Friday, 3 June 2011

Interview with Priya Parmar + Giveaway

Today I am very happy to introduce to you a wonderful new author, who has been a great blogger friend of mine and is an all around sweet person: historical fiction author Priya Parmar!

Priya's debut novel Exit the Actress (which was released in February) takes the reader on an enchanted time travel back to the colourful and buzzing theatre scene of 17th century London. You can read my review of Exit the Actress here. Read on to discover more about the novel, the characters and the little secrets of how the novel came to be, then enter for your chance to win yourself a copy of Exit the Actress at the end.

Please give the warmest welcome to Priya Parmar!

Stella: Welcome Priya to Ex Libris! :-) I would like to ask you, most historical novels explore different time periods, why did you decide to set your debut novel Exit the Actress in the 17th century? What attracted you to the Restoration period?

Priya: It is interesting. I was not particularly in love with the Restoration before I met Nell Gwyn. I am not sure why that is; a charismatic, comeback king, the fire, the plague, international espionage, the first female playwright—I really should have been but it was a bit overshadowed for me by the bloodthirsty, off with her head Tudors and the prim but seething Victorians.

Once I met Nell Gwyn, I upped sticks and promptly moved to the Restoration and never looked back. It is a wonderful place to live! The sheer innovation of the period bowls me over; blood transfusions, the Royal Society, Christopher Wren and St. Pauls, the construction of Versailles in France and a roaring theatre all mix to create a thrilling epoch. I loved it and now I find myself missing it!

Stella: How did you come to know about Nell Gwyn and what compelled you to make her your heroine?

Priya: Nell was the first woman I met when I was researching my doctorate. She moved into my imagination and refused to vacate. It was an odd experience really. You know the small random threads of stories you write in your head while you walk to the bus or do laundry—or maybe that is just me?—she insisted on starring in all of them. Even if I cast someone else she would stage a coup and take hijack the story. She was a timorous beastie and I just loved her.

Stella: Exit the Actress is - very uniquely - told not only through journal entries, but also correspondence between different characters, beauty recipes, gazette news and government register entries. What inspired you to use such a patchwork of sources to tell the story of Nell?

Priya: This format was also a bit out of my control—this sounds bad, doesn’t it? As if I cannot get a grip on my story horses and just go where they take me, but that is true! The story did not want to live in a third person straightforward narrative. It insisted on living in a diary format and then bloomed into letters and documents and bits of paper without really consulting me.

I think because my background is academic, I feel really comfortable with primary documents. I like the way they provide the essential story but every reader with find something different.

Stella: Speaking of Nell, what I find amazing was how genuine her voice came through the story. That besides giving us a good picture of society, history, life and politics of the time, we really got to see Ellen as the person. Her life and the way she got where she ended up in life is even more astonishing seeing she achieved all that at such a time!

Priya: I am so pleased you feel that way!

Stella: The question always arises with historical fiction: how much is history and how much is fiction? How close did you stick to facts and which creative liberties did you take?

Priya: I am a bit obsessive about historical accuracy. There are two Nells really: the Nell of history and the Nell of popular legend. The mythic Nell became a byword for a courtesan or a woman of loose principles but the Nell of history only slept with three men. In her own time she was known for fidelity and strong principles.

I chose to depict the Nell of history. She was most likely from a family that fell into poverty after her father, a captain in the Royalist army, was killed. Her grandfather was a canon at Christ Church and she did most likely have a pleasing accent. I also chose to believe she could read. This woman was close to Aphra Behn, John Dryden, George Etheredge, John Wilmot, Christorpher Wren and the king, it seems unlikely she was illiterate. As well, she learned up to three plays a week and while many of the players were illiterate, they were often bit or supporting actors. It would have been extremely inconvenient for a lead to be unable to read.

Stella: There is a duplicity in the novel: the heroine goes by Ellen in her personal life while the public knows and loves her as Nell. She tries to keep herself separate from her stage persona, and that is why she sees that Charles II also has two faces: the public persona of a king, and the private one of the man.

Priya: Everywhere Nell Gwyn signed her name, she used “Ellen’ or “E.G.”. Aphra Behn also dedicated her play to her dear friend “Ellen Guin”. It seems likely that she used Ellen in her personal life. The pressure of celebrity was not so different from today for both Ellen and Charles. The public wanted to know their daily routines, clothes, eating habits, face wash, and beauty rituals. I think it could get invasive for both of them and they probably had to put on a public face to protect their private lives.

Stella: The supporting characters are very well developed and get enough “screen time” for the reader to become familiar with them. Which one was a personal favourite of yours? Was he/she a favourite of yours based on your research of the historical figure or did they become so while the story took its shape?

Priya: I loved them all but Teddy, Johnny and Aphra were all favourites. They just arrived at my door fully formed. Their histories are all accurate but their characters are all their own. I have no idea where they came from. Some of their wilder antics are all historically rooted. Teddy did dress up as a lovely woman and go riding in open carriages with leading society ladies. Aphra was a spy for the British government and did warn them about the Medway. Johnny did wreck the king’s sundial and get sent away. The story about his friends being killed and not returning to assure him of heaven is also true. Impossible not to love him after learning that.

Exit the Actress: A NovelStella: How long have you spent researching Exit the Actress? Can you give us a glimpse behind the scenes of how the novel came to life?

Priya: It is difficult to say as I did much of the research during my academic life but I researched and wrote for five years. I thought the researching stage would end and writing would take over but it did not work like that. I researched all the way through.

Once I realized that the novel was about her, I really just let it happen the way it wanted to happen rather than tried to force it into a preconceived idea I had. Everything about it was a wonderful surprise and eventually I began to trust that when I sat down to the computer, it would show up. I am very lucky that it did!

Stella: If you could spend a day with a character from any novel, who would you like to spend your day with and what would you two be doing?

Priya: I would love to meet Mrs. De Winter from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. I would ask her first name and go for a long walk around Manderly.

Stella: If you could time travel and visit any time period for a couple of weeks, where would you like to go?

Priya: So many places! Napoleonic France, Mughal India, on a tour of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s closet…

Stella: Priya, can you tell us what is next on your schedule, what we can expect from you?

Priya: I am moving to the early twentieth century and taking omnibuses to the British Museum, buying books at Hatchards and tea at Fortnums. I love it!

Stella: Thank you Priya for stopping by and for such a delightful interview, can't wait to accompany you on that early twentieth century journey! ;-)

Priya Parmar, a former freelance editor and dramaturg holds degrees in English Literature and theatre. She attended Mount Holyoke College, Oxford University and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She divides her time between Hawaii and London. Exit the Actress is her first book.

If you would like to learn more about Priya please visit her at her website or her blog, The Plum Bean Project.


Thanks to the generosity of Simon and Schuster, one lucky commentator will receive their own paperback copy of Exit the Actress, yay!

Exit the Actress: A Novel

All you have to do is:

1) leave a question/comment for Priya or tell us Which historical figure would you like to meet in real life/or personally get a glimpse of their life?

2) leave me a way to contact you (e-mail address or Twitter handle, etc.) 

Giveaway is open to residents of the US/Canada and ends on 17 June 2011.

Good luck!

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