Blog 82 22/05/2019 A Literary World: An Interview with Author Laura Rahme
A Literary World:
An Interview with Author Laura Rahme
One of the great delights about doing these interviews is that I get to chat with people who I admire. Some of these people I have only recently met, others, like today’s guest, I have followed for a while. In fact, since I became a social media addict from the time I wrote my first novel, almost five years ago. The thing about social media, if used right, is that it opens up a whole new world you never knew existed and introduces you to like-minded friends who share similar passions. My guest today is one such person. Laura Rahme is an accomplished woman who I admire tremendously. I not only love her writing, but I admire her zest for life and her passion for art and food – a love we both share. This is an interview which I am sure you will all enjoy. Make yourself comfortable and let Laura transport you into her world.
Welcome to A Literary World, Laura, can you tell us a little about your background? What inspired you to start writing?
Thank you, Kathryn, for inviting me to your blog.
I come from a faraway Tech world. My first degree was Aerospace Engineering and I’ve held a Tech career for almost twenty years. In my thirties, I fell into writing out of an aching need to express the stories I had long imagined, and to give myself a creative balance.
My inspirations have come from historical research, my family’s genealogy, dreams and personal obsessions. Anything I obsess about can give birth to a story. I also enjoy filling gaps in literature.
2. What are your books about?
I write historical fiction set in the 15th and 19th century. The common themes are mystery, shadowy/tyrannical governments, espionage, adventure, friendship, unattainable love, and the supernatural. I have written books set in Ming Dynasty China, late medieval Venice, and revolutionary/Napoleonic France.
In The Ming Storytellers, an imperial concubine falls in love with Admiral Zheng He, one of the most powerful eunuchs of the 15th century. Their forbidden love is thwarted by duty, danger and tragedy. It is set in Beijing, aboard the Ming fleet all the way to Zanzibar, and in the mountainous province of Yunnan.
The Mascherari: A Novel of Venice is an epistolary occult mystery with a potent dose of Italian witchcraft. It is the first in a historical fantasy trilogy featuring the detective, Antonio da Parma. I am working on the second instalment, Malefica, with Master of Cologne to follow.
Julien’s Terror, my third novel, reveals lesser known and often harrowing aspects of the French Revolution. Its Gothic mystery revolves around a young married couple whose secret pasts threaten them both.
3. Your latest novel, Julien’s Terror is a psycho-thriller set in post-revolutionary France. What is the inspiration behind it?
Obsessions. Frank Kafka said that one should follow one’s obsessions mercilessly. That’s what I did.
A few years ago, I read Françoise Chandernagor’s La Chambre and was spellbound. It is set during the French Revolution and recounts with great detail the unsettling fate of Marie Antoinette’s young son, Louis Charles. I was gripped by one idea: what if after his death, the ten year old’s ghost had returned to haunt the Temple prison? This was the crutch of the novel.
While writing Julien’s Terror, I also wanted to explore the darker side of the French Revolution; the lesser known genocide of 1794 where a third of France’s Vendée population died by the hand of the Republic. A noble figure loomed large in this violent story – a Scarlet Pimpernel of sorts, known as François de Charette. He is well regarded in Western France. I needed him in my story. He is the tragic hero of this novel and the book is dedicated to him.
And last, I was fascinated by the celebrity fortuneteller, Marie Anne Lenormand. She grew in importance when I began to explore the psychology of the French terror – a time of great distress when people turned on one another. At the same time the pace of economic change was frightening. The uncertainties faced by the French during the revolution meant that some were eager to seek answers or predictions from fortunetellers. This behaviour surged despite so called enlightenment!
I combined all these obsessions, and Julien’s Terror was born. It was pure self-indulgence.
4. Are your characters based on real-life?
I like combining real-life and imaginary, yet plausible characters. In The Ming Storytellers, the male protagonist is the Muslim eunuch, Zheng He. In 15th century China, this admiral led massive fleets across the oceans for the then Yong Le emperor. In the novel I give him a love interest – an entirely fictional concubine with many secrets.
In my historical mystery, The Mascherari, all main characters are fictional but the story is anchored by known historical figures. References to Doge Tommaso Mocenigo are faithful to historical sources, save for those moments where he encounters my fictional characters. The secretive and highly feared Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of Ten) existed, and as described in the novel, it operated an extensive archive system and spy network. Did it dabble in the occult? Who knows.
Another interesting cameo in The Mascherari is Renaissance man, Leone Battista Alberti, who in later years would devise secret ciphers for the Vatican.
5. What sort of research did the novels require?
I have used historical texts, journal articles, archaeological articles, archives, old paintings or illustrations, newspapers, museums and I’ve also travelled to certain places.
While writing The Ming Storytellers back in 2006, I travelled to Yunnan in southern China and visited Beijing’s Forbidden City.
For The Mascherari I visited Venice and its Palazzo Ducale in 2013. I lost myself in the streets of the Arsenal district which is actually much changed since the 15th century.
Julien’s Terror stands out for me because it was partly based in Nantes which happens to be my family’s hometown in France. Many Vendée locations featured in the novel – Montaigu, La Guyonnière, La Roche-sur-Yon and Les Epesses – also have ties to my family history. And of course there is Paris, the novel’s main setting, which I have visited many times. All of this, and access to French historical sources, helped.
6. Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?
Yes, I think that is true for historical fiction. Through its characters, it can offer interpretations of the past. Readers can experience what it might have been like for people who lived in certain periods or witnessed key events.
Through a writer’s craft, a reader can experience a world vicariously through the characters. For example, a reader can peek into the secret life of a king or queen and be intimate with a world that would otherwise remain remote.
I also believe that through emotions, revelations about the period can surface, and a new understanding of the past can emerge almost subconsciously.
But this vicarious living also holds true for the writing process – imagining something is like living it. The brain does not know the difference.
7. You are extremely well-travelled, which countries and cultures have inspired you?
I hunger for time travel I think. And clairsentient experiences.
The passion of my twenties has been Spain. I remain vividly inspired by its history and its art. Strange that I have felt no need to write a novel set in Spain but it remains the origin of my love for history. It was also my first travel love affair. It is one of those places that leave a profound imprint in the psyche. Nothing in its history is subtle: Andalusia, the Reconquista, the Inquisition, the Peninsula War, the Spanish Civil War…
I love a good historical novel set in Spain – books by Ildefonso Falcones, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Lilian Gafni and Lisa J. Yarde.
I usually prefer to travel to a place whose history has already inspired me through literature. There was a time when a novel about Cathars might have seen the day – I was only 24 when I visited Montségur and Carcassonne. I was deeply moved by the fate of the parfaits. But I’m over that phase now.
Nowadays I like the idea of say, travelling through Paris and seeing it for the very first time, with 18th and 19th century eyes. Imagining buildings that have since been demolished, for example. There should be a tourism app for this – an app that would allow you to see an old street or castle that once stood in a certain spot as you move near it. So if you were passing through the 3rd arrondissement in Paris, in the Square du Temple, you might see a 3D picture of the Temple prison appear on your phone with information about it. It would be captivating.
8. I know from your books, blogs, and posts, that you are inspired by art – in particular the sensuality of art, do you have any favourite eras?
You are very perceptive because art is important to me. At the moment I lean toward 18th and 19th century paintings and decor. I would say the Rococo period is one of my favourites because I love its insouciance, its abundance of flowers, and its depiction of fabric. It is soothing, especially for someone like me with heavier obsessions. In Rococo décor, I love the use of whimsical pastels – the mints, pinks and lemons look amazing with gold. They transport.
9. The other passion we both share is our love of food but you have taken this to a whole new level. Can you tell us more about your latest project?
I am glad we share this passion. The Secret of Chantilly is my latest project. I like to say it is a fairy tale written for the heart. It is the story of 19th century rags-to-riches chef, Marie-Antoine Carême and his secret relationship with French statesman, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. They were two men from entirely different worlds.
I have been relatively quiet about the project for now, but I can say that yes, it is a sweet indulgence set in Paris and Vienna. It is mostly a story of friendship, gastronomy, world peace and of overcoming self-doubt. It was a delight to write.
10. Have there been any surprises in your writing career, e.g., maybe research that has taken you down another path, or things you’ve discovered about yourself?
The greatest revelation for me as a female writer has been that I love inhabiting my male characters. I have been a eunuch, an emperor, various spies, an admiral, a fencing master, a chef, a medieval detective, and a ruthless merchant. I love my lives as a man!
But it’s not just about thrills. One of the real life characters I most enjoyed writing about is the 19th century French statesman, Talleyrand. My fourth novel, The Secret of Chantilly, has wrapped up and yet I cannot seem to let go of him.
The more I learned about his elusiveness and enigmatic personality, the more I found myself obsessed with becoming him, if only to inhabit his mind. To discover his psyche was a real pleasure. I like to think I came close.
11. What do you think makes a book ‘sing’ whilst others fall flat?
For me, a book that ‘sings’ needs to offer something to the reader, but then again, each reader seeks something different.
My personal preference is for writing that mesmerises and draws the reader in. It uses simple, honest language; it avoids digressions and shies from lengthy descriptions. It brings you back to the human focus, always. Or it pulls you closer and closer to some revelation. I like that.
12. Which authors inspire you?
I love Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo – the first, for his historical fiction prowess, and the other, for his depth and beautiful prose.
I also look up to Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu and Daphne du Maurier for their sensational suspenseful style. Wilkie Collins is a master at creating dangerous and complex female characters. I absolutely loved what he did with Lydia Gwilt from Armadale.
13. Favourite artwork?
Randomly I choose De Musette by Eugene de Blaas. How can you not fall in love with those floral mint balloon sleeves? And the flowers in her hat, aren’t they just lovely?
But I have many beloved artworks. Some of them dark.
14. Favourite piece of music?
I adore Vangelis who I believe cannot be dethroned as my ultimate favourite composer. Film composers like Junkie XL also blow my mind. This year I have been inspired by Spanish composer, Ivan Torrent. His music summons vivid imagery and helps me to create plots. I am addicted.
15. Favourite movie?
Goya’s Ghosts by Miloš Forman is one of my many favourites. No surprises – it is set in Spain and features one of my favourite artists. It also delves into the Inquisition and the Napoleonic period which means it combines two of my historical interests.
16. Favourite food?
A tie between Mediterranean cuisine and good old bread and butter. I worship butter and everything that embraces it – like the Kouign-amann which literally means ‘butter cake’ (amann = butter). Butter and caramelised sugar are the key to this glorious pastry from Brittany.
17. Favourite Drink?
In the winter months, when I am well behaved, I love a mild chai on soy milk. I am blessed with a husband who loves blending chai. Oh, and he’s a writer too. Extra bonus points…
Thank you so much for being a guest on A Literary World, Laura. Your answers left me wanting to know much more. I love the painting you chose and I now have to try my hand at those delectable Kouign-amann. Oh my, how can you resist them? We wish you continued success with your writing and look I forward to The Secret of Chantilly.
Amazon books: https://www.amazon.com/Laura-Rahme/e/B008P7CF8K
Author Blog: http://teranga-and-sun.blogspot.com/