Every so often, I come across a book that I can just tell is going to be something rather special – but I also know I might not be the right reviewer to do it full justice. That was the case with Charlatan, the debut novel from Kate Braithwaite – to be published tomorrow, 15th September, by Fireship Press in paperback and for kindle. So I called on a friend who’s reviewed for Being Anne before – the lovely Louise Wykes – and she’s produced an absolute beauty. I’ve interviewed Kate, so first, let me welcome her to Being Anne…
Hello Kate, and welcome to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself to everyone?
Hello and thank you for having me on Being Anne! I am a Scottish mum of three but as I currently live in the States I tend to answer to “mom” nowadays. I am an avid reader, book reviewer and history fan and am celebrating publishing my first novel this week.
Congratulations Kate! Tell me more about where the idea of Charlatan came from – I love the tagline of “a tale of poison, aphrodisiacs, lies and infidelity”. Was it a story you’d been wanting to tell for a while?
Yes! I love this story, perhaps mostly because so much of it is true. In 1679 a huge scandal erupted in Paris as numerous fortune-tellers, arrested on suspicion of poisoning their client’s husbands and invoking black magic, claimed they were in the employ of high-ranking courtiers, including Louis XIV’s long-time mistress, Athenais, Madame de Montespan. I felt an immediate interest in her. In 1679 she was approaching forty, had had seven children with the King, but found herself being abandoned in favour of an eighteen-year old beauty, Angelique de Fontanges. What would a woman like that have done to keep the love of the King?
And your research – lots of hours in the library and on-line, or were there some good research trips?
I love researching in all its forms. Field trips are wonderful of course, and had a great time dragging my husband on my research-driven sightseeing tour of Paris and Versailles, but I also love finding written sources: whether it’s discovering that the exact book I completely MUST HAVE is available on Abebooks or putting the perfect storm of key words into a google search that takes you to a primary source available for free on the internet. In the case of Charlatan, the Archives of the Bastille by Francois Ravaisson have been digitized by the University of Michigan and it is quite amazing to read through the interrogations that are so important in my novel.
Is it a difficult thing to bring a history – and one that some of your readers might not be familiar with – to life? As a debut novelist, there must have been challenges…
My biggest challenge (and there were a few!) was taking an investigation that was very wide-ranging and involved hundreds of people, and distilling it into a novel. Readers lose focus when stories have too many characters or plot-lines. In my early drafts there were just too many long French names and too much happening for the story to be cohesive. Sorting out what was the back-story and what the real conflict at the heart of the novel was took a while to sort out. And it became really important to me to give a sense of what a large scandal this was, while concentrating on only a handful of individuals within it. I hope I’ve managed that.
Is this a period of history that particularly fascinates you? Will you revisit, or are you already looking at a different setting?
I think the Seventeeth Century is a rich period that sometimes gets overlooked in favour of those dramatic Tudors. I have another book I’m working on, set in the same two or three year period, but in England, when Titus Oates had the whole of London in uproar with tales of a Popish Plot to murder Charles II. As with Charlatan, it’s a story of lies and intrigue and there is a hefty helping of blackmail thrown in there too. There are also other stories in and around Louis XIV court that might make good reading, but beyond all that I have a bit of an interest in an asylum story from 19th century New York…
Did you always want to write fiction, historical or otherwise?
I was one of those people that grew up loving reading and writing and thinking that writing a novel was something that I would definitely do – just as soon as I had something to actually write about. I wasted quite a lot of time starting stories and novels but giving up when I wasn’t producing amazing prose at the drop of a hat. When I did settle down to actually work at it, I chose historical fiction partly because I love to read it and also because I had found out about the Affair of the Poisons and knew I had a really great story to share.
I know that when you decided to write, you took a creative writing course – is it something you’d recommend to others?
Absolutely. I don’t think it’s essential but for me, it was very helpful. Just learning that writing was a craft was invaluable. It helped me gain confidence in my ability, but more importantly I saw how re-drafting, re-working, asking for criticism – and listening to it – pays huge dividends. I also met some really lovely people and as a result I have an invaluable critique partner who is a great friend, a trusted reader and also a wonderful writer.
Planning, writing, editing, getting ready for launch – what’s been your favourite part of the process? And the most difficult?
My favourite parts are the research and the first draft. After that it all gets much harder! I would say that I am ‘learning to love’ editing and that’s the area I have improved in the most. The hardest part for me was finding a publisher.
It made me smile when I saw your answer to the question about what your talent is as “I read a lot”. What writers do you particularly admire? And if someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you really like them to mention?
I would love to be able to write like Sarah Waters or Emma Donoghue. Fingersmith and Slammerkin are two of my favourite historical novels. I really admire a huge amount of other writers though. I recently heard Toni Morrison read and answer questions at the Philadelphia Free Library and she is inspirational. For classics I love Russian novels and the Brontes. For comedy, I read PG Wodehouse. Just off the top of my head I’d list Paul Auster, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and Martin Amis. I’ve also read an awful lot of Ian Rankin books, all of Gillian Flynn’s novels and recently finished This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell which is an excellent, wise novel. I could go on…
As a bit of a language geek, I really enjoy reading posts from your alter ego The Transatlantic Translator. Do you have an example that’s your personal favourite?
Oh, that reminds me I really need to do a post about the Olympics! Did you know they call the ‘home straight’ on the athletics track, the ‘straightaway’? I winced every time I heard it, it just sounded so wrong! One of my favourite past posts which is very relevant at this time of year is “P is for Pumpkin whore”. Although that post is less about language and more about cultural difference, the pumpkin flavouring obsession that hits America at the end of August is just bizarre to me and really does make me yearn for quintessentially British things… like the Archers and Bake-off.
I must ask you about the Brandywine Valley, where you currently live – I’ve just spent far too long exploring it on-line. Is it as beautiful as it looks?
It is truly lovely. You need to plan a visit! I live right in between the Brandywine Battlefield where Washington was defeated by the British in 1777 and Longwood Gardens, a gorgeous place to visit and stroll. It has a long history as home to some of the Lenape Indian tribe, and was developed as a garden by a member of the du Pont family in the last century. America is a hugely diverse country and far from as grim as Donald Trump makes it look.
Where do you think of as “home”?
I think as Edinburgh as “where I am from” but wherever my husband and kids are is my “home”: so right now that’s Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the self-proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World!
Thank you Kate – so lovely to meet you! Now let’s see what Louise thought of the book…
How do you keep the love of the King of France?
1676. In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin.
As a fan of historical fiction, especially that which is set in the Tudor period, I was intrigued by the blurb of Charlatan immediately. Even though this book is set in the seventeenth century court of Versailles and the King of the Sun himself, Louis XIV, I could instantly see parallels in the sense of danger and secrecy that surrounds the community of royalty whether English or French.
The book opens with a very disturbing and graphic scene of what we later learn is a black mass which is where a female body is used as an altar and an infant’s blood is used in place of the communion wine. Then the rest of the book concentrates upon events at the French Court three years later and in particular that of the King’s current favourite mistress, Athenais Montemart who is better known as Madame de Montespan. It is when the King has begun to tire of his mistress and his eyes are looking elsewhere for a younger mistress that Athenais begins to realise how much danger she is in from all angles.
The book read like a thriller, especially as I didn’t know the outcome of this particular period of history at all and I was held spellbound by the descriptions of sorcery, witchcraft and betrayal even amongst families. The novel also explores the relationship between the investigators La Reynie and Bezons who are conducting investigations into the accusations of witchcraft and poison that have been made in the King’s court. Kate Braithwaite paints a very convincing picture of men who were initially very moral and bent on seeking justice but after seeing what happens to people, especially poor people as opposed to the richer ones, become rather jaded and much more political in their standpoint.
This is a thrilling, fast paced read which read like a soap opera in that I just had to keep reading to find out what happened and the layers of lies and betrayals was just staggering and left me breathless throughout. This is the perfect example of what historical fiction should be: enticing, exciting and leaving the reader wanting to explore the topic concerned further. I can’t wait to see what Kate Braithwaite writes next. Magnificent!
There – that’s the reason why it’s really lovely sometimes to feature a guest reviewer – thanks Louise! And wishing you every success with the book, Kate…
Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Kate and her family now live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award and Random House Student Writing Prize, she writes atmospheric historical fiction exploring dark secrets and unusual episodes from the past: the stories no one told you about in history class at school. Her novel, Charlatan, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015.