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Lynn Shepherd studied English at Oxford in the 1980s before spending fifteen years in business, first in the City, and later in PR. She went back to academia to do a doctorate in 2003, and now freelances while she writes historical novels that she calls “literary mysteries”. In her novels, she cleverly reworks literary history, and her themes so far have included the history and fiction of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the Romantic poets.
Her newest book, A Treacherous Likeness, will be published by Corsair on 7 February. It is the follow-up to her first novel about Private Detective Charles Maddox, Tom-All-Alone’s, a Victorian murder mystery that purports to sit somewhere between Bleak House and The Woman in White. Her debut novel, Murder at Mansfield Park, also puts an ingenious murder-mystery spin on Jane Austen. Both these books are also available from Corsair. You can find Lynn at lynn-shepherd.com and as @Lynn_Shepherd on Twitter.
In this Q&A, she writes about meeting bonnetted Austen fans, her love of travel and her fascination with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Describe your earliest memory.
I remember playing at tin soldiers with my older brother, on the hearth of our house. I must have been no more than two.
What was the first book you ever loved? Why?
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve and completely fell in love. It has stayed with me ever since. One of the reasons I decided to try for Oxford was because Tolkien taught there, and I did indeed end up learning Anglo-Saxon. At a college reunion recently I actually met someone who’d been to his lectures in the ‘60s.
What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
Oxford, without doubt. It was a dream of mine to study there, and being able to do that has changed my life. It gave me a delight in books, a confidence in my own abilities, and some of my most precious friends.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
I seem to do one or the other most of the time! But I enjoy travelling as well, and art galleries and the theatre.
Describe your most defining experience with money.
Actually having any! I didn’t come from a wealthy family, and when I started working in the City in my twenties, it was enormously liberating not to have to mind every penny. I’ve never gone mad with money, but I do like to be able to do things with it without worrying about it. Like travelling – I’ve been to New Zealand and South America, and India, all places my parents couldn’t have dreamed of visiting.
If you could time-travel and teleport, which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
Having written about the Victorian period in Tom-All-Alone’s I think mid-19th century London would be fascinating. It was a time of so much change and energy, and there were so many wonderful writers at work – not just Dickens but Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Trollope, Thackeray…
Being a writer can be a strange brand of “celebrity”. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
I think it was when I gave a talk at a literary festival and someone came up to me afterwards and it turned out to be someone I’d gone to school with. The other one was giving a talk about Murder at Mansfield Park at the Jane Austen festival in Bath. When the lights came up at the end for the question session, half the audience were in bonnets…
If you were to write a novel about an anti-hero/-heroine, what would his/her central flaw be?
My latest, A Treacherous Likeness, has as one of its central characters the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, an anti-hero if ever there was one. He’s a fascinating mix – enormously intelligent but seemingly unaware of the consequences of his own behaviour, glitteringly creative and yet emotionally immature. The gulf between those two sides of his nature was at the heart of the many tragedies that overwhelmed him during his short life, and set up a fascinating tension that I was able to explore in fiction.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
Mind-reading, definitely. What an amazing talent for a writer to have!
If you were to find yourself in a Fahrenheit 451 world, which book would you save and why?
Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. An enormously long 18th-century epistolary novel, but an absolute masterpiece and sadly neglected these days.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you would give a person for a life well-lived?
Make sure you’ll never look back and say “I could have been” or “I could have done”. Seize your opportunities, even if it means hard work and perseverance.
What’s next for you, work- and life-wise?
Work-wise, I’m now writing a fourth book, and balancing that with my day job as a corporate copywriter. Life-wise, I’d like to find time for a holiday!