When and how did you first discover the E.F. Benson series?
I think I was 16 or 17 when my mother (a lifelong fan) decided I was ready for Lucia. As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to be the one designated to write these books? Did you approach the author’s estate, or did they approach you?
I started writing Lucia in Wartime as fan fiction, not long after I started at university, simply because my mother and her Luciaphil friend Sylvia had always wanted to know how Lucia coped with life in WW2. I sort of meandered aimlessly through writing the first half, doing a page here and a page there as the spirit moved me, until the day came when (through shameless nepotism and intrigue) my half-a-manuscript landed on the desk of an editor at Macmillan, who intimated that if I cared to finish the book, he might care to publish it. I wrote the second half very, very quickly indeed, before he changed his mind (the last chapter on Christmas Eve, as I recall, in bed with flu). It was only after the book had been written and accepted that it occurred to someone that the Lucia books were still in copyright, and the copyright holders might have something to say about the matter. However, in the event they were very reasonable about it all. I rather suspect that this may have been due to the influence of an old school friend, who was working for the estate’s literary agents at the time; but I haven’t spoken to her since, so can’t verify. I hope it’s true. I’d like to think my start in the literary world has been entirely due to nepotism and intrigue (see above).
What special qualifications did you have—knowledge of the classical references, language ability, quirky sense of humor?
I think I rather overdid the classical references – I was at Oxford studying Classics at the time, and that sort of kids you into thinking that classical references are cool. Really, though, the only special qualification I can claim was having been immersed in Benson, constantly re-reading the books (finish the last one, immediately start again with the first) ever since I was first introduced to them. Also, I think it helped that I’d never tried to write a novel before, so I didn’t have an established voice of my own to overcome.
Every small community must have a Lucia or an Elizabeth, don’t you think? Have you met women who made you think, “Ah! Here we have Lucia in the Flesh.”
Never a Lucia; but I’ve met several Miss Mapps, one or two Quaint Irenes, a fistful of Divas and a few Mrs Wyses, and one truly outstanding Georgie. Lucia, however, remains elusive. She has that exceptional vitality that elevates her to the heroic level, in spite of her appalling character traits, which – fortunately – you don’t tend to encounter in people you meet in the street.
Would you have enjoyed being a resident of Tilling and a member of Lucia’s circle? The men—particularly the husbands of Lucia and Elizabeth—don’t get much respect.
Neither do I, so that’s all right. I think I’d enjoy the warfare and the intrigue, and I quite enjoy a game of bridge, but I’m not sure how I’d cope with the musical evenings. Even the Moonlight Sonata would lose its charm eventually.
Have you ever considered adding another book to the series? I keep imagining what Lucia would make of present-day England. She would not enjoy it, I think.
Lucia and me both. Yes, one day I’d dearly love to write another sequel, if only I could be sure I could still catch the voice. Borrowing Benson’s style was a bit like borrowing someone’s Ferrari; it was a joy to drive around in it for a while, reveling in its beauty and power, but after a bit all I could think of was the danger of scratching the paint or denting a fender, so that at the end I was relieved to hand it back more or less undamaged. I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to drive it again.
What are some of the most interesting reactions to these books you have received? There must be some fans who view Lucia and Elizabeth almost as real people and have very particular ideas about the way they should behave.
The reaction I expected and dreaded was; who is this presumptuous upstart? So far I haven’t encountered it (although these reprints offer an opportunity to a whole new generation of readers); I’m ever so grateful to the readers who’ve told me that I didn’t disgrace the name of Benson. That’s probably the highest praise to which I could ever aspire.