Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katie Hickman

Katie Hickman is the author of two best-selling history books, Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia, and two travel books, Travels with a Circus, which was shortlisted for the 1993 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon.

Her novels include The Quetzal Summer, for which she was listed for the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year award, The Aviary Gate, and The Pindar Diamond.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've just come back from our family holiday in France - so I've done a fair amount of novel reading recently, more so than I usually do when I'm at home working.

When I'm writing fiction I find it incredibly hard to read other people's novels. Somehow the voices of all those other characters get inside my head and distract me from hearing my own fictional voices - those elusive siren songs - and so during a writing period I tend to concentrate on non-fiction, mostly research-related. I'm a real magpie - anything from clothes, furniture and food, to politics and merchant trading-rights . It's what I call the 'what they eat for breakfast' factor. The greater the detail the better. With The Aviary Gate and The Pindar Diamond this has been the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, in England, Turkey and Venice. I really love the research I do for my novels, and it's probably the reason I write historical fiction. Any excuse to get into that library.

But on holiday - what a feast! I had almost forgotten the exquisite pleasure of sinking down into someone else's fictional world. An English novelist friend, Howard Jacobsen, has just published a new book, The Finkler Question, but since it's only out in hardback, I took with me his first novel instead, Coming From Behind, which I have never read. It describes the life and various disappointments (sexual, professional, and otherwise) of an academic working in a small town polytechnic in the north of England. In the hands of almost anyone else this would be a totally dismal subject, but Howard is one of those rare writers who can actually make me laugh out loud, but then also groan with a sort of fascinated horror at the situations he describes. My husband does quite a good impression of the sound effects of me reading one of Howard's books.

I also re-read The Great Gatsby (my son is doing it for his GCSE exams next summer), and was struck all over again by what an extraordinary writer Fitzgerald is. There are times when the beauty of his prose made me think I was reading poetry.

Now that I'm back in England (but not quite back at my desk yet), I'm looking forward to reading a novel by another friend, Karen Essex. Dracula in Love is her imaginative take on the Bram Stoker novel, told as if from the point of view of Stoker's principal female character, Mina Harker.

But perhaps inspired by Fitzgerald, I've also made a resolution to read a lot more poetry this autumn. In my handbag I'm carrying round two very slim volumes: a new selection of Ted Hughes, specially chosen to commemorate the eightieth birthday of his English publishers, Faber and Faber, and also a delightful collection of traditional Chinese poems, Poetry from the Land of Silk.
Learn more about the author and her work at Katie Hickman's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Katie Hickman's The Aviary Gate.

--Marshal Zeringue