When Zac met patricia
Zac Fine is a writer, journalist, copywriting guru and all-round friend of Climbing Tree Books. To celebrate the publication of Priced Above Rubies, we asked him to write us an incisive, in-depth, inspired and generally excellent profile of Patricia Finney, and would you believe it? That's what he did. They met over coffee at Espressini in Falmouth...
[Are you going to put in a link? Ed.] To find out more about
Zac Fine and his work, click here.
When Patricia Finney was three, her younger brother moved into her room and unwittingly became the first consumer of her fevered and prolific imagination.
“I remember very clearly threatening this little child with horrible revenge if he dared to interrupt me when I was telling a story,” she says as we settle down to coffee and kippers in a trendy Falmouth café that could be in Dalston, London. The coffee is good but they undercook the kale and it’s hard for her to chew, which might be awkward without Finney’s self-assuredness.
In grandmother's footsteps
Under multiple pseudonyms she has put out 33 books, mostly of the Elizabethan thriller kind for which she’s best known, especially in the US. Fans of her fiction should probably thank her Hungarian grandmother, “a very difficult, brilliant woman” who, apart from being a practising psychoanalyst, also happened to be a historical novelist too.
“I’d write her a story and she’d critique it, which sometimes was pretty rough. On one occasion I’d written a story about cats and she said, ‘This is twee, you can do better’. She gave me the equivalent of an MA in creative writing.” Finney’s book A Shadow Of Gulls had already won an award by the time she got to Oxford at 18 to study history. How did she find the time for it on top of her school work?
“I didn’t have any social life at all. I didn’t miss it, but I was also extremely standoffish.” She admits to being “a major pain in the arse who knew everything” to the point where the maths teacher at her north London grammar school let her sit at the back and write stories. “I wrote some pornographic Star Trek fan fiction, some Alias Smith and Jones fan fiction and a first fantasy novel which was absolute tripe.” If you’re interested, these curiosities can be found in an archive at the University of Boston, which requested Finney’s papers when she was in her 20s.
“I read a ridiculous amount of history and if there’s any book that looks as if it might be promising I buy it, which means my books are not under control,” she says. With an almost photographic memory she lets information seep into the hinterland of her fictional worlds, worlds that have been praised for their texture and historical authenticity.
“The next Carey [number nine in her series based on the real life exploits of the English nobleman Sir Robert Carey] is going to be set in Keswick, where a group of Germans were mining the hills for copper and gold. They made a lot of money. This is in an old book called Elizabethan Copper, and another one called Elizabethan Keswick.”
Finney’s done reenactment to get a feel for Elizabethan clothes and her Renaissance Faire-going American fans can’t get enough of the detail she embroiders into her novels. She gets quite animated when we reach the subject of linen shirts: “No historical TV programme you’ve ever seen ever, ever, shows people wearing linen shirts the way they actually wore them.” Not even Wolf Hall, apparently, for which her brother Gavin was director of photography.
But apart from prodigious research, how do Finney’s books take shape?
“What I do is how you pack a suitcase, I put the big stuff in first. If I get blocked when I’m writing a book I know there’s several possible reasons. First, you might be trying to get characters to do something they don’t want to do. Secondly you might have a big hole in the plot you’re trying to hide. Thirdly it may just be a matter of getting the idea bat deliveries to arrive.
"I think it was with A Clash Of Spheres [that’s Carey number eight], there was a large section of plot that just wasn’t there and I was getting very cross and I said, ‘Idea bats can you get your arse in gear, I need this section of the plot to be here so I can get on and write it,’ and I had this amazing visual of a large piece of bridge being manoeuvred into place by large bats like Skycrane helicopters, very carefully dropping down a bit, down a bit... Your unconscious is where all of this actually happens and you have to trust it and that’s very difficult. It’s why so many American novelists are drunks, especially the male ones.”
Sexually transmitted diseases
Finney has been writing a lot more non-fiction recently and her enquiring mind takes her in all sorts of directions; when she was the editor of the European Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases — “a bloody interesting job to have in the early 80s because of HIV” — she would browse St Mary’s Hospital Medical School library after clocking off. Data she discovered in that library eventually informed her book 3 Steps To A Great Eating Habit in which she argues that eating disorders are a physiological reaction to a restriction of calories rather than a manifestation of deep psychological problems.
“There’s been more research since I wrote that book and I need to rewrite it to catch up,” she says, getting out a small black Filofax and adding it to her to do list. As with everything else, she’s quite matter-of-fact about her struggles with bulimia and compulsive eating, and she drops in that she had a stroke three years ago. You wouldn’t know it, but then again she does have a third dan black belt in taekwondo.
“My right hand and my right leg are weaker than my left side which is very annoying and it means that I’ve strained my rotator cuff muscles here [she points to her shoulder] because I was doing press-ups and I did too many, stupid.” Finney already had synaesthesia before the stroke, where food would give her physical sensations, but the stroke changed her perception of taste so that now sugar tastes unpleasant, which she’s rather pleased about.
Notoriously difficult language
There's a bewildering array of projects on the go. Finney lives in Hungary where she is researching her mother’s adventures during the war — “she was very lucky for a little girl with Jewish antecedents” — while learning the notoriously difficult language (she already knows French and Spanish). She’s on the second draft of something she refers to as Alt History, but she won’t tell me about that, and she’s working on her various fiction series, with at least three more books in the Enys series to go, which follow an Elizabethan lawyer who solves crimes.
Finney has just finished the second one, Priced Above Rubies, which will be published soon [has just been published - Ed.] by Climbing Tree Books. Finney doesn’t drive much, she says, because she tends to visualise things she’s thinking about and forget the road. She says Elizabethans lived more vividly than we do, but I’m not sure many of them could have given her mind’s eye much of a run for its money.
I am a bit jealous — who wouldn’t want to walk around enthralled in an imagination that’s been stoked by nearly six decades of voracious reading and thought? “It’s a nice life,” she says, as I drop her off.