Home » OL Weekly

An Interview with Carol Carr

A quick Q&A with Carol Carr, author of “India Black,” and “India Black and the Widow of Windsor,” the first two instalments in the “Madam of Espionage” series:

There’s nothing on the market quite like the India Black novels – do they fill a void that you felt as a reader? Before creating this series, were you a fan of historical murder mysteries, or even historical romance

I do love a good caper novel, and I don’t think there are nearly enough of them being written today.  But I didn’t write to fill a perceived void.  In fact, since the books skate across several genres – adventure, espionage, romance, humor – and do not fit neatly into any particular niche, writing this story was not the wisest of marketing decisions on my part.  But your’re correct if you judge the series as something I’d enjoy as a reader.  It ticks all the boxes for me:  a brave, funny, but flawed heroine, dangerous escapades, a sexual frisson between characters, social commentary veiled in humor, and history.  As you so accurately pointed out in your review, the major influence on India is George Macdonald Fraser’s fabulous Flashman series.  I would never have attempted the India black series without his example. 

I am a fan of historical mysteries.  Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, Michael Pearce and Laurie R. King are favorites.  I try to stay away from anything from the Victorian era, for fear something might inadvertently bleed into my writing.  I have  never willingly read a romance novel of any type.  Oh, dear.  That will probably offend some readers.  Sorry about that.  I just happen to be one of those women who’d rather read Bernard Cornwell than Barbara Cartland. 

The tone of the series is deliberately light and fast, which is no mean feat to carry off (the villain’s defiant self-declaration at the climax of India Black and the Widow of Windsor made me hoot with laughter) – is this a case of life imitating art, or are you a dour, pet-admonishing grammar-corrector in real life? You could easily have gone a different route with these books – what prompted this approach?

I admit that I find it astonishing that after twelve (or even sixteen) years of education, most people use “it’s” when they mean “its” and “your” when they mean “you’re.”  I confess I feel impotent rage when I say “thank you” to someone and they reply, “no problem.”  The correct response, according to me, is “you’re welcome” or “my pleasure.”   We have established that I can be dour and I would like to (but refrain from) correcting grammar.  For the record, I only admonish my dog when he’s doing something disgusting.  I attribute these aspects of my character to my neo-Victorian upbringing.  There was a lot of emphasis in my house on following the rules, complying with social norms, and meeting parental standards.  On the other hand, this same upbringing bred a good deal of cynicism about authority and a serious oppositional streak in me.  If you say “have a nice day,” I have to bite back the urge to reply, “don’t tell me what kind of day to have.”  I think India Black is who I would be if I hadn’t been raised with such an emphasis on always saying and doing the right thing.  In the privacy of my home, I am India.  Just ask the television, which is really tired of me firing broadsides at the nightly news.  

As for the second question, I can only say that if I had to write a serious novel about a prostitute’s life in Victorian England, I’d have a to double my Xanax dosage.  I like to laugh. 

There are at least two very dynamic men in India Black’s life – the dashing and mysterious Mr. French and the laid-back all-capable Prime Minister Disraeil – is there ever a temptation to throw more of a spotlight on them, or is India firmly in the driver’s seat the whole time? 

India would never agree to relinquish her seat at the wheel, and since it’s her voice I hear she’ll always be the focus of the books.  Disraeli would make a fabulous amateur detective and someone should tackle that project.  I love Dizzy, but sadly he’s going to have to bow out of the series at some point as his old enemy Gladstone became prime minister in 1880.  Gladstone will be a very different kind of prime minister: rigid, imbued with religious fervor, and humorless.  Behind that facade, however, was a man who frequently trod the streets of London “conversing” with prostitutes.  The comic possibilities surrounding India’s interactions with Gladstone are unlimited.   

Now you’ve planted a seed with regard to French. I can envision him as the hero of his own story, probably pre-dating India and describing his previous adventures.  I see a future for French.  We do see a different side of him in the third book in the series, to be published in 2012.  Without providing too much information, we’re going to learn more about his past and his present circumstances, and he and India will confront some new challenges in their relationship. It’s not all roses and champagne and living happily ever after.  India would never settle for that.
Right alongside that light and fast narrative style, there’s quite a bit of research in these books – the period details are both fascinating and spot-on. Was that kind of preparation a boring prerequisite to writing the books (“Boring?” Professor Maitzen, OLM’s resident Victorianist, wails from offstage, “How could period research be boring?”), or was it the period that first attracted you?

A “boring prerequisite?”  I had to stop there for a drink to fortify myself.  Professor Maitzen and I would get along famously.  I adore research, as long as I’m not reading doorstops by academics infatuated by Foucault or Derrida.  I’ve been fascinated with the Victorian period for decades.  I’m particularly taken with the public figures of the day.  Disraeli, Gladstone, and Queen Victoria are all deliciously eccentric and great characters.  By the time I came to write India, I’d imbibed a lot of information about the period, but I still have to do some specific research for each book.  For India #3, I delved into the Paris Commune and anarchist theory, and learned how to make a bomb with materials available in the 19th century.  I really know how to have a good time.

In this latest novel, India Black shares the stage (and even the title!) with another very formidable lady: Queen Victoria herself. To put it mildly, this is a figure who’s been treated in fiction before – she and her whole family (Prince Bertie even starred in his own mystery series). Did that create any problems of its own during the writing process? At what point did you know you had ‘your’ Victoria?

The Victoria I portrayed in the book is the Victoria I’ve carried around in my mind for a long time.  I’m not a fan of hers.  She was a terrible mother.  She was completely self-centered.   She abdicated all responsibility for public affairs for a couple of decades following Albert’s death.  In fact, for me she ranks right up there with Edward VIII as the most selfish monarch the royal family has produced in the last two centuries. India’s comments about the queen reflect my own feelings.  It is not an objective view of the queen and of course I have concentrated only on those aspects of her character which fit my plot and the role she plays in it.  I would point out that, however, that my portrayal of her is historically accurate in the sense that what she says and does in the book are consistent with what she said and did in real life.  I haven’t changed any of her quirks, nor added any.  Now, if I were writing a biography of the queen, I would strive to be fair-minded.  I’m sure the woman did something worthwhile during her life.
Anyone who’s read this series is fervently hoping it will continue until you’re a doddering 120-year-old – can you console your readers that you are, in fact, hard at work on the third, fourth, and fifth adventures of India Black, and not a semiotic deconstruction of debt ceiling legislature or some such? 

I’m already doddering.  But if I make it to 120, that means I’m not quite middle-aged now and that gives me a warm glow (or maybe it’s the chardonnay).  I have just finished India #3, which is tentatively entitled India Black and the Dark Legion.  India infiltrates a cell of anarchists, with explosive results.  I don’t have a publication date yet, but I’d anticipate it will see the light of day in the summer or fall of 2012.  I do not have a contract beyond the third book, but, ever optimistic, I’ll be working on the fourth in the series.  Let’s see, semiotic deconstruction or India Black and the Horns of the Buffalo, with India and French masquerading as missionaries in Africa?  No contest.