One of my top reads for 2018, without any doubt, is The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton, an author who has long been a favourite of mine. I am so thrilled to welcome Kate to Behind the Pen today.
Birdie Bell is a departure from your usual character and yet I feel as though you have been hinting at such a character for many novels now. Was writing her a creative challenge or a complete liberation?
I loved writing Birdie Bell. Not only did she give me the opportunity to depict the grimier streets of nineteenth-century London, she also allowed me to edge ever-closer to making the house of my novel a character rather than a simple setting. On a practical level, Birdie was a very liberating character to write: she had an almost omniscient view, having been privy to the lives and time of each of the other characters and was able to reveal as much or as little as I needed her to, and fill in gaps with respect to the lives of the other characters.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter has a far more present gothic atmosphere than any of your previous novels. Is this something you have been inching towards over time? Is there any great inspiration from literature or real life that you have drawn from in the creation of Birchwood Manor and Birdie Bell?
I am obsessed with houses. I love them architecturally and aesthetically, but most of all I’m drawn to them as repositories of memory. I find it impossible to set foot inside an old house and not begin to wonder immediately about the different human lives that have played out within its walls. All of the houses in my books are haunted in some way by the imprints of the past, but in The Clockmaker’s Daughter I was able to take my usual metaphorical haunting a little further. I liked the idea of giving voice to a ‘forgotten woman’ of history, and was inspired, in the creation of Birchwood Manor, by a number of real houses, for instance Avebury Manor, Great Chalfeld Manor and, of course, Kelmscott Manor.
With so many voices telling their stories within The Clockmaker’s Daughter, was there any one in particular who spoke to you louder than the others, inspiring the story from the beginning?
Birdie Bell’s voice was the first that I heard. Some years ago, I’d been reading about the English Romantic poets, in particular the legendary summer that Byron, Shelley and friends spent on the lake in Switzerland, during which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Around the same time, I’d also been thinking about Harvington Hall, a real-life house in Worcestershire with a particular architectural feature that sparked my imagination. These two ideas collided and Birdie Bell was born. I sketched the first scene – about a group of young artists who escape London for a summer of creativity, but for whom something goes terribly wrong – and then put it aside (while I wrote another novel) until I met an archivist and the rest of the story began to take shape.
How long does it take to create a novel as vast as The Clockmaker’s Daughter, from inspiration through to completion? The research alone is so vast, I am so curious about your tracking of all of the information. Are you a visual researcher, in that it surrounds you as you write, or is it all neatly contained and filed away?
The writing process is immersive for me. I write about things that interest me as a person and so the veil between the world of the book and my real life is porous, each constantly informing the other. I do a lot of broad world-building research at the outset, as I narrow in on the characters, setting and story, and then become more focussed. I take copious notes at this early stage, but rarely look at them again. My aim is to take on the information so that the research becomes part of my own knowledge and I am therefore able to embody my character, writing in their viewpoint and about their world as if it were my own. I continue to research all the way through the writing process – whether by reading, visiting museums, galleries and real-life locations, listening to music or watching documentaries.
Is there any particular season you find more creatively inspirational?
All of them for different reasons. I love to write in autumn and winter, for the simple fact that it’s a pleasure to be inside where there’s a fire on, with a blanket across my knees and a warm drink on my desk, bringing the world of my book to life; but I am also inspired by the rush of joy that I feel when I step outside on a perfect spring or summer’s morning. It electrifies me with a need for action, an urgent sense that I need to be doing something, and more often than not, that ‘something’ is writing.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter
My real name, no one remembers.
The truth about that summer, no one else knows.
In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.
Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river.
Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?
Told by multiple voices across time, The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss. And flowing through its pages like a river is the voice of a woman who stands outside time, whose name has been forgotten by history, but who has watched it all unfold: Birdie Bell, the clockmaker’s daughter.