One of the nicest things about being published was that quite suddenly I found myself in touch via social media with an array of other published authors, many of whom are keen to connect with writers and chat about our business. One of these is Lydia Syson – one of those lucky occurrences where I stumbled across her Twitter page and discovered she’d written about the Spanish Civil War (with which I’m fascinated), thus asked to read her latest book. I then discovered she was an expert on C18th (and my latest book is set in that period) and that LIBERTY’S FIRE is set in a period of history I knew very little about: the Paris Commune of 1871. I had no idea the book was aimed at a Young Adult audience and – as usual with many brilliant YA books (see kerrydrewery for example) – it made no difference to me at all as an adult reader i.e. it was just a great read, compelling characters, wonderful moments in history, all beautifully written. I read it very quickly over a weekend, because I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended for ALL readers, whatever age you happen to be…
So, I’m delighted to welcome Lydia to the blog to talk about LIBERTY’S FIRE, historical research, family history and more.
1. Having written non-fiction for an adult
audience, you then turned to fiction for a younger audience. What brought about
this direction in your writing? How do the challenges of both types of
It was partly practical: too many young
children! I had to be at the school
gates (luckily at the top of my road) three times a day and simply couldn’t get
to libraries to do research. At the same
time, I was often spending several hours each evening reading to each child in
turn – important and rare one-to-one time.
I loved going back to my own childhood favourites but also began to
discover lots of new authors who really impressed me – people like Mal Peet,
David Almond, Jenny Downham, Siobhan Dowd, Linda Newbery – all writing this ‘thing’
I’d not encountered before called YA. A
story idea began to form from bits and pieces that had intrigued me but hadn’t
made it into either Doctor of Love,
my biography of the eighteenth-century ‘electric doctor’ James Graham or my PhD
on poets and explorers and Timbuktu.
Very few children encounter the Enlightenment at school – which I think
is a terrible shame, and I couldn’t think of a more challenging way to develop
my story-telling skills than write for that demanding teenage audience. It’s a manuscript I need to revisit – I
really didn’t know what I was doing, and tried to cram too much in I think! –
but it got me a new agent, the absolutely brilliant Catherine Clarke, who
represents both some of this country’s best children’s novelists and also
writers of adult non-fiction, so I’m still able to keep my options open.
The challenges are quite different, I think. When you’re writing adult non-fiction or
academic texts you have to be absolutely meticulous about keeping track of all
the sources for your research, and structure your story round what you can prove. Historical fiction still demands a vast
amount of research, but I’m looking for something slightly different. There
comes a point when I need to absorb it in an entirely different, almost
unconscious way. Then I can let go of exactly
where ideas and images came from, and let everything compost at the back of my
mind. Eventually it melds together and
turns into something else entirely.
The texture of everyday life becomes much more
important when you’re writing fiction.
So I often end up spending ages finding out almost ridiculous things
like when coathangers were invented – surprisingly late, as it happens.
(*interrupts* I had the same issue whilst writing SONG OF THE SEA MAID, finding out when matches were invented – I needed to know how she’d light her way in a dark cave!)
But the pleasures of time and space travel,
parachuting and truffle-hunting, are shared by both. And I try very hard to work with many layers,
so some things will sow seeds for younger readers, but ring bells for older
ones. I don’t think the books really
have an upper age cut-off.
2. You’ve written about the Spanish Civil War,
World War II and now this conflict in 1870s France. What is it about war and
conflict that draws you?
War immediately offers high stakes and high
drama. People act more impulsively –
fall head over heels in love, run away from their families, betray their
friends, invite catastrophe. Obviously this makes great material for a
novelist. Both during and after every
war, conflicting narratives are created – by politicians, historians,
journalists – and these sometimes need to be challenged, particularly as we
leave the Cold War behind, or simply revisited.
The precise character of the Commune has proved exceptionally hard for
historians to pin down, and that makes it all the more interesting.
I’m interested in conflicts, or aspects of them,
which have been forgotten or rewritten, or are in the process of being elucidated
by new academic research which most people will never read. The plot of Liberty’s Fire was triggered by a couple of fascinating articles in
an academic journal by Dr Delphine Mordey about music during the Franco-Prussian
war and the Paris Commune, developed from her PhD on the subject, which was
also invaluable. I must say, I’m always
grateful to academics who aren’t sniffy about historical fiction!
3. As a writer of historical fiction, how do you
juggle fact and fiction in creating your narrative? What issues does this
create for you?
I suppose my rule is not ‘did this actually happen?’
but ‘could it have happened under those circumstances?’ So while I like to keep an overall historical
framework of events that is entirely accurate, within that I give myself plenty
of imaginative free play. I want to tell
the big story, but not at the expense of the ‘little’ one. So there are quite often things I find I have
to let go after the first draft because although they’re important for the
historical story, they don’t work in my own story: the stealing of the cannon
in Montmartre is usually seen as the ‘beginning’ of the Commune, but I ended
cutting that whole section from Liberty’s
Fire so that I could keep the focus on my characters rather than events. There’s also the problem of facts so often
being less believable than fiction, which I blogged about
after a reviewer doubted whether it was really plausible that Felix would run
away as she does in A World Between Us!
*interrupts again* I had the same issue with the Boer War letters in THE VISITORS, where some reviewers doubted they would ever have been written:
4. In LIBERTY’S FIRE, you write about the
short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. It’s extraordinary to think of Paris as a
kind of civil war zone throughout this time. How did you seek to recreate this?
How did your time in Paris – walking the same streets – contribute towards your
understanding of this moment in history?
As always, I shamelessly plundered memoirs and
accounts by people who were actually there. But about 20,000 of the Commune’s
participants didn’t survive, so we don’t have their stories. Many went into exile or had to hide their
involvement. But most importantly, many
were illiterate. One of the things for
which Communards were fighting was the right to a secular education for
everyone. Recovering working-class voices from history is always difficult. I
found it a particular problem while writing Liberty’s
Fire because even where such material existed or had survived, it wasn’t published
or translated – and my deadline was an awful pressure, and I read very slowly in French. I realised early
on that I had to be realistic about what I could achieve, and also keep
reminding myself I wasn’t writing a PhD!
Paris paving stones (& Lydia’s foot – she might have wanted me to crop this, but I like the fact that her foot is there! Adds authenticity!)
I pored over maps and photographs of Paris, fascinated
by how dramatically Haussmanisation changed Paris in the decades leading up the
France’s ‘terrible year’, and how quickly the city was rebuilt after 1871. But you
are quite right, it was definitely the trips to Paris which made everything
come alive. When you are standing on a French paving stone – small and cuboid,
rather than big and flat – you realise how much better they lend themselves to
barricade-building than their British equivalents. You walk past a tree and see the iron grill
that protects its roots in a whole new light. And it was incredible to stand by the Vendôme
Column, completely reconstructed, and imagine it in pieces in the square:
or pass buildings like the Hôtel de
the Théâtre Lyrique or General Thier’s house and realise that, in a way,
they were fakes.
I spent a lot of time in different museums,
libraries and archives. Some I’d never
heard of before, like the beautiful Art and History Museum in Saint Denis,
which has an excellent series of rooms telling the story of the Paris Commune. The Museé de l’Histoire Vivante in Montreuil,
where I pored over photographs and even saw a Louise Michel doll, is even less
well known. (This museum has a fascinating history itself, having been established
in Montreuil by three leading Communists of the 1937 Popular Front on the 150th
anniversary of the 1789 French Revolution.) I was intrigued by the ‘souvenirs’ people
saved – ratbones:
and sawdust bread and
twisted shells and cartridges, which they displayed in little vitrines. I was lucky to catch an excellent lecture on
the women of the Commune and also walking tour about Commune photography.
And yes, I did indeed tramp the streets for hours,
looking at the light in the passages
and the layout of different neighbourhoods,
wondering about possible bullet holes in station walls, working out if and how
characters could get from A to B, where they should live, what they might have
encountered. I went to the cemeteries at
Montmartre and Père Lachaise:
where the last battles were fought among the
tombs and saw the wall where 147 Fédérés
– the Commune’s militiamen – were shot and thrown into an open trench. I became completely obsessed with cellar
– in the final, bloody week of the Commune, Paris became
fixated with the mythical figure of the ‘petroleuse’ – working-class women were
accused of setting the city alight by throwing flaming bottles of petrol into
buildings, because they would rather see it burn than fall to treacherous
Versailles government. Everyone talked and
wrote about them, plenty of women were denounced, but none were actually
convicted of arson.
5. Take us through some of your other research
techniques that you used when writing Liberty’s Fire.
A very mixed bag!
Alongside academic texts and memoirs and accounts from many perspectives,
I read a great deal of relevant nineteenth-century fiction – from Zola,
Flaubert and Maupassant to G.A.Henty, Edward Bulwer Lytton and assorted obscure
evangelical Victorian ‘lady-novelists’ in which socialism is synonymous with
evil – and found I kept coming back to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. A song
I love was one of the things that started the whole thing – the Internationale,
which united Brigaders in the civil war and which we sang at my grandparents’
funerals, was composed after the fall of the Commune by the man who drafted its
policy on the arts. Two of my main
characters are musicians. So of course I listened to a fair bit of music, and
got to know the songs of the Commune – such the the Marseillaise, Le Temps des
and la Canaille
Paintings and prints were a great resource, particularly for
costume. One my main characters, Jules, a rich American, has been sent to Paris
to learn the art of financial speculation and instead discovers the twin arts
of flânerie and photography. So I spent hours watching online videos
about the wet collodion technique, which luckily is having something of a
revival right now among art photographers, and reading nineteenth-century
Also, I keep all the material organised and write the
first draft with Scrivener. I couldn’t live without
it now, I must say.
Ruins of Paris, from the London Illustrated News, 1871.
6. I was particularly fascinated by the
photography sequences. I’d imagine this must have been one of the very first
conflicts in which photography was present to record it. What was it about
photography that attracted you to write about it and what part do you feel it
played in this conflict?
There is just so
much going on with photography at this moment – issues of representation
and interpretation, art, truth, fakery, propaganda, memory, censorship – it was
an irresistible theme…I owe a lot to the International Brigade Memorial
Trust’s chief photographer, Marshall Mateer, who sent me some articles after a
conversation we’d had about some of this when we were both on an IBMT trip to
Spain for the 75th anniverary of the Battle of the Ebro, just as I
was starting work on Liberty’s Fire.
Actually, a surprising number of wars had already
been photographed – most famously the Crimean and the American Civil Wars – and
small, photographic cartes de visite were
all the rage throughout the 50s and 60s.
There were technological limitations, so shots are always before or
after, never during battles. Extraordinary
images were produced during the seventy-two days that Paris governed itself,
though it’s not always easy to determine the photographers’ political position,
or exactly why the pictures were taken. There
are carefully staged photographs of Communards posing by well-built
barricades. Others record the deliberate
destruction of the Vendôme Column, the city’s most potent symbol of
Empire. And some of the first morgue
photographs were taken at this time, devastating pictures of Communard corpses
in coffins, probably recorded for identification purposes.
Barricade at rue Sommerand / boulevard Saint-Miche
See here for more stunning Commune photographs:
After the fall of the Commune, during which
invading government forces slaughtered 20,000 people, and took twice that
number prisoner, photography becomes even more interesting. Not only were photographs used by the
authorities to arrest suspected Communards, an early example of photography in
criminology, but one man, Ernest Eugène Appert, used mugshots he took of
prisoners to create a series of convincing photomontages called ‘The Crimes of
the Commune’ – faked scenes which include women in prison drinking while they
awaited trial, the execution of the Commune’s hostages, and even the
assasination of two generals in Montmartre when the uprising kicked off –
photoshop avant la lettre.
These made such effective anti-Communard
propaganda that eventually the government, which kept strict control over all
printed images in circulation, banned them for continuing to ‘disturb the public
peace’ at a time when official policy was to try to forget the Commune had
ever happened – hence the rebuilding. But before that time, horror had collided
with pleasure: the open ruins of Paris quickly became a vastly popular
aesthetic spectacle. Crowds of tourists from
the provinces and abroad flocked to experience what Gautier called ‘the
picturesque of rubble’, and to ponder on the French capital’s Babylonian fall,
while condemning the wicked Communards they held entirely responsible. Thomas Cook quickly cashed in on this. There were even guidebooks to the ruins. Almost overnight, Paris had acquired the
grandeur of ancient Rome.
According to Gautier and others, including the
Illustrated London News, photographers were everywhere in these early days, and
criticised by some for getting in the way of the firefighting:
‘One sees …the carts which photographers use
as laboratories parked outside the slightest picturesque ruin.’
Paris, rue Royale, May 1871
7. You say at the end of the book that your great–great–grandmother was N. F. Dryhurst. How did you discover this part of
your family history? When I was writing THE VISITORS, I discovered a family
link to hop farming and became temporarily addicted to ancestry websites! Did
you fall headlong into researching your family tree as I did?!
To be honest, I’m slightly scared at how
addictive this might prove! On my mother’s side of the family, I’ve always
known that I was descended from a long line of radical activists. I remember a
huge, handwritten family tree that used to come out at big parties when I was a
child – my grandfather was one of thirteen. When my first novel came out, the
iAuthor platform had just been released and my publisher had the brilliant idea
of making an enhanced iBook of A World Between Us, with all kinds of Spanish
Civil War background material, from interviews with historians and the last
surviving British Brigader, to archive photographs and letters and even music,
and they wanted to include a family tree and photographs.
I have been digging around a bit since then, and
one thing that’s struck me is that the women in the family have been photographed
by some quite exceptional photographers. In the LSE archive is a photograph
which belonged to George Bernard Shaw showing Dryhurst with her two daughters. That was taken by the Victorian celebrity
portrait photographer, Frederick Hollyer.
Sylvia Lynd, my great-grandmother, was photographed by Howard
Coster, unusually, as he was known as the ‘photographer of men’:
well-known Communist photographers Ramsey & Muspratt and Edith Tudor Hart
produced portraits of quite a number of family members, including my own
In the last few years, there’s been a surge of
academic interest in another relative, the scholar and polymath Moses Gaster, described
by one library as ‘one of the most significant figures in modern Jewish
fascinating figure. My great-aunt
Bertha, a wonderful story-teller, always used to say of her father: ‘He looked
like God, he acted like God, we thought he was God, he thought he was God. Maybe he was God!’
(*interrupts yet again* I love that!!)
Some of my extended family have been following
developments with interest, and last month about twenty of us met for a Moses
Gaster day, starting in the East End with a talk at Bevis Marks synagogue where
he was leader of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation and ending at the
British Library, being shown the highlights of the extraordinary manuscript
collection he sold in 1927 to make ends meet.
8. Can you share anything about what you’re
working on next?
I can tell you its working title – Blackbird
Island – and that it’s set in the
Pacific around the time the Communards were exiled to New Caledonia. But that’s the only point of connection with
Liberty’s Fire. And I’m plundering my
husband’s family history this time!
Lydia, let me shake you by the hand and THANK YOU for a completely absorbing and fascinating tour around not only LIBERTY’S FIRE and the Paris Commune, yet also for giving us such a wonderful insight into your research and writing process, which shows what high intelligence and profound integrity you bring to the creation of your historical fiction.
So, readers, WHATEVER AGE YOU ARE, go read Lydia’s books for a beautiful marriage of fact and fiction.
LIBERTY’S FIRE is published by Hot Key Books this Thursday May 7th.
You can find Lydia online here:
and she also writes for the excellent History Girls:
Lydia Syson’s LIBERTY’S FIRE has been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2016! In honour of this magnificent book, here’s a reblog of Lydia’s fantastic interview, complete with array of fascinating photos from the brilliant author herself. 🙂