, but you also need to let all the new influences of actually being there sink in. There’s never enough time! I was lucky when I went to Paris that I met American writer David Downie. He and his wife – photographer Alison Harris – took me to all sorts of secret places in Paris which I would never have found on my own and the novel is a great deal richer as a result.
You worked in television before becoming a writer, but have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us a little more about that progression?
I have always written, but I never really thought that I’d be able to make a living at it. I suppose working in television was another chance to tell stories, and I loved doing it. It taught me a lot and even now when I’m writing I feel as if I’m filming, picking my angles – the size of the shot and so on. It was while I was working in TV I started going to poetry workshops and I met a lot of inspiring people there. They were great writers working at their craft, and I began to see that was something I might be able to do too. I got a couple of short stories published, and some poetry then a couple of years later I started writing the first draft of what became my first novel, Instruments of Darkness. I entered the first thousand words into a competition run by The Daily Telegraph and was one of the winners. That gave me the encouragement I needed to give all my attention to the novel. I also read a lot about writing, and went to writing classes and seminars. Craft is very important. Inspiration is what gets you going, but its practice, diligence and understanding that gets a novel finished.
What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
It was a bit of historical fiction actually! My primary school teachers took us on a trip round our town pointing out the places where the working people lived in Victorian times. I wrote a story about a pig knocking over a bailiff and I still remember the excitement of seeing it in my mind’s eye. My teacher put it on the notice board and I was very, very proud!
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Middlemarch. It’s such a brilliant, humane, miracle of a book. Still can’t get my husband to read it though.
What are you currently reading?
I always have several things on the go. I just finished Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel which was very impressive and Strangler Vine by MJ Carter which was also excellent. I’m also reading God’s Traitors by historian Jessie Childs which is a fascinating study of family, war and religion in Tudor England.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing away, talking to the imaginary people in my head! I’m also currently Writer in Residence at Plymouth University. It’s a great community to be part of, and I hope I can pass on some of the things I’ve learned about writing and the writing life to the very talented students there. Pay it forward is a good rule to live by.
About THE PARIS WINTER:
There is but one Paris.
Maud Heighton came to Lafond’s famous Academie to paint, and to flee the constraints of her small English town. It took all her courage to escape, but Paris, she quickly realizes, is no place for a light purse. While her fellow students enjoy the dazzling decadence of the Belle Epoque, Maud slips into poverty. Quietly starving, and dreading another cold Paris winter, she stumbles upon an opportunity when Christian Morel engages her as a live-in companion to his beautiful young sister, Sylvie.
Maud is overjoyed by her good fortune. With a clean room, hot meals, and an umbrella to keep her dry, she is able to hold her head high as she strolls the streets of Montmartre. No longer hostage to poverty and hunger, Maud can at last devote herself to her art.
But all is not as it seems. Christian and Sylvie, Maud soon discovers, are not quite the darlings they pretend to be. Sylvie has a secret addiction to opium and Christian has an ominous air of intrigue. As this dark and powerful tale progresses, Maud is drawn further into the Morels’ world of elegant deception. Their secrets become hers, and soon she is caught in a scheme of betrayal and revenge that will plunge her into the darkness that waits beneath this glittering city of light.