In this week’s post, I’m interviewing my historical novelist friend Clare Flynn about her new historical novel, The Colour of Glass, which celebrates the art and craft of stained glass in a story set just before the First World War.
I’ve always loved stained glass, and for a long time making stained glass was one of my father’s hobbies. These days when I visit churches, stately homes or public buildings featuring stained glass, I take a special interest, whether it’s the ancient medieval kind, in modern abstract style, or anything in between.
This month, I’m delighted to welcome Clare Flynn to the Travels with my Book spot. Clare is one of the best-travelled people I know, having visited many of the settings of her historical novels, as well as completing a round-the-world cruise a couple of years ago. In our interview, she’ll be focusing on her series set in Malaysia.
Clare, welcome to my blog! I’m so please to have this opportunity to chat about your travels and your writing life. Can we please kick off by pinpointing your books’s geographical settings.
My historical novels are set all over the globe. Geographic displacement is one of my “things” – UK, Australia, India, Malaysia, Canada, the USA, Italy, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Ireland and France.
Some places only feature briefly, but Australia, India, Canada and Malaysia are all prominent. For “Travels with my Book” I’ve chosen Penang, Malaysia as I have three books set there and I’m writing a fourth which, whilst mostly located in Paris, also returns to Malaysia – or Malaya as it was before independence.
Please briefly describe the books you have set there.
The Pearl of Penangis Evie’s story. She escapes penniless spinsterhood working as a lady’s companion, when she impulsively accepts a proposal from a man she barely knows and sets sail to the island of Penang to marry him. Things don’t turn out as she expected and a tumultous time awaits her, culminating in the 1941 Japanese invasion.
Prisoner from Penangis Mary’s story. She is Evie’s best friend in Penang. Her story begins with the Fall of Singpore, then to Japanese prison camps in Sumatra (if you’re old enough, think Tenko!) before returning to the island of Penang.
A Painter in Penang is Jasmine’s story. She’s Evie’s stepdaughter who in 1948 flees her miserable school in Kenya to return for an extended stay in Penang as the guest of Mary. This book is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Malayan Emergency (a civil war in all but name)
What makes Penang such a great setting for your stories?
Penang is a beautiful tropical island just off the coast of Malaysia and connected by ferry – or these days two Chinese-built road bridges. Lapped by the warm waters of the Strait of Malacca, it is a magical isle, mountainous in the centre and covered with rainforest. There are attap-roofed houses, raised off the ground, brightly coloured Chinese temples, old colonial houses and hotels and the capital George Town is now a Unesco Word Heritage site.
Malaya was one of the jewel’s in the crown of the British Empire – the centre of the world’s rubber industry as well as tin and bauxite mining. Penang itself was acquired in the late eighteenth century by the British East India Company as a port and military stronghold to keep a check on the Dutch and the French who were also busy colonising southeast Asia.
My books begin much later, in 1939, just before the war began in Europe. Malaya and Singapore were never expected to fall to the Japanese in World War II. Indeed Singapore was seen as invincible and its capitulation was a massive humiliation for the British.
What is your relationship with Penang and how much of your life have you spent there?
Don’t laugh – but less than a day! Surely the most profitable day of my entire life!
The brevity of my stay is because it was a port of call on a round-the-world tour. I was halfway through the cruise and had no inclination to write (unusual for me). But I couldn’t get Penang out of my head. By the time we emerged from the Suez canal on the return leg I was bashing away at the keyboard.
Back home, as I researched wartime Malaya, I realised I had struck a rich vein, and now I’m writing number my fourth book in the series. I intended to return to Penang for an extended visit, but Covid and other plans got in the way!
What is special about the people native to Malaysia?
At the time of my books, Malaya was a British colony. The indigeneous Malays only made up around one-third of the population by the end of World War II, with one-third Chinese, and the rest a mixture of Indians and Europeans, mostly British – the latter being the smallest minority but with their hands on government.
After the war, the demise of the British Empire was on the cards and the plan was to achieve a smooth transition to independence. But politics is a complex game and there were many conflicting interests to balance. The British had always “co-ruled” with the sultans. And the sultans neither liked nor trusted the Chinese. There was also a growing fear of communism, balanced by a British Labour government who were reluctant to be openly hostile to China and Russia and who were keen to encourage trade unionism.
It’s not fair to sum up the situation in a few sentences but it makes for a fascinating patchwork of often changing loyalties and conflicting interests.
For your characters who come from elsewhere, what challenges do they face dealing with the local people?
The British colonials were incredibly arrogant and complacent before the war. They got on well enough with their colonial subjects in Malaya but had an innate sense of racial superiority. The same attitude was the root cause of their abject failure to prevail against invasion by the Japanese, completely underestimating their enemy. Their humiliation was made greater when it became apparent that the primary form of transport used by the advancing Japanese army was bicycles! The British had never anticipated such a simple and practical solution to shifting an army on poor roads the length of the peninsula.
After the war, they made the mistake of assuming those Malays (mostly Chinese Malays) who had fought bravely behind the Japanese lines alongside Special Operations soldiers would be loyal once the peace came. But the tons of ammunition air-dropped into the jungle by the British to fight the Japanese were buried in secret caches, and, rather than handing them in, the rebels later used them to fight their former British comrades in what proved to be an ultimately doomed twelve-year struggle.
For the women in my Penang novels, the challenges are mainly with their fellow Brits. Evie and Mary, and to some extent Jasmine, have little time for the cliquey clubbiness of the ex-pat British. For Mary there is the living nightmare of imprisonment for years by the Japanese. Later, for Jasmine, it’s reconciling her feelings for a native Malay and her ambivalence towards the communist insurgents.
What are the distinguishing features of Penang in terms of geography, geology, flora, fauna or any other detail you care to mention?
A small island surrounded by a tropical sea and topped by rainforest. Hot and humid with frequent rain. Historic George Town faces across the Strait to the peninsula and the Kedah hills. It is an island of spices with the aromatic smells of delicious cooking everywhere. The multi-ethnic food is delicious. The coastline is rocky with outcrops and miniature islands in the sea, which is dotted with fishing boats and passing liners. The beaches are fringed by casuarina trees. Wildlife includes giant red flying squirrels, monitor lizards, long-tailed macaques, flying lemurs, tree shrews, snakes – including boa constrictors, wild pigs and sea eagles.
What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the setting of your book?
I may not have had the chance to stay there myself (yet),but I had done a lot of planning for my aborted trip. I intended to stay in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the E&O) which features in my books – as well as in a picturesque guest house converted from a former Chinese merchant’s house – as well as a couple of days staying at the beach.
George Town itself offers plenty to fascinate from its delicious cuisine, to its famous street art, colonial architecture and old Chinese wooden quays.
A visit via the funicular railway to the top of Penang Hill is essential for the panoramic views of George Town and the Straits as well as walks in the rainforest. The more energetic can hire a bicycle and cycle beside the paddy fields and spice plantations to explore the island.
Are there any other authors’ books with the same setting that you’d like to recommend?
I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard great things of The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, set in Penang in 1939. It’s about an Anglo-Chinese man and his friendship with a Japanese diplomat. I have a copy in my TBR pile and am looking forward to reading it. While I was researching my Penang books I avoided reading fiction and read a lot of non-fiction accounts of colonial life. I did dip in and out of Somerset Maugham’s short stories though, many of which are set in colonial Malaya. He was not a popular figure among the British there, who thought he painted a very unflattering picture of them.
Where will your next book be set?
It starts in Nairobi, Kenya, but most of the action takes place in Paris – with a few returns to Penang and to Johore on the peninsula between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It follows on from the three Penang books, continuing Jasmine’s story.
Thank you very much, Clare, for sharing with us the fascinating history of Penang and its influence on your writing.
You’re welcome! A delight to be a guest on your blog, Debbie!
EXTRACT FROM THE PEARL OF PENANG
After strolling past the bastion of Fort Cornwallis with its thick brick walls, Evie turned off and plunged into the nearby streets. Eventually finding herself in a square with a collection of stalls and kiosks, her nose and throat were assaulted by an overpowering, sweet smell of incense. Across the square was a small temple, with the characteristic Chinese swooping curved roof, adorned along the ridge with dragon carvings. There were shrines and stone statues outside, where people gathered to thrust bunches of smouldering joss sticks into jars filled with sand, before bending or squatting in prayer and devotion. Looking around, she could see no other Europeans, but no one seemed bothered by her presence so she walked freely around the space. There was a covered well, where people were collecting water, and piles of stacked wooden cages each containing a small bird. The square was a peculiar mixture of sincere devotion and casual commerce.
Hesitantly, Evie went up to the entrance of the temple building and was glad to find it quiet and almost empty inside, although the scent of the burning incense was more intense than in the square.
The light was dim, provided only by the faint glow of candles and the daylight from the narrow open doorway she had entered through. She squinted to see. In front of her was a small gold-painted shrine. Evie moved towards it and stood for a while in silence, drinking in the calm and quiet of the place after the chaotic scene outside. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she saw the shrine was crowded with a collection of painted figures, the male ones dressed like emperors in ornate robes with long drooping moustaches, one or two goddesses, other figures resembling evil-looking ogres, and among them gold-painted animals such as horned deer or sea creatures. Oranges and other fruits were stacked in neat piles with what she assumed to be votive messages written in Chinese on little cards. The smell of burning joss sticks was intensified by the perfume from flowers, stacked around the shrine in tall vases. Curved metal lanterns and red streamers hung from the ceiling.
Evie was transfixed by the scene and felt a strange calm enveloping her after all the trauma, fear and bitterness of the past days. Without thinking why, she stood with her head bowed and closed her eyes.
To find out more about Clare Flynn and her 13 (and counting!) historical novels, visit her website, www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you join her mailing list, you will be able to download a free collection of short stories.
We’ll have a complete change of scene and climate when Helena Halme takes us to her native Scandinavia!
A post about how I choose launch dates for my novels plus a quick survey of other authors’ preferences
While I don’t consider myself to be superstitious, I’ve got into the habit of publishing each new book on a date that is personally significant to me.
Choice of publishing date is a luxury that only independent authors can enjoy:
We call the shots ourselves, rather than being dependent on the huge engines of trade publishing companies, which typically take a year or more to launch a book from the date the author delivers the final manuscript.
My first novel, Best Murder in Show, was launched on 1st April, 2017 – not because I was staging it as a practical joke for April Fool’s Day, but because it happens to be the birthday of my good friend and mentor, Orna Ross, author, poet, and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, for which I’m the UK Ambassador.
For my most recent novel, Murder Lost and Found, I chose my daughter Laura’s 18th birthday. Not only was it of course Laura’s majority, but the novel marked a kind of coming of age for Sophie Sayers too, marking the end of her first year in her adopted village of Wendlebury Barrow and a new confidence and assurance for Sophie that has been developing throughout the series.
Being able to publish on dates that are important to me gives me great satisfaction – the icing on the cake of completing a project – but I wondered whether this habit was just personal whimsy or common practice. When I asked some author friends, I was gratified to find I’m not alone in my approach, as these examples show:
Historical novelist Clare Flynn, on her latest novel, Sisters at War, set in Liverpool during the Second World War:
“I chose May 1st 2021 to launch Sisters at War as it was the 80th anniversary of the terrible May Blitz on Liverpool in 1941.”
Alison Morton, who writes alternative history and thrillers, decided to make her Roma Nova short story collection a gift to herself:
“This was the first time I’d dared to put together a collection of short stories, so I thought it would be fun to give birth to it on my own birthday on 19th October. The stories supplement, precede or follow the stories in the core Roma Nova novels – little episodes of their own. It was delightful to wake up to a mix of “Happy publication day” and “Happy birthday” greetings. I drank bubbly that evening in double celebration.”
Other author friends have published to honour family members – for example, Pauline Baird Joneswill launch Cosmic Boom on her late mother’s birthday, 20th July, and Kristina Adams published her non-fiction book, Writing Myths, on her grandmother’s birthday the year she passed away.
Tom Evans has a very appropriate strategy for Soulwaves : A Future History and Soulwaves: Insertions, both of which feature the Moon almost as a character:
“I published on the first new moon of the year, this year and last, and then followed up with snippets of ancillary, augmenting content every subsequent new and full moon. My choice of date may have no significance, but it keeps me aiming at something – with a reminder in the sky when not cloudy!”
Amie McCracken had a very specific reason for fixing the launch date for her latest novella, which is set in the USA and Mexico:
“I chose the Day of the Dead for Leaning Into the Abyss because it features as the day my protagonist finally figures out her life! (And it’s a story about grieving for a lost loved one.)”
Mark Haydenhad a more pragmatic approach for the ninth in his King’s Watch fantasy series:
“Some indie authors are a lot more casual about publication. I adhere to the belief that the best day to publish a book is yesterday, and I put them out as soon as they’re ready. However, even I admit that I rushed out the ebook of Five Leaf Clover a good week ahead of the paperback because the UK bank holiday weekend was coming up and I wanted to give my readers an incentive to buy it. I also admit that my wife did once tell me that under no circumstances could I publish a book on her birthday. I know my priorities.”
Which Book Will I Publish Next?
So when will I be publishing my next book and what will it be?
Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, a new standalone novella – fingers crossed for 1st August (my maternal grandmother’s birthday)
Scandal at St Bride’s, the third St Bride’s School novel – before the end of the 2021 (exact date yet to be decided)
I’m also writing May Sayers Comes Home, a novella about Sophie Sayers’ aunt; a travel memoir,Travels with my Camper Van, and planning new additions to the Tales from Wendlebury Barrowseries of novelettes.
So I’d better get off my blog now and get writing!
The third in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories
When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories. I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite.
I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.
Although I’ve known of the book for a long time, it’s one of those that I was meaning for years to get round to, and only managed it a couple of years ago. I’d also put off seeing the film until I’d read the book – so the film is now on my to-watch list!
Over to Clare Flynn to tell you about why she chose Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as her favourite school book.
Clare Flynn, welcome to my blog! Before we begin, can you please just tell us a little about yourself for readers not already familiar with your historical novels?
I’m the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories. My tenth novel, The Pearl of Penang, set in Malaya around the Second World War, was published on December 5th and is the winner of The Selfies UK Awards for the UK’s best self-published novel for adults. I live on the Sussex coast and an a former Marketing Director and management consultant.
When did you first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?
I can’t remember whether I read the book first or saw the film – probably around the same time and I would have been about fourteen or fifteen. I think my mum was reading it and I probably pinched her copy. I’ve recently read it again – fifty years later. Shriek!
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
I really enjoyed re-reading it although I can’t help hearing the unmistakable voice of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie – impossible not to. Spark’s writing is beautiful. It defies the test of time.
I wonder whether I’d have found it harder to relate to now if I hadn’t got this nostalgic link to my past reading. Miss Brodie’s girls lived a world far removed from the experiences of schoolgirls today with their phones and social media. Yet there is so much about human nature that is still very relevant today.
What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?
I loved the waspish humour, in particular the way it so deftly nails Miss Brodie’s overbearing certainties and incapacity to admit alternatives. In virtually all of her absolute certainties she is to be proved wrong. It is a real lesson in hubris. In some ways, Jean Brodie is a monster – her espousal of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (later modified to a post-war admission that ‘Hitler was rather naughty’), her determination to shape and mould her girls in her own image. Yet at the same time her desire to ‘put old heads on young shoulders’, to inspire and to stretch her pupils way beyond the confines of a narrow curriculum are praiseworthy. I’d have enjoyed being in her class.
I love the constant repetition by both Miss Brodie and her girls that she is ‘in her prime’ and they are the ‘creme de la crème‘. Miss Brodie has a complete absence of any sense of irony – Muriel Spark however has it in spades.
Here’s a typical example of an exchange between her and her pupils:
‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’
‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’
‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’
Or this, regarding a poster the headmistress has stuck on the wall:
‘This is Stanley Baldwin, who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ‘ere long,‘ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan “Safety first”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’
Structurally the book is clever the way it jumps back and forward in its timeline – so that from the beginning the reader is aware of the future fates of the Brodie set and their teacher and her ‘betrayal’. This is a hard act to pull off by a writer and Spark succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the whole time we are a party to Miss Brodie’s self-delusion, her misplaced assumptions – particularly about Sandy. Within the first few pages we are told what each girl is ‘famous for’ – Rose ‘for sex-appeal’, Eunice ‘for spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming’, Sandy ‘for her small, almost non-existent eyes’ and Mary MacGregor ‘for being a silent lump’. Just a few pages later in Chapter 2 we are to discover that at only twenty-four, Mary MacGregor is to die in a hotel fire, Sandy of the little ‘pig-eyes’ is to sleep with the art teacher, ‘betray’ Miss Brodie and then become a nun.
Spark is wonderful at creating a vivid sense of time and place. I was immediately pulled into the world of pre-war Edinburgh. Very prim, Presbyterian and proper.
Which character did you identify with?
I suppose I identified with the girls, particularly Sandy and Jenny – at least my memory of myself at that age. I loved the scenes where those two write romances in which their teacher engages in passion-fuelled entanglements with fictional heroes. I used to write daft stories all the time (when I was around eleven or twelve) and turn them into plays to perform with friends.
The two girls write imaginary letters between Miss Brodie and the music teacher. The last of which – when they fictionalise her declining his marriage proposal – ends
‘Allow me, in conclusion to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing. With fondest joy, Jean Brodie.’
I remember two or three teachers who made a big impression on me – but none in the kind of suffocating and exclusive manner Miss Brodie employed.
How did the book affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
As a child, I was probably grateful I didn’t live the restricted life those Edinburgh girls did. I had access to television and radio – to pop music, to parties, to weekend/ holiday jobs to earn some cash – and so probably grew up faster.
In other ways, my own schooldays were similar. My school was full of teachers that were comparable with those at Marcia Blane Academy – numerous post-war, aging spinsters for whom we would create interesting backstories about how their motorbike despatch driver fiancé was killed in occupied France, or their true love blown up in the Blitz. None of them struck us as being in their prime! Mostly well over-the-hill so, instead of being unduly influenced by them, we felt rather sorry for them.
How did it affect your writing?
Muriel Spark was one of many good writers I read and absorbed from a tender age and I believe all of them must in a subliminal way have influenced my own writing. I just wish I had a fraction of her talent!
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
I went to a direct-grant Catholic convent then, after we moved, to a state girls’ grammar school before the comprehensive revolution began.
Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
Books were a private world for me – mostly to escape from being part of a large noisy family! I shared my passion with one friend in particular and we would recommend books to each other.
Would the book still resonate with young readers today?
I hope so, but somehow, I doubt it. It is such a world apart and these days there is an expectation of ‘relatability’ – which is rather a shame.
Thanks for giving me the excuse to go back and read this again, Debbie!
Connect with Clare Flynn
Find out more about Clare Flynn’s excellent historical novels via her website www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you sign up for her readers’ newsletter you may claim a free download of her collection of short stories, A Fine Pair of Shoes. You can also find her on Facebook as authorclareflynn, on Twitter as @ClareFly and also on Instagram as @ClareFly.
Next time in this series I’ll be talking to another historical novelist, Helen Hollick, who will be sharing her passion for stories about quite a different kind of school to Miss Brodie’s – Ruby Ferguson’s Riding School!
POSTSCRIPT: 3 Strange Coincidences
I mentioned at the start of this interview that Clare’s novel The Pearl of Penang was awarded The Selfies UK Award 2020 last month. By a strange coincidence, my school story, Secrets at St Bride’s was in the final shortlist of six novels for that award!
Clare has since published the sequel to Pearl of Penang, called Prisoner from Penang – and I’m about to publish the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s, called Stranger at St Bride’s (due out on 1st July, the ebook is already available to order.
I’ve only just noticed that in both pairs of books, we’ve chosen alliterative titles! Kindred spirits indeed!
For more information about my School Stories for Grown-ups, and to read the first chapter of the first in series for free, click here.