I am delighted to invite author, Debbie Rix to join me for a chat. We discuss her new release, Daughters of the Silk Road, feeling Scottish, and her love for Italy. Over to you Debbie:
The Fun Stuff:
What part of the world do you come from?
I was born and brought up in Kent – about an hour by train from London. I spent my free time playing in the woods opposite our house, and my school life in a London girls’ school. So I had an interesting combination growing up of rural/urban. My parents are from Scotland and the North East of England. So I have a big connection with those parts of the UK. Although born and brought up in the South East of England, I feel ‘Scottish’. Most of my parents’ friends were Scottish, so the accents, the philosophy of life etc were part of my DNA – I was even taught how to Scottish dance… it comes in handy on Burns Night! I’ve traced my mother’s family back to the twelfth century in Scotland – to a Norwegian called Robert Henryson.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’m slightly ashamed of this answer. I was asked this when I was about three by one of my mother’s friends and apparently I replied ‘I want to be famous’. It’s so embarrassing. I have no memory of saying it and don’t actually recall feeling that as a child, although I did love to perform for the family and used to make them laugh telling stories and impersonating people over dinner each evening. It was odd, because I was bullied badly as a little girl at school, so spent much of my time just trying to survive playtime. But at home I was far more extrovert. Then I went to a new school at eleven and everything got much better. I came out my shell and began to act and sing in school performances, and did seriously consider being an actress growing up. But by about seventeen I had worked out that unless I was unbelievably lucky the chances of ‘making it’ were slim. Instead I went to work at the BBC and loved it. I was behind the scenes for several years, learning the ropes of documentary making. When I became a presenter I knew that I had found the thing that I was meant to do. It was the perfect combination of journalism and performance.
List three words to describe yourself.
Resourceful, creative, maternal
Who would play you in a film about your life?
Gosh what a question. My knee jerk reaction would be to say Emma Thompson. But my friends often say I remind them of Joanna Lumley – in particular as she appears in Ab Fab! Either one would be wonderful.
What’s your favourite snack food when writing?
I try very hard not to snack to be honest. But I do love to make myself a latte and take it back to my little writing room at around 1030. If I can’t resist temptation, and I’ve got some nice cookies in the house, then an oatmeal cookie would be indulgent but restorative!
What literary character is most like you?
It sounds very presumptuous, but dare I say… Elizabeth Bennett. Although she lived in a completely different era to me, I share with her a rebellious nature and independence of thought. I’d like to think that I’m as good a ‘people watcher’ and judge of character as her – although I suspect I’ve made a few mistakes in that area over the years, especially where love is concerned. Oddly enough, I was drawn – even as a child – to the character of Mrs Durrell in ‘My Family and Other Animals’. I loved how she coped with whatever life threw at her. Of course, she is not a ‘literary’ character’ in the true sense of the word, as she really existed. But I admired her enormously and determined at the age of eleven that I was going to be a mother like her. I hope I’ve lived up to her remarkable example.
The Sensible Side:
Tell us a little about yourself. (How did you get started writing? What do you do when you’re not writing?)
I have always wanted to write. I made up endless stories as a child and lived, essentially, in my imagination. I wrote my first novel aged 30. I had always written professionally – as a journalist – but the freedom to create my own story was a fabulous liberation. That first book is still sitting on a shelf in my writing room; one day I might try to revive it.
My first published novel was still just the germ of an idea when I met an agent called Rowan Lawton. I gave her the ‘elevator pitch’ – I told her the story in 30 seconds. Fortunately, she loved it and took me on there and then. It took us a few years to get it published, but Claire Bord at Bookouture read it, and she liked it too. It’s about to be re-launched as ‘The Girl with Emerald Eyes’. When I’m not writing, I work for charities creating events – anything from a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show to a big networking dinner. In my ‘free time’, I love to spend time in the garden. Gardening was my creative outlet when my children were little and I felt I didn’t have the emotional space to write.
What motivated you to write historical fiction?
My first published novel was triggered by an experience that happened to my husband. He had a stroke whilst making a film about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I spent two weeks living in the city taking care of him and fell in love with the place. It was such a traumatic time. I had two tiny children back in the UK, and a husband who could hardly speak or move. I was terrified a lot of the time, but that city somehow enveloped me in a warm embrace. I spent days on end, when I was not at my husband’s bedside, wandering the streets, looking at the buildings, observing the people. When my husband had recovered a few years later, he introduced me to the Professor of Medieval History at Pisa University and I learned about the woman who left the money to build the Tower. I became fascinated by her; in particular – why getting the Tower built was so important to her. Gradually the story began to form in my mind.
Now, having written two historical novels, I’ve definitely ‘got the bug’. I love writing historical fiction and will continue to do it. It’s the journalist in me I think. I enjoy researching and locking my stories into an accurate backdrop. I love discovering real people in history who have been relatively under documented and whose story I can tell. It provides a fabulous springboard for the imagination.
Where did the inspiration for Daughters of the Silk Road come from?
It was a combination of things really. The initial idea -of a woman who inherits a Ming vase, and didn’t understand how valuable it was – was floating around in my imagination for many years. I love exploring antique fairs and am always on the look out for a bit of a bargain – some little undiscovered treasure. And I’ve always loved blue and white china. I had a ‘toy’ blue and white china tea-set as a child, and started to collect proper plates, bowls etc when I was a teenager. I went to Hong Kong in my twenties, as a reporter, and bought some old pieces of blue and white Chinese porcelain – two large storage jars and a couple of smaller pieces. They were not Ming but had a bit of age. So the Ming vase was the initial inspiration. Then I read a news article about a family who had a Chinese porcelain vase that they kept on top of a bookcase that turned out to be worth a fortune. I knew then that I had to get the story written.
I spent a couple of years wandering around museums looking for a piece that could be ‘my Ming vase’. I finally found a picture of a Ming storage jar online that was in a museum collection abroad. I loved the design – it featured a dragon snaking around the centre. It was made under the reign of Emperor Xuande who was famous, partly, for his own extraordinary artistic ability. So that gave me the timescale. The next stage was thinking about how the piece came to Europe from China. Whilst researching explorers who visited China in the first part of the fifteenth century, I came upon the story of Niccolo dei Conti. He was an Italian merchant traveller who spent twenty-five years exploring the Middle and Far East, before returning to Venice in 1444 with his two children Maria and Daniele. I knew then that I had found my historical central figure. The story grew from there, as I realised that I needed to explain what had happened to Niccolo’s two children and their descendants. That is one of the themes of the book – the development of the merchant class in Europe through the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. But essentially it’s the story of one family and what happens to them over hundreds of years.
Why did you choose Italy as a backdrop for your books?
Well that’s simple. I love Italy. I’ve visited the country since I was a small child. I go each year and stay near Lucca. I love the architecture, the people are charming – and beautiful, the food is wonderful. The first book, of course, was based in Italy, because of my personal experience in Pisa. But one of the key things, if you are writing historical fiction, is to be able to visit a place you are writing about and see the environment as it was at the time in which the book is set. Many parts of Pisa are just as they were in the twelfth century; and Venice – the setting for the first part of Daughters of the Silk Road – is very much as it would have been when my characters Maria and Daniele lived there in the fifteenth century. This is enormously helpful to the writer. To be able to visit these cities, and wander the streets and get a real sense of what your characters would have experienced.
Parts 2 and 3 of Daughters of the Silk Road, are set in Bruges, Antwerp and Amsterdam. Parts of those cities are almost trapped in time. Bruges, in particular, is like a living museum. It is enchanting and filled with extraordinary churches, houses and public buildings – like the town hall. Antwerp also has some stunning examples of 16th and 17th century houses and architecture, such as the 17th century Rubens house. I also visited a well-known 16th century bookbinder’s house that is now a museum. It was fascinating and provided the setting for many of the ‘Antwerp’ scenes in the novel. Similarly in Amsterdam, I spent time in a merchant’s house on the Herengracht, which provided fantastic inspiration for the last part of the novel.
How do you carry out the research for your historical novels?
I start on the Internet – sourcing books, articles and academic papers about the subject. In the case of ‘Daughters’, I spent time at the British Library reading Niccolo dei Conti’s diary. That was a vital resource for me. Then I get the storyline scoped out. I start to write at that point too, but inevitably I get to the point in the narrative, where I just have to visit the places I am writing about. I have been to Venice several times before, but had never seen it through the eyes of my characters. By the time I went last summer I knew what I needed to see –the convent of San Zaccaria, for example, which was next to the fictional home of my central character Maria. I also have maps of the cities I am writing about pinned up on the wall of my office, so that I can describe precisely a walk a particular character is taking, or the view they can see from their window.
Can you give us a brief excerpt from your latest novel?
The girl looked up at the soft blue sky, glimpsed through the bars of the high window. A cloud blew in from the lagoon, its shape swirling and changing. Was it a snake, its scales mirrored in the high cirrus cloud? The form changed with the high winds; it grew a leg, then two. . . floating down from its body. She heard the rustle of trees in the unseen garden below, as the wind gusted suddenly. The cloud continued its journey past her window until she saw now that it had metamorphosed into something quite different. Her hand scrabbled at the rough-hewn stone wall. She eased a section out and laid it silently on the floor; there stood the vase hidden in a small niche. Her fingers touched the dragon that snaked its way around the centre, and she looked again at the cloud. The head, for there was indeed a head now, gazed down at her with benevolent eyes, before a sudden gust of wind blew it onwards and out of her eye line. The dragon had been looking down on her . . .
From the modern story:
They made small talk, about the house, the kitchen, the garden, what they were having for supper, but Miranda was aware that Charles seemed slightly distracted. As they sat down at the table and she ladled out the chicken tarragon he said casually, ‘The vase here, that’s rather nice isn’t it?’
‘Oh that, yes, my aunt left it to me. It’s just some replica or other that I suspect she picked up in Hong Kong. She and her husband were there for twenty or thirty years. Georgie absolutely hates it.’
At the mention of her name Georgie appeared at the kitchen door, carrying her empty plate. ‘Thanks Mum, that was nice. Is there pudding?’
‘Yes, lemon tart; but can you wait till we’ve finished this first?’
‘OK, and what do I hate?’
‘The vase. You say it scares you don’t you?’
‘Yeah, I think it’s spooky.’
Charles smiled. ‘Well, I could take it off your hands if you wanted?’
‘Really? Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I know G hates it, but Aunt Celia left it to me and I’d feel a bit guilty really. Why? Do you think it’s worth something? I’m sure I saw one very like it in a car boot sale the other week.’
‘Well, I’d have to take a closer look, but it’s a very nice copy. Nicely painted and fired you know. We’ve got a sale of porcelain coming up at the auction house soon. It could be worth as much as a hundred pounds if you’re lucky, maybe more.’
‘Gosh! Well that is tempting, I must say.’ Miranda refilled their glasses.
‘Well,’ said Charles, ‘think about it. The offer is there. But don’t wait too long – the sale is at the end of January.’
‘Yes, well, thank you; I will think about it.’ She touched the petals of the peachy rose that stood in the vase. A thorn pricked her finger and a small drop of blood dripped onto the pale white porcelain. It ran down the vase, colouring the fiery breath of the dragon that circled its centre.
‘Ow,’ she said licking her finger. She looked at Charles and followed his grey gaze. He was
transfixed by the dragon.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I have another historical time slip novel in mind. But I don’t want to say too much about it yet. I’ve also started writing a trilogy set in the 20th century. My agent likes the idea and I’ve already written 30,000 words. Once again, it’s a story that has been floating around in my imagination for a good decade.
How can we contact you or find out more about your books?
Also by Debbie Rix: