Interview with Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Magical Realism panel

Award-wining historian and novelist.

Interview conducted by Beth Roberts.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is an award-winning historian and novelist, who is currently chairing the judging panel for the International Booker Prize. I caught up with Lucy to ask her about her 2019 short-story collection, Fabulous, her 2017 novel, Peculiar Ground and her historical non-fiction. I wanted to find out how she approaches her long-form and short-form work, the differences between her fiction and non-fiction texts and what she has planned for her future writing.

Q: The Tablet’s review of Fabulous, compared you to Angela Carter, stating that your work is “more compassionate and more subtle”. Is Carter an inspiration of yours or are there other writers you find greater inspiration from?

I do love Angela Carter’s writing. She was serious and playful, and uninhibited in the way she made a flourish of her cleverness, and her wonderful facility with language. I’m delighted that that reviewer saw an affinity between her fierce fairy stories and my re-written myths. She is one of dozens of writers whose work has helped me find my own voice. Here’s a random selection of those whom I admire: Stendhal for his honesty and his wit; V.S. Naipaul for the beautiful cadences of his prose; Nabokov for his brilliant word-play; Trollope for the kindness of his fictional imagination; Charlotte Bronte for the thrilling tension in her work between the sober surface and the craziness that is always on the point of breaking through.

Q: The theme of our festival this year is long form and short form. Do you find a considerable difference in writing shorter fiction, such as the short stories in Fabulous, and long form fiction, such as Peculiar Ground?

It’s as different as I imagine sprinting must be from running a marathon. Writing the long novel, I repeatedly changed the pace, and the tone.  I had nine different narrative voices.  The structure evolved slowly, and I made major changes to it in the course of the writing.  I was feeling my way, discovering new routes through my story and adapting characters and incidents to accommodate them. I did a lot of revising and a lot of cutting. Entire subplots were jettisoned.  Subsidiary characters became more prominent, others faded out.

Writing the short stories was a completely different process.  For each one I had to find the voice and the rhythm and then go with it.  It just had to come out right first time.  I did very little revision.

Q: You are a historian, as well as a fiction writer. Do you do extensive research before sitting down to write a first draft of your fiction writing? 

I write first and check afterwards.  For Peculiar Ground I drew on what I’d got stashed away in my head already, from many years of looking at paintings and architecture and reading. Then afterwards I went through weeding out anachronisms. For instance, there are quite a few animals in that novel. I didn’t go off to the library and read up about fashions in pet ownership.  I put peacocks and goldfish and pug dogs into the first draft, and then checked to make sure that they really would have been around in England in the 1660s.

Q: What do you find different about writing fiction, in contrast to writing historical texts, such as Heroes and The Pike?

It’s liberating being able to fabricate whatever material you need.  Writing historical biography, you have a great mass of information to be wrestled into shape.  The hard work is finding the right structure to hold everything you want to say, and to make it all work together in the way an extended piece of music works, with varied tempi and different voices.  With non-fiction that can be hard.  There may be riveting incidents that just don’t quite fit.  With fiction, when you, as the author, want a change of pace – say you’ve written a sombre passage and you want to lighten the tone with a playful anecdote – you don’t have to rummage through your notes looking for something appropriate. You can just make it up.

When it comes down to it, though –fiction or non-fiction – it’s all story-telling. Creating a structure, choosing the right words, putting them together so that they sing – whatever genre you’re working in, the essential process is the same.

Q: Your fiction writing often bridges the gap between realism and fantasy. Do you find that your historical research has informed your interest in mythology, or does this interest come from another form of inspiration?

My historical writing has often been about myth-making and propaganda and the way that political leaders invoke ancient stories to give their own careers a patina of glory. And I am very interested in the way we humans try to explain the inexplicable by making up stories. Writing fiction, I like to leave a space for mystery, for the dimension of experience that is beyond reason and beyond words.  

Q: Has being the chair of the International Booker Prize judging panel affected your writing or how you have approached your writing? If so, in what way?

Reading a hundred and twenty-five novels from around the world in just a few months has certainly given me new ideas.  Better still – discussing those books with my four thoughtful fellow-judges has been illuminating.  It’s too soon to say how the experience will affect my own writing.  What I know already, though, is that many of the books we found most impressive are unpindownable within any known category.   There are lots of authors working in the borderlands between fiction and biography/history/memoir/meditation. They’re making up their own rules and producing excitingly original work.  

Q: Have you found that Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns have impacted your writing? In what way?

We writers don’t need to go out, or to have complicated machines or support staff.  I feel tremendously lucky that the pandemic, whatever it may have done to other parts of my life, hasn’t prevented me working.

Q: Fabulous and Peculiar Ground are your more recent works. Do you plan on writing more historical non-fiction or are you continuing to work in the realm of fiction writing?

I’m writing a historical biography now, about George Villiers, the 17th century Duke of Buckingham whom King James I loved, but the next book will be another novel.

Lucy’s answers were brilliantly enlightening and opened a door into the fascinating creative process behind producing both long-form and short-form, fiction and non-fiction texts. I think approaching writing in all formats as a form of “story-telling” is a fantastic way to create thought-provoking and engrossing pieces of writing and this technique has inevitably enabled Lucy to forge such beautifully crafted works of fiction and non-fiction. In a time where we all need a little bit of escapism, I can definitely recommend a journey into the world of myth with Lucy Hughes-Hallett.

Buy Peculiar Ground

‘Unlike anything I’ve read. Haunting and huge, and funny and sensuous. It’s wonderful’ Tessa Hadley

‘I just enjoyed it so very much’ Philip Pullman

It is the 17th century and a wall is being built around a great house. Wychwood is an enclosed world, its ornamental lakes and majestic avenues planned by Mr Norris, landscape-maker. A world where everyone has something to hide after decades of civil war, where dissidents shelter in the forest, lovers linger in secret gardens, and migrants, fleeing the plague, are turned away from the gate.

Three centuries later, another wall goes up overnight, dividing Berlin, while at Wychwood, over one hot, languorous weekend, erotic entanglements are shadowed by news of historic change. A little girl, Nell, observes all.

Nell grows up and Wychwood is invaded. There is a pop festival by the lake, a TV crew in the dining room and a Great Storm brewing. As the Berlin wall comes down, a fatwa signals a different ideological faultline and a refugee seeks safety in Wychwood.

From the multi-award-winning author of The Pike comes a breathtakingly ambitious, beautiful and timely novel about game keepers and witches, agitators and aristocrats, about young love and the pathos of aging, and about how those who wall others out risk finding themselves walled in.

Buy Fabulous

Not since Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber have old stories been made to feel so electrically new.

It’s in the nature of myth to be infinitely adaptable.

Each of these startlingly original stories is set in modern Britain. Their characters include a people-trafficking gang-master and a prostitute, a migrant worker and a cocksure estate agent, an elderly musician doubly befuddled by dementia and the death of his wife, a pest-controller suspected of paedophilia and a librarian so well-behaved that her parents wonder anxiously whether she’ll ever find love.

They’re ordinary people, preoccupied, as we all are now, by the deficiencies of the health service, by criminal gangs and homelessness, by the pitfalls of dating in the age of #metoo. All of their stories, though, are inspired by ones drawn from Graeco-Roman myth, from the Bible or from folk-lore.

The ancients invented myths to express what they didn’t understand. These witty fables, elegantly written and full of sharp-eyed observation of modern life, are also visionary explorations of potent mysteries and strange passions, charged with the hallucinatory beauty and horror of their originals.

To find out more about Lucy Hughes-Hallett go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information and to buy her books go to the Appleseed Bookshop.

Beth Roberts is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing Saturday lunchtime’s Magical Realism panel during this year’s festival.

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