What can you tell us about your new book, The Second Footman?
It takes the reader back in time to Paris in 1880 - not just to the glamorous mansions and châteaux of the aristocracy, but also to their rather less glamorous servants' quarters.
The book's central love affair is between two men. Handsome, nineteen year-old Max is for the time being a footman, but he has an audacious and not entirely honest plan to change all that. His lover, the middle-aged marquis de Miremont, despite his rank and wealth, is a shy man, struggling with his newly awakened sexuality. Max considers himself the man of the future, amoral, above the rules of society: Miremont's identity, on the other hand, is rooted in the past and in a very traditional view of duty and honour. The affair forces both men to question their view of themselves. Is it as hard to remain totally ruthless and amoral as it is to be totally generous and good? And what price truth if, to be true to yourself, you must lie to the rest of the world?
I've attempted to give The Second Footman all the essential ingredients of a nineteenth century novel that make for complications - a rigid class structure, a society that (on the surface at least) obeys a strict moral code, a cast of characters from all walks of life and an element of mystery. It's a 500-pager, but, I hope, a fun, fast read.
When did your interest in 19th century fiction begin?
Since before I can remember. The 19th century is the heyday of the novel. Novelists were above all wonderful story tellers. Many of the best - Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Trollope - wrote for serialisation, which means that, although they wrote vast novels, they carry you along at a cracking pace and provide a thoroughly satisfying read.
You are quoted as saying that you began to write the Second Footman once you'd run out of other books you wished to read, can you tell us more about that?
I think that was a bit of a fantasy on my part. I've still got lots of Trollope, Balzac and Wilkie Collins to read, for instance. And recently I picked up The Three Musketeers in a charity shop and developed a serious Alexandre Dumas addiction. I'd read most of the D'Artagnan series as a child, but I've enjoyed them much more as an adult - I love the way Dumas develops the relationship between the four main characters over three decades and manages to make you so attached to them. And I then moved on to The Count of Monte Cristo, which I'd never read and is now available in a brilliant unexpurgated and unabridged new translation from Penguin. Unputdownable. When I'd finished it I felt bereaved for days.
The novel takes readers to Paris, Bordeaux and the Loire - how did you research those places and that period of history?
It took me eight years to write The Second Footman, during which I read a lot, both French history and French fiction of the period. I also spent time walking around Paris, not sight-seeing, but just walking all day, every day, to find out how different parts of the city joined up. And I like to be able to see the things I'm writing about, so books of old photographs are invaluable.
This is the first in a trilogy, so what can you tell us about the next books you are planning to write?
Because it took me so long to write The Second Footman, the central storyline has grown into three books. I can't tell you a lot about Vols 2 and 3 without giving too much away. But in the second book, set in 1882, Miremont's unpleasant wife turns up and we also meet his younger daughter. And in the third book, set between 1887 and1891, Max's past comes back to bite him.
What was the attraction to writing about a same sex love affair?
Obviously people were gay in the 19th century, as they have been since time immemorial. But you don't get a lot of gay characters in the novels of the period and, when you do, their sexuality is merely hinted at and tends to be a sign of depravity. I wanted to write about the hidden gay world of the nineteenth century as something entirely normal. That's partly why the book is set in France, where homosexuality, while not socially acceptable, was not illegal between consenting adults in private - I was keen to avoid any possibility of the sort of tragedy that English law inflicted on Oscar Wilde.
`My characters are not doomed by their sexuality, far from it. Although some of the conflict between them stems from society's disapproval, most of it comes from what I really wanted to explore - the power balance in a relationship between two men. It's easy to assume that the older man, particularly if he has status and wealth, holds the power. But the younger man has his youth and his whole future before him and can always walk away.
What was the hardest part of the book to write?
Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain - the hardest part is when you're about three quarters through. You know where you want to end up and you hope you've put all the crampons in to get you there, but it still seems to take forever.
What was your inspiration for writing about a same sex love affair?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the French novel does start to deal more frankly and bravely with homosexuality. Proust is so nervous of having his own predilections made public that his narrator is supposedly in love with girls, albeit called Gilberte and Albertine. But André Gide, with amazing courage, writes openly about gay desires and gay relationships.
Which other authors inspire your work?
I wish I could write even a hundredth as well as Chekov. His short stories admirably explore the perversity of human nature, both its comedy and its tragedy.
Tell us about your writing day?
I'm not a morning person, which is just as well, since my partner has a long-term illness and his carers don't come in until the afternoon. I work from about 12 noon until 7pm. I'd love to work far into the night too, but circumstances prevent me.
What advice could you give to an aspiring writer?
Read. If you want to write novels, read all the novels you can - that way you absorb lessons about plot structure and characterisation by osmosis.
If the novel were made into a film who would play Max?
Since The Second Footmanis a novel and not a film script, I'm ducking this question. A novel should be a dialogue between the writer's imagination and the reader's. So, although I have described Max in some detail, I hope there's room for the reader to cast the part themselves.
If you could dine with any author who would it be?
Max's favourite poet, Catullus. Although Catullus was writing in Latin in the middle of the first century BC, his poems about friendship and his raw love poems still seem very contemporary. I think he was a bit of a hooligan - so I'd have to get in plenty of wine.
Female First LucyWalton