No. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing THE Antonia Hodgson!
Antonia Hodgson is a bestselling historical crime author, best known for her Thomas Hawkins series. Alongside this, she is also a veteran in the publishing industry and a writer with a unique approach the the historical fiction genre.
Long story short, I LOVE THEM ALL. This series has swiftly become one of my all time favourites, from the well-paced mystery, to the fantastic historical writing, to the absolute lovable son-of-a-gun that is Thomas Hawkins. If you haven’t checked them out yet I highly recommend that you do.
I am so honoured to interview Antonia about her series. I think you’ll find that her approach to books, writing, and the historical genre, to be enlightening. I know I did!
Anywho, that’s enough preamble – Time for the interview!
What made you choose Thomas Hawkins, a gentlemanly rake, as your protagonist for this series?
Stories always begin with character, for me. My previous (unpublished) novel revolved around an enigmatic, melancholy protagonist, weighed down by life. I spent five years writing about him and I think my subconscious decided: enough of that! At the time, it felt as though Tom appeared by magic, fully formed – young, curious, funny, active, rebellious. Hungry for experience. It felt exciting, getting him on to the page. I liked the fact that he didn’t really know himself, or what he wanted from the world. He never bores me and I can always think of new ideas and situations to explore with him, because it’s in his nature to push and test and jump head first into trouble.
What was it that drew you to setting your novels in the 1700’s, instead of any other era of history?
I’m drawn to neglected, forgotten things. Even with popular subjects, it’s the stuff that gets ignored that attracts my attention. I’d done some research about the early 1700s for my previous novel and was fascinated by how different it was from other periods, how unfamiliar. I couldn’t understand why no one was writing about it, certainly in fiction. It seemed to go: Romans, medieval, Tudor, then a big skip to Victorian, then Second World War.
And then I thought – ooh, this is mine then! All mine! (Well, the 1720s and 30s – let’s not be greedy.) A whole age to explore, both different from and similar to our own.
I could now regale you with my thoughts on why this period is so overlooked but we will run out of internet. I will say this, though – if we keep telling ourselves the same ‘greatest hits’ over and over, that is not history, it’s propaganda.
As a fan of the series, I love how you weave Thomas’ adventures into and alongside real people and historical events. Were you concerned about balancing historical accuracy with storytelling? And if you were, how do you overcome this?
History is not an obstacle to a storyteller, it’s a gift. I find inspiration in the details of my research. When I write about real people, wherever possible I will read lots of primary sources about them beforehand. I will do my best to understand them, to build up a picture of them, so that once they are a character on the page, they are driving the story and not the other way around. Very little of the original research will appear in the novel itself, but it informs so much of what I’m doing.
Sometimes a detail will shoot up like a flare and illuminate a character beautifully. Lady Judith Aislabie (who appears in A Death at Fountains Abbey) is a perfect example. Here are two things I discovered about her:
1) In 1723, she organised the first ever public horse race with female jockeys. They wore bloomers and rode astride, not side saddle. It was a sensation!
2) She left a large portion of her fortune to her female relatives, specifically stating the money was for them and not their husbands.
You can already begin to imagine her from these two facts, can’t you? How she might react to things. How she might walk, even. Whether Tom would like her (he does, a lot).
Of course there is an element of conjecture in all of this, but that is true of all character work – fiction or non-fiction. Why does someone behave as they do? And isn’t that the great mystery we’re all trying to solve, every day…
How do you tackle research when it comes time to write one of your books? Do you have a system that you can share?
Oh a system, that would be nice! All colour coded and easy to follow. I’m afraid it’s more intuitive than that for me. I’ll usually start with the most familiar literature, biographies etc. From there the bibliographies and notes can provide a staircase down to the next level, and the next. You notice some intriguing and obscure text in a footnote and off you go…
But then other times I’ll just key in ‘1728 condoms’ or something into the British Library database and see what happens.
As well as being historical fiction, the Thomas Hawkins books are always centered around a murder or mystery that needs to be solved. If you had to narrow down the two important elements in a crime/mystery story, what would they be?
Character and suspense. Character most of all. You can have the greatest plot twist in the world (lucky you!), but it means nothing if readers don’t care about your characters.
Do you think your experience working in the publishing industry helped you in any way as you wrote the first book in the series, The Devil in the Marshalsea?
Here’s what really helped me. From a very young age I had an intensely active imagination. I was also very shy and spent a lot of time on my own. (These things are of course connected.) I read voraciously, I listened to music, I watched TV. Then I spent years reading literature at University, then further years reading and editing when I was working in publishing. In other words my life has been filled with stories. I must have absorbed thousands and thousands of them.
Other than that you’d be amazed how little it helps to have worked in publishing. Sometimes people think I got my deal because I was an editor, but we submitted The Devil in the Marshalsea anonymously – and I only received two offers! We set a deadline to hear back and all these rejections came through at the same time – seven or eight, I think, one right after the other. I said to my agent, ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to offer’, and then five minutes later Hodder came through. God bless them.
From your website, I learned that you spent five years writing a gothic story about vampires. Is this a genre or theme you would like to return to in the future?
I’m a huge fan of SFF. I’d love to explore that, but you know it may not be right for me. Being a fan doesn’t automatically make me suited to the genre as a writer. I don’t know. I’d like to try!
Time for my regular tough question: Which two authors inspire you the most and why?
Very tough…! Charles Dickens, because he can do everything. Great stories, great characters, atmosphere, comedy and tragedy. I love the fact that he is galvanised by street-level social justice, but still leaves room for moments of high gothic drama. (Someone actually spontaneously combusts in Bleak House.)
Beyond that it could be one of a thousand. And that’s before we talk about musicians or artists. Hogarth has been a huge inspiration for the Thomas Hawkins series – the way he sees the world with absolute clarity and horror, but also with compassion and humour. And again, like Dickens, I admire his driving energy and sense of justice.
But you want an author not an artist, so I will pick Mary Shelley. Frankenstein is a profound, terrible, heart-breaking book. It has probably affected me more than any other novel, with the possible exception of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet. (Did you see how I sneakily included a third author there? Hah!)
Are there any projects in the pipeline that you are allowed to share with us now?
I’m working on my fourth novel at the moment. It’s called The Silver Collar and will be out in 2020. Before that, Hodder will release three short stories as ebook only titles in 2019. The first one is called ‘The Thirteenth Corpse’ and features Sam Fleet, Tom’s ward. I enjoyed writing from Sam’s perspective. He’s such an intriguing little nightmare.
To all the people out there aspiring to become authors, what is the one piece of advice you would like to give them?
Don’t aspire. Do it. Now!
And finally, with Christmas on the horizon, how do you think Tom and Kitty would celebrate it?
Christmas in the early 1700s was not the huge event it became later – we were still waiting for the Victorians (and Mr Dickens) to invent much of it. But it was certainly a time for family and feasting and worship.
Family is tricky for Tom – by Christmas 1727, following his release from prison, he is on reasonable terms with his father. But he’s not about to go home to Suffolk when he can knock about town with Kitty. It’s a bitterly cold winter so they spend a lot of the festive season in bed, and the rest of it in taverns, just to keep warm.
A church service on Christmas Day is obligatory, and if Tom closes his eyes for a moment he is just trying to concentrate and no he wasn’t snoring, damn it. After that more food, bowls of punch, and perhaps a reading from one of the Cocked Pistol’s volumes of libertine literature, at home by the fire.
While Tom may have given up the Church (following a semi-regrettable incident in an Oxford brothel), he appreciates the message of Christmas. A light in the dark. Peace, mercy and forgiveness. Love. So amidst all the feasting and celebration (and light snoozing), he would also take a moment to be thankful for what he has – Kitty most of all.
Another HUGE thank you to Antonia for taking the time to answer my questions. Also a huge thank you to Kerry for arranging this interview. If you like the sound of her books, don’t forget to check them out on Amazon or her website. You can also catch Antonia on Twitter here!