Author of a series of successful books, Victoria Blake was brought up in The Queen’s College, Oxford, where her father, renowned historian Lord Blake, served as the provost from 1968 to 1987. Blake herself read History at Lady Margaret Hall and afterwards worked in law, publishing, and bookselling. Her latest book, Titian’s Boatman, is an epic historical fiction evolving around three stories that take place in different times and spaces, yet all curiously linked by Titian’s portrait, Man with a Quilted Sleeve. This week, The Oxford Student has had the pleasure of talking with Victoria, who has shared with us some revealing insights into her fiction and writing, as well her unique perspective on Oxford University.
Photo courtesy of Black and White Publishing
It seems Oxford has always carried the ambience of mystery. How do you think Oxford inspires your crime fiction writing and particularly the creation of Sam Falconer as a ‘Private Eye/I’?
I gave Sam my own background but I have her be a judo champion, so she finds the whole cerebral aspect of Oxford rather a strain! The aim was to create conflict and dissonance between her and her childhood home. I imagined someone who was very skilled athletically and whose take on the academic environment is one of exasperation. But her background is useful because, for example, in Skin and Blister some of the crimes take place inside a college and she has a particular insight because of her childhood. A child’s perspective on very clever people is interesting because as a child ‘cleverness’ doesn’t really mean anything. Your main take on people is if they can talk or engage with you. As a child, some of my fondest memories are of the college servants. These people were there all the time and part of our everyday life. The dons were there as well, of course, and some of them were absolutely lovely, but some of the older, more eccentric ones were frankly baffling!
Samantha, ‘Sam’, Falconer’ is quite an androgynous name. Did the all-male environment of Queen’s you grew up in affect your portrayal of Sam?
The name was a mash-up of Sam Spade, American crime writer Dashiell Hammett’s private detective, and then his book which was turned into a film with Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon. I am a big fan of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series, I envisaged my Sam as being in that tradition. I started living in Queen’s when I was six and at that time it was all male. I suppose the thing is me and my sisters would have stood out as little boys because of our age, but did so even more as girls. We became sort of college mascots. A long time later I remember someone who had been an undergraduate at Queen’s telling me that he knew the agony of a tutorial would be over when he saw me walking round the quad on the way back from school. An androgynous name suits my character because she’s a tom boy. Put her in a corner and she’ll fight to get out of trouble, she won’t think her way out! Incidentally if anyone wants to know what it was like to be a young girl brought up in an all male environment they should read the first few chapters of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. His description of Lyra is an incredibly accurate psychological portrait of that.
I’m very conscious of my reader, of the privilege of being read. You want to make it worth their while.
Titian’s Boatman seems quite a departure from the Sam Falconer series. What does this shift mean to you, especially comparing to your Oxford past?
I had very much enjoyed writing the Sam Falconer books but I didn’t have any offers to continue the series so I had the opportunity to branch out! Titian’s Boatman uses very different creative muscles because I’m not tied into ‘solving a crime’ and I liked the freedom that gave me. It was a much more difficult book to write because there was a great deal of research involved, so the rhythms of writing it were different. I had to research and then let my research ferment a little, write a bit and then research a bit more. However, in both cases I’m writing about places that are exceptionally beautiful and have a huge symbolism for people. I suppose there’s the challenge of trying to bring a place alive, get to the spirit of a place in some way that the reader can see it differently. Is Oxford the Oxford of Alice in Wonderland, or Lyra’s, or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, or the place where students are simply working incredibly hard to get their degrees? The same sort of thing applies to Venice. There are multiple Venices in the same way as there are multiple Oxfords. For a large part of my life Oxford was simply my home. There are the stones of places like Venice and Oxford and all that history, but then there is also the fact that people live and work there, and go about their daily business. These two things rub up and down against each other all the time. It’s an interesting dynamic to work with as a writer.
Your father was renowned historian Lord Blake; has his academic interest affected your approach to history in Titian’s Boatman, or your choice to move from the crime genre to historical fiction?
I studied History for my degree and was definitely influenced to do that because of my father, although my mother and older sister had also studied history and my grandfather had taught it at Norwich School. In fact, he taught my father, so I suppose it’s there in the blood somewhere. I didn’t terribly enjoy my degree but later I wrote two true crime books for The National Archives – – one on Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain and one on Florence Maybrick, a Victorian arsenic poisoner. I loved writing those two books because I got my hands on original documents and got to take my time with them. I think writing those re-ignited my interest in history and led eventually to that filtering into my fiction writing and Titian’s Boatman. The book that made my father’s reputation was his biography of Disraeli. One of the reasons the book was so well received was not simply because it was a ‘clever’ book (which it undoubtedly was), but because it was also an immensely readable and entertaining book. I took that lesson from him and his writing. I’m very conscious of my reader, of the privilege of being read. You want to make it worth their while.
There are the stones of places like Venice and Oxford and all that history, but then there is also the fact that people live and work there, and go about their daily business. These two things rub up and down against each other all the time.
Why Man with a Quilted Sleeve? What do you find special about it?
He’s such a sexy, arrogant dandy and I love his carefully plucked eyebrows! I’d always end up in front of him when I was in a particularly restless and unsettled frame of mind. And he was also such a terrible portrait to stand in front of in that state. It was laughable! I always imagined him saying something like, ‘Oh, pull yourself together’, or, ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’. Exactly the kind of things I didn’t want to hear! Titian painted him when he was very young, only twenty, so that also intrigued me. I find Titian’s portraits easier to engage with than the big religious, mythic ones. Those ones always seem to require too much knowledge to fully understand them, whereas with a portrait it’s a much simpler exchange. You stand there and you look them in the eye. He’s in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London by the way. Everyone should go and see him!
And finally, what advice would you give to novice writers?
To doubt is normal. To wonder what on earth you are doing is normal. To think this will never make me any money is normal. To think you are not good enough is normal. To not know what you are doing is normal. It took me eight years to get an agent and then get published. That’s eight years during which I felt a sort of shame to admit that I wanted to be a writer because the dream seemed so very distant. Writing a book is an act of grim, bloody-minded stubbornness and everyone will do it differently and find that different things work for them. And there are points when you despair. That is also completely normal. Find people you can share your dreams with and who will take you seriously and hold your dreams tenderly. Treat cautiously the ones who undermine your confidence. Join writing groups, do writing courses. Find ways to get your work out there. Now there are many more ways to do this than when I was starting out. A couple of years ago when I couldn’t get a certain novel, Far Away, published, which is based on my father’s diaries of being a prisoner of war in Italy during the Second World War, I self-published it and it ended up being short-listed for a prize by the Historical Novel Society. That then gave me the encouragement to keep going. And finally, if you’re successful, help other writers. Former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright once said, ‘There’s a special place in hell for those women who do not help other women.’ I’d also say, ‘There’s a special place in hell for writers who do not help other writers.’