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Charlot speaks with Jessica Fellowes...

Last Christmas, I was lucky enough to share the stage with a number of crime writers at Heffers Bookshop's 'Murder Under the Mistletoe' crime fiction evening in Cambridge. Jessica (photograph above) was most definitely the headline, and she spoke so eloquently and engagingly about the Mitford Murders series that I wanted to know more. Jessica very kindly agreed to speak to me about her work for the readers of this newsletter, for which I'm hugely grateful. I'm so thrilled, as I think that those who read this newsletter will be particularly interested in the Mitford series. Without further ado, please be introduced to Jessica Fellowes!

Charlot: Can you tell us more about your journey as a writer – where did you start and how is that journey progressing?
Jessica: My career as a writer began, I suppose, when I was a reader as a child. But although I adored books, my refuge in a world that was tiring and frustrating at times because I am hard of hearing, I thought of being almost everything but a writer – a barrister, an actress…Then, after university, floundering for something to do, a friend of a friend offered me a lowly role at a magazine for the Mail on Sunday. From there, I grew into lifestyle journalism and ended up as a commissioning editor and columnist over six years. I moved to Country Life magazine as deputy editor for four years, then freelanced for a while before deciding I wanted to write books. I started as a non-fiction writer, as it felt like an extension of my journalism and from there have moved into fiction. There was no great plan, everything has evolved quite naturally and each stage has informed the next. I still retain elements of my journalism, not least my discipline for writing to deadline, and the researched, fact-based aspects of my novel writing feel to me like a safety net, the comfort zone of the writing I did for twenty years.

Charlot: How do you write? What is your process?

Jessica: Some things stay the same, some things change. I know I need the deadline, that pressure of an editor watching and waiting. I do freeform writing from time to time – I’ve always written out things that I’m thinking about or that are bothering me – but truthfully I’m happiest when there’s a structure to obey. I think my years of journalism did teach me that I can write fast and there’s no physical block to writing thousands of words a day. You just have to get on with it. (But I get distracted like anyone else, and there are definitely good days and bad days.) I am at my desk Monday to Friday, from 10am until 4pm, sometimes longer, and I aim to write 1500 words a day. When it gets nearer to the end of the first draft, I’ll do more. I don’t like to have more than two days away from a book, and more than three can feel fatal – it takes ages to get back into it. Timers help. Thirty minutes for 500 words. If I can’t think what to write next then I try not to faff on the internet (and often fail) but read a little of one of my research books, which will almost certainly spark off another idea.

Photograph above: Jessica with a copy of her French translated book, found in a bookshop in Caen when there for a family celebration. 

Charlot: Do you remember the first book that stuck with you? And the library in your formative years that you remember fondly?

Jessica: Pippi Longstocking was probably one of my earliest favourite books. She was such a vivid and brilliant character, though vulnerable too with her absent parents. I loved the fact that the original hadn’t been written in English – it expanded the world somehow. Deptford Library was where I went every week as a child and I can still remember its dark wood walls, the comforting smell of thousands of books waiting to be read. It was a magnificent building but of course it’s not a library anymore…

Charlot: You are known for the Mitford Murders. Can you tell us about the series? 

Jessica: The Mitford Murders is a vintage crime series of six novels, with each one focused on a different Mitford sister. These sisters came of age in the between-the-wars era, and each one represents something of that time, which is what makes them very compelling characters, if not always the most likeable. Nancy, the eldest, was a novelist; Pamela, a countrywoman who preferred dogs and horses to people on the whole; Diana, the beauty who left her Guinness husband for Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists; Unity became obsessed with Hitler, and attempted to shoot herself on the outbreak of war; Deborah married Andrew Cavendish who inherited a dukedom and one of Britain’s largest stately homes, Chatsworth, when his brother was killed in the war. You couldn’t pitch them as a fiction concept, it would be too outlandish!
In the novels, I use the sisters as a hook to a certain time and place, incorporating a murder mystery, which is largely solved by my two fictional heroes, Louisa Cannon and Guy Sullivan. The books are not biographies, I’m interested in the gaps in between the well-documented parts of the sisters’ lives. But I do like to use as many plot points and characters that have been inspired by real-life events, partly because they are better than anything I could dream up and partly because I am a great believer in history. I think we have to look at what happened in the past to confront it, and try to avoid it repeating itself.
Photograph: Jessica and husband at a 1920s themed party (I love this photograph!).

Charlot: Are there any other projects you are involved with that you can speak about?

Jessica: I write a novel a year, which also involves promoting a novel a year at the same time, so it doesn’t leave me much room for other projects! But I have been commissioned a few times to write short stories for Vogue Italia, which I enjoy tremendously. I’m also looking to write in a new medium this year for a project which is under wraps at the moment but hopefully, I’ll be able to talk about soon…!
Photograph: Jessica with her great friend, Celia, just before they gave an after-dinner talk at a members’ club dinner. 

Charlot: Whether writing, performance, music, painting, sculpture and more - I think the arts have never been more vital. What is your take on the arts and their role in society? 

Jessica: I know that when we have such a shortage of money spent on education and the NHS, it can be hard sometimes to argue for money to be directed towards the arts, but I don’t think society can survive without it. Apart from the power of play and imagination – for child and adult – to keep us happy and allow us to explore and understand what is happening to us and people around us, it is a basic tenet of humanity. A forensic psychologist told me that if you want to improve your child’s empathy, the best thing you can do is read them stories at bedtime. And if you want a strong economic argument, then look to the future. As AI improves and more and more jobs are outsourced to robots, our children will need to demonstrate that they can do what the automatons cannot: be creative and imaginative!
Photograph: Jessica in a cottage in Ireland, decorating a chest of drawers with shells - kept company by her dog.

Charlot: Finally, three albums you’d take to a desert island?

Jessica: Oh, you’re tapping into my Desert Island Discs obsession here… how often have I thought about my eight discs? Embarrassingly often… I’d have to take Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’, because it was my seminal teenage album. Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colors’ because she’s the best storyteller around, and Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’, which reminds me of listening to it as a child with my parents, as well as with my now husband when we first got together, and it was the only tape in our clapped out Land Rover Defender.

Thank you so much, Jessica, for a wonderful interview. If anyone would like to keep up with Jessica on Twitter, you can find her here: @jessicafellowes

Next week, we will have another writer interview and the week after I will be sharing some more photographs and thoughts about my favourite places in Cambridge. I hope you all have a lovely Sunday and week to come
Charlot x

If you would like to read archived newsletters with interviews on other writers, actors and artists, please view the archive button top left once you open this newsletter in a browser.
Copyright © 2020 Charlot King. Published by Beautiful Day Cambridge Ltd. All rights reserved.

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