Christina here and today it is my very great pleasure to welcome back Wench Emerita Susanna Kearsley to the blog to chat about her new novel, The Vanished Days, which will be published in the US on 5thOctober this year (and in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand next spring). It is a prequel and companion novel to The Winter Sea, and partly overlaps with the action in that book. It goes back in time to the 1680s and introduces the reader to the Moray and Graeme families.
I have had the honour of reading an ARC of this book, and as always, I was kept spellbound right to the end – it’s absolutely wonderful! It also gave me a very good excuse (as if I needed one!) to reread The Winter Sea, which is one of my all-time favourite novels.
Susanna welcome! Please can you give us a brief summary of what The Vanished Days is about and how you came to write it?
Thanks for having me, Christina! It’s so lovely to be back here on familiar ground with all the Wenches and our readers, and to be able to give you an early look at the new book. The Vanished Days is a sort-of-prequel, sort-of-companion novel to my novel The Winter Sea, in that part of the story takes place at the same time as the historical story in that book, so there’s a bit of overlapping in their timelines, and there are a few familiar faces as well, as some of the characters from The Winter Sea and members of their extended family turn up in this story, too. But The Vanished Days stands on its own, and it’s not necessary to have read any of my other books beforehand in order to follow the plot.
It’s a story that’s been forming in my mind for years, ever since I first learned about the failed Scots expedition to Darien, and I confess that when I first sat down to write The Vanished Days, I actually intended to try to write something more along the lines of those giant, sweeping, grand adventure novels I used to love reading back in the 1970s and 80s, like The Winds of War, with exciting events happening in multiple places and a huge cast of characters…but as always, the characters themselves had other ideas, and the book became something else entirely.
Instead of a grand, multinational adventure, it became a more intimate story about a small group of ordinary people caught up in the turbulent events of their time, and how they struggle to survive and claim their happiness.
In the past you have mostly written timeslip or dual time stories that are partly set in the present, but this story is pure historical and has a slightly different feel to it, which I loved. It was as though the narrator was speaking directly to me, telling his life story, interspersed with that of Lily. Was that always how you planned it or did it evolve this way as you began to develop the plot?
I’m so glad you felt this way. I’ve personally always loved stories where the narration gave me that feeling, whether it’s James Hilton’s Random Harvest or Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice or even my old childhood favourite, Treasure Island. All three of those definitely have that sense of the narrator’s voice being strongly there, telling you a story. It wasn’t something I consciously planned to do in The Vanished Days, but then the first sentence of the book shaped itself: ‘I was a younger man when I first met her.’ So from that I knew the structure of the tale—that it was Adam some years later, looking back, and telling us the story. And everything developed naturally from there.
You mention in the notes that at one of the libraries where you did your research, you were allowed to hold a small bible that had belonged to the Marquis of Montrose and that it was an awesome feeling. Do you feel the same when you visit Abercairny (the Moray family's estate) – that almost visceral connection to the past?
Yes, holding Montrose’s Bible was a moment I’ll always remember. That was at the beautiful Innerpeffray Library—I did a post on it here (https://wordwenches.typepad.com/word_wenches/2019/10/history-in-my-hand.html) And I’m not sure there are even words to describe the feeling I get when I visit Abercairny and stand on the same land my characters once walked upon. There are trees at Abercairny and Inchbrakie that would have been there when John Moray and Colonel Graeme were alive, and those men would have looked towards those same hills that I look towards, and would have heard the sound of the same water idling by. What I feel when I walk those lands goes well past ‘almost visceral’. It’s probably the closest I will ever come to time travel.
More wonderful than that, though, has been the help I’ve received from the descendants of the Moray and the Graeme families with the research for my stories, and the time I’ve been able to spend with the Morays at Abercairny, whose friendship has proven my instincts were right when I made their ancestor my hero.
I know you research locations meticulously, and spent many days wandering the streets of Edinburgh and Leith, where most of the story takes place. Did you have old maps with you then and how easy/difficult was it to see the way these towns were laid out three hundred years ago?
I do love my maps! And yes, I consulted several of them while I was doing the research for this book. The National Library of Scotland has a wonderful selection of town maps, for anyone doing Scottish historical research: https://maps.nls.uk/towns/ The problem, of course, is that the maps never cover the years that I want, and the names of the wynds and closes change fairly often, so it takes a bit of detective work to make sure you’re getting them right for the year that you’re writing about, using sources like old local history books that chronicle lost street names and demolished buildings, and Edinburgh’s Dean of Guild records that make note of building improvements, listing the addresses of those buildings. And of course, as you say, I like to wander the streets myself, to get a feel for them—even the ones that are no longer there. Often there are remnants left, however small, and my imagination does the rest, and once I can ‘see’ a landscape, I can recreate it to share it with my readers.
In your Acknowledgments you mention staying at Gladstone's Land, a 17th century high tenement building in Edinburgh that has survived and is open to the public, restored and furnished by the National Trust for Scotland. It is extremely lucky that there are holiday flats on the upper levels – that must have been invaluable for you, right? (And you've made me want to visit now, next time I'm in Edinburgh).
You should definitely stay at Gladstone’s Land! Not only would you love the history of the building, but it’s perfectly situated on the Royal Mile, a stone’s throw from the castle. I’ve stayed in the same holiday flat there three times now, and it has indeed been invaluable. Being able to anchor myself at the heart of the setting for my novel while doing my on-site research allowed me to immerse myself in the lives of my characters—I fell asleep each night with the creaks of the old house around me, and the sound of footsteps passing on the cobblestones beneath my windows. And the staff at Gladstone’s Land were so incredibly kind and helpful, too, answering my endless questions and allowing me to roam around the rooms of the public parts of the house, taking my photographs, getting wrapped up in my characters’ lives. That house became the model for my fictional ‘Caldow’s Land’, where a good part of the action of the novel takes place.
I always learn a lot from your books as you highlight little known historical events, and in this story you talk about the Darien Scheme, New Caledonia and the Scottish Africa company (i.e. the Scottish equivalent of the English East India Company), and their failed attempt to establish a Scottish colony in present day Panama. I had never heard of this bef but found it fascinating. How important a part did this venture play in the politics of the time?
I don’t think you could understate the importance of the Darien expedition to the politics of the day. In my view, it was the failure of that expedition—engineered, I would argue, by King William and his advisors—that led to the passing of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland. So many Scots had lost money in the venture that the promise of English payment in return for signing the Acts had a powerfully persuasive effect. Had the Scottish dream of Darien succeeded, the balance of power in the British Isles might look very different today.
The time after the death of King Charles II was extremely fraught and uncertain politically and must have been a difficult period to live through. It seems straightforward now that James was the rightful successor and the true king of England and Scotland, yet he was deposed so easily by a Dutchman. Do you think it would have been possible to force James to change his religion or compromise somehow? Or with hindsight, would he have changed it if he'd known the misery he'd cause by not doing so and the many thousands of lives lost in the process?
To be fair, that entire century was fraught and uncertain, as was the one before it. In the 1500s, you had Mary, Queen of Scots doing battle with John Knox, and then her son James VI barely managing to succeed her, with his Regents trying to outfox each other until he was old enough to take control himself—but his control was tenuous at best, and he was always being opposed by someone. And then James VI was given the throne of England as well after Queen Elizabeth died, becoming James I of England as well and uniting the crowns of the two countries (if not the parliaments), but although he moved his court down to Westminster he was still facing Catholic plots on a regular basis—that’s where the Gunpowder Plot came in, and why Britain still has a Guy Fawkes Day every November. And his son, Charles I, can hardly claim to have had a restful reign—he didn’t just have opposition, he had Civil Wars and lost his head into the bargain, and his family, including his sons Charles and James, had to flee into exile. When Charles returned to take the throne as Charles II, there were still plots and rebellions, including the Rye House Plot. So James’s reign was really just continuing the pattern. The difference was, his daughter had married a man who had long been aiming for years to supplant his father-in-law on the English throne, and who had been courting the English Whigs with an eye to doing so, and when the opportunity presented itself, that man—William of Orange—made his move. Would James have done anything differently had he known what the outcome would be of his retreating? I don’t know. He had a wife and newborn to protect, and the memory of what had happened to his father. Would he have changed his religion? I doubt it. He’d already changed it once, from Episcopalian to Catholic, when his first wife Anne Hyde had, and his personal belief seemed to be that Catholicism was the true faith—but also that it was one you didn’t need to force people to adopt, because they would turn to it themselves, in time, if allowed the choice. He was in fact ahead of his time in passing a law—his Declaration of Indulgence in 1687–that allowed his subjects the freedom to worship however they liked, and did away with the need to swear religious oaths in order to hold public office. This law naturally scandalised his opponents because it could technically be interpreted as allowing people of any faith—not only Catholics but Jews, Muslims, and others—to freely practice their religion without penalty, and of course that would never do! So he was ousted. But I’ve never looked on James VII as an uncompromising man. I think he tried his very best to reason with unreasonable people in an unreasonable time, and even if he’d changed his religion, I think the devious ambition of William of Orange would have found a way to unseat him, all the same.
I really felt for the people of Scotland in particular, where the various religious groups seem to have fought for power more viciously than elsewhere. Covenanters, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Catholics, all trying to cling to their own rules and beliefs in an ever-changing world. It must have been almost impossible to know what to do if all you wanted was a quiet life! What would you have done?
I’d have found a man like Adam, a house with a comfortable hearth, and a good friend like Captain Gordon to keep us well supplied with smuggled wine from France!
It was a very brutal age, with punishmens extremely severe for the slightest misconduct. Do you consciously try to shield your readers from the worst of it, to spare our modern sensibilities, or do you prefer to tell it warts and all?
It’s not that I’m trying to shield readers from anything, it’s just that as a writer I have some choice in where I choose to point the camera, so to speak, or where I let it linger. Sometimes I find that historical novels can skew our image of the past by either skipping over all unpleasantness or by focusing too sharply on it to the exclusion of all else. Life then was much as life is now—a mix of joy and tragedy and arguments and laughter and injustices and triumphs, so I try to show you that. I don’t do well with torture scenes myself, in books or films—they live too long within my mind—so I don’t write them. For the types of stories that I write, there simply is no purpose to a scene of brutal torture, so if any of my characters have faced it in their lives it is enough to show the marks it left and move along.
Although the Jacobite cause was to fail ultimately, it did come very close to succeeding a couple of times. Do you think Bonnie Prince Charlie or his father would have made a better king than Farmer George?
It came very close to succeeding a few times, especially early on in the movement. I’m not a massive fan of Bonnie Prince Charlie, although I do like his younger brother Henry. But I think his father, James VIII, was a good man and would have been an exceptional king of Britain, and much better by far than the Prince of Hanover.
There is a fantastic twist in the tale at the end of this book – you always manage to surprise me! Is that something you plan right from the start, or does it come to you during the course of the writing?
I know this will sound crazy, but it’s actually something the characters do. In this case, I did know fairly soon after starting to write the book that there would be a twist, and how that would shape the narrative, so I was able to lay breadcrumbs and play fair all through the first draft without having to go back in and rework things. But sometimes, in some books, the twist catches me off guard, too!
Can you give us a tiny snippet from The Vanished Days please?
Gladly. Here’s a little excerpt from when my heroine, Lily is a young girl, living in Edinburgh, in the turbulent days we’ve just been talking about, when King Charles II has just died and his brother, the Catholic King James VII, has begun his reign, and there is trouble and growing unrest in the town:
After dinner, as the captain walked her home, Lily was still confused about the way the chess game finished, so she asked him, “How could Mr. Cant win when he could not catch your king?”
“It was a stalemate,” Captain Graeme told her. He had changed his clothes and was now in his uniform, and although she still heard the whispers and the murmurs from the shadows round them, she felt safe. “A stalemate means your king can make no move at all that does not put his life in danger, so he retreats, and his opponent claims the victory, but the king yet lives to fight another day.”
“But he has lost.”
The captain slanted a look down at her, and smiled. “To lose a single battle does not mean ye lose the war. And to retreat means only that. Surrendering is not within the nature of most kings.” He glanced up at the window of a house they were approaching, where someone had just begun to close the shutters, even though it was midday. “Nor in my own.”
Lily held more tightly to her coin, and Captain Graeme told her, “Never fear, lass. It’s a good town, this. Good people all around ye, if ye look for them.”
That was the very opposite of what her father had advised, but then her father had not lived to tell her how to know a lawless man, so she asked Captain Graeme now, “How do ye ken which men are good?”
“Not only men,” he said. “All people. And ye ken them by their actions, not by what ye might hear said of them. Ye watch what someone does when it will gain him nothing, Lily, and when none but ye is there to see him do it. Then ye’ll ken his truest heart.”
She thought about that, after he had handed her to Jean and she had watched him walk away from them with that same sure and even soldier’s stride that raised quick memories of her father.
And she thought about it later on that evening, while Jean worked to ready supper and wee James began to fuss, and Corporal Morison took up the bairn and walked with him, out in the fresh air of the close.
He stayed outside so long that Lily pressed her face against the window, looking for a glimpse of them, and saw the great, tall soldier making silly faces to her baby brother, so the bairn would laugh. There was no one around to see him doing it—or so he thought. There was just Corporal Morison and wee James in the close.
That night, when Lily went to bed, she murmured, “Jean?”
“Corporal Morison’s a good man.”
Jean said nothing. Only kissed her, very softly, tucked the blankets warm around her, and the small, low-ceilinged chamber that held Lily’s family slumbered into darkness.
Thank you so much! To learn more about The Vanished Days and how to pre-order a copy please visit Susanna's website at https://susannakearsley.com/books/the-vanished-days/
It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the wonderful questions! I have a signed print copy of The Vanished Days to give away to someone who leaves a comment or answers this question:
Do you prefer stories that stay completely in the past, or ones that mix the past and the present?