What can you tell us about your new book The Affair?
The making of Cleopatra in Rome in 1961/2 was dramatic, and not just because Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had their infamous affair. The film had started out as a low-budget one designed to help 20 th Century Fox finances but it soon spiraled wildly out of control. Hundreds of actors and crew were accommodated in Rome for nine months on full pay with nothing to do for most of the time, so it was inevitable some would get up to mischief. Against this backdrop I invented two main characters: Diana, a clever but naïve researcher, and Scott, an American journalist on his first posting hoping for success with girls. I wove their stories into the Burton/Taylor melodrama, and had a great time writing it!
Please tell us about your research process into Rome in the 1960s.
I started by contacting everyone who worked on the film who is still alive, and struck gold when I found an actor called John Gayford who has amazing recall for every last detail of the filming, from the salaries paid to the type of sandwiches served in the bar! I visited Rome in October 2011 and wandered round Cinecittà, managing to have a feel of Elizabeth Taylor's gold dress in the museum there, and I hung out on the Via Veneto where you can still watch Vespas chugging up the hill. And I read everything I could about the period, both non-fiction and fiction. My partner works in the film biz and was able to explain details like the way they measured the distance from the camera to the actor's head with a tape measure in order to set focus!
Tell us about when you first saw the film Cleopatra.
My mum was a huge Elizabeth Taylor fan so I imagine we sat down and watched it one Saturday afternoon on the TV. I was impressed by the glitz and glamour and when I watched it again a couple of years ago it was just as I recalled. It got terrible reviews in 1963 but has been shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year as a 'rediscovered classic' and although clunky in places, I would urge you to watch it for the sheer extravagance. In these days of CGI they will never again build huge wooden boats in order to destroy them in a sea battle!
Your debut novel Women and Children First was published last year, so what can you tell us about this for fans of your new book?
WACF follows the fate of three characters who were on the Titanic's maiden voyage. There's a young steward called Reg, who is a decent lad but makes a morally questionable judgment in the aftermath of the sinking; there's an upper class lady who is pregnant and unmarried; and there's an Irish woman travelling with her four children to join her husband in America. I followed their stories for six months after the sinking to examine the way the shock of what they had been through impacted on their lives, because no one walked away from that horrific event unscathed.
You have written both fiction and non fiction, so do you have a preference between the two?
I like doing both, and I particularly enjoy doing my 'Love Stories' series (see below), but if absolutely forced to choose I prefer fiction. The process of creating characters is magical. I hope it doesn't sound pretentious if I say that there comes a stage when they take on a life of their own and you feel as if you know them like friends. Of course, sometimes they refuse to fit into the plot I've carefully worked out beforehand and adjustments have to be made. I think all novelists would say that when it's going well, novel-writing is a mystical and exciting process we don't quite understand.
When did your interest in Titanic begin?
At my grandfather's knee - literally. Both my grandfathers worked in shipbuilding on the Clyde and told me the story of the most luxurious ship in the world that sank on its maiden voyage. And then I watched A Night to Remember (still my favourite Titanic film) and I was hooked. The Titanic story is full of compelling human drama and forces you to imagine: "What would I have done?"
What was your process of weaving the story around the backdrop of the film?
When I started planning The Affair, I knew I knew I wanted a main character who could wander through all areas of the film rather than just being stuck in 'Makeup' or 'Costume', and that's why I made Diana a researcher. I wanted her to be clever and ambitious but not remotely streetwise so she was bound to get into trouble! The character of Scott was invented to show what it was like for the paparazzi who tried to eke a living from snatching celebrity pics, but I also wanted him to be a loveable womanizer. The plot is tightly planned around the facts, so I had a timeline of when each Cleopatra scene was shot and made Diana's story follow that.
Tell us about your non fiction book Titanic Love Stories?
Titanic Love Stories tells the stories of the thirteen honeymoon couples on board the ship: their backgrounds, how they met and fell in love, their weddings, and what happened to them as the ship sank. It sold in loads of countries round the world so the publishers commissioned Civil War Love Stories, which was published in April this year, to tie in with the 150 th anniversary of the American Civil War. I'm currently writing World War Two Love Stories, which is fascinating because some of the couples are still alive and I'm able to interview them directly. And as soon as I finish that, I'll be writing World War One Love Stories. I love my series - although, of course, the stories don't all have happy endings.
Why do you like to draw on history as the backdrop in your novels?
I've always loved history. Part of my degree was in history and I've worked with a lot of well-known historians over the years. I particularly like exploring the differences between the lives of people in past eras and ours. The Affair covers very recent history, just fifty years ago, but it feels very distant: homosexuality was illegal, most women hoped to give up work when they got married, and international phone calls had to be pre-booked through an operator. Feminism hadn't happened - as fans of Mad Men will be well aware - and some doctors still advised their patients to take up smoking as a way of calming their nerves!
What is next for you?
I've started a new novel set in Paris in the 1920s about an Englishman who has been very damaged by the First World War and the French girl who takes him under her wing. I love the era and this is a book I've always wanted to write.