Q: How would you sum up your book in one line to a curious Amazon customer?
A: It's about love and money and whether you can ever separate the two--plus it gives you the skinny on country-house life at the end of the nineteenth century.
Q: What drew you to the period in which you have set My Last Duchess?
A: I studied history at university and I have always been fascinated by the fin de siècle period which has so many parallels with our own. I started writing the book at the height of the boom but 21st century billionaires are tame in comparison with the Americans of the Gilded Age--the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies. The American super-rich lived like kings, if not better than kings. Consuelo Vanderbilt who married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895 couldn't get over how primitive the plumbing was at Windsor Castle. I had enormous fun researching this book--one of the most unusual things I discovered was the fashion for tattoos among British aristocrats male and female.
Q: How did the character of Cora take shape for you?
A: There is quite a bit of me in Cora, although sadly I am not an heiress to vast wealth or a Duchess (yet), but I do understand what it is like to live with an overbearing parent. I was interested in writing about a character who can never be sure whether she is loved for herself or for her money. It is easier to write a novel where you are taking a character from one culture and putting them in another--Cora is an American princess but she doesn’t know how to navigate English high society. But she is not a passive heroine, I like the fact that she fights back.
Q: And what about that of the Duke?
A: The Duke is the ultimate in unreliable men. I think all men are shaped by their relationship with their mothers and Ivo has a particularly stormy one with the Double Duchess. I wanted to write about a man who is impatient with his own faults but doesn’t quite know how to overcome them. His relationship with Cora is about more than money – she is the one person in his life who is genuinely fearless.
Q: What can readers look forward to next from you?
A: I am writing another novel set in the nineteenth century. It is about a love triangle between a man, his fiancée and the Empress of Austria and is based on a true story.
Q: What do you enjoy reading?
A: Everything! Although having said that, when I judged the Orange Prize this year I found myself tiring of books with info dumps ('look here is my research!') or ones based on undigested personal tragedy. There are certain authors I return to again and again: Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse, Barbara Pym--I would give a great deal to be able to write like that. Living writers I admire include Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Lorrie Moore, Hilary Mantel and Julian Barnes. I enjoy a really good crime novel--I like C.J Sansom, Josephine Tey, Sophie Hannah and Jason Goodwin. And I read a lot of poetry--I don't have a favourite poet but I love Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope, Robert Browning, Billy Collins and Byron to name but a few.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
A: I didn’t start writing properly until I was in my forties although I had always wanted to be a novelist. I think what stopped me was my own perfectionism. I think Winston Churchill said, 'Don't let perfection stand in the way of the good'. When I actually sat down to start writing, as opposed to fantasising about it, it was surprisingly easy. On a good day it feels like I am tapping into something subconscious; quite often I will read back what I have written and think, did I write that? I work full time running a TV production company so when I find the time to write I have to be really disciplined--I won't let myself get up until I have written a thousand words. I can write anywhere so long as I have my noise cancelling headphones, I always listen to music when I write--Mozart or Bach is the best music to write by.
Q: Tell us something unusual about yourself.
A: I failed my driving test thirteen times. I have now passed and am really quite a competent driver, so it just goes to show that persistence in life is everything.
Recommended Reading from Daisy Goodwin
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford: One of the most brilliantly put together books I have ever read. Full of twists and turns. Every time I read it I notice something else.
Couch Fiction by Philippa Perry: This is a graphic novel about therapy, which sounds weird but actually works really well. Compulsory reading for anyone who has ever considered therapy. A clear, funny look at what therapists do.
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin: This is the first in a series of detective stories set in nineteenth century Istanbul featuring the eunuch detective Yashim. Beautifully written and deftly plotted. I would say this even if he wasn't my brother.
A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym: I love Barbara Pym and this is her absolute best. I think she is one of the few novelists to rival Jane Austen for comic timing and razor-sharp social comedy.
See more of Daisy's favourite reads in Author's Choice