Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Writing with Betty: Interview with Ilana Miller

Betty Ilana looks like she knows secrets and might share them.
Perhaps she is going to tell the new Baroness that
she IS a Baroness whether she wants to know or not.
Sadly, this will end with a cup of coffee being spilled
down her frock.
As an Adjunct Professor of History, Betty Ilana is super smart. But I also feel that she is the kind of Adjunct Professor of History who would nod approvingly and cast a sympathetic eye over my plan to wear a bedazzled tiara when I totally watch the entire broadcast of the upcoming royal wedding (even the part--no, especially the part where guests are dropped off in mortifying mini-buses, decanting on the sidewalk in their big hats and wedding finery.). I loved how game she was for this interview. Let's go.

When and how did you get your start writing?
I’ve been writing since I was in the 2nd grade.  It began with a trip diary that was given to me before a 5 month trip to Europe and Israel (when I first visited Holland and mother bought me a pair of wooden shoes which I never wore!), onto the third grade when I wrote short stories, and on after that. Mostly I just wrote for my friends and myself, but later I thought I would try to write a Harlequin Romance.  Like most people, I was under the mistaken impression that it was a piece of cake.  Boy, was I wrong!!  Those little romances are very difficult.  
Yes, Tom Hanks. They are. They really, really are.
I tried a couple, even got an agent, but nothing happened.  Later on when I was doing my Masters, someone suggested that I submit my thesis to a medium sized British history publisher.  It was accepted, and the rest, as they say, is …er…history...

Where did you get your love of royal history?
My mother bought 3 volumes of My Life  by Queen Marie of Romania in New York city in the late ’40’s.  She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and her memoirs were fascinating and chock-full of amazing photographs of the Queen and her huge and varied extended family, “The Royal Mob” as QV called them.  I was about 9 years old when I pulled them out of the bookshelf.  I spent hours pouring over these photographs and eventually reading the memoir.  Along with that, I had also read portions of  Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie and was completely enthralled with the mystery of Anastasia.  As a graduate student I read a massive amount of biographies and memoirs of QV’s family and the Romanov’s and have been writing about them ever since. 

You write non-fiction* which I imagine must be so rich but so frustrating since you're not making up the people in your books and you have to take them as you find them. Who is the coolest person you've researched?
*Historical fiction too.
Even her pen name sounds smart
Actually, I suppose I like the limitations of writing non-fiction.  Although you can project some of your theories (hopefully thoroughly grounded in facts), you have an outline and you just go along for the ride, the story is already there.  The most wonderful person I’ve written about is Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, who became Princess Louis Battenberg and later the Marchioness of Milford Haven.  Her family name was translated to “Mountbatten” and she is the mother of Lord Mountbatten, the grandmother of Prince Philip, the sister of the Empress Alexandra, and first cousin to 41 other grandchildren of Queen Victoria.  She was smart, practical, she weathered great tragedy in her life and was completely honorable.  She was also someone who did her duty, not a virtue that is celebrated these days.  She became a role model for me. I wrote about her and her three sisters in a book called The Four Graces: Queen Victoria’s Hessian Granddaughters.

Whose story have you been sorry you couldn't change?
A couple.  I guess like most people who are interested in this, I wish I could have at least saved the five children of Nicholas and Alexandra.  The parents, I have very little use for, but I hate that the four daughters, one son and five servants, completely guiltless, were murdered with the pair.  I might also change who Nicholas married as Alexandra was completely unsuitable to be Empress of All the Russias.  However, theirs was personally a devoted and passionate love story.  I don’t imagine one of them would have liked to have lived without the other.
I would change Prince Harry's story, of course. Putting off growing a
beard for so long was a massive blunder.

You have worked with a co-author. How does that make the process harder? How does it make it easier?
Easier since I didn’t have to write the whole book.  However, with the gentleman with whom I collaborate, I don’t get the impression he puts half the thought into things that I do.  However, he is also my publisher, so I am grateful get things out there.

Where do you get the ideas for what to write about next? Do you have much choice?
My publisher gives them to me mostly.  He publishes a royal history magazine and I am responsible for a feature called “Who’s in the Photograph”.  

With a follow-up feature called "Who's Taking the Photograph?"

He owns nearly ½ million rare royal photographs and he choses one and I write about it.  He has the awareness of where my specialties lie and so usually gives me one with people about whom I have many opinions.  Since it’s a feature, I can serve up those opinions at will.  As far as another royal biography, it is possible I will write one in collaboration with my publisher about the Greek Princesses, cousins and sisters of Prince Philip.

I imagine non-fiction writers to be more organized and systematic about their writing since they can't just go where their imaginations take them. What would I be surprised to find out about non-fiction writing?
I think you would be surprised to know how much of one’s own emotional experiences go into writing about historical personages.  I think, for me, it was like understanding a friend's problems and issues and putting myself in their shoes.  Because of that, there is an amount of perspective that is personal.  I’m not sure that’s the right approach, but it works for me.
Araminta liked when Maise the Ward Maid confided her problems,
but she wondered if it was bringing her down.
Let's pivot and talk about your own reading tastes.
My favorite books are historical novels, non-fiction biographies (big surprise),romances and science fiction.  My favorite historical novel has to be Katherine by Anya Seton.  Other favorites were Gone with the Wind, Exodus, The Nun’s Story.  In the 1970-90’s I also read lots of what were pejoratively called “bodice rippers” with lots of trips to Brighton, but I also loved the time-travel ones, and also like time travel science fiction.

What do you find appealing about the works of Betty Neels? (It can't be the royals because they hardly show up--a couple of minor British royals open hospital bazaars and then there's the Dutch edel but otherwise hardly a mention*.)
I actually remember one of the RDD’s living near Het Loo, which is of course one of the residences of the Dutch Royal Family.  I discovered TGB in the 70’s when one of my girlfriends lent me of those Harlequin Omibuses which contained Fate Is Remarkable.  I loved it.  A few years later I was in London and looking around for some airplane reading in the book section of a department store and there she was  — another double header which of course I read on the plane with great pleasure. Eventually I started collecting as most of us because I found that these books, despite their formulas were good for constant re-reads.  Why?  I’m not sure…I know we’ve all said how cozy, comforting and relaxing a read they are.  
Better if they're well-creased paperbacks.
Better yet if they're all on Kindle.

I suppose I like that most everyone is friendly, good, honorable and does the right thing.  I love that they eat scads of food and don’t get fat.  I love that they have servants who love them and whom they love.  Their appeal is that they are the epitome of NICE.  Also, they are better than sleeping pills.

*I remembered that the Dutch queen does pop in at a garden or tulip farm in at least one of the books.