Mystery author Clara Benson could say – along with Mark Twain – that “reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated” – but she only has herself to blame. She wrote her popular 10-book Angela Marchmont series in the persona of a long-dead 1920s author named – you guessed it – Clara Benson. And when she confessed to her readers that Clara was a pen name and that she was very much alive in the 21st century, just a few of them weren’t too pleased. Mostly though, they enjoyed the ruse and begged her stay alive and write more books!
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Clara talks about the difficulties of marketing your books when you’re “dead” and why she so adores the early 20th century.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The personal loss that was the catalyst for her first book
- How impatience worked for her in the early days
- Why she was tempted to play the “dead author” role
- The inspiration of stately homes
- On delayed gratification: NOT binge reading her favorite author
- What she’d do differently second time around
Where to find Clara Benson:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Clara. Hello there Clara and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Clara: Oh thank you for having me.
Jenny: We like to start in a “Once Upon a Time” framework because we are story tellers . . . so was there a “Once Upon a Time” moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction?? And if so when was it?
Clara: When was it? I think probably like a lot of writers I always thought I was going to write, but without doing very much writing. I wrote creatively when I was a child but I never completed anything. I tried writing a novel in my twenties which will never see the light of day because it was too appalling. I was listening to your interview with HY Hanna (H.Y. Hanna’s Oxford Tearoom Mysteries in the Joys of Binge Reading) and I think I am very similar to her, reaching a certain age and suddenly deciding, I hadn’t done anything with my life and if I was going to do anything I had better start.
The catalyst for me was about ten years ago when my Dad sadly was diagnosed with terminal cancer and that is the kind of moment when everything comes home to you. You think ‘gosh we aren’t going to have him for too much longer and I’ve never done anything to make him proud.’ So I thought I’ve really got to do something . . .and he was such a reader, so I thought if I am going to write anything, this is really the moment to start. So I did start writing when he got ill, but sadly it never got finished before he died, and so he never got to read it, but he did know I was writing it.
Also there is the thing, selfishly, when these sort of things happen to you, you get an impending sense of your own mortality. It took a few years to finish the book, so he never got to read The Murder At Sissingham Hall, but he did know I was writing so that was pleasing for him.
Jenny: Was he into Golden Age Mysteries?
Clara: Not so much Golden Age mysteries . . he did read mysteries but he was probably more into thrillers, and more modern books. He was always recommending books to me, and he’d get really annoyed if I didn’t read them. He’d do the same for my brother, because he writes books as well – science fiction under the name of Anthony James and I think my Dad would be proud of both of us now, but he never got to see that.
Jenny: You’ve now got two historical series under way – the Angela Marchmont mysteries has concluded at ten books – is that correct – and the Freddy Pilkington-Soames adventure series is building up steam. What makes one an “adventure” and the other a “mystery”?
Clara: I don’t think there is a huge difference. The Freddy books are mysteries but there is more action in them, because Angela is a genteel lady detective and there are certain things she can’t do in the 1920s. Freddy can just wander into a “greasy spoon” and start asking questions, say of a taxi driver, and he spends quite a lot of time dangling from rooftops and getting into punch ups, which again is something Angela couldn’t do. Angela wanders around and asks questions.
Jenny: Perhaps Freddy isn’t quite so much the classic Golden Age model?
Clara: Possibly, though there is a certain element of the traditional mystery. The first three are set in London, and the fourth one, A Case of Duplicity in Dorset is much more of a country house mystery with guests gathered at a stately pile, and missing jewels and secret passages and people bashing each other over the head and a limited number of suspects – also he’s a male detective, which makes him a bit different. The trend seems to be towards female detectives.
Jenny: Whenever I think of the “Golden Age” I think of Poirot . .
Clara: Yes – he’s not so much female is he? Poirot doesn’t do a lot of dangling around from rooftops either – he’s either walking around or sitting in deck chairs and asking people questions and twirling his moustache.
Jenny: They are both set in the 20s and 30s, mainly in England, although Angela in later books does go to Italy and America. What is the appeal of the historical aspect, for you and for your readers?
Clara: Oh I think historical fiction is immensely popular, because it harks back to a time, rightly or wrongly perceived as a time when life was simpler, and then of course there is the fashion. I would hate the formality of the clothes they wore in those days, getting changed for dinner and so forth, but then you think “I’m going to put on a sequinned evening gown -and you know I am going to put a nice hat on . .” I would never put a hat on because it would squash my hair . . .! And then there is the idea of having servants – if I could click my fingers and someone would make me coffee – it sounds fantastic! Of course I know we have this idealized version of how it was because obviously most of the people were the ones bringing the coffee, but I think we have this idealized picture of what it was like in the past – a world that is less complicated.
Jenny: Yes with those country house mysteries they do occupy their own world and you do feel you can sink into escapism when you are reading them, don’t you?
Clara: Oh yes . . Where I live there are quite a lot of stately homes around here and we quite often go and visit them. . . And you think “Wow this would have been so nice . . they have these enormous beds with curtains around them and you think how nice it would be – this whole grand lifestyle that noone really has any more – because there’s nobody living in them.
Jenny: Yes and even in those years it was on its way out. . . so there is a certain poignancy about it.
Clara: Yes – even after the First World War a lot of the estates, the owners couldn’t afford to keep them up because of death duties and so forth and they were being sold off for nursing homes and other things . . . A lot were demolished – there was a whole national discussion about it – the last hurrah of the country house and that’s partly the fascination as well.
Jenny: You’ve “said goodbye” to Angela now – and without spoiling anything we can say you gave her a happy ending – but tell us a little about the whole process of ending a series. Was that a challenge in itself?
Clara: It was actually, not least because practically speaking we were in the middle of moving house. It was a challenge, I had spent all these books building up her story, But also because I had spent quite a lot of time crafting an air of mystery around Angela and I knew in the end I was going to have to explain it or otherwise was going to get lynched . . and then when it came to it and I had to explain I realized it was coming to the end of an era. I do get a lot of emails about Angela, everybody adores her, and they say “Please bring Angela back . .” so I am not sure if we’ve entirely said goodbye to her.
Jenny: Yes I felt you left a little ambiguity there . . did you know her back story when you first started out, or did it develop as you went along?
Clara: Not when I first plotted the series. I knew a couple of things about her and there were a few options I gave myself and by about Book Three it was starting to take shape.. It’s in Books Nine and Ten they are a kind of a two-part story where all these awful things happen to her – I can’t say anything without giving it away, but basically they are about Angela and her past after she solved all these mysteries. They are mysteries as well, but there are certain characters who appear earlier in the series and I was thinking “Ooh I could do this or I could do that” with this person – it was taking shape and I was very excited to write Book Nine which is where it all comes to a head.. and actually by the time I came to write Book Nine I had it all plotted out which is unusual for me usually I don’t know so much..
But when I was writing Book Seven and Book Eight I was taking notes about what could happen and by the time I came to Book Nine I had it all plotted out. The problem was the series came to such a climax I couldn’t go back to “normal” Angela books. If she comes back it will have to be in a slightly different way – she couldn’t just go back to the old “normal” country house mysteries because we’ve already done that.
Jenny: There’s actually another layer to this and that’s that gradually those books developed this other persona around you – You wrote them as if you were a deceased writer called Clara Benson living in the 1920s. How did that happen?
Clara: It was one of those things that “seemed like a good idea at the time.” When I was thinking about writing I thought – Gosh writers – they have to talk to people and I suppose I consider myself a bit awkward socially – but if I write book people might ask me difficult questions that I can’t answer and how can I get around that? And I thought I’ll pretend I’m a writer whose dead – you can’t possibly ask questions of a dead person – – and then I thought it’s a great opportunity – it was great fun really, because it’s like getting into character . . the Clara who is writing the story she is kind of a character, she’s not really me… This lady of a certain age observing her world – it was a lot of fun to do.
Jenny: And then I know on your website you’ve got a confession to your readers where you finally confessed you had done this . . what kind of reaction did you get?
Clara: Yes . I did think I was going to get lynched . . I thought there would be pitchforks and torches . .! Actually most people were really quite nice about it – Thank you everyone who was nice about it. . . There a few people who weren’t too happy about it, and I do apologize to them, because it was never meant to harm or offend, it was always a bit of fun. But I got a lot of responses like “Oh we’re so glad that you’re not dead, you’re still alive to write more books . .” I have taken out of the books now the information about being a “dead writer” but you occasionally get a person who downloaded one of the old copies with the “confession” in the back, so I still get emails from people who say “Oh. I’ve just discovered that you are still alive and I am so happy . .” I’m not sure that was the best idea I ever had.
Jenny: Were there a lot of people who had already guessed?
Clara: Yes there were, because I wasn’t very good at carrying the fiction through, because strangely enough I’m not a very good liar. But a lot hadn’t and they were completely thrown by it . . .
Jenny: You have mentioned you wanted to faithfully reproduce something that has the tone and style of the classic mysteries and you have done that now haven’t you?
Clara: Yes I think I have done that. Obviously there are some modern sensibilities, but I think I did not a bad job. I am a fairly natural mimic, I tried very hard not to be too modern. The thing about historical fiction like a lot of rich period detail to take them back to that time and I am not really very good at that kind of description and I thought if I was really writing in the 1920s noone would say things like “this is what a car looked like in the 1920s” Or you get coy references to things like “That nice Mr Hitler who’s going to save Europe . . .” I didn’t want to do that, it’s too self conscious. I mean I realize it’s pastiche, but I did it out of a genuine love of the genre.
Turning to your wider career . . .
Jenny: Moving away from specific books to consider your wider career? Can you tell us anything about your life before you became a writer?
Clara: Oh yes. For many years before I began writing I was a translator, so when I started writing I was used to working with documents. When you are translating you don’t get to use your own ideas, but you are crafting sentences. I think just being a reader influenced me. I was a huge reader. I started out on Enid Blyton, then Nancy Drew then Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. And so when I sat down to write I thought “I can’t write a mystery” and I found it doesn’t necessarily matter if you can’t write a great mystery, because people love the characters… But if you asked me what I would want to write it would be a really good mystery that keeps people guessing.
Jenny: You mentioned you like to visit stately homes, and I wondered – if you were going to set up a magical mystery literary tour for Angela or Freddy readers, where would you suggest they go?
Clara: Oh there are loads. I live in Yorkshire and there are so many of them around here. it’s fantastic. We’ve got Harewood House, the home of one of the Princess Mary’s, that’s just outside Leeds, which is absolutely palatial. There’s another place near Pontefract, called Nostell Priory. They all belong to the National Trust and you can pay to visit them, so many places for inspiration – some of them too grand really for country house mysteries, but great to visit.
Turning to Clara as reader
Jenny: You’ve already confessed to your passion for Golden Age mystery – but who else do you like to read?
Clara: Again, I’m with HY Hanna she had the same answer as me, she reads a lot of Mary Stewart as well – I’ve just discovered Mary Stewart this year, and she’s amazing. She wrote romantic suspense set in the Post War years – all women in big dresses driving around the South of France and suave men with cigarettes – just fantastic stuff. She builds up an atmosphere like nobody else, and I don’t know why I haven’t heard of her before. she was born in the same town as me – I was originally from Sunderland and she was born there, because I used to get all my reading from the library and you’d think they would have had her books! I don’t know how I missed them. I am trying not to binge read them, I’m saving them, I don’t want to miss the pleasure.
Romantic suspense these days is Navy seals and women on the run, it’s a lot more action packed but with Mary Stewart you’ve got the slow build and another one I love is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – that’s also got the slow build and the layering of the atmosphere – I love all that.
Jenny: It definitely sounds like you want to stay before the 1960s . . .
Clara: I do! I love the way they talked! I tried writing a contemporary book and I was told it sounded a bit old fashioned, so maybe historical fiction is where I’ll be staying.
Circling back to the beginning at the end
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Clara: I would probably think more carefully about pretending to be dead! And just from an authorly point of view I would possibly pay a bit more attention to marketing, because I just published the books and let them fly. Maybe I would not publish The Murder at Sissingham Hall as it is, I’d tweak it more, polish a bit more, but now it’s sold so many copies I wouldn’t do it right now.
Jenny: Were you indie published from the beginning?
Clara: Yes I’m not a particularly patient person and I sent The Murder at Sissingham Hall to two agents and both said No and so I sat on it for a while, and after that I put it on Amazon and it started selling without any marketing at all, so I wrote more books. . . That was six years ago, when Indie publishing was taking off… I could hardly market it . .
Jenny: Yes I do find it amusing. It does make it difficult to market when you’re a dead author, doesn’t it?
Clara: Yes it does! I certainly didn’t think it through. And those first covers were pretty unexciting too. Luckily though, they sold and so I could write more.
Jenny: What is next for Clara the writer? What are you working on, and new projects?
Clara: I’m working on a new Freddy, and I am working with a traditional published on a novel set in World War II. I hope to finish that in next couple of months . . I am waiting to see how things pan out. . .
Jenny: Do you enjoy interacting with readers and where can they find you online?
Clara: Yes I do like to interact with my readers. I always answer emails You can email me and I will reply that’s email@example.com
Or you can find me on Facebook @ClaraBensonBooks and occasionally I am on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7047250.Clara_Benson
And of course I’ve got my website: https://clarabenson.com/
I am keen to prove I am alive and well and reports of my death have been exaggerated as they say!
Jenny: That’s a great way to finish! Thanks so much Clara.
Clara: And thank you Jenny.
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