Philippa Gregory, the beloved author of historical romances such as The Other Boleyn Girl, has made a career out of bringing the past vividly to life. Her latest novel is The White Princess. Here, she reflects on the influences that shaped her as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
I have a great affection for the classic English texts of the 18th and 19th centuries, but one of my great favourites is E.M. Forster, for the immense control and thoughtfulness of all his novels. He can write profound and convincing emotional scenes without ever over-writing.
Did you imitate any of them?
Oh no! Imitation would always be a terrible mistake, I think. But I sometimes observed how they do things – I learned how to describe a room, furniture and atmosphere, very briefly but evocatively, from Gone with the Wind!
How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?
The distinctive voice evolved over time, but I can hear it in my very first novels. It is always supposed to be the voice of the narrator of the novel, quite often the hero/heroine of the novel, so it is not me – since I am a 21st-century woman. So there is a clarity about it, and a sense of the past, and a sense that the voice has foreknowledge of what is going to happen.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
The desire for fame and the need for money leads many writers into writing something that they think will suit the market, but which is not right for them. Worst of all, when someone reads something which is of poor quality and says to him or herself – “I can do as well as that.” I think any writer should always aim to write supremely well as themselves, and should only read the very best writing.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
I write in the genre of historical fiction and so I absolutely acknowledge the creators of the form – from Walter Scott to Georgette Heyer. There is a very fine history which is written very like a novel by Ann Wroe, Perkin, The Story of a Deception, which tells the story of the young man known as “Perkin Warbeck,” who is central to my book. But in terms of style, I think my work is distantly related to the popular fiction of the Victorians, like Wilkie Collins, or, more recently, Daphne du Maurier. In terms of the characters’ relationship to the society they are in and a sense of the times, I would hope to be a distant and junior cousin to Scott Fitzgerald.
Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?
We see the influence of authors especially when their work comes on television or film, but that tends to focus on their plot or characters and not their writing. I think the classics of the English Literature canon still hold tremendous influence. It is hard to imagine that anyone could write a better domestic novel than Jane Austen.
Who do you wish were more influential?
Some authors have fallen from popularity because they seem dated to us, or unsympathetic. Rudyard Kipling as a children’s writer has the most wonderful humour and tenderness but his deep-rooted unconscious and explicit racism is quite unacceptable.
There is an English writer, Nigel Balchin, who wrote post war and was hugely popular at the time but is now little read, who is quite wonderful. Henry James seems rather lengthy and slow for modern tastes but his writing is quite wonderful and should be read by everyone who wants to learn how to write subtle and nuanced stories.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
Absolutely. When I am writing, I never read any historical fiction at all, for fear of picking up a fictitious event, or someone else’s style. When I am writing, I usually read only history books because there is so much to know about the characters and the period. As I am writing most of the time, I live with a semi-permanent ban on novels at all, and only allow myself the pleasure of reading fiction during holidays.
This interview has been condensed and edited.