This is my interview with Mary S. Lovell.
Which of the Mitford family would you most like to have met? I was fortunate enough to meet four of the Mitford Girls: Pam, Diana, Decca, and finally Debo – who became a friend until her death in September 2014. I would love to have met Nancy (the writer) and Unity (the Hitler stalker) but both had died many years before I had any interest in the subject. I would have asked Nancy why her wit was invariably barbed and hurtful, even within her own family, and I would have just liked to assess Unity who is something of a mystery. I suspect she may have always have had a mild bi-polar condition. She often behaved oddly but what I found unusual was that everyone I met and interviewed, who knew Unity, loved her despite her behaviour. I could never find evidence of this lovable side of Unity – hence I should like to have an hour with her over a coffee.
What was the best thing about writing these books? As with any of my books, the best thing about writing a biography is the research and the (often worldwide) travel involved, but mostly it is the fascinating people I have interviewed for my books during the past 30 years. These include royalty, movie stars, politician and many famous personalities that I would never have met in the normal course of my life.
Which are your favourite images in these books? My favourite image is actually not in either of these books but had I come across it when I was writing them, it would have been. However, it is included in my latest book ‘The Riviera Set’ in which both Churchill and some of the Mitfords also feature in the cast list. While I was researching Riviera I found an image of Churchill in a swimsuit, sliding down a water chute into the sea. There are thousands of images of Winston but this shot taken by one of his friends while on a holiday in the South of France in the early ‘30s, at a time when he was out of office and believed his career was over, when he was relaxed and reasonably carefree, is to me very revealing.
What was one of the best things that happened because of these books? Hard to choose: I suppose one of the most extraordinary things was sitting next to Prince William at a small dinner party of eight at Chatsworth (he was charming, and blushed a lot). But meeting Debo Devonshire early in the research for the Mitford book was the beginning of an unlikely and rewarding friendship, which lasted until her death. And during research for ‘The Churchills’ I met and interviewed Winston’s daughter, Lady Mary Soames, who was a delight. Growing up during the war years Churchill was a sort of godlike icon to us ordinary folk. It seemed surreal to me that I was sitting in his daughter’s sitting room, drinking tea with her, and her asking me, ‘what would you like to know?’
Can you pinpoint some of the turning points of your career? I was an accountant in 1980 when I broke my back in a riding accident. Immobile for a considerable time I was persuaded by my then partner to start writing to pass the time. I was amazed how easy it was to get my first book (about the New Forest) published – it’s not like this now, I hasten to add. And then in 1986 a vintage plane jointly owned by my first husband and I played an important role in the movie ‘Out of Africa’. This led to my flying to Kenya to meet Beryl Markham – I was still working in an office but my meeting with Beryl convinced me to make my writing full-time. I wrote a biography of Beryl and it became an international success and spent 12 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. As a writer I have never looked back.
What are you working on now? I am taking a sabbatical year right now because of ill health. This means, no research, no writing, and no book promotion so my recently published book ‘The Riviera Set’ must promote itself. So far it is doing very well despite the fact that every week I turn down numbers of invitations to give talks at literary festivals and events around the country – every small town holds one now, it seems.
Readers might like to know what is involved in giving a talk that may last one hour. First about two days of prep, working on the talk, writing it, memorising it, gathering slides together to illustrate it. Then driving to the venue, which might be an hour if local, or half a day, or even longer if in the north of the UK, often necessitating an overnight stay. After the talk there is invariably a Q&A session (always the most enjoyable part of any event for me), a book signing – and then the time needed to return home, wind down and put everything away. In a non-writing year I have done up to 40 of these talks and they are intensely time-consuming and costly. Many of these events offer the author a £50 talk fee plus travel expenses (after all, it’s only an hour, isn’t it?). Only the very large prestigious events such as The Cheltenham Literary Festival offer a worthwhile fee of about £250. Even so, I am always out of pocket in terms of time spent preparing a talk, traveling and hotel fees. Can you think of any other professional who would work up to 3 days and travel to you, for a reward of £50 – or even £250?
What are you reading now? Now that I am in my mid-seventies, I have taken to spending my winters in the warm climate of Barbados. When I am working I need to read up to 100 non-fiction books a year for research purposes so I read novels for pleasure and relaxation. It’s like eating chocolate. My favourite novels are ‘Shogun’ and ‘The Thorn Birds’, but books of that ilk are thin on the ground. I also love a good family saga – such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’, or ‘The Pallisers’ and in November, searching for some reading matter to load onto my Kindle to take to Barbados I hit upon an amazing family saga by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. It covers the fortunes of the Morland family dynasty beginning in the 16th century and contains thirty-eight volumes to bring the story up to the 20th century! Thirty eight! It’s well written and entertaining, too, with lots of historical accuracy. I am presently reading volume 22 and I look forward to going to bed to read a bit more about this family I have come to know so well over the past months.
What is your favourite gadget? The little house in Barbados where I spend my winters is a five minute walk from the beach, and is bliss, but sadly it is too small to accommodate a dish-washer. So for almost half the year I do without one. One of the things I most look forward to when I return home each April is my bee-oo-tiful dishwasher!
Do you collect anything? Books! Twenty five years ago when I lived in a large country house and I had a library of about 4,000 books – mostly reference, non-fictional and a lot of book were on the subjects I have worked on and with, and places I have travelled to. Then I downsized in 2007 and had to reduce the numbers to 2,000 for space reasons. Two years ago I moved again to a retirement cottage where I hardly have room for 800 books on shelves. It’s hurtful to give away or sell books that I have long regarded as friends and I suppose this is more accurately described as un-collecting! I try to use the system of ‘one in, one out’ when I buy a new book now, but I can see little heaps of books are beginning to spring up around the house. I must be firm with myself and stop this.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? About 18 years ago I rented an apartment in Damascus, Syria, and learned to speak colloquial Arabic as part of my research for my biography of Jane Digby. For about a decade after the book was published, each spring I used to escort one or two groups of interested readers around Syria, in Jane’s footsteps. The last time I was there was in 2010 when the war prevented any further tours. I now watch the terrible news coverage of Syria with anguish, and those magical trips seem almost dreamlike.
Website address: www.marylovell.com
Read my review of ‘The Mitford Girls’ and ‘The Churchills’ here: http://www.readmeblogsite.net/2017/04/07/great-books-mitford-sisters/