Today we’re talking with Michaela MacColl, author of Prisoners in the Palace. Welcome to Damsels in Regress, Michaela!
Tricia, thanks so much for the opportunity to speak with your readers. I’m delighted to be here.
1. How did Liza’s story come about?
I wanted to write about the young Princess Victoria. But I didn’t want to be constrained in my plot by what would be historically accurate. One of my critique partners kept suggesting that Victoria needed to leave the palace and get into big trouble in London. Unfortunately, Victoria would never have been able to avoid her guardians long enough to get into London. So I needed to create another character who could be intimate with the Princess but who had freedom to move about and have her own adventures. At first, Liza was going to be a young lady with pretensions of being a reporter who would go “undercover” at the Palace. But the more I worked on that angle, I realized it was too modern. So she became a girl who had lost everything and needed a job.
2. I really enjoyed all the historical detail in this book, such as the wood box built into the wall. What kind of research did you do?
Prisoners in the Palace was originally suggested to me by an editor. She wanted to see a book like Philippa Gregory’s (The Other Boleyn Girl) about a young Victoria. I was interested, but I didn’t know a whole lot about Victoria. So I went to the library and took out two major biographies on Victoria, a traditional one and another that was pretty recent. After I got a sense of her whole life, I began to concentrate just on her childhood.
As you begin to write, you find you need specific information. For instance, I needed to understand the layout of Kensington Palace, how the servants functioned in a large house and just who was Inside Boy Jones? Each topic I looked up individually, starting with the internet, but usually ending up with books or journal articles. I use the library often, along with inter-library loan. University libraries are handy for more obscure information.
You need to know when to stop. For instance, when you read a new biography and pick up only a single new detail that you didn’t know before… then you’re approaching the end.
Inside Boy was a real person, but as for living in the wood box, I made that up—sorry!
3. I’ve read stories about young ladies having to become governesses, but never about one becoming a lady’s maid. Did you come across a situation like this in your research?
The decision to make Liza a maid was based on what was possible. Victoria already had a governess who had to be approved by the King. Also, a governess has to be older and I wanted to make these girls the same age. Once you eliminate governesses, there aren’t a lot of choices to get Liza into Kensington Palace.
The sub-plot of Annie, the disgraced maid, was based on historical fact. I came across a single line in a book about Victoria’s childhood that referenced a maid, Annie Mason, who was dismissed for lewd behavior.
4. I don’t usually talk about book covers in an interview, but yours is stunning. Not only does the back cover cleverly tell about the story as a news sheet, but the picture on the front—well, let me say, in certain light those eyes followed me across the room. Did you have any input on how it was developed?
They follow you, too? It is an amazing cover, isn’t it? I was expecting the typical stock photograph of a girl in a beautiful dress. But Chronicle prides itself on thinking about design. The editor and an in-house designer work together to create three separate designs. They take these mock-ups to a big meeting with Editorial, Marketing and Sales. Everybody has to agree. Here’s a blog post from Chronicle’s designer Amy Achaibou. I wasn’t really consulted until the design was pretty much set. That’s okay though—I never would have thought outside the box like that.
I was consulted on the back cover. My editor had the idea to reference Victorian newspapers and asked me to write several mini-articles about the book. I don’t know many authors who got to write the cover copy!
5. What were your favorite books as a teenager?
I was into literary mysteries as a teenager (Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh) but also had an enormous crush on Jane Austen (except Northanger Abbey—can’t stand that one).
6. I’ve enjoyed those authors as well. What are you working on now?
I just handed in the final edits of a novel about Beryl Markham. (We don’t have a title yet.) She was an aviator in the 1930’s who was the first person to cross the Atlantic solo going East to West. It was a much more difficult flight in that direction than from say New York to England. She crashed, but survived. She wrote about her adventures in a brilliant memoir called West Into the Night. Her father was one of the first colonists in the highlands of British East Africa (now Kenya). She grew up hunting with the natives who worked for her father. She was mauled by a lion, survived a sadistic governess and led a revolt from boarding school. The lessons of her childhood gave her the fortitude to survive her flight. I think this novel is for a slightly younger audience than Prisoners in the Palace, but that was where the story took me!
Sounds amazing. Thanks for chatting with us! For more information on Michaela and her work, visit her website, www.michaelamaccoll.com. Be sure to stop in on Friday for a chance to win a copy of Prisoners in the Palace.