Published by Allen & Unwin
Available in ebook, hardback and paperback (3 January 2019)
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘ON THE 15TH DAY OF DECEMBER IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1664, A GREAT LIGHT BLOOMED IN THE DARK SKY…’
Born on the night of a bad-luck comet, Ursula Flight has a difficult destiny written in the stars. Growing up with her family in the country, she is educated by a forward-thinking father who enables her to discover a love of reading, writing and astrology. Ursula dreams of becoming a famous playwright, but is devastated to learn she must instead fulfil her family’s expectations and marry. Trapped and lost, Ursula plots her escape – but her freedom will come at a price.
As Ursula’s dangerous desires play out, both on and off the stage, she’s flung into a giddy world of actors, aristocrats and artistic endeavours which will change her life irrevocably.
A gutsy coming-of-age story about a spirited young woman struggling to lead a creative life, this uplifting tale vividly evokes the glittering world of Restoration-era theatre. For anyone who has ever tried to succeed against the odds, The Illumination of Ursula Flight is an inspiring journey of love and loss, heartbreak and all-consuming passion.
This is a debut pulsating with life for readers of Jessie Burton, Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry.
Q & A
with Anna-Marie Crowhurst
Welcome to the blog Anna-Marie. Can you tell us a little of your background.
Hello! Thank you for having me.
I’ve been a freelance journalist for over fifteen years. I’ve written for lots of different publications from The Times and The Guardian to Newsweek and Stylist, usually about fashion and culture. My favourite jobs have been writing columns: I had one in the character of a rebellious temp; one in Time Out where I did weird things in London, and a more recent one in Emerald Street where I wrote about travel… and writing my book. I’m originally from Berkshire – which is why some of the book is set there – and I now live in London with my husband and our cat.
The Illumination of Ursula Flight is your debut novel. How long did it take you to write. How easy or difficult was your path to publication?
It took me a year to write from first line to sending off to agents. Or to look at it another way, since I first seriously said ‘I want to write a book,’ it took 12 or 13 years – of writing, always writing – all sorts of things, from features and interviews for my job to more creative things on the side – bits of books that never went anywhere: plays, poems, sketches, stories (if you’ve read the book you’ll see why it came out like it did, format wise!) In 2015 I decided the best way to get this novel thing done would be to do an MA in Creative Writing, so I used my savings to study at Bath Spa University. The idea for Ursula came to me in a tutorial a couple of months in and just sort of took me over. I wrote in every spare, snatched moment – whenever I wasn’t at university or doing my job – on tubes, on my phone, on trains, on holiday… I was like a woman possessed. Because I’d written in one of my columns and tweeted about writing my book, it was relatively easy to get an agent, I suppose – I’d had a few lovely agents contact me through social media expressing interest in seeing the manuscript when it was ready. Then I just sent it off in the usual way. My agent Hellie Ogden at Janklow & Nesbit got back to me, I think within 24 hours, full of enthusiasm for the story. She’s still full of enthusiasm so I know I made the right choice!
What appealed to you about writing a book set in the 17th century and why this story?
I’ve been obsessed with history all my life, I think. When I was a teenager, it was the Tudors. I devoured every Anne Boleyn biography I could find, and obsessively read around every aspect of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. I just found the past so interesting. In my imagination the late 17th century is quite a jolly time, comparative to the rest of history. Charles II was running quite a saucy court with all his bosomy mistresses and licentious poets – and there was a mood of creativity in the air, with lots of plays and poems and books were being written. Charles II passed the law allowing women to act on the English stage for the first time in 1660 – so it was a turning point for women in the theatre (theatre has always been one of my great loves: I am very much a frustrated actress). That got me thinking about women of the time and interested in writers like Aphra Behn, the first female playwright – who was absolutely hilarious, and really sharp and clever about relationships between men and women. I started wondering if there might have been other Aphra Behns, who got forgotten about, and what their route to writing might have been, in a time where women were the weaker sex, and domestic violence sanctioned by law. I thought that probably in many ways, becoming a creative women might not be all that different to how it is today, so perhaps I could write about that.
Do you plan in detail or just write and see where the story takes you
I just start writing, and when I’ve given myself enough of a sense of the characters and the story, I start to formulate more of a proper plan. I tried writing a full outline for the book I’m writing now, and that took some of the joy out of it for me, as I felt like I knew what was happening, and the impetus to find out was gone. So I’ve learnt that what keeps me motivated to write 100,000 words is working out on the page where the story is going, and allowing it to go to more interesting places than I might first have envisaged.
What is the best writing advice that you have received? Is there anything that you wished you had done differently?
I was very lucky in that on my MA I had some of the best writing advice possible – the brilliant novelist Tessa Hadley was my supervisor. Tessa was very good at pushing me to get better, and to think about the shape and structure of the book, and being brutal about things that weren’t necessary for the plot. My favourite thing she told me was in the margin of an extract I’d submitted for marking, and she’d just written ‘Make better.’ I think there is always room for improvement and now I look at what I’ve written and wonder if I can ‘make better’. I nearly always can. Editing and re-editing over and over and over again is what makes a good idea a good book, I think.
Is there any part of the writing process which you enjoy the most (or find the most difficult) – i.e. researching, writing, editing?
Researching is, to me, delicious, as it involves reading, and is something I’ve been doing for fun for years. I love going to the British Library and digging out something amazing that will give me insight into an era or a person or a mindset, too. Editing, as a journalist comes naturally to me, as I’ve spent years trying to get my point across inside the strict confines of a word count or a box. I genuinely love tweaking and fine tuning a line or a paragraph and slashing and burning like a demon… So, yeah, the writing is the hard bit. Writing when you don’t want to do it; writing as a full time job; the physical strains that come with endless hours of sitting in one place and not moving because you’re so focussed on trying to get something down, or trying to hit a deadline: the worst is writing on a bad day and knowing nothing is any good and feeling like it’ll never be any good again. But sometimes you hit a stretch where writing is as joyous as flying in a dream, and that’s what makes it so addictive.
Are there any authors whose books have made an impact on you? What type of book do you enjoy reading for pleasure, and what are you reading now?
Argh – so many! I read a lot of Dickens and Hardy and all the Brontës as a teenager, when I was truly discovering what literature meant, and I am one of those people who re-reads treasured books over and over – so I think my idea of a good book is probably rooted in the Victorian: all those angels and villains and tragedies and romances: and hundreds of pages to keep you going on cold winter nights. The comedy of Austen made me realise how important being funny is – and how comedy can work in dialogue – for that reason I always go back to Nancy Mitford, too. So witty and glamorous and arch. And I love a 1930s/40s writer called Dorothy Whipple (published by Persephone books) who’s all about the domestic and often, the dark. More recently I’ve discovered the brilliant Sally Rooney – the way she effortlessly nails the interaction between men and women, and all the things we leave unsaid, with such light touch is so CLEVER. I hugely admire writers who have a sense of the world that’s very textural and sensual like Emma Cline and Imogen Hermes Gowar. And writers who are a bit odd (in a good way) like Lauren Groff and Sarah Perry. Oh and Sarah Waters is queen (the Victorian thing again – but also, she’s funny. Which I appreciate).
Finally, if you could only keep 5 books on your bookshelf, which ones would it be and very briefly, why?
Horrible idea! But if I’m being realistic about this, it would be the tried and tested comforting classics I read over and over and never get bored of: Jane Eyre (I still cry at the end, and have read it at least 20 times), David Copperfield (nice and hefty, endlessly amusing), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (tragic and beautiful), Pride & Prejudice (funny and light) and because I need historical biographies in my life, Antonia Fraser’s brilliant, novel-like biography of Marie Antoinette.
My thanks to Kirsty of Atlantic Books for the invitation to take part in the tour to celebrate the paperback publication and for Anna-Marie for kindly answering my questions. I wasn’t able to review in time for the tour but I couldn’t resist buying a copy of the gorgeous hardback to read when I can. Doesn’t it look fabulous.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Illumination of Ursula Flight is my debut novel. I’m also a freelance journalist. I live in London. Find me on Twitter @writercrow