Conversation with VR Christensen

How did Of Moths and Butterflies come about? What inspired you to tell this story?

It was a combination of things, really. I had already written my first book, which was about an arranged marriage, which arrangement, in the end, didn’t work out. I was really happy with the shape of it, but it left me wondering… “What if they had married? What then?” I was reading a lot. I always read a lot, but at the time I as reading Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, and it had not been long before that that I’d read Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Both these books left very strong impressions with me. They left me asking some questions I couldn’t quite answer. What was it that prevented Irene from being able to love Soames? Or, for that matter, what prevented Soames from being the man Irene could love? In Tess the questions were harder yet. The irony behind Angel’s rejection of Tess really struck me. But the answers are the same in the end. Firstly it was pride that prevented these couples from being happy. For Irene and for Soames, in particular. With Tess the guilt was more on Angel’s side, though perhaps not entirely. But the other answer was at once more obvious and more perplexing, because it was Societal canon, ultimately, that doomed Tess’s happiness. For all her good intentions, she never had a chance. What society allowed for men, they absolutely forbid for women. The double standard created so much sorrow and tragedy in the Victorian era that it’s an issue, I think, deserves addressing. Moreover, when you compare it to the way we live now, one has to wonder how, having changed so much, we seem still to have gotten it all wrong.

But Moths is more than just a literary reaction, too. It was a way for me to address and deal with some of the pain and injury I had carried into marriage, and which prevented me, for many years, from really being able to love as I ought to.

So I had written the first book, as I said, and I was mulling all this about in my head, and then I was listening to a song by the Norwegian Electronica group, Royksopp. The song 49% began to play and the words really struck me. If you’re not happy, why don’t you try to make it better? True, circumstances act upon us, often beyond our control, but happiness is ultimately a choice. Love is ultimately a choice.

And so, for Irene, for Tess, for myself, for my heroine, Imogen Everard, I sat down and made a choice. I was going to write this. And I was going to answer for the social injustices suffered by those other heroines. And in my own heart, at least, I was going to make it right.

I love the tone of Of Moths and Butterflies, is there anything that inspires? Where does this come from?

I hope it’s from all the years of reading classics. I certainly don’t try to emulate any one author, but after a while the atmosphere of it sort of seeps in, and you get a feeling for the rhythms and the abstractness of it. I think it comes out again as I try to recreate it. My aim, when I started my first book, was to write in a sort of classic literary style, recreating the old form of storytelling that was once so well loved, and still is, I believe. It’s kind of a double edged sword, though. It’s difficult to get away with writing those kinds of lengthy novels with their huge word counts and page numbers. So trying to adapt it to a modern audience has been a challenge, especially since I wanted to evoke that same sense of subtlety and subdued emotional energy. It was also important to me that I adhere appropriately to those Victorian social codes, and yet somehow make what amounts to a modern statement in respect to history and how we do and do not learn from it. So dealing with issues of sex and sexual inequality have to be dealt with delicately, but must, at the same time, be totally clear. It’s a tricky line to walk at times.

This is clearly a heavily researched book. What can you tell me about your experiences in that area?

It’s impossible to read and not learn. And I tend to read rather comprehensively, so even in my study of classic literature, I learned a lot about the era, how it changed from decade to decade. How it didn’t. So by the time I started writing, I understood the social mores pretty well. From there I had to do a bit of digging into certain situations. As in most fiction, the characters are placed in unlikely circumstance. But even though this is particularly the case with my heroine, who is used as a lure by her uncle to draw in his money lending patrons, and to keep them coming, and in the fact that she inherits a fortune she does not want, I still had to make sure it could happen, or might happen. And what I learned was, that it did, or at the very least, the subject matter had been dealt with before. Imogen’s relationship with her uncle is a variation on Dickens’ Ralph Nickleby, after all. Then there are certain questions that arise as to inheritance and marriage laws. When was a marriage considered invalid? What were the procedures one must undergo to see that it was done properly? What rights did Imogen gain or lose as a married woman? How are births and deaths recorded and when is proof of either required? I studied books on etiquette, dating and courtship, marriage law, inheritance law, illegitimacy… Though The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 is only mentioned, it figures heavily into it, as well. If Imogen had waited just a matter of months, those presuming to orchestrate her marriage would have lost all their power to do so. The money she inherited would have remained hers after marriage and she could quite easily have made her own decisions. She would have been a legal entity, whereas, in February 1882 (the Property Act didn’t go into effect until January of 1883) she had no rights whatsoever, her entire legal identity having been absorbed by her husband, and assumed by the man to whom he was in turn dependent and indebted.

So yes, research played a huge part. Our modern era makes things so much easier than it was even a decade ago. Many of these primary sources are being reprinted, and some are even available on the internet as free downloads or publicly accessible documents. It’s really a wonder. And quite a blessing. I did do a good bit of travelling to see some of these country houses for myself, to visit museums and the locales in which my books take place, but even still, I never could have afforded the time or expense to search libraries and the like. That so much is available online really has opened up a world of possibilities as far as research and writing goes.

As a writer, do you plot your stories first, or just let it flow and write itself?

I suppose I do both. I do plot, but I plot differently now than I used to do. When I was writing the first draft of Moths, and even that of the first book, I had the whole thing outlined first, and in intricate detail. And then I stuck very closely to that outline. Now I make a much more informal outline, plotting out just the main concept of the story, where I need it to go, where I’d like it to begin, and some key events in the middle. Then I’ll take a section, and plot it out in more detail, then begin filling it in from beginning to the end of that section, allowing my characters to make the decisions for themselves. Many times I find I deviate from the details of my outline, but as long as they follow the main arch of the story, that’s ok. In fact, it usually works out to be much better.

When I had first written Moths, it was shaped very differently. I had taken Imogen to the countryside and had her interact with certain locals, including the parson and Mary, her uncle’s servant who (at that time) had gone with her, but I didn’t spend much time with her in the house. I had a few people read it, and what I learned from their responses was that I had pushed my characters toward a series of events they hadn’t naturally chosen, and, at the same time, I’d neglected some very obvious opportunities. I went back and tried to make their decisions seem more natural, but in the end, I had to rewrite it. At that point I really got into Imogen’s head, and into her circumstances, and I decided to show the reader what it was really like to be working and living in this big house. I think it turned out to be a much better book, and allowed for some interactions and circumstances I hadn’t accounted for. So while I think it’s important to know what you mean to accomplish by your work, and to understand how to form that story arch, I do think the characters must choose their own way through the obstacles and conflicts you’ve placed before them. It makes for much more natural storytelling that way.

Are you working on anything else?

As I mentioned, Moths is the second book I wrote. The first Cry of the Peacock, (formerly known as Kentridge Hall) is that first book, and it is scheduled to be published in October of this year (2012). I’m really looking forward to having it done. It’s been such a challenge forming that first book into something publishable, but I’m happy to say, it is, at last, very nearly there. Apart from that I’ve recently published a novella called Blind, which is a sort of historical paranormal story, very different from anything else I’ve done. I’ll have a short Steampunk themed story published by Literary Underground in this year’s anthology, Time, which I think is scheduled for some time this summer. And then, next year (2013) the third companion book to Moths and Butterflies and Cry of the Peacock will be released. It’s not really a series, but the books are interconnected. The connection will be apparent in that last book, Gods and Monsters. From there I may carry the story on into the Great War, but I haven’t really decided yet where I’ll go next. I have a number of projects that need finishing, but I do plan on continuing writing, and publishing, for the foreseeable future.


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