Benita Brown Interview
Posted by Michelle on February 14, 2008
Benita Brown was born and brought up in Newcastle, in the North East of England, and her books have been compared with those of Catherine Cookson; with engaging characters in an historical setting, overcoming obstacles either set by society or by personal circumstance.
Her latest novel, Fortune’s Daughter, follows talented young singer, Daisy, as she works in northern music halls and theatres, but there is one man who would love to see her career in tatters and Daisy herself destroyed…
Q. Your novels are set in and around Newcastle – where you live – what is it about the area that inspires you?
A. Newcastle is a fabulous city with a fascinating history. I walk around the city centre and rejoice that this is all mine – my own wonderful stage set where my characters can act out their stories. Sometimes I say daft things like, ‘Look, there’s the milliner’s where Ella bought her hat.’ The hat shop is real and has been there since my mother was a girl but Ella is a fictional character in one of my books. Most of my novels are set in Victorian and Edwardian days when Newcastle was one of the richest cities in Europe – and yet there was also dire poverty with people dying on the streets. The characters in my novels inhabit both these worlds and the contrast between them draws me in. But I don’t just write about the ‘toon’. Northumberland’s wide skies, heather clad hills and endless beaches also inspire me.
Q. What is it about the genre that drew you to writing novels of an historical nature?
A. The romance of past times, I suppose. Imagining how people lived. What they wore, what they ate, how they interacted with one another. They had much harder lives than we do and yet their hopes and desires were not too different from our own. Fashions and, importantly, attitudes change but human nature remains pretty much the same.
Q. Are there any other eras or areas you plan to write about?
A. I’d like to write a generational novel beginning in the early twentieth century and following one family through two world wars and a rapidly changing world until about the 1970s. There would be a wider canvass – the British Empire for example.
Q. The women in your novels are strong-willed – are any of them, or any other characters, modelled on people you know?
A. Not entirely. Some of the minor characters are suggested by specific people in my past but the leading characters are the archetypes that you find in stories since storytelling began. Except it’s my job to make them recognizable human beings with the traits and quirks that make us individual.
Q. Some people are disdainful of the entire romance genre – how would you pitch your books to someone who hasn’t yet read them?
A. Strictly speaking I don’t write romance. Mills & Boon, chic lit, aga sagas, romantic suspense are all more romantic than the regional saga. But, to use a cliché, Romance is a broad church. Novelists such as Jojo Moyes and Philippa Gregory have been happy to pocket the £10,000 Romantic Novel of the Year Award. I’m told that Diana Gabaldon was surprised to find her first novel being pitched as romance. She protested that she wrote fantasy. OK, they said, we’ll classify it as fantasy but you won’t sell even half as many books. She didn’t protest further. The point of this is that when you write a book of course you like to be paid for it, but also you want people to read it. As many people as possible. A book is a two-way thing. The writer and the reader are both important. My novels are about birth, living, loving, working, hoping, scheming, dying. I often have a dark thread running through. Sometimes there’s a murder. My agent joked that I’m a frustrated crime writer. But, as for romance, although it may not be the main thrust of the book, my heroine will fall in love and marry if she wants to. That’s part of life isn’t it? Then there’s love of your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your pets. Love of one sort or another can be found in my books. Isn’t love the emotion that makes life bearable – and sometimes glorious? There you are – although I can’t claim to write straightforward love stories I’m not ashamed to acknowledge their importance. And I’m perfectly happy for WHSmith to put my books in the ‘Romance and Family Saga’ section.
As for the disdainful ones, I’ve discussed this with other writers and we have our theories.
Q. Which of your own novels is your favourite and why?
A. My favourite is always the one I’ve just finished! (My least favourite is always the one I’m working on. Blood, sweat and tears.) However, A Safe Harbour, set in a Northumbrian fishing village at the time when the livelihood of the inshore fishermen was being destroyed by the new steam trawlers, is particularly dear to my heart. My husband is from one of those fishing families and stories my mother-in-law told me sparked the idea for the book. The cottage which is one of the main locations in the book is based on our first married home, a two-roomed, three hundred-year-old fisherman’s cottage on the cliff top. The Kate who is the heroine in the book is a tribute to my husband’s grandmother and many another red-headed fisher-lass.
Q. Do you get time to read for pleasure? If so, which books do you like?
A. I read all the time. I read all sorts of books. I like biography, history, travel and many kinds of fiction. I never read sagas. I’d be worried that I could ‘steal’ an idea without realizing that I’d done so. Favourite crime novelists are Reginald Hill and Margaret Yorke. I’ve just finished ‘Straight Into Darkness’ by Faye Kellerman. I’ve never read her before and I think this is one of her ‘one off’ books rather than part of a series. It’s a thriller set in 1920s Munich. I found myself picking holes in the plot but the background of the politics of the time was absolutely fascinating. I like some historical novels and find Elizabeth Chadwick better than Philippa Gregory. Chadwick’s research is sounder. Even I found instances when Gregory got things wrong. Commercial Women’s fiction: I’ve just treated myself to ‘Daughters of Fire’ by Barbara Erskine and ‘A Step in the Dark’ by Judith Lennox. Non-fiction: I’m reading ‘The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed’ by Judith Flanders. Marvellous stuff..
Q. Which book do you wish you’d written?
A. Too many to list!
Q. You say on your website that you particularly loved writing your latest novel, Fortune’s Daughter – what was it in particular that made this one so enjoyable?
A. So many classic storylines here. A stolen child, a cold-hearted stepmother (I had two of those myself!) And some of my favourite backgrounds – the back streets of Newcastle, the Music Hall, Opera, a country house, characters from different levels of society. I can’t be more specific except to say what a ball I had telling this story. And, after all, it’s all down to story; even E. M. Forster admitted this. Catherine Cookson once told me that if she had lived in ancient times, she would have been the storyteller enthralling her listeners as they sat round the fire. If any would be writer doubts the importance of story, let me recommend two books: ‘Story’ by Robert McKee and ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler.
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