Sex, Murder, Revolution, and Art in Everything – An Interview with Margaret Pritchard Houston
I’ve read and enjoyed Margaret Pritchard Houston’s mystery novel, Fraternite, as well as some of her poetry and her humorous piece on the French Revolution(s) which we published here in NewsWhistle. A very good writer, an actress and playwright, and a youth worker in the area of children’s ministry for the Church of England, she keeps herself very busy. As the Atlantic Ocean separates us geographically, we decided to do an interview via e-mail instead. Here’s what she had to say.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Author Margaret Pritchard Houston
Date: September 15, 2016
Occupation: author and youth worker
Hometown: New Haven, Connecticut
Current town: London, UK
So, I know that you do quite a number of things: you write novels (and poetry and humor pieces), you work in community theater, you work in religious education, and that you are a bit of an activist for maternal and fetal health. What ties it together? Do these various interests and projects have a common theme?
My work with children in the church is a form of art. Worship is an art form — you’re curating light, darkness, stories, music, sound, silence, visuals, movement, and trying to create an experience that has meaning and transcendence. It’s very similar to theatre – the Greeks knew this instinctively.
My work for maternal and fetal health is partly advocacy but what gets me really fired up is, again, the artistic side of it. I put together memorial events and literary hours and those are spaces people can come to and make something out of their grief. I lost my son at birth last year, and in the days and months after, I found myself unable to do anything but write and sew. I made a memorial quilt for him. I wrote the story of what had happened, I put together a funeral that was one of the best services I’ve ever done. My mother took me aside and said, “you know what, Margaret — you turn everything that happens to you into art.” That’s one of the most wonderful things anyone’s ever told me.
I guess that’s somewhat similar to the idea of sublimation…not necessarily in a Freudian sense, but maybe in a broader sense…taking what is painful and doing something beautiful with it. It seems to me that it must be very painful to take inspiration from such a horrible experience. But maybe for you, it would be more painful not to. Are you directly addressing your loss in your fiction?
There’s no way of saying this that doesn’t sound pretentious, but I’m going to have a crack…
I think it would be harder NOT to take inspiration from the difficult things in life. I mean, that’s where the real raw materials are. That’s where you’re closest to the heart. And if you can take that and, without making it cheap or sentimental, turn it into something that has real meaning and purpose and power for people, then something, at least, has come of it. Something good and life-giving. Something that holds us all together a little bit.
I wrote the child death in Fraternite before my own son died, and I was scared to go back and look at it because I realized after I lost Isaac that “and then the baby died” is actually a HUGE and overused trope in modern fiction – especially fiction aimed primarily at women.
It’s often used as a quick and easy way to give your character Instant! Depth!, or, with female characters, the only thing that motivates them. And I was sick of seeing it used in that cheap way and worried I’d done the same.
When I could finally read back over it, I was relieved – I don’t think I’ve fallen into the most common traps, and there’s only one or two things I’d do differently if I were writing that story now.
Do you think there is something harmful in that trope, or is it more just an issue of somewhat lazy writing? I’ve been thinking about how often rape and sexual violence come up in fiction and how I am really growing to hate it. Not that it should be taboo and never addressed but sometimes it is treated so casually that it is normalized, and I think that can be really harmful, especially to young women. What if we treated sexual assault with the horror it really deserved? Then again, I really enjoy mystery novels that don’t take murder terribly seriously (all of those country house locked door stories and mysterious goings on in small villages) and that doesn’t bother me so much! What are your thoughts?
I don’t think there’s anything inherently harmful in writing about the death of a child – it’s a powerful event, and that’s where drama comes from, after all. I do think that it’s sometimes used for cheap emotional thrills, and that bothers me – and I think you’re right, that sexual assault is often treated the same way, and that trivializes it.
That’s a good point…it seems less offensive as a plot device than as a shortcut to character development, where it does seem emotionally manipulative. What are you working on writing now?
I’m currently finishing up a novel set on board a Royal Navy ship in 1810, coming back from battle with French prisoners of war on board. There are spies and secret codes, and I can’t say any more without spoilers!
So, more historical fiction, then. How does the process work for you? Do you research a time period and then work out a good plot, or do you have a plot in mind and then look for a place and time to put it in, or what? It seems so intimidating to me to write a novel in the past…there’s so much I wouldn’t know about any time period of history and I think I’d make some horrible errors.
Generally, I start with a time period I’m already interested in – I knew a lot about France between 1815 and 1848 because of my teenaged Les Mis obsession, and my interest in the Napoleonic wars came from Horatio Hornblower and Master and Commander.
I try to read fiction written in the time period I’m writing in, so I get an idea of how people talked and what the prevailing social attitudes were.
I also look for good secondary sources, and, where possible, visit archives – not as easy for Fraternite, as I don’t speak French, but the National Maritime Museum was invaluable for my latest one.
I also have Pinterest boards for each one, where I collect images to get an idea of the material culture, or post primary sources I find online, so I can go back and revisit them.
However, I’m sure there are still mistakes! I try to get an expert to read the manuscript before publication, but that doesn’t always pan out.
I guess there’s always a risk of anachronisms in historical fiction. I know Shakespeare made some technological errors in Julius Caesar, and no one holds that against him, though! What authors do you think do (or have done) a good job getting the past right, or in any case, making it come alive? I rather like Georgette Heyer’s books although I enjoy the love stories and comedies of manners more than I like her more serious attempts at history. And I know many people really like it, but I couldn’t stand Pillars of the Earth. Not so much for the history, the building of a cathedral is an interesting subject, but because of how it was written: melodramatic plot, flat characters…maybe I’m too much of a literary critic to enjoy that one.
There are two books that really stand out for me, in making times that had very different attitudes and assumptions from ours feel very natural and real – one is Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt, and the other is Jude Morgan’s The King’s Touch. Both of them are phenomenal at wearing their research lightly while letting it pervade every aspect of the novel. It’s a difficult thing to do.
Two World War Two novels – Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, and The Book Thief – by Marcus Zusak, also changed my life!
I have never read any of those! I’d better put them on my (extremely long and I will never get through it if I live to be 150) reading list! Do you have any book recommendations that are not historical fiction for our readers?
Oh, tons! Tana French and Gillian Flynn are both amazing – combining incredible writing with gripping mysteries and social commentary. Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger is fantastic if you like sassy anti-heroines. Emma Donoghue’s Room kept me up all night. And The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is a genre-busting, hilarious, poignant book that’s entirely unique.
So, as long as we’re talking books, are there any books that you’re supposed to like or admire that you just don’t?
It’s heresy, but I can’t stand Dickens.
Actually, I like some of Dickens rather a lot and some not at all. Bleak House is my favorite, and I think a lot of his other ones could have used a good editor. Of course, when you are writing serially, the stories do tend to be a bit overlong…it’s at least partially a problem of them being written to read a little at a time, not as one huge volume. I guess reading an entire Dickens novel straight through is like binge-watching a TV series.
Yes, I think the binge-watching comparison is very apt. And with the advent of the box set and then Netflix, we’re seeing a lot of stories with that same heft to them come across our screens. The Wire was a real trailblazer in that department and now it’s so normal – House of Cards, OITNB, Game of Thrones, etc. We’re seeing a lot of epic stories that would have been unimaginable 20 or 30 years ago.
And that’s one thing I like about my publisher, the Pigeonhole – you can buy Fraternite on Amazon now, but it was originally published as a serial! And every chapter had extra content you could unlock! You can still get a bit of that thrill (and the exclusive extra content) by buying it straight from the publisher’s website.
On to movies…what is your favorite? What should everyone see?
As for films, well, my favorite is Master and Commander. It’s just so incredibly well done in every way – beautifully shot, interesting characters, and a slow burn in how it lets the richness of its themes develop.
I first saw it because I had cinema vouchers that were expiring, and thought, “well, it’s the best of the lot that’s showing, but it’s just another historical summer action blockbuster.” I was so wrong. It’s about pride and loyalty and hubris and class and it gets the broader changes in society in there – the way science was on the cusp of changing forever, and the advent of guerrilla warfare. And it does it all so subtly. And it’s just beautifully shot. Every frame is a work of art.
There’s also the Kenneth Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, and Enemy at the Gates, and the cult classics: Withnail and I and The Princess Bride, and … so many.
But in a totally different vein, I loved the new Ghostbusters. It shouldn’t be radical to show women as people, with their own relationships and their own inner lives (as opposed to being the grown-up who waits around while the male man-child protagonist sorts out his own existential crisis), but it is. And it was, even without that to cheer for, just a really FUN film.
On another topic entirely…I recently visited London for the first time in over 15 years. So much had changed…it’s a much more affluent place, much more diverse, there are new glass and steel buildings, more of a dining scene then there used to be. How long have you lived in London and what are your thoughts about what has (and hasn’t) changed? And for someone new to the city, what would you recommend for them to see and to do?
I’ve lived here for 11 years now and you’re right – there have been some massive changes. There’s a lot of concern that everyone except the super-rich is getting priced out of the capital and that’s hurting what makes London wonderful: its diversity, its grunge, its scrappiness. Housing is an enormous problem, as is gentrification. But Londoners continue to be wonderful – cynical, fed-up, and sarcastic, yes, but that’s part of what we love about the city. It’s not clean or polished or sweet, and you have to really know it to find its soul. It rewards perseverance and eccentricity and there are hidden communities, real communities, around each corner.
For a visitor, well, if it’s your first time, you have to hit the big tourist spots, but after that, you should head up to Upper Street in Islington for dinner – it’s full of small independent cafes selling every cuisine you can imagine. Also, check out the fringe theatres – there are dozens of theatres tucked away above pubs, putting on the most wonderful and bizarre stuff. My friend Matthew is the Artistic Director of the Hope Theatre, so I have to give him special mention, but there are so many others.
Also, the Foyles on Charing Cross Road is Nirvana for book-lovers. There are also city farms all over the place, where cows and sheep live alongside Tube stations.
When I will go back I will have to look out for the cows and sheep! I didn’t know there were city farms.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
In writing or in life?
Either or both!
In writing? Definitely, “no, you won’t remember that brilliant idea in the morning – so write down the gist of it NOW!” (Though that’s occasionally led to my waking up to see a Post-It that appears to say “TUNA APOCALYPSE METAPHOR” and no recollection of what that meant.)
In life, I think it’s a tie between “you can’t control other people, but you can control how you react to them” and “when in doubt, order dessert.”
I tend to pay more attention to that second bit of advice than the first, if I’m honest.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I have double-jointed thumbs. Also, I’m very distantly related to Ada Lovelace.
I think we’re twelfth cousins or something.
Six times removed.
Something like that.
Wasn’t she Lord Byron’s daughter, or am I making that up? Are you also mad, bad, and dangerous to know?
Yes, she was Byron’s daughter – I’m related to her mother, Augusta Leigh. Who was also Byron’s half-sister. I’m related to the parent of Augusta that she doesn’t share with Byron. Compared to that sort of behavior, no, I’m not at all mad, bad, and dangerous to know, though there have been the occasional bursts of 4:00 a.m. drunken musical theatre karaoke with friends.
As long as we’re on the topic of celebrity relatives, who is your favorite celebrity?
I would have to say, like everyone else on the planet right now, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s insanely talented and seems to have an incredible amount of integrity, decency, and a sense of fun.
I nearly went to Wesleyan and would have been two years behind him in their theatre department. We would have overlapped. It’s my Road Less Traveled.
He really is just so likeable. I loved In the Heights, I love Hamilton, and I’m looking forward to see what he does next.
I am a massive Hamilton fangirl. It’s embarrassing. It’s like being a teenager all over again.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would you do?
That’s a tough question, because it gets serious really fast. At some point in my life, something caused the infection that killed my baby – I don’t know what it was, I don’t know if it was anything I could have avoided, but there is a moment in my life when the die was cast and I didn’t know it. And if I could go back and change that, I would. The novel I just finished actually turned out largely to be about that – how we often don’t realize the trap is set until it’s too late, how the moment when we could have changed everything is often unrecognized and opaque and unclear even in retrospect. We know there was some point at which this outcome became inevitable, but we never know what it was.
It’s a real laugh-a-minute book.
Well, if anyone can manage to find humor in that situation, it might be you. It’s actually not all that farfetched, when I think about it. Some really powerful art combines horrific pain with humor. I’m thinking about the American tradition of the blues. Or some of the powerful post-war novels like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.
(It’s not really comedy. That was sarcasm. But yes, I agree about gallows humor – it’s a lifesaver.)
(I know. Just off on a tangent as usual.) So, what is your strangest phobia or superstition?
I have to start up every staircase on my left foot or it feels wrong.
What’s the best or the worst thing that’s happened to you this week?
The best was a day out with friends – the worst … heading back to work on a boiling hot train that reeked of Axe body spray!
Last, but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
My book, Fraternite! Sex, murder, and revolution in 19th-century France – what’s not to love?
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lead-In Image (Statue of the Republic in Paris, 1880) Courtesy of ilolab / Shutterstock.com
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