I’m delighted to welcome Janet MacLeod Trotter to discuss Time and Place in her novels.
British author Janet has had 20 novels published, 13 of them historical family sagas set in the 20th Century. Her first, The Hungry Hills, was nominated for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, while The Tea Planter’s Daughter (the first in the India Tea Series set in Britain and India) was long-listed for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year and was an Amazon top ten best seller. It has gone on to be a best-seller in Russian and French too.
Janet has written for teenagers and numerous short stories for women’s magazines, some of which are published in an ebook anthology Ice Cream Summer. She has been a columnist and reviewer for The Newcastle Journal and editor of The Clan MacLeod Magazine. Her childhood memoirs of Durham and Skye in the 1960’s, Beatles and Chiefs, was featured on BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths.
Janet’s second novel in The India Tea Series, The Tea Planter’s Bride is set in 1920’s Scotland, North East England and India and my review can be found here. The third novel in the series, Girl From The Tea Garden will be published on 6 Dec (review to follow)
Janet is also a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. A more detailed listing of books and contact details appears at the end of this article.
So now you’ve been introduced to Janet let’s find out a bit more.
Your historical books have a great diversity and depth encompassing 16C Scotland to early 20th Century India via several series set in the North East of England. What inspired your first foray into historical fiction?
Being a MacLeod, I grew up on my father’s stories about our family and clan history – he was a history teacher too! My mother used to read aloud to me and my four brothers when we were children and it was usually a historical novel by such authors as Rosemary Sutcliffe. My early indoctrination in history was reinforced by studying Scottish history at Edinburgh University, so it was hardly surprising that my first historical novel was partly set in 16th century Edinburgh!
Your books often centre around political and/or social upheavals. Do they form the basis around which you build a story or, do you have a story in your head that needs a suitable event to propel it?
I nearly always start with a historical event or period that intrigues me and fires my imagination; it might be something catastrophic such as world war or the Miners’ Strike or it could be a period of rapid social change, such as British India after the 1st World War. In particular, I look at these events from the women’s perspective. By reading and researching the subject, the ideas for the characters and their stories emerge.
Conversely, in my mystery novels, the characters and their dilemmas arose first. I posed the question: What if …? What if a young woman went missing on the hippy trail to India? (The Vanishing of Ruth) What if a woman was found on an uninhabited Hebridean island and could only communicate with seabirds? (The Haunting of Kulah).
How do you decide which historical events to use, and how easy is it to balance relaying the facts without spoiling the narrative of the story.
It might be because of some personal link, such as my suffragette great aunts who led me to write about northern women fighting for emancipation in The Suffragette. Or sometimes it’s a recent event that echoes our past history, as in The Crimson Dawn. This novel was written at the time of the Iraq War but looks at what the women of the peace movement were doing during the 1st World War; supporting conscientious objectors and international co-operation against the mainstream clamour for nationalism and war. The Darkening Skies was inspired by a small exhibition in a local library about Italians who had settled in the North East of England, many of them being enterprising migrants who set up ice-cream parlours in remote mining villages. Until then, I had no idea what a traumatic time they had during the Second World War. This led me to track down some of the families and interview them – and involved trying out their ice-cream of course!
Having done the research, it’s important not to put it all in the novel! As you imply, the story is queen, not the history. Once I become absorbed in my characters and what is happening to them, then they take over. The history becomes like the seasoning – a liberal sprinkle here and there – to keep the story authentic.
The India Tea series was partly inspired by the diaries and letters of your grandparents. How much of their lives would they recognise in the books?
Interesting question! The first novel, The Tea Planter’s Daughter, was not based on their lives at all – as I hadn’t come across the treasure-trove of documents then. The whole tea theme was sparked by talking to a man who was the last driver of a horse and cart for a tea delivery firm on Tyneside. I decided to trace the tea back to source and set it in the Edwardian heyday, and so began my love affair with tea and its whole industry.
I had always had a passionate interest in India; I’d made the journey overland in the 1970s knowing that my grandparents had spent their working lives in the Punjab and my mother had grown up there as a child. But it was only more recently that their diaries and letters were unearthed. The second novel, The Tea Planter’s Bride follows the fortunes of an Edinburgh woman and a Scottish forester who go out to the Punjab in the 1920s. My background details are borrowed heavily from my grandfather’s diaries. He would have recognised Edinburgh’s Palais de Danse; a top dancing venue before he went to India (very sadly the Palais was demolished in November this year). Both granny and granddad would have found the descriptions of Lahore and the surrounding area familiar, and also the social scene of the British Raj and daily life in an unfamiliar climate and country.
In the third novel, The Girl From The Tea Garden, they would have recognised the hill station of Simla and the forests of the Himalayan foothills where they had both trekked. They probably would have been astonished to find some of their experiences translated into my novels but I hope I get across the nomadic feel of their Indian existence; where foresters were constantly moved around at short notice, living under canvas or renting somewhere in the town. My granny was just as intrepid as my adventurous granddad and insisted on going with him into the jungle and forests – and taking my baby mother with them! It’s the small details, such as hiring furniture in the local bazaar or writing home asking for name-tapes or hair grips, that are the wee gems you don’t read about in the history books.
How much additional research did you need to do and did it throw up any shocks or surprises that made you evaluate your thoughts about the period.
To write the latest India Tea Series novel, I made a trip to India with my husband (who has become just as fascinated by the country and my family’s past), clutching some of my grandfather’s diaries. We visited Shimla and arranged for a guide to take us part way into the mountains to get a flavour of where my grandparents used to trek for months on end. Granddad was also an early enthusiast of cine film and took much footage, both of forestry work in order to train his Indian students, and of family life. If you want to see a clip of my grandparents, mother and uncle travelling in the mountains, there’s a snippet on Youtube:
I had a very emotional moment when we managed to track down Christ Church Lodge in Shimla where they had lodged in the winter of 1928. It was one of the oldest houses in the town and had been renamed but with the help of the guide we managed to get inside and have a look round. It was still furnished with carpets and furniture from a previous era; I literally felt shivers down my spine to think that I was looking at the carpet that my two year old mother had staggered across and the dining table around which the paying guests would have eaten – all described in the diary.
The trip also included a stay on a working tea plantation near Darjeeling which was another highlight – and also helped greatly in my depiction of the fictional Belgooree tea garden in the novel. The whole India series has entailed much tea drinking, but probably the most spectacular cuppa I’ve ever had was the early morning tea brought in as the sun was rising over the peaks of the Himalayas!
As for shocks: the diaries and correspondence shone a spotlight on certain tangled relationships in my grandparents’ lives about which I hadn’t expected to read. I have got to know them far better than I would ever have expected – long after they died..
The women in the series tend to be strong, self- willed women, would you say these are based on yourself?
Ha ha! One of my brothers would say so. I heard him comment once to someone on a recent novel: ‘Oh yea, it’s Jan again – it’s always her!’ But I think it’s more true to say that they are the women I wish I was courageous enough to be. They always stick their necks out further than I would probably ever dare. Yet as an author, breathing life into a heroine, there are always elements of what you’ve experienced yourself or how you might feel in a certain situation, that informs what you write.
While trying to set aside your 21st century viewpoint, how do you think you would have coped living within a society riddled with social, economic, religious and racial inequalities and divisions?
I hope I would have followed the example of the women in my own family who were not afraid to stand up to injustice and to keep pushing for social change, such as my great-grandmother Janet and her three daughters who campaigned tirelessly for women to get the vote. Not only were they great campaigners but they also knew how to have fun. On the census night protest in 1911 they refused to stay at home and register as citizens; they hired somewhere in Edinburgh and threw a fancy-dress party instead! My granny in India, although a product of her generation, seems to have managed to get to know Indians socially and my grandparents had friends across the racial divide, which I think was probably quite unusual in the 1930s Raj.
The Tea Planter’s Daughter opened the series in 1905 and each book, moves the story on a generation. In the latest book, The Girl from the Tea Garden (due out December) we find ourselves in the 1930’s and the Second World War. Do you envisage adding to the series and presenting us with a very different India after the difficult period of Independence and Partition?
That’s possible! I have ideas for another in the series but at the moment I’m writing an unrelated novel that goes further back in history to the times of the East India Company and early 19th Century India and Afghanistan. One of my 18th Century MacLeod ancestors was a soldier in the EIC army – so my associations with the Sub-continent go back a long way!
If you had to live in any of the places/periods that you’ve written about, which would it be and why?
It would have to be the 1920s – I’ve been hooked on this era since I was a small girl, endlessly playing my parents’ LP of ‘The Boyfriend’ which was a musical set in the ’20s. Women (over 30) had won the vote; the progressive Left had taken over in places like Germany and Austria; there was a feeling of society letting its hair down – and I loved the fashions too! I’d choose to live in Edinburgh so I could go dancing at the Palais de Danse – and travel out to India like my grandmother and experience culturally diverse cities like Lahore before Partition. Of course, I’d only have these opportunities as a middle-class woman. A miner’s wife in the 1926 Lockout or a tea picker in Assam would have had a very tough existence indeed.
Do you enjoy reading historical fiction yourself and whose books would you recommend?
Yes, since childhood I’ve read (or had read to me) historical novels. Early favourites were The Jacobite Trilogy by D.K. Broster. As a teenager I devoured stories by Anya Seaton, went through a Georgette Heyer phase and then got hooked on novels set in the 1920s, such as Scott Fitzgerald’s. The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite novels (possibly reinforced by Robert Redford playing Jay Gatsby in the film version!) Another American classic is the stunningly written Color Purple by Alice Walker – again set between the wars.
But some of my all-time best reads are about India. Passage to India by E.M. Forster is another favourite set in the ’20s. I would also recommend Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet which I’d read before seeing the excellent TV series in the 1980s. When we were in Shimla we were shown Rose Cottage where they filmed much of the series – I think they probably heard our shrieks of excitement down in Delhi!
Where is your favourite place?
Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. It’s where my ancestors came from – where Lt Donald MacLeod left for India and never came back. But he would be pleased, I’m sure, that his descendants have. My large extended family love to holiday there and it’s my spiritual home.
With no time and money constraints, where would you like to visit that you haven’t already?
Well if it’s an open cheque book, I’d like a round-the-world trip please! Exploring more of India would be good – I’ve only been in the north – and I’d like to see Sri Lanka too. My grandfather went to work there after he left Pakistan in 1950. But I also love our own continent and would like to visit more of Eastern Europe. Our son is working in Poland, so that could be the next destination.
You are currently UK based is there anywhere else in the world you’d like to live – part-time or full time?
We had this ambition a few years ago to spend more time in other places for short periods (but longer than the standard one or two week holiday). We’ve managed it once! Four years ago we spent a winter in Antibes in the south of France; walking, swimming (the locals thought we were mad) cooking, eating, paying homage to Picasso and other artists, and making the most of the French integrated transport system. I would happily spend more time in France. But I have no desire to emigrate anywhere. I have to live near enough Skye to get a regular ‘fix’ of the Hebrides!
I’d like to thank Janet so much for sharing her thoughts and photographs with us. It really helps to put the books and their stories into context and it’s always interesting to find out more about an author. In this case, it was the opportunity to have a fascinating insight into Janet’s family background. If you’d like to know even more then you can catch up with Janet on her website, via her blog, on Twitter and on Facebook.
The India Tea Series
The Jarrow Trilogy
The Durham Trilogy
The Tyneside Sagas
The Highland Romance Collection