Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
The second interview in this series is with Kirsty Manning, author of The Midsummer Garden, The Jade Lily and The Lost Jewels. Kirsty, like many authors who have book releases over the next few months, and festival appearances, Kirsty has had these cancelled for the foreseeable future due to the current pandemic. In an attempt to help, I am interviewing those who have taken me up on the offer, and I’ll be throwing in a couple of bookish podcasts as well along the way. So, here is Kirsty’s interview.
Hi Kirsty and welcome to The Book Muse
1. When you set out to write The Lost Jewels, how did you find out about the Cheapside Jewels that form the backbone of the novel and its mystery?
A little over three years ago I was in the final stages of researching and writing my last novel set in Shanghai in World War Two—The Jade Lily—when I stumbled across an extraordinary newspaper article that completely knocked me off track.
It was a review of an exhibition of 500 priceless pieces of Elizabethan and Tudor jewelry–The Cheapside Hoard–that was on display at the time at the Museum of London, and I paused to read it. Who doesn’t love a diamond?
Naturally, I put aside the manuscript I was supposed to be writing and started to research everything I could on this shiny new topic. I found out what I could.
As my imagination took flight … the same questions haunted me: how could someone neglect to retrieve 500 precious pieces of jewellery and gemstones? Why was such a collection buried in a cellar? Who did all these jewels belong to? Why did nobody claim this treasure in the subsequent years? Who were the workmen who actually discovered the jewels in an old London cellar at Cheapside in 1912?
No-one knows the answers to these questions.
2. I really enjoyed this novel – you seem to capture the essence of both time periods you focused on. What do you like about writing a dual timeline story, and do you think it creates a more intriguing plot?
I love diving into different worlds, and it keeps it interesting when you are writing … if I get stuck on one plotline, I can jump across to the other!
I think a dual narrative can create intrigue if cleverly crafted, because the reader often knows the outcome for historical sections, and that expectation creates an added layer of drama in the text.
3. How much research did you do for this novel, and what was the most interesting thing you had to research?
I spent about a year researching this book before I started on the manuscript proper, noodling about with characters, timeframes and places.
I write about three eras of London, the 1600’s, 1912 and present day. For the 1600’s I read plenty of contemporary texts, like Shakespeare (who was writing at this time) and the diary of Samuel Pepys—the philandering public servant who kept a diary of his life in London at the time, including the Great Fire. He was the guy who buried wine and a block of parmesan cheese in his London garden—resolving to return to for it after the fire had passed. That’s my kind of correspondent!
Before I set off to London, I visited the breathtaking Cartier exhibition in Canberra. I was guided by a jeweller, who not only talked me through the design and setting, but what it took to facet an emerald—stones so fragile they splinter—and the flaws in a sapphire that make them so special. The best part, perhaps, was a replica of a goldsmith’s room, complete with the leather that folds across the lap, anvil and polishing stones. It wasn’t hard to imagine talented artisans sitting at tables just like these in Antwerp, Amsterdam, Milan, Paris and London hundreds of years ago, just like they do today. Later, I’d go on to visit jewellers in Melbourne and London, who’d show me to their tiny workspaces before pulling out diamonds, sapphires and gold bands from secret leather pouches and spreading them across the desktop to catch the light.
London is perfect for steeping yourself in history. I visited with my teenage son, Henry, and together we took tours with historians tracing the path of the Great Fire, visited the buildings, churches and monuments designed by Wren—who clearly loved a dome. We walked the streets of the East End learning about all the suffragettes were doing in 1912, and took a turn about the Burough Market and Dickensian London.
We spent the best part of a day at the Museum of London learning about fires, plague and revolutions, as well as suffragettes and life in Edwardian London. The Museum of London is also home to the Cheapside Hoard (although it is currently in storage) so I saw some replica jewels and stocked up on reference books.
I struck it lucky at the British Museum, where a sympathetic curator opened up a room containing some of the buttons and jewels allegedly from the Cheapside Hoard and it blew me away. To be in that room in London, looking at pieces with rubies and sapphires from Sri Lanka, diamonds from India, and emeralds from Colombia all set in exquisite gold rings and buttons, crafted in London when it was the centre of the exploding trading world. The Victoria and Albert Museum also has a fine selection of jewels, and the Natural History Museum is great for seeing real gemstones up close in the rough.
4. I had never heard of jewellery historians before this book – what do you think the best thing about being a jewellery historian would be?
Unravelling the true stories and mysteries behind a hand-crafted piece. The story of a jewel tells a bigger story of trade and globalisation, design trends, economics and politics. I try to show how many hands pass over a jewel—from origin to purchase in The Lost Jewels. A jewel changes someone’s life every time they come into contact with it, then either pass it on to a loved one and sell it on. There are stories with each handover.
5. I found moving between the key moments in the history of the jewels to be effective – was this a conscious decision or did it evolve while you wrote the novel?
A bit of both! I wanted to give the reader a sense of the hands that pass over a jewel, from origin. And I had an idea of the history, but it is all speculative … so I wove that in with my own narrative.
6. I love the way you centre women in your stories – do you feel that by doing this, you are contributing to a previously ignored historical record?
Yes indeed. The Lost Jewels is my imagined tale woven between the facts. I love bringing to life forgotten pockets of history—in particular, women’s voices that have long been overlooked or dismissed. For me, a novel begins between the gaps of history. I build my world on the bits we don’t know.
London was in turmoil in 1912—on the brink of war—with women marching in the street demanding the vote. Both these eras seemed ripe for fictionalising, placing strong, interesting women at the forefront of each story.
As for Kate, my main contemporary character—I’m in awe of the research of historians, curators and conservators around the world. They tenderly dive into our past to give us stories for our future. To teach us lessons, to give comfort and warning where needed. This is my love letter to their important work in libraries, museums and galleries around the world.
7. Do you have a favourite bookseller? Why this one in particular?
The Avenue Bookshop in Albert Park – because I can walk there! I also love New Leaves, in my former home-town of Woodend because a country bookshop keeps a country town engaged and inspired.
8. What is your favourite thing about the literary and writing community in Australia?
The camaraderie. Australia is awash with literary talent and in Melbourne I’ve made connections with writers who will be friends for life.
9. Books are always important. But in times of crisis, they can be a great comfort to people. For you, which book brings you comfort no matter how many times you read it?
To Kill a Mockingbird … always
10. You’re involved in the arts community in Australia – how do you think the arts will help people through the next few months?
If history teaches us anything, it is the power of the human spirit to be optimistic and rebuild after tragedy. Now is the time to contemplate what is really precious. It is the perfect time to celebrate art and beauty—also a time to read and reach for topics that bring a little hope and sparkly magic to our lives.
11. Favourite writing or reading companion – cat, dog or both?
My new puppy, Winter.
12. How long do you like to spend researching a book before you write those first words that begin the story?
About a year. But the research never stops until the story is done.
13. What are you going to be reading during this isolation period, and do you have any recommendations?
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins.
14. Finally, what is your next project going to be about?
A mystery set between the French Riviera and Germany …