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Q & A with author Merryn Allingham

What inspired you to take a leap into becoming an author?

I always had an impulse to write but working full time and with a family to care for, there was very little opportunity. I contented myself with writing short stories and though I had some small success, I don’t think I was terribly good at them. The novel was the genre I enjoyed teaching the most and I knew it would be the one I’d enjoy writing. So when my workload decreased and my children left the nest, I started on the journey. 

Do you think your experience growing up inspired your literary voice?

I grew up loving books. I was an only child and my father was a soldier, so we moved from place to place and every time we moved I had to make new friends. It’s not surprising then that my constant companion was a book. As for ‘voice’, I think everyone has their own, though it’s likely to be influenced by the books you read. And since my taste in reading is very wide, mine must reveal a veritable jumble of influences. Finding your voice is probably the most important thing you can do as a writer. 

Give us insight into your book. What is it about your genre that draws you in?

Grace, the modern day heroine of The Crystal Cage, is at a crossroads in her life. Despite a smart home, a seemingly caring partner and a job that keeps her busy, she’s dissatisfied.The house isn’t hers, she finds her work tedious and she’s beginning to feel uncomfortably controlled by her partner. When Nick Heysham catapults into her life with a request that she help him complete a contract, she is ready to listen. Nick has been commissioned to find plans drawn for the Great Exhibition by Lucas Royde, the most influential of Victorian architects. At the same time, a trifling and apparently unrelated job – the haunting of a former school room - lands in her lap. By the end of the novel, Grace has uncovered connections that have stayed hidden for a century and a half. She has discovered, too, that a past tragedy has uncomfortable echoes for her own life. 

I love the idea that the past never leaves us, that there is only a thin veil separating today from the centuries that have gone before. And I love a good mystery, particularly when it’s spiced with romance. What Grace uncovers is sad and sometimes painful, but it fills her with the determination to live a life that for all her bravery, her Victorian counterpart was denied.

How much research did you have to do?

A fair amount. The 19th century is the period I’m most at home with so in a sense I had what you might call a ‘nest’, but as soon as you start writing, you find out all the things you don’t know. I read a large number of books on The Great Exhibition and visited the Victoria and Albert Museum to discover the material they held - an absolute mountain, as it turned out – and to understand the process of researching there. But no matter how much you read, how much you dig around, there will always be things you can’t discover. For instance, I could find only one photograph of a Victorian architect’s office and I never discovered how the Great Russell Street practice would have gone about providing refreshments for its workers in 1851! When you hit this kind of blank, you simply have to go with your own hunch. Most of the research, of course, doesn’t find its way into the book. If it did, it would weigh the story down.

If you could collaborate with any author living or not, who would you choose and why?

A brilliant question and a difficult one. But if I had to choose just one author, it would be Kate Atkinson. She’s not particularly known for historical fiction, though I’m sure she could be if she chose. Her writing is so stylish and so varied - from winning the Whitbread prize for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, to writing a gripping series of Jackson Brodie detective novels. She is a literary novelist who writes commercially, that’s the best way I can put it. And that’s what I’d love to be. She never seems content with one winning formula but continues to experiment and does so very successfully. Having said that she doesn’t write historical fiction, her latest book, Life after Life, plays with the idea of reincarnation and with the unfolding of events in the first half of the twentieth century. As I said, varied!

How do you think you have evolved creatively?

I taught English Literature for years which has proved both a blessing and a barrier. You can say clever things about language and structure in a novel but putting pen to paper for the first time is daunting, when for years you’ve taught only the very best in writing. I got over it by writing in a genre that I knew and loved – Regency romance – and was fortunate to have my first book accepted by Harlequin. I wrote five more Regencies but found myself wanting to experiment on a larger canvas and add mystery to the history and the romance. The Crystal Cage is the first book in this new genre. I’ve followed it by writing a trilogy set in the 1930s/40s and moving between India and wartime England.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just read my way through ten of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Since I changed direction in my writing, I thought it a good idea to re-read the doyenne of the genre and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. In between her novels, I tackled Crime and Punishment – yes, really! The book group I belong to is reading crime from around the world and Dostoevsky was our contribution from Russia. And I still have an inviting pile of books by my bedside – Before I Go to Sleep is at the top. 

Do you have an advice for upcoming writers?

Be disciplined and write as regularly as you can, even if it’s only for a short time. 
Be patient. It often takes a long time to get anywhere but if you persevere, you’ll make it.
And don’t let rejections destroy your ambition. Every great writer has suffered rejection but still carried on. They believed in themselves and so must you! 

About the Author

My father was a soldier and most of my childhood was spent moving from place to place, school to school, including several years living in Egypt and Germany. I loved some of the schools I attended, but hated others, so it wasn’t too surprising that I left half way through the sixth form with ‘A’ Levels unfinished.

I became a secretary, as many girls did at the time, only to realise that the role of handmaiden wasn’t for me. Escape beckoned when I landed a job with an airline. I was determined to see as much of the world as possible, and working as cabin crew I met a good many interesting people and enjoyed some great experiences – riding in the foothills of the Andes, walking by the shores of Lake Victoria, flying pilgrims from Kandahar to Mecca to mention just a few.

I still love to travel and visit new places, especially those with an interesting history, but the arrival of marriage and children meant a more settled existence on the south coast of England, where I’ve lived ever since. It also gave me the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually gain a PhD from the University of Sussex. For many years I taught university literature and loved every minute of it. What could be better than spending my life reading and talking about books? Well, perhaps writing them.

I’ve always had a desire to write but there never seemed time to do more than dabble with the occasional short story. And my day job ensured that I never lost the critical voice in my head telling me that I really shouldn’t bother. But gradually the voice started growing fainter and at the same time the idea that I might actually write a whole book began to take hold. My cats – two stunning cream and lilac shorthairs – gave their approval, since it meant my spending a good deal more time at home with them!

The 19th century is my special period of literature and I grew up reading Georgette Heyer, so when I finally found the courage to try writing for myself, the books had to be Regency romances. Over the last four years, writing as Isabelle Goddard, I’ve published six novels set in the Regency period.

Since then, I’ve moved on a few years to Victorian England, and I’ve changed genre too. The Crystal Cage is my first novel under the name of Merryn Allingham. The book is a mystery/romantic suspense and tells the story of a long-lost tragedy, and the way echoes from the past can powerfully influence the life of a modern day heroine. The next few Allingham books will see yet another move timewise. I’ve been writing a suspense trilogy set in India and wartime London during the 1930s and 1940s, and hope soon to have news of publication.

Whatever period, whatever genre, creating new worlds and sharing them with readers gives me huge pleasure and I can’t think of a better job.

Connect with Merryn Allingham on Facebook and Goodreads.

About her book

Appearances don’t always reveal the truth. Grace Latimer knows this better than most. Illusions of commitment and comfort have her trapped—until bohemian adventurer Nick Heysham charms his way into her world. Commissioned to recover a Great Exhibition architect’s missing designs, he persuades her to assist in his research. The mystery of the Crystal Palace seduces Grace, and once she discovers clues about a forbidden Victorian love affair, she’s lured into the deep secrets of the past…secrets that resemble her own.

As Grace and Nick dig into the elusive architect’s illicit, long-untold story, the ghosts of guilt and forbidden passion slip free. And history is bound to repeat itself, unless Grace finds the courage to break free and find a new definition of love…

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