Lee Jackson‘s ‘Diary of a Murder’ kick started our book club. Here he answers our questions. Thanks to Kylie Mirmohamadi and Lucinda Matthews-Jones for providing questions.
1) What sparked your creative juices into writing in ‘The Diary of a Murder’? i.e. was it a particular novel/s, event/s or primary source?
It’s an idea that I’ve had for a long time – a diary as murder mystery – that arose from reading Arthur Munby’s peculiar diaries and the anonymous sex marathon of My Secret Life, credited to ‘Walter’, and, tangentially, the comedy of The Diary of a Nobody. How much can we expect a ‘truthful’ account from Victorian diaries? It’s a form that promises so much – a very distinctive sort of authenticity – and hence it’s very easy to presume that diaries provide a privileged ‘accurate’ view of Victorian life. But is this true? My novel examines this question, after a fashion, by presenting a diary that has the quotidian tedium of Mr. Pooter but also reflects the secret histories we find in Munby and ‘Walter’ – and whose author we have every ground to suspect.
2) How do you find novel writing compared to your other works on C19th London?
I can really claim to any substantive works of my own on 19th C. London, in that I’ve had most non-fiction success with anthologising primary sources. That said, I’ve recently been working on a non-fiction book proposal and I would say writing a novel is much easier than non-fiction. With fiction, you can pick and choose your material and sources of inspiration (and ignore anything that doesn’t suit or doesn’t work out) and go wherever the mood takes you. No-one will hold you to account that you ignored x or y.
3) Do you think historical fiction provides an alternative way of uncovering the Victorians? If so what do you think this novel (or your other novels) have to reveal to the reader?
I certainly don’t think of myself as revealing truths – my books are really simple entertainment – although it is a fundamental question in historical fiction whether human nature changes or remains fundamentally unaltered, regardless of culture and time period. I remain a little agnostic on that point. I do hope my books reveal the texture and feel of Victorian London, that they create a complex and plausible picture of the metropolis in the mind of the reader – that would be achievement enough.
4) In your email to me (lucie) you said that this was still your favourite novel can I ask why?
It’s my favourite book for various reasons. It had a very long gestation from idea to actually writing, and then again, for various reasons, to actually seeing it published (so very satisfying when it actually happened); it has an incredibly complex plot structure (although the reader won’t realise why, until the end); and I think it’s a highly accurate pastiche of Victorian diary-writing – in short, I think it’s a great technical accomplishment, and I feel confident and proud enough about it to say that, even if you’re not really supposed to praise your own work.
5) Is it annoying when comments focuses on the ‘authenticity’ of your portrayal of Victorian London rather than engaging with the book as a novel, and how it functions in literary ways?
Authenticity is very important to me – for instance, I’ve always tried to check words and phrases to see whether they would appear in the 19th C. This book, because it’s a diary for much of the text, had to be perfect in its Victorian tone – and if you’ve read the likes of Munby (from whose diary I have also shamelessly stolen one small passage) I hope you’ll agree I’ve captured the right vocabulary, mood &c. What is annoying is not so much people obsessing about authenticity as having a narrow understanding of what it might mean – ie. people who have only read Dickens, and expect all Victorians to sound like David Copperfield.
6) Given your encyclopaedic knowledge of Victorian London, how do you resist the temptation to load more and more ‘period detail’ into the action and how do you resist the temptation not to be led by the primary material or to parody certain representation cultivated by the Victorians themselves?
I think the trick is to provide only so much detail as the action of the novel requires, although I suspect it is really a question of personal taste – some people genuinely like diversions into bits of ‘period detail’ that don’t necessarily have much connection to the narrative. As for representations, this book certainly does play on the image of the traditional Victorian family – it’s the image that Jacob is desperately trying to keep up, and failing – and Victorian double standards. It’s a cliché to talk about the hypocritical Victorian paterfamilias, but – of course – they existed: Dickens, Frith, Munby and many others maintained double lives. It’s almost tempting to see this duality as essential to the Victorian family.
7) I really enjoyed the way that the novel was structured and the way it moved between the diary and the ‘present’ day, how did you set about writing the novel? Did you have to write the diary first and then decide where to merge the two strands together?
No, I wanted to intercut the police investigation with the diary from the start. It was an interesting way of presenting and punctuating the main novel (the diary) and commenting on the content as the police (and reader) read through Jacob’s account of the months leading up to the murder. I wrote everything pretty much in the sequence it appears, although I had to be quite careful with dates -an incredibly fiddly business! I think it was worth the effort, and I’m really glad to hear you enjoyed the book!