While society expects Lady Evelyn Herbert to make her debut into society and marry well, she has other plans in store, including who she falls in love with to embarking on an archaeological expedition far from the confines of Highclere Castle. She joins her father, Earl of Carnarvon, and archeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings where discover the burial place of Tutankhamun, and an ancient curse.
In this interview, bestselling author Gill Paul whose novels have been translated into twenty languages, shares what first sparked the initial idea for The Collector’s Daughter, one of the most interesting finds she made during the research process, and what she would have asked Evelyn if she could have met her in real life.
What sparked the initial idea for your latest novel, The Collector’s Daughter?
I’ve always been a Tutankhamun fan and the forthcoming centenary of the discovery of his tomb seemed to make it the right time for a novel. The inspiration to write it from Lady Evelyn Herbert’s point of view came from photographs of her standing outside the tomb with her father and archaeologist Howard Carter. I wanted to know what her role was, and how being part of the discovery affected her life.
What drew you to the genre of historical fiction and non-fiction?
My love of history came from my mum. We used to watch historical dramas on TV together, and we both liked reading biographies of historical women, like Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots.
You previously worked in publishing. When did you start writing your first novel?
My first novel was published in 2000, and it had taken me two years to write. Before that there had been several abandoned attempts, while I worked at my day job as an editor of non-fiction art books and biographies.
Where did you write the majority of your latest novel?
I have a book-lined office in my home, which is where I do all my writing. I started The Collector’s Daughter in July 2019, so most of it was written in the time Before Covid, but I couldn’t find a beginning I was happy with. During the first three months of lockdown, I tried out seven different beginnings until I found one I liked, then I had to revise the rest of the story to fit.
As a longtime fan of Downton Abbey, I love that you have Lady Evelyn grow up there. Have you been to Highclere Castle in person?
I managed to visit Highclere in August 2020. The rooms are smaller than you might think from watching Downton Abbey, but the central Saloon is very grand, and the grounds are stunning. It must have been an incredible place to grow up in.
What was one of the most interesting finds you made during your research into the expedition in November 1922 when the burial place of Tutankhamun (aka King Tut) was discovered?
I was amazed when I read that Eve was probably the first person to crawl into the tomb in modern times. I would have thought she might have been too nervous, given that she had led a very sheltered life, but she was clearly a very plucky girl.
Do you feel like it’s harder or easier to write stories with real historical characters?
It’s tricky to write about well-known historical characters because there is less wiggle room to make their lives fit a story shape. I like using a real historical character’s life as a starting point then introducing a plot that allows me to take it in my own direction.
Do you think there really was a curse on all those who entered the tomb?
I’ve tried to leave this question open-ended in the novel so readers can make up their own minds. Once you start looking for evidence to support a theory, you can usually find it. Eve certainly thought there might have been a curse – but I’m going to duck the question!
If you could have met anyone who went on the expedition, who would it be and what would you ask them?
The person I would most like to speak to is Eve herself. I feel as if I know her inside out, but really I have just created a fictionalized version of her based on the facts I discovered. I’d like to ask her if she recognizes herself in the novel and if Brograve was as wonderful a husband as I portrayed him.
Are you working on your next novel, if so can we get a sneak peek?
My next novel is Sex in the City set in Prohibition-era New York, featuring four very different women who were in a bridge club together. The title is not yet confirmed but it comes out in August 2022.