A Conversation with Christi Phillips, author of The Devlin Diary
1. Authors often remark that they put a little bit of themselves into their characters. How strongly do you identify with each of your main characters? How are you different?
I do identify with my characters. I learned something about the failures of medicine and the mysteries of the human body early on, when my oldest brother died from oral cancer at the tender age of twenty-two. Hannah is going through a dark, soul-searching period in her life, to which I can relate. Some of her experiences in the novel are taken from my life. Hannah is someone who isn’t easily blown off the course she’s set for herself, and I would say that is also true for me. Claire and I share a number of traits; for instance, we’re both studious and can spend hours reading and writing. But in a few fundamental ways she’s quite different. She’s less of a risk-taker than I am, and she is often uneasy around other people, which I rarely am.
I never intended for Claire to be completely likable. I always imagined her as a bit obsessive and neurotic (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Sometimes she’s unaware of her own motivations, and she doesn’t always know how to best negotiate the situations she’s in. She’s somewhat guileless and not always entirely self-controlled. She herself would admit that she’s a work-in-progress. To me, these negative attributes are quite common in life, if not fiction. Perfect characters have nothing to learn, and no place to go in the dramatic sense. They bore me.
In another way, however, Claire is a kind of alter-ego who allows me to do something I love doing—historical research—and to vicariously live out the fantasy of being an academic. Being almost entirely self-taught, I’m fascinated by academia—especially the ivy-covered, hallowed-hall sort that Claire inhabits. After visiting Trinity College and learning about its history degree program, I was convinced that if I had another life to live I would choose to spend it there, getting a doctorate in Early Modern History and spending the rest of my years cloistered in a cozy set. In spite of the many terrible fictional things that happen at Trinity College during the course of The Devlin Diary, I found it and the people there absolutely charming. Cambridge is at least as lovely as I have described it. It’s the ultimate college town, although residents of Oxford might disagree.
2. Why did you set the book in the place and time that you did?
The Restoration Era—which begins in 1660 and ends in 1685, essentially the reign of Charles II—can be thought of as the 1960s of the seventeenth century. Both eras ushered in sweeping social changes, a blossoming of creativity in the arts and sciences, and greater freedom for women. There was also lots of sex, drinking, drugs, and really, really bad behavior, which makes for great stories.
3. Your novel is tremendously engaging and can easily be read in one sitting. Claire and Hannah go through a whirlwind through the course of the book. Did you work on the book for a long time or finish it very quickly?
In the broad scheme of things, it didn’t take long: a little over two years. But there were occasions when it felt like much longer. I have a theory that the natural limit of the human attention span is nine months. Anything that takes longer than that really begins to feel like work.
4. How was writing this novel a different experience from writing your first book, The Rossetti Letter? What was harder about writing this novel? What was easier?
It was harder from the very beginning. I’d been researching a completely different idea for about six months when I discovered that a novel with a remarkably similar concept was being published, and I had to come up with a new idea. Eventually, when this other book came out, it was quite different than anything I would have written, but I think I made the right choice. Very soon after I began researching it, I felt that my new story was much more intriguing than my original idea.
There were some personal issues that also made The Devlin Diary more difficult. When I had completed about two-thirds of the novel, my father unexpectedly fell ill, and passed away about three weeks later. After he’d been in the hospital for ten days it was clear he wasn’t going to pull through, and we took him home to my parents’ house. My mother, brother, sister and I took care of him until he died. It was almost as if by writing about such difficult subjects—pain, death, and grief—I had prepared myself for them in some way. But of course my father’s death was devastating. I didn’t begin writing again for at least two months. I couldn’t.
It was a great lesson to me. Writing a novel isn’t just a mental exercise but an emotional journey. Fiction requires conviction, which arises in part from your intellectual belief in your story—but even more than that, I believe, this conviction springs from your emotional investment in your story. Fiction requires a big investment—it simply won’t ring true without it. This also helps to explain why writers are so sensitive about their work.
When your personal life is emotionally demanding, it can be difficult to enter the life of your novel. Fortunately, my editor read the uncompleted manuscript and made many helpful suggestions. Following her notes, I was able to rediscover my belief in the story and find my way to the end.
5.Do you see your book as more of a mystery or a story about two strong women?
I don’t put any labels on it. For me, it’s a story about Claire, Andrew, Hannah, Edward, Ravenscroft, Montagu, Charles II and Henriette-Anne.
6.The characters in your novels seem so vibrant – from your protagonists Hannah and Claire to minor characters such as Seamus Murphy and Mr. Pilford. How do you manage to breathe life into such a wide and varied group of characters?
For the historical characters, researching the period is crucial. The more research you do, the more you have to draw upon. Conflict is always key when it comes to character. Whether historical or modern, characters who “breathe” usually want something. They want it very much, and some sort of obstacle keeps them from getting it. From this conflict, all action arises—and characters reveal themselves through their actions.
7. As you relate in your author’s note, much of the book is centered on actual history. What was your research process like?
I started with general English history, so I could understand how the past lead up to the Restoration. Then I read books on the seventeenth century and the Restoration, and numerous biographies of the people of the time—Charles II, Pepys, the Cabal (Charles’s ministers), Thomas Sydenham, and many others—and books on seventeenth-century medicine. For The DevlinDiary, I relied primarily on books aimed at a general reader—popular works, not scholarly articles—many of which are listed in the author’s note. I also relied on reprints of seventeenth-century works: Aubrey’s Lives, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Culpeper’s Herbal, The London Spy. I have found that anecdotal history is usually more helpful for creating stories and characters than, say, an academic treatise.
A sense of place is also very important to me. I went on a two-week research trip to London and Cambridge and toured the sites I would be writing about. I also went to the British Library where I could take a close look at some of the primary sources for the books I’d already read. In the Rare Manuscript room, I examined the Clifford Papers, which includes an early draft of the Secret Treaty and letters exchanged between Charles II and Louis XIV. They’re considered so valuable that I was asked to sit at a desk where I could be watched over by two librarians.
I also visited museums for background information. The Old Operating Theatre in London was particularly helpful. It’s this wonderful old attic decked out like an apothecary’s garret, with alembics, jars of dried frog legs and bird beaks and so on, adjacent to a Victorian operating theatre. It’s called a theatre because it actually is a theatre; it’s a small amphitheatre made of wood, with stair-stepped bleachers overlooking the floor upon which stands only one item: the operating table. The table is not very big, about two-and-a-half feet wide by four feet long, because only the unfortunate patient’s torso was situated on the table; his or her limbs were held by the surgeon’s assistants. The operating table reminded me, rather nauseatingly, of a butcher block table. Next to the theatre is a lovely display of really gruesome antique surgical instruments.
8. Was it difficult to write the story in two different time periods? Which was easier to write?
The present-day is always easier to write, because I don’t need to provide so many details—I can assume that the reader has a basic understanding of the world in which Claire and Andrew live. In fact, if I wrote the modern sections with the same level of detail as the historical sections, people would find it redundant.
9. How did you learn about all the herbs and medicinal substances Hannah uses in the novel?
Two of the first books I read were biographies of scientist and architect Robert Hooke, which included excerpts from his diaries. In them he recorded every ailment he ever suffered from and every medication that he experimented with, and there were a great many of both. Of course none of these “medications” helped him at all, and some of them undoubtedly made him much worse. He was not at all unusual for his time. Many people—intelligent men and women, who were otherwise quite sensible—used a wide variety of substances that we now know have no curative power. What’s fascinating is that they didn’t figure it out then, even though they would continue to be unwell after ingesting these supposed remedies. My personal faves were “powdered stag’s pizzel” and “the stinking fumes of a burnt horse’s hoof.”
I often consulted two reprints of seventeenth-century medical books: John Hall and hisPatients by Joan Lane, and The Admirable Secrets of Physick & Chirurgery by Thomas Palmer, which contained numerous “recipes” and treatments.
10. Did you know how Hannah’s story would end when you started writing the novel, or did her fate change as you got deeper into the story?
Even at the very start, when I first begin imagining a novel, I have a sense of how it will end. If I don’t have this sense, I know that I don’t have a story yet. For Hannah, I didn’t know precisely what would happen, but I did know the note I wanted to strike. I had an image or two and an accompanying emotion that I worked toward.
11. Who is your ideal reader for the book? What do you hope they take away from your novel?
I’m the ideal reader. I write about what interests me, and hope that other people will be interested too. I hope people come away feeling that they’ve gone on a journey—one filled with dramatic situations, memorable characters, and historical interest.
12. What authors do you enjoy reading?
A short list of my favorite historical authors: Iain Pears, David Liss, Philip Kerr, Rose Tremain, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Sarah Dunant.
13. What books influenced you to become a writer?
The books I read as a child had the most influence. As a child, I couldn’t imagine anything better than being a writer. Still can’t.
14. Do you have plans for your next book?
Yes, I’m already working on it. My next novel will be set entirely in the past, in seventeenth-century France.