Kate Williams: Historian and author of historical biographies

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image-katewilliams200Kate Williams is an historian and author of two historical biographies – England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton and Becoming Queen about the young Queen Victoria and her cousin Princess Charlotte. She is an expert on the Regency period in England and lectures regularly throughout Europe.

She is currently working on a book of fiction, The Pleasures of Men, which is set in the 1840s and follows a young woman’s obsession with a murderer. She is also working on her third book of history.

As well as writing books and lecturing, Kate also writes regular features for Sunday Telegraph, the Independent, the Spectator,BBC History Magazine and History Today. 

Click play to listen. Running time: 29.38

The Pleasures of Men

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Kate.

Kate
Thank you for having me.

Valerie
Tell us what came first, your love of history or your love of writing?

Kate
That’s a good question. I think they were both at the same time. I think I’ve always loved the history. I’ve always loved the past. As a little girl I used to make a time machine for my brother. I got this old box and covered it in silver foil and put him inside it, and rattled it around. I told him after I rattled it and kind of made some squeaking noises that we arrived in somewhere historical.

He said, “Oh look outside…” there were the pyramids. “Oh look, there’s Queen Victoria.” He believed me. He’s a lot bigger than me now. We couldn’t fit him in any boxes now, but he believed. I really loved taking him around in historical places, which he could never see.

But, I love writing as well. I wrote my first little novel when I was seven, and it was called The Adventures of Maria. It was not bad, actually. It was just the pictures weren’t so good. I illustrated it and I think my pictures of Maria escaping on an Albatross weren’t perhaps the best I had ever drawn.

Valerie
You’ve always been interested in writing, even from as young as seven then?

Kate
Yes. I was always writing stories and poems. My Adventures of Maria was my first finished novel. It wasn’t very long. There were a lot of abandoned ones before that one, but that one I could manage to see it to the end. I look back on it now and I think it’s not bad really. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end- some character development. There’s some conflict in there. The pictures are awful.

Valerie
When your passions are so obvious at such a young age was it very clear to you from that point that you were always going to end up doing something in history or writing?

Kate
Well, I always hoped to. I always hoped, I always wanted very much to. Then I spent a lot of time at school writing poems and stories. Then at university I think I was a little bit intimidated because you go to university and… it actually began a little bit earlier kind of when I began reading the great novelists, and I became reading Austin at about fourteen, fifteen. Then at university you read them all the time, all the greats. You just feel intimidated.

I think I went a bit quiet on the poems and stories, because I just got to think there were all these great writers, “Goodness, how can I ever compete?” Now, of course, I realize there’s no point in thinking about competing with Henry James and George Elliot. You just have to write your own way, and write what you know. Everyone’s views have equal weights.

I went a little bit quiet at university. But, after university I went traveling. I came to Australia traveling and I did a little bit of writing while I was traveling. I went to China, and I came for bits, and I went backpacking around Australia. I went back to America, back to Europe, to Britain. I did loads of writing while I was traveling. I think my mind was free.

Then it really started again. Then I did my PhD. I wrote while I was doing that. I wrote my first book calledEngland’s Mistress, and my second book on Queen Victoria. Then after I finished Queen Victoria I went and rented a flat in Paris for the summer, two summers ago, 2008.

It was just marvelous. I had a free mind. No deadlines. I just wrote, wrote, and wrote, and wrote in cafés and wrote the book that’s going to be published as a novel next year, The Pleasures of Men. I have lots of lovely writing time so far, particularly I think when I’m traveling.

Valerie
Tell us a bit about that book, The Pleasures of Men.

Kate
The Pleasures of Men is coming out next year. I began writing it in Paris, but it is primarily, or entirely a London novel. It’s about a girl who lives in East London in 1840 with her strange uncle. She becomes preoccupied by a serial killer who’s in London, who’s killing Londoners, kind of an early Jack the Ripper, really. She becomes obsessed by him and wants to write about him, wants to think about him. The more she becomes obsessed by him the more she begins to realize, “Wow,” he starts coming closer to her.

It was strange writing it in Paris. I think I was so charmed by Paris, because I know London quite well, but I don’t know Paris at all. I had never lived there. I hadn’t really- I had been there as a tourist, but not walked around. I was walking around Paris late at night. I had that kind of feeling of being a bit disoriented by the dark streets that I don’t get in London anymore. Paris I think is a lot quieter than London. Particularly in August it’s a much quieter city. There’s always someone wandering around London. Paris I thought was much quieter.

I really felt that then I kind of got an idea of what it must be like to wander around strange hostile streets that you don’t know where you’re going. It was a real inspiration for me.

I rented this lovely flat just near Notre Dame. I had a very nice commute. I walked over the Seine every morning to take my laptop to the cafés, there I wrote my novel. In the evenings I wrote some in my notebook. I had a wonderful time.

I really felt that I was completely on my own now. I didn’t really meet people there and make friends. At the same time I was completely on my own in a way I never am in London. There’s always emails, or someone to see, or something to be done. I think that traveling, you’re kind of on your own and you’re just yourself. You really can delve deep for the stories.

That’s what I found when I went traveling to Australia, initially. That’s definitely what I found when I went traveling the second time around when I went through Paris. It was really inspiring.

Valerie
Did you finish your first draft in that three months?

Kate
No. No, I didn’t finish it then. I did lots of writing then, particularly by hand, but I didn’t finish it. I finished a lot more when I came back to Britain. Becoming Queen was being published, and my TV program about Victoria was on, so I had the publicity for those at the same time I finished my novel. Also I was working my next biography now about Josephine Bonaparte. That was when I finished my novel.

I did a creative writing course at Royal Holloway. I worked on the course, worked on the novel as part of the course. I sold it earlier this year. I’m so excited to see it published next year.

So, very excited. I’ve got my next novel to write at well, which is about spirit chests in early 19th century America. At the moment I’m just correcting for the final edit of The Pleasures of Men, and I’m talking about Victoria, and I have Hamilton, and Josephine Bonaparte in Australia, and I’m writing my biography of Josephine Bonaparte, and writing my next novel.

It’s an exciting time, and I’ve got a few short story prizes and biography prizes to judge in England as well. I’m really enjoying it. It’s nice to have lots of emails.

Valerie
They’re all very different because writing fiction, such as The Pleasures of Men, and also you’re next fictional novel, is very different to writing historical biographies like England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, and your other one Becoming Queen about Queen Victoria. Of course you’ve done academic work as well, and a whole lot of different types of writing.

They’re extremely different to each other. The way you approach academic writing is entirely different to biography, entirely different to novels. Do you find hard to switch hats? Or what do you do in order to be able to switch from one to the other?

Kate
That’s a really good question. I mean they’re so different. Academic work is different. I still view, like academic articles, that’s very different to journalistic articles. Then that’s so different to biography and history, and of course very different to fiction.

I mean I try to kind of give blocks of time to different bits of writing. I can’t kind of move between them in an hour. I normally try and do, if it’s a day I try to devote to one, to either fiction or non-fiction rather than moving in between them. It does give me the kind of joy that I never, at the moment, have writer’s block, because if I do have writer’s block there’s always another kind of book that needs to be written, so I get on with that.

It is very different. I mean with a biography there’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of primary research to be done, letters to be read, history to be read, facts to be weighed up. Although you can’t, of course you can have creativity. It’s a creativity of perception, and a creativity of argument, and a creativity of what you find in the sources. You can’t make things up, you just can’t. It’s just not possible. You can’t make things up. You can’t speculate. That’s often a little bit sad. You think, “Oh, gosh. I really wish I knew what happened on this day.”

I mean for example with Emma Hamilton Nelson and Emma write each other these passionate letters. Nelson- she kept all his letters. Emma kept all his letters, but Nelson burned hers for the sake of her reputation. We don’t have any of her letters. The only letters that we have are those that arrived when Nelson never saw them. So, they arrived after the battle of Jafaga [assumed spelling; 09:24] and they were sent back to her.

You’d love to make up a letter, you’d love to have the idea. You’ve made up a letter of Emma Hamilton’s, but you can’t. You can’t do it. There’s no making up, but obviously there’s a strict chronology of it you have to keep to, because they’re born, they die, they meet people in the middle.

But, that’s so different to a novel, a novel is so different. Again, you can make anything up. That’s so wonderful, but it’s almost terrifying at times. Anything can be free. You think, “Gosh, what’s the right decision? Should he do that? Should he do that? Should it be winter? Should it be summer? Should he be going there, or there?”

I did write a synopsis for my novel, quite a detailed synopsis, but in the end the character did take over. She took over and she took me to places I hadn’t expected, and then you read over it again and you go, “Maybe she should actually be there.” The kind of freedom, it’s almost a bit like swimming. When you go swimming in the lanes you go up and down, up and down. And, then you’re go into the swimming pool that has no lanes, it’s all free.

I love writing fiction, I really do. I’ve always wanted to write fiction. I always did want to do so. I love the freedom and the excitement of it, and sort of experimenting and taking the character where you wish he could go. In biography you have to cut back. Certainly at the moment, actually it stopped, maybe I’m speculating too much here. Maybe I’m trying to impose my…” maybe when I’m writing about Josephine and how she thought about Neapolitan, maybe I’m going to far in imagination here.”

But, you can never feel that with a novel. You can never go too far with your imagination. You can take it as far as you wish. That’s really exciting I think.

Valerie
Do you have a preference? Is there one that you enjoy more than the other?

Kate
I like both. I do enjoy both. Of course both are historicals, so I keep within the past. I wrote a lot of novels that didn’t quite work before. I didn’t send them to anyone, or showed to anyone. I just knew that they didn’t quite work. I love- in both times- novel and biography- I love it when it’s going. It’s just marvelous when it’s going well and it’s flowing, and you think, “Gosh, I’ve got somewhere today.”

In both types they have their miseries. In novel, nothing comes. A biography you don’t find any new sources, or what you’re looking isn’t there. I think that I do enjoy both. I do enjoy the freedom, and the imagination, and the liberation of a novel. At the same time I enjoy the moments of discovery that you have with a biography, that you just find this piece of evidence. I go, “My goodness, that makes it all clear now.”

Valerie
With all of your books whether they’re fiction or non-fiction they have a historical bent. Do you write things in the present?

Kate
Well, I wrote some novels before, and I did have a go at writing things in the present. I feel that at the moment I’m better at writing things in history, because I’m so passionate about history, and so passionate about the past. I feel myself, I think so much about past and know much about history that I really enjoy it, I think, at the moment. For myself I find the past the most enchanting place to be, but that’s not to say I won’t change in the future.

Valerie
Obviously with your biographies you need to all of this research beforehand, before you can put pen to paper, but with your fictional work that’s not so vital? Or, do you also find you need to find out everything about the place and the setting before you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard?

Kate
Yes, exactly. I do think whatever research is so important to the novel. It’s absolutely important. It’s a very different kind of research really. Research for biography you’re looking their letters, you’re looking at the battles. Research for novel you’re really looking to know kind of about the sights, and the smells, what the streets smelt like, what the houses looked like, what the markets were like, what exactly they should be wearing, what her clothes- say, here like Catherine, what her clothes would have felt like, what her shoes would have felt like, how the maids would have dressed and undressed her, what exactly she would have possessed, how her books would have looked, how her music would have looked, what the other girls would have looked like.

It’s a very different type of research, a social history type of research that’s really fun. It’s really how our ancestors really lived.

Valerie
Now people are obviously very familiar with Queen Victoria, which is one of your books, Becoming Queen. But, tell us a bit more about why you chose to write about Emma Hamilton.

Kate
I fell in love with Emma Hamilton when I was writing my PhD at Oxford. It was on history of literature, and some of it was on The Seduction Novel. I thought I would call up some letters by women who had been seduced, or who had been seducing men. They were all so dreary, and they were all so dull. Then I came across an incredible letter by Emma she wrote to Nelson. When he just won the battle of the Nile she told him she was melting for him and swelling for him, dreaming of him, falling on her side at the thought of him.

She really put herself on the plate. She was ambassadress of Naples. She had a great position by that point. She was absolutely at the pinnacle of society, but she put herself really out there, really vulnerable to grab Nelson. He couldn’t be there fast enough. He was in Naples and was shot, the great love affair began. That was a fascinating story.

I was also so fascinated by how she got to the position she was. How did she come from nothing? She was born into such terrible poverty in 1765. This is absolutely at the bottom of society. The land was owned in Britain by just a few men, and Emma- because everyone who is born outside of these kind of wealthy families they were nothing. Emma was fodder for the industrial revolution. The average life expectancy at the time was 17. Nothing was expected of her. Instead she came whizzing up the ranks, and she really did. She became a catmistress, then she was wife of Sir William Hamilton, Lady Hamilton, ambassadress to Naples. Then she grabbed Nelson. It was just an incredible life.

I particularly enjoyed talking about it in Australia, because this is the time, the late 1800s, early 19thh century when the first settlers were coming over to Australia. I think it’s been particularly- lots of Australians seem to want to hear about Emma Hamilton. I think it is because this is when the people where coming over to Australia just to begin the very beginnings of the Australian settling.

So many of the people that Emma Hamilton knew when she was young in the poverty stricken streets of London, these are some of the people who came over to Australia because they knew they would have a better life in Australia than they would in class-bound Britain. These people who lived in basically lived in midst of poverty stayed there, and those who escaped it, some of them were incredibly lucky, like Emma. Some came to Australia, which for many of them was so much a better life.

Valerie
Amazing, strong character.

Kate
Absolutely.

Valerie
Which brings us then to your next one, the one that you’re writing about now, Josephine Bonaparte, another strong character. You’ve got a particular interest in strong females from history?

Kate
Yes, definitely. I mean obviously men are fascinating and important, but we’ve had a lot of coverage of great men. A lot of coverage of Neapolitan, a lot of coverage of Nelson, lots of coverage of great men. I think it’s time to give the women, the great women some room.

Particularly at the moment, in the old days people thought women were just men’s appendages, men’s accessories, just their broodmares, that kind of thing. Now we know that woman are important. They play a huge role in history in their own right. I think there’s a particular appetite to find out more about them.

Valerie
After Josephine?

Kate
That’s a very good question. I’m not quite sure. I’ve got a few ideas. I’ve got a few ideas, but Josephine comes out in 2012, so there’s a little time yet. I’ve got a few ideas, but not, not, not quite definitely decided yet. It seems like right that we bring her here to Australia.

Valerie
Tell us then about your next novel that you’ve got in the works.

Kate
Yes, my next novel is about spiritualists in early 19th century America. How the kind of battle between science and rationalism and spiritualists and how they fitted into this, and how people hunted out the spiritualists and told them they were irrelevant, and they were making up stories. People believed them hugely, and spiritualists had a lot of power in the 20th century, particularly in the war, in both wars.

People turned in particular to spiritualism to contact their dead relations, their husbands who were overseas. Spiritualism becomes terrible important at times of kind of national crisis. A lot of these women, I mean it was always women, and it was often men trying to dismiss them, trying to prove them wrong, or trying to prove them charlatans.

I’m particularly fascinated in that kind of subliminal battle, the battle between what is reality and what is imagination, and what is truth, and what isn’t. Is science all it’s cracked up to be? It’s science exactly as rational as it’s cracked up to be? Because so much of 19th century science was completely wrong.

Valerie
That seems so different to what you’ve been writing about so far. You’ve moved to America. Is that entailed a whole raft of other research?

Kate
It is new research, but I like that. I don’t want to always be writing the same theme. I don’t want to stick to writing books about the same people that I’ve written about before. I want to kind of change a little bit, and move a little bit, because there’s so much to learn, and there’s so much to read about, and there’s so many fascinating, fascinating, amazing characters in history, and fascinating periods in history. One lifetime of writing just isn’t enough to do them justice.

Valerie
When you are on a writing project do you have a particular daily routine? Do you have any rituals that you need to go through before you sit down at your computer? Do you have to write in a particular spot? Tell us about that, the process.

Kate
I used to be more like that, but nowadays I spend so much time traveling, promotions for film, TV programs, to do lectures. I give talks and lectures a lot in Europe and in Britain. I don’t kind of do that anymore. If I can, in August actually I had two weeks of absolutely nothing but writing, and it was amazing because I think, in August in Britain it’s so quiet. No one films, there’s nothing on TV, because everyone is on holiday. They’re aren’t many lectures. I had two weeks of just traveling around writing. It was marvelous.

In those times I always go to the library. There’s a big British library at King’s Cross in London. I always go there. I love working there, because I can get books if I need to. I always like to work there because I rather like to kind of have a day in which I kind of get on the tube and then I often write by hand on my notebook on the tube and then I get off the tube and I work within the librarian. Then I come home and then I do a bit more work in the evenings, normally. I really enjoy the fact that I get to come home and it’s a pleasure, and I can be at home in the evenings writing my stories. I love it.

I try generally, I know most authors prefer to work at home, but I prefer to work in the library. The noise washes over me. I like working on trains as well. Sometimes I work on airplanes, but didn’t do too well on the plane to Australia. I got a bit tired and ended up sleeping. Shorter flights I often find are quite good for working on as well.

Valerie
That’s very adaptable. You can write everywhere, obviously.

Kate
I have a very small computer.

Valerie
Yes.

Kate
The poor thing is a bit battered though. My computers start complaining after about six months or year, poor things. They take a bit of a battering.

Valerie
Yes.

What’s your advice to writers, because there are a lot of people out there who, like you, are interested in history and are interested in characters from history? What’s your advice to them if they are interested in writing about somebody who’s dead, and you can’t verify information, or get any extra information than what currently exists, in order to bring them to life and yet stay true to the facts?

Kate
Well, I find there’s always a bit more information that no one has quite found yet. It’s always entrancing. There’s always something, there’s always some archive. There were archives that I found for Emma Hamilton- I just went to archives and they just dumped a big pile of letters on my desk and said, “No one has looked at these. We don’t know what’s in here, but you never know. You might find something,” and they were all amazing.

Valerie
Wow.

Kate
You find amazing things. I think there’s always more information, there’s always something that someone hasn’t looked at, particularly- I mean I think this is perhaps more difficult when you’re writing about a very early medieval character in which things don’t survive. But, if you’re writing about people in the 18th, 19th, 20th century these people wrote so much, they wrote so many letters. There’s so many letters about them. There’s always something secret that you can find.

Valerie
It’s like being a detective, isn’t it?

Kate
It is. It really is. It’s really wonderful to be like that. I love it.

Valerie
Are you a full time writer?

Kate
Yes.

Valerie
When did you become a full time writer?

Kate
Well, I have been for a long time really, because I was a PhD student before. You are a full time writing then, full time writing and research. I moved straight from that into writing biographies. I taught as well, and I do teach creative writing at the moment. I teach- I’m the creative writing MA at the University of London. I teach that at the moment. I did used to teach then, but at the same time I was a full time writer too.

I haven’t really spent much of my life working in an office really. When I film TV programs of course you spend four or five days with a team, but that’s four or five days. The rest of the time I work for myself. I love being a full time writer. I love setting my own deadlines, and things like that.

But, the difference of course is that you can’t really ever turn your phone or your email off. You can’t ever really off duty. If someone rings up and said they want an article or something, or they want you to come on TV, then you can’t say, “I’m on holiday,” or, “I don’t feel like it,” or, “My foot is hurt.” You do it. I think that’s the main difference of being a writer. You’re always on duty.

People say to me, “Do you find it hard to concentrate?” It’s really not that, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s kind of the converse. I never have a problem getting started, it’s a problem stopping and saying, “Well, look, it’s lovely night I shouldn’t be writing. I should be doing something else, or relaxing.” It’s quite hard to switch off I think sometimes.

Valerie
Following up from that though, like what you were saying earlier there’s always an another archive, there’s always another thing that’s yet to be discovered. How do you know when to stop researching?

Kate
Well, that’s a good question, because the thing is in the end you can’t get all your research in. You never can, because you have 120,000, 150,000, perhaps 100,000 words to encompass the life of one person. If we were to write our own lives we’d write 100,000 perhaps about one year. You can’t get everything in, in the end.

It is painful. A lot of research has to go. When you’ve done the research you often have to sit down and write, it often has to go. Some of the most marvelous pieces you just can’t keep. The same thing in TV often. A different person edits the programs to the person who’s directed it, because the director says to me, “Well, it’s because I might keep in some shots because I like them, because they’re beautiful, or because I had a real struggle getting to them. It was raining, we were all miserable. And, the editor says, ‘No, what’s important to the story?’.”

When you’re writing you have to kind of be your own director and editor. You have to get the shots, it’s really hard, in the rain, and then you have to cut them. That is the hard thing. You have to, “Goodness me, my reader doesn’t need to know what the second cousin of so and so is doing on Tuesday the 5th, who bought the hats.” You can use that stuff in lectures, in articles, in other kind of areas, but that is a painful thing, to get rid of research.

But, then when you write a novel you write lots of bits that don’t end up in the final version, I mean huge amounts of stuff have been cut from my final version. My boyfriend kind of reads the versions and goes, “I think there’s so many different versions, I’m going to sell them on eBay.” We have huge amounts of different versions. I really do think that’s part of being a writer. In the end you have to forget about yourself as a researcher, or as a writer and think about the reader.

Valerie
Finally, you teach creative writing, what is your advice to your creative students who are just starting out and they dream of being full time writers like you?

Kate
I think try not to be discouraged. That’s the thing. I think obviously there’s lots of things that contribute to being a writer, but persistence is so important, and not being discouraged. Because it’s so easy to be discourage. You spend all day looking at your computer going, “Is this working? Is this any good? I don’t know if this is good or not.”

If I regret anything from my earlier kind of period as a writer is times when I felt a bit discouraged and, “It’s not working. Maybe I should start something else.” I just think it’s a case of kind of not being discouraged and keeping on going, and keeping the faith, and being persistent. That’s very much more easily said than done. But, that is my main advice really. It’s kind of keeping at it, and keeping the faith really.

Valerie
Wonderful, on that note thank you very much for your time today, Kate.

Kate
Thank you so much for having me, Valerie. It’s been wonderful.


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