Friday, April 17, 2020

Tessa Arlen

Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fiction: In Royal Service to the Queen.

Arlen lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.

Her newest novel is Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, the first title of the A Woman of World War II series.

My Q&A with Arlen:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I wanted to use the name of my protagonist and an alliterative description of her quest to reflect the straightforward simplicity of the derring-do of adventure stories between the wars.

Writers don’t often choose the title of their books, but it mattered enough to me that my publisher did not change it, for some marketing reason of their own, that I actually had the gall to put up a reasonable fight.

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders (my title and the one we went with) is the story of an air raid warden. She lives in a small village in England and patrols at night to secure the blackout which gives her the opportunity to investigate the murders of young local girls who are dating American airmen.

What's in a name?

The names of the people in my books are illustrative of who they are, so choosing the right name is not only important but a lot of fun. I feel as if I have known two of my characters, Poppy Redfern and her alter-ego, Ilona Linthwaite, for years.

Poppy is bright, brave and vividly imaginative. An orphan of WWI (in England the poppy became an emblem of remembrance of those who died in the Great War) Poppy’s young father did not survive the Battle of the Somme and her mother died during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Poppy is somewhat reserved and unsophisticated but she is strong, enduring and manages to find courage in the dangerous and uncertain times she lives in.

Ilona Linthwaite is the heroine of the novel that Poppy is writing and everything that Poppy wishes herself to be. Ilona’s cool laconic drawl is direct and often acerbic, and she is very much at ease in the exciting world of newspaper reporting during the Blitz. She also urges Poppy to step out of herself, encouraging her to break rules and stand up for what she wants. As her graceful, dreamy name suggests, Ilona is a figment of Poppy’s imagination.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

She would be astonished, and she certainly wouldn’t believe that I wrote it! My teenage self read everything she could lay her hands on, especially in math class, but was pretty undisciplined and a natural rebel, so writing, and completing, a novel would have been beyond her. But I think she would have been drawn to Poppy’s determination to do her bit for the war effort and would have admired her determination to stick things out in tough times.

Like Poppy, I went to a very starchy English boarding school (with some of the most outdated and ridiculous rules imaginable). It was a claustrophobic existence and I craved the freedom to join the exciting world of the 1970s, so the ‘going without’ and ‘mending and making do’ of Homefront life during WWII would probably not appeal to my younger self. But I would love the idea of an American airfield close by, and all the young fighter pilots filling up the local pub every night. Not to mention learning how to jitterbug! And I would wholeheartedly despise the narrow-minded villagers’ attitude that the Americans were outsiders, capable of murder simply because they were different.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

What about middles? My greatest fear is that the middle of the book will sink like a half-baked pudding!

I love beginnings and the energy of starting a new book, but I often return to re-work my first two or three chapters after I have written the ending. By that time, I am so familiar with my characters and the predicament they have hopefully wormed their way out of, that the opportunity to re-shape them at the beginning of the story helps me to show the reader how much they have to dig down to find themselves when they are confronted with conflict. It takes a good deal to push us forward sometimes, to face down our fears as we grope our way to accomplish things that might originally have made us want to run and hide.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think my main character has a bit of me in her, and she has some of the qualities I wish I had! I am not physically courageous (I am terrified of heights, deep water and the dark) but I am morally brave and willing to make myself do things that are daunting. Both Poppy and I tend to be quite direct, but she, unlike me, is much better at holding her tongue. I hope she grows out of some of her reserve as we go forward.

Poppy is what I call a thinking introvert. She is pensive and introspective, but she is drawn to outgoing people, like the American pilot Griff O’Neal, and enjoys the dinner parties and the Sunday lunches her grandparents organize for the Americans from the base to meet the people from the village. But she needs the solace of her night patrols to organize her thoughts and make sense of life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

People made a great effort during the horrors of their war to enjoy themselves when they could. Going to the pictures (movies), dancing at nightclubs, or gathering around the radio in the evening to listen to ITMA (It’s That Man Again) a favorite wartime satire and wonderfully funny to this day. Village life in England in the 1940s was insular and centered around the community: church bazaars, village fetes, and cricket matches. But the heartbeat of the village was, and still is, the pub.

I watched the movies made during the war years, rather than the ones popular after it. Mrs. Miniver, with Greer Garson, was immensely helpful in showing the subtlety of wartime propaganda, and I love the stagey acting and the cut glass accents of the time. Did people of that generation really talk in that clipped, back-of-the-throat way?

The music of the 1940s was helpful, especially the American big band sound—there was such energy and intensity to American music then. But I think the food they ate in Britain during these awful years was what helped me understand the deprivations that all Brits went through during the last war. I sent off for a tin of Spam to see if it was really as bad as I imagined. It is truly awful stuff and was probably even more disgusting in the bleak days of rationing.

Most of all I think it is the pastoral world of England that inspires me the most. The beauty of the countryside has a strong influence on all my writing. Fields and pastures hedged by hawthorn with wildflower-filled ditches; copses and woods where the loudest sound is birdsong; the breath-taking grandeur of ancient oak and beech trees. Landscapes empty of civilization and hideous mall-architecture are still the greatest joy to me about going home to visit family in England.
Visit Tessa Arlen's website.

See Tessa Arlen’s top five historical novels.

Coffee with a Canine: Tessa Arlen & Daphne.

The Page 69 Test: Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders.

--Marshal Zeringue