20 Questions: Katharine McMahon

Photo (partial) by ©Gill Woods

“When I’m stuck”, historical novelist Katharine McMahon tells PopMatters 20 Questions, “theatre unlocks my brain.”

Katharine McMahon’s newest book, The Crimson Rooms, a mystery about love, secrets, and discovery in post-World War I London, publishes 18 February.

It makes perfect sense that an actor with a talent for penning stories might become an excellent novelist of historical fiction. Good theatre, like good historical fiction, combines the erudite with the magical process of storytelling and we, the ones captured by the drama however it unfolds, are both moved and wiser for the experience. “When I’m stuck”, she tells PopMatters 20 Questions, “theatre unlocks my brain.”

Book: The Crimson Rooms

Author: Katharine McMahon

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2010-02

Format: Hardcover

Length: 384 pages

Price: $25.95

Image: The latest book or movie that made you cry?

The film where I cried most was the end of Sense and Sensibility when Emma Thompson's Elinor sobs in relief that the love of her life is not married, after all. It was such an un-Elinor like reaction, and therefore so poignant, that I couldn't help crying, too. Finding Neverland had me weeping throughout, although I'm usually quite tough about crying when I watch a film.

2. The fictional character most like you?

What a question. I read somewhere that authors are incapable of creating characters that aren't like themselves. I think the most exact portrait of me is in the dual characters of Rosa and Mariella in The Rose of Sebastopol.

I'm a bit of a mixed personality -- so part of me is Rosa, who loves dashing about, attempting to change the world and being far too outspoken, and part of me is Mariella, a home-bird, quite domestic and shy and worried about doing the wrong thing. If I hadn't been an author, I would have been an Evelyn Gifford too, a barrister, perhaps. I'm very driven.

3. The greatest album, ever?

My friends would roar with laughter that my opinion is being asked on this subject, since my taste in music is a bit questionable. Dylan's Desire, or Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water are two of the albums that I played over and over because I loved the lyrics. Dylan is my all time favourite.

Book: The Rose of Sebastopol

Author: Katharine McMahon

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2010-02

Format: Paperback

Length: 412 pages

Price: $15.00

Image: Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek, for old time's sake, because we used to watch the TV series when we were kids.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Going to the theatre. When I'm stuck the theatre unlocks my brain. I think it's a combination of seeing all that creativity in the actors, and the inter-relationship of word and character and plot on the stage. It doesn't matter what the play is, as long as it's well written and well acted.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

When I was writing the last chapters of The Crimson Rooms I was also performing Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire at our local theatre. At the time it seemed like sheer madness -- Blanche is a massive part to learn and it was exhausting playing her -- emotionally and physically. Yet I have a feeling that some of the emotional intensity of that play seeped into The Crimson Rooms.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Giving a lot of love and affection and making people feel valued and good about themselves -- I have to work on that one -- it's a high ambition and I have many leagues to go before I'm close to achieving it. Also my books, of course. I'd like to think that one day I'll have a bit of a reputation as a novelist.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

All those women who have broken the mould: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Florence Nightingale's extraordinary, illegitimate cousin who was a feminist well before the word had been invented; Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first woman doctor; Marie Curie; Vera Brittain.

Book: The Alchemist's Daughter

Author: Katharine McMahon

Publisher: Crown

Publication Date: 2006-10

Format: Paperback

Length: 352 pages

Price: $13.95

Image: The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Jane Austen's Emma of course.

10. Your hidden talents...?

Well... I can do the most elaborate knitting, if I pay attention, Fair Isle and Arran. I have double jointed elbows (does that count?). But my most unhidden, hidden talent is for the stage. I love performance.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

My mother's: If I was ever dithering about whether to do something or not, she used to say: When in doubt, go. Or, when in doubt, try it.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I'm always cold, so my best purchases are to do with heat: a monstrous dressing gown that's like wearing a duvet, for instance. For glamour, once I found a '30s painted silk evening gown in a vintage clothes' shop, and bought it and wore it and felt terribly excited and unlike myself.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Depends what I'm doing. See the bit about being cold, above. I love huge cardis and jumpers and jeans, but I also love frocks, especially if they're slightly retro.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Well, at the moment I'm writing about the French Revolution so I would just love to have Maximilien Robespierre ‘round to dinner to find out what he was thinking (and hope I could survive to the end of the meal without saying something that had me in front of a Revolutionary Tribunal). Perhaps dinner with Samuel Johnson would be safer, and I suspect he could be relied on for much more stimulating conversation.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I'm going out of my comfort zone here to suggest Haiti at the end of the 18th century when there was a successful slave uprising led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. Having witnessed that, and hopefully survived, I could sail back to England and join the abolition movement and, incidentally, happen to meet Jane Austen at an assembly. Hooray!

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I'm the worst person to ask about stress because I find it very hard to relax. I do love yoga and running and talking, they're my way of unwinding (the last two I can do together).

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?


18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I'm very happy where I am, outside London, with a view from my window of allotments -- so it's very green, but I'm also surrounded by people. I'd definitely choose to have access to a city. If I didn't live in London, I'd choose Rome or Paris.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Be honest. Consider the long-term.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

As may be obvious from my answers, a novel set in 1793 during the French Revolution. I realised that Jane Austen had a cousin whose husband was French and was guillotined, so I thought I'd attempt a regency romance in which the heroine gets involved in rather more than a drawing room dalliance with Mr. Darcy...

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