Interview: M.M. Bennetts

Educated at Boston University and St Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist, regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor. The author is married and lives in England.

Enjoy this interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I grew up in the United States, and only first came to the UK to Scotland when I went to study at the University of St. Andrew’s. Subsequently, I married a Brit, and have been living here ever since. And before you ask, I had no thought as a child of writing, I wanted with my whole being to be a concert pianist. Writing came later, first as a way to pass the time when I should have been writing essays for my university tutor, then, because I read very fast, I got taken on as a free-lance book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.

Tell us about your latest book. What do you hope readers take away from it?

Of Honest Fame is a historical spy thriller set amidst the shadowed back alleys of London and against backdrop of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. It opens with an unknown assassin attempting to kill a young British agent, which turns out then to be part of a pattern. This sets three British agents searching for the assassin, as well as for the leak who’s betrayed them. So it’s a story of the hunted becoming the hunters amidst the chaos of Napoleonic wars–a world of mirrors within mirrors, of mysteries, of loss, of war and spying against a backdrop of pre-Victorian London, Paris, and across Europe as one of their number tracks the movements of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

But what I hope readers will take away from it? Well now, that’s a whole different story, isn’t it? A moment of honour and respect for those of the more than five million who died–particularly the civilians who in the main fell, uncounted and unacknowledged–in that period of Napoleonic conflict. A sense of the greatness, of the great courage and tenacity and glittering intelligence of those men who banded together to defeat Napoleon and release an exhausted Europe from twenty years of ceaseless war and French tyranny.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

Well, I love and have always loved historical fiction, but what goal that remains always at the forefront of my mind when I’m working is writing beautiful prose. I mean, the English language is quite simply stupendous in every way. We have the most sublime poets and playwrights and novelists, and I always want to return the literary beauty to historical fiction–so I aim, though I doubt I achieve, to write one moment of just gorgeous prose per page–one turn of phrase or one sentence or one description where the reader will stop, just to read it again, just because it’s beautiful.

The next book for which I’ve already started the research, will start in Italy in 1813, and explore some of the effects of Napoleonic rule there–they’d had most of their art looted, you know, in a French-run pillage that made what the Nazis did look like child’s play. So I want to touch on that and then take the story into Vienna where the allies were finally getting their acts together and beginning the end game that would finish Napoleon.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

The most interesting? That’s a difficult one. I’m quite torn between David A. Bell’s The First Total War and Adam Zamoyski’s 1812. Bell’s work completely turned on its head two hundred years of Napoleonic propaganda–the whole ‘gee, I really just wanted to spread peace and love for my fellow man’ spin that Napoleon put out when in his dying years, but also explored the ferocious barbarity of the French Revolution and showed how modern definitions of ‘terror’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ all derive from that period, specifically from the architects of the Reign of Terror. Zamoyski’s 1812 made use, for the first time, of sources which had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for generations, and again, totally turned the Napoleonic disinformation machine on its head, showing that Napoleon himself and his appallingly bad planning was the cause of the total disaster that was his invasion of Russia in 1812 in which probably nearly a million died–it wasn’t the Russian winter as everyone has always believed.

Favorite authors?

Shakespeare, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, H.D., Tom Stoppard, Charles Dickens, Salley Vickers, Dorothy Dunnett, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers, Simon Schama.

Book you’re currently reading?

Dominic Lieven’s superlative Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 which I am absolutely loving, though I’m reading it concurrently with The Fall of Napoleon: Volume 1, The Allied Invasion of France, 1813-1814 (Cambridge Military Histories) (v. 1) by Michael V. Leggiere.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

I don’t really have any rituals. I certainly make an awful lot of tea and get the first third of the mugful drunk, before I get totally absorbed in what I’m writing and forget it’s there.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

I don’t just believe in writer’s block, I experience it. The difficulty with pinning it down is that it might be caused by any number of things–self-doubt, fear that one can’t adequately convey the imagery in one’s head, procrastination, a conviction that one is never going to sell and therefore ‘what’s the point?’ Frequently, I overthink and when that happens, I need to get myself off to the stables, ride out on the Downs or subject myself to a grueling dressage lesson. And that will so empty my mind of all but the moment I’m in and the dressage work I’m doing and not doing very well, that it allows my subconscious to sift through the ideas and imagery without my interference. So no matter how physically tired I am at the end, I always return mentally refreshed and able to see my work with new eyes.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

Well, there’s always going to be the issue of sales and marketing success thrown in to that equation, but for me, it’s writing the book I wanted to write, the book I believed I had to write, and in the case of Of Honest Fame, honouring the uncounted fallen of the Napoleonic Wars.

Advice for other writers?

Never stop learning. Never stop trying to write better and more beautifully. Take the time to find your own voice and don’t rush into anything, but allow your books and your writing the grace of ‘cask time’. Good books are like fine wine, they require some time to ferment and refine.

Where can we learn more about you?

I have kept a blog for well over a year now and it’s got all sorts of fun and unusual historical stuff on it, both serious and a bit daft. I talk about my writing and the research there too, so that’s always the first port of call, I should have said.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just thank you very much for having me and I hope those who read my books enjoy them, because that to me is the main thing.

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