Interview with Frances Quinn – Author of The Smallest Man
Peter: Frances, your debut book ‘The Smallest Man’ is a fascinating story inspired by Jeffery Hudson during King Charles I’s reign in England. I would like to congratulate you on writing your book and I am delighted that we have the opportunity to conduct this interview. Many thanks for making the time available.
Peter: What inspired you to write this story or at what moment did you feel, yes that’s the story I’m going to write?
Frances: I was working on a murder mystery set in the time of the Great Plague, and I wanted to include a character with a disability. I Googled ’17th century dwarf’ and up popped the Wikipedia page on Jeffrey Hudson, who was ‘court dwarf’ to Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. He immediately appealed as someone who’d been dealt a difficult hand in life, and made the best of it. As I read on, I got what my agent calls ‘the tingle’, and knew I wanted to tell his story.
Peter: This is one of the most tumultuous periods in British history and it certainly had me searching into further information surrounding your story. What fascinated you most about your historical research, and how did you decide which events to include?
Frances: I studied the English Civil War at school and wow, was it boring! It seemed to be all religion and politics and I would never, ever have chosen it as a period to write about. But what we weren’t taught was how much of it arose from the personalities of the people involved – the King, who was convinced God had made him right about everything, and thought he could outwit his opponents right to the end; and the Queen, pushing him on, and herself becoming involved in gathering arms and deciding strategy. And all that came from a marriage that started so badly, they made Charles and Diana look amicable.
Peter: Jeffery Hudson had quite an eventful life and he experienced an incredible amount of abuse and adventure. What was your approach in channelling his experiences into Nat Davy?
Frances: I decided quite early on I didn’t want just to dramatize Jeffrey’s life – real life isn’t novel-shaped, and Jeffrey’s life had a lot of ups and downs, but didn’t follow the kind of narrative arc you want in a novel. I also really didn’t like his name! It sounded like an accountant from Guildford (no offence to accountants from Guildford). So I got the idea for a character that was based on him, but wasn’t him, and that gave me a lot more freedom.
Peter: What personality traits were important to develop in Nat’s character, and generally how would you want your readers to see him?
Frances: I wanted Nat to be physically brave, and quite ‘blokeish’ – as a boy, he wants to climb trees and punch his enemy on the nose, and as a man, he hates the fact that he can’t go into battle like other men. He’s also very observant, due to the fact that for so long, he looks like a child, and people don’t care what they say in front of him – and that stands him in good stead when he gets to know the Queen and understands her situation when no one else does. And he’s quite manipulative – he’s good at knowing what to say to get people to do what he wants. It’s often said that women tend to use persuasion and ‘soft skills’ to get what we want, because we can’t use physical force, and I wanted to reflect that fact that perhaps it would be the same way for someone who has the physical limitations that Nat does.
As to how I want readers to see him, I want them to see that he’s just like them – he may look very different to most people, but he has the same feelings, hopes and dreams as anyone else.
Peter: Nat’s relationship with Queen Henrietta Maria found a lot of trust and in many ways friendship. How did you want this relationship to come across and was it similar to the actual historical relationship?
Frances: Nat’s relationship with the Queen is pretty much a figment of my imagination. It’s documented that Henrietta Maria was very fond of Jeffrey, and he did stay with her for much of her life, but I suspect it was more of a motherly relationship or even, horrible as this sounds, the kind you might have with a much-loved pet – he was there to amuse, to caper about and be cute. In my version, their friendship is based on the fact that they’re both lonely and homesick, they’ve both, effectively, been sold and sent away, and he’s the only one that understands how she feels. From there, they become friends, she trusts him to give her advice, and later on he becomes almost more of an assistant. Any of that could have happened, but there’s no evidence for it.
Peter: Without giving too much away, the relationship between Nat and Arabella could have followed a number of paths, and considering the obvious physical issues, how challenging was it to develop their relationship in the way you did?
Frances: The main challenge was to convey how difficult it was for Nat to believe Arabella would love him, without making him seem too sorry for himself. I decided that, given how little experience he’d had with women, and the issues around his own self-image given how other people treat him, emotionally he would be a bit like a teenager, desperate not to embarrass himself by giving away his feelings and risking rejection. With Arabella, I wanted to show that she’s quite an unusual person, and she just doesn’t see Nat the way other people do – she sees the whole person.
Peter: What do you hope readers take away from this novel? How would you like it to be remembered?
Frances: I hope people will enjoy it as a good story, first and foremost, and that Nat is a character who’ll stay with people after they turn the last page – they’re the kind of stories I like best myself. But I also hope I’ve given people some insight into what it’s like to have a visible disability. I have a genetic neuromuscular condition called Charcot Marie Tooth Disease, which causes foot deformities and walking difficulties, so at school I was the kid with ‘funny feet’, who couldn’t do PE, and I grew up with people staring if they noticed that I had what doctors politely call ‘an unusual gait.’ What I want people to understand is how that feels, because I think often, people think, oh, well, it’s fine to stare, he/she’s used to it. You never get used to it. It ruins your day, on a regular basis. And I’m lucky, I only get the stares. People with dwarfism face horrible comments from complete strangers, and someone I know is regularly videoed by people, when he’s just out walking in the street. So what I would really love is if, having read The Smallest Man and been inside Nat’s head for a while, people might think twice before they cast that curious stare, or make a joke about someone with dwarfism.
Peter: What influenced you to become an author?
Frances: I loved reading from a very early age, I was reading newspapers by the time I was six, and I think wanting to write must have come out of that. I wrote my first book at the age of about seven, about a squirrel with a taste for pork chops!
Peter: Do you use story boarding or mapping processes to develop your plots and interactions, or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling? Would you therefore describe yourself as a plotter, pantser or plantser?
Frances: It’s a mix. For The Smallest Man, I would plot a section, then when I got really bored with plotting, I’d start writing, and when I ran out of plot, I’d go back to planning. It wasn’t a great method, and I wasted a lot of time going down blind alleys. So for my second book, I did an outline of the whole story, but even then, things took shape differently once I started writing and the planned end, in particular, just didn’t work, so I had to find a new one.
When I’m plotting, I adapt a technique that Bjorn and Benny from Abba used when writing songs (I’m a huge Abba fan). They couldn’t write musical notation, so they’d noodle around on guitar and piano, and if a melody stuck without writing it down, they knew they had something. My version is that I make notes when I’m plotting, because that helps me think, but then I don’t look at them – if an idea is good, it’ll stick in my head.
Peter: Do you use particular software applications or utilities to support your writing activity? For example, Scrivener or Grammarly.
Frances: I tried Scrivener, couldn’t make head or tail of it, so I just write in Word. I don’t use any grammar or writing software, I think really a writer should be a better judge of which words to use than a piece of software.
Peter: As a published author do you get involved in finalising other aspects of the book, for example the cover design, narration and promotion?
Frances: A bit. The cover design was pretty much chosen by the time I saw it, but I luckily I loved it – it’s got the book so much attention. I was really hoping all along that there’d be gold foil on my cover but it’s expensive to do so I felt like I was being pushy if I asked for it. So I was thrilled when it was there.
I got to approve the narrator for the audio book, though again, I felt the publisher’s first choice was spot on, so there was no need for debate.
As for promotion, I’m not sure yet – with the virus situation, a lot of the normal launch activities aren’t happening. But my publishers have been brilliant about promoting it to book bloggers, and that’s getting it quite a lot of nice publicity.
Peter: What would be the main advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Frances: The single most important thing you can do to raise your chances of getting a book published is to write one. Don’t wait till you get the perfect idea that’s a guaranteed bestseller, or you can afford a course, or you clear out the spare room – just find an idea you like, and get on with it. Try to write regularly, and to prioritise writing time. And be prepared to rewrite and rewrite, and by that I don’t mean tweaking the grammar and polishing up your sentences. You may need to take the original story apart and put it back together again, lose characters, change the order of scenes, even change the whole focus of the story. I did seven drafts, and I’d say from the first to the seventh, only about a third of the words are the same. Also, don’t expect it to be easy. There’s a reason why lots of people feel they’ve got a book in them, but only a few of us ever get one out; it’s really hard work. But not finding it easy doesn’t mean you’re bad at it – often quite the opposite.
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on your writing?
Frances: So many! But perhaps if I stick to the historical genre, I really love Diana Norman’s books – I’ve never understood why she wasn’t a huge name. I also love Laurie Graham, and in particular, the books where she takes a character who’s on the sidelines of history, and shows us historical events through their eyes, usually with a good dose of humour. Diana Norman’s books have a lot of humour as well and that definitely influenced me – historical fiction can be very serious, but I wanted mine to appeal to people who don’t necessarily like that aspect of it.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read over the last 12 months?
Frances: That’s hard – can I have two? Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
Peter: If you had a dinner party and could invite 3 personalities from any period in history who would they be and why?
Frances: Obviously, Jeffrey Hudson – I definitely owe him dinner. Lavinia Fenton, an 18th century actress who ended up becoming the Duchess of Bolton, and inspires a character in my second book, and then perhaps Mrs Beeton, because I get really stressed about cooking for people and she could help me out in the kitchen. But to be honest, my real fantasy dinner party would be with Agnetha Faltskog, Frida Lyngstad, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.
Peter: Can you give us any insights into any future books or projects that you’re working on?
Frances: My next book is set in Georgian London, and like The Smallest Man, it’s inspired by real characters – Sally Mapp, who was a bonesetter, known as ‘Crazy Sal’ for her eccentric appearance and lack of personal charm, and her sister, who was stunningly beautiful and became a famous actress.
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
Frances: Follow me on Twitter (@franquinn) and Instagram (franquinn21). [Peter – I don’t have an author page on Facebook or a website yet but I will have, can I update this later?)]
Peter: Frances, I appreciate you taking the time for this interview. If there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free. I would like to congratulate you on this wonderful book and I wish you massive success for the future.