Q: Michaela, when I read Prisoners in the Palace, I couldn't help but wonder if you were inspired to write about the teenage years of Queen Victoria by the recent movie Young Victoria, or was that just a weird coincidence that a movie about Princess Victoria came out in 2009? How did you happen to be drawn to write about this particular period in history and why were you especially drawn to this famous Queen?
A: Margo, if only publishing could be nimble enough to take advantage of an on-topic film!
I began writing Prisoners in the Palace in the spring of 2006. An editor (who had passed on another manuscript but asked me to come in and talk about what she would like to see) suggested that I write about Princess Victoria. My first reaction was, hmmm. But in this tough market if an editor says Victoria, you head for the “V” in the Biography aisle. It wasn’t long before several things jumped out at me. The young Victoria was nothing like the grouchy old lady she became. She was pretty and loved to dance. Her mother was overprotective. She couldn’t wait for the 18th birthday. In fact, she was very much like teenagers today.
When the movie came out, it was a bonus. I’m hosting a viewing at the Westport Public Library in November. Come join me gentle readers!
Q: I understand you did a lot of primary source research for this novel, including reading Victoria's own diaries. What was the most surprising thing you learned about Victoria during your research, and did you incorporate it into your novel?
I loved reading Victoria’s diaries. She was an avid diarist; she began when she was 12 and continued to the day she died. That’s thousands of pages of a first person account of the lady who reigned from 1837 – 1901. Wow, right? Then you realize that none of it is completely reliable. In Prisoners in the Palace, Victoria is slow to understand why Liza is furious when the Princess reads her journal. Then she remembers that not everyone’s mother must read their journal before the entries can be inked in. She says sadly “I forgot that other people are permitted the privacy of their thoughts.”
As Queen, no one is looking over her shoulder, so the entries should be frank and honest, right? But no! After her death, she left her diaries to her youngest daughter, Beatrice. Beatrice proceeded to censor the journals – copying over only what she thought would not embarrass her mother. Then (and the historian in me gags at the thought) she burnt the originals. So this amazing record is tainted.
Q: How did you determine the right tone for Liza's conversations with Victoria? I couldn't help but wonder if she would have DARED to be so familiar with a royal!
This was a difficult thing to get right until I remembered that they are just seventeen year old girls. Despite the difference in their rank, they have received similar educations and have many interests in common (music, theater, boys!) I was careful to develop the language so that they become more relaxed as the friendship between the girls grow. And notice that Liza is never disrespectful when there are others present!
Q: I especially loved the upstairs/downstairs intrigue in this novel; were you able to discover much information about the servants to Victoria, or did you make up these characters based on how servants lived at the time?
The lives of servants are always under-reported. Although they make everything possible, no one writes their stories. However, a great deal of social research has been done about the servant class during the Victorian era, so I was able to extrapolate. I also found the name of Annie Mason in a casual reference to a maid who was dismissed for lasciviousness (try saying that five times fast) and a devoted housekeeper named Mrs. Strode. It helped that the Duchess of Kent, Victoria’s mother, was notoriously poor, so she didn’t have a huge staff. Trust me, Liza’s shenanigans would not have been tolerated in a household full of servants.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming 2011 release, which is set in colonial Africa, and about the novel you are currently working on that takes place in Renaissance Florence?
My next novel, tentatively titled “Beryl Above Africa” (I’m almost certain that this will not be the title!) will come out in Fall 2011. It’s about Beryl Markham, who was one of the premier female aviators of the 1830’s. She grew up in Colonial Africa when it was just being settled. Beryl was raised by the African tribe who worked for her father and she learned to hunt lion and was mauled once. But that was nothing compared to boarding school! She grew up to be the first to fly the Atlantic from East to West. Although she crashed, she survived to write a wonderful memoir called West Into the Night.
I’ve shelved my renaissance novel for a bit. I can’t quite figure out the story – perhaps because I was trying to tell the story from a teenaged boy’s perspective. Instead, I’m working on a literary mystery set in the 1830’s. I’ll definitely keep you posted.
Q: I noticed in your bio that you lived in France for several years, and also have travelled in the former Soviet Union. Any plans to write novels set in either of those countries?
You would think so, wouldn’t you? But so far I’ve been picking books based on the characters and then falling love with the settings. But I would jump at the chance to go back to either place – so don’t rule it out.
Q: If you could time travel to any historical period, which one would you pick?
I think I would love to visit Elizabethan England or Renaissance Florence. Both cultures were experiencing a heady sense of power and self-assuredness. They knew it was a special time where political power, intellectualism and creativity combined to be explosively successful.
Q: What were some of your favorite books as a child or teen? Were you particularly drawn to historical fiction?
I loved Jean Plaidy’s royal novels. There were about 100 of them, all in a row in the library. Each one dealt with a major character in history – usually women. She’s the alter ego of romance novelist, Victoria Holt, so you know they are readable. However, as I discovered as an adult, her history was dead on accurate. They are out of print now, but how I loved them.
Completely off topic, my favorite book of all time has to be Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. I must have read it a thousand times. Oh wait, I also read the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander a thousand times. Hmm, and Narnia! They’re all so good!