Q&A with Katie Hickman
Q: How did you come to write a novel set in a sultan's harem?
A: Actually, I started the novel with two characters: John Carew, a master cook, and Jamal al-Andalus, an Arab astronomer. The more I thought about them, the more I realized that one of the only plausible settings in which these two might meet would be in late-sixteenth-century Constantinople. It was only then, when I was researching this period, that I came across the diary of the Elizabethan organ maker Thomas Dallam (which really exists, by the way), with its famous account of how he saw through a hole in the wall in the sultan's harem and watched the women playing there. I began to imagine what might happen if someone else had been there with him. John Carew, as it turned out and if when that second person looked through, he saw someone he knew. What then?
Q: Please describe the research you did. Did you travel to Istanbul? And are there any parallels between your discovery process and that of your character, Elizabeth?
A: I went four or five times to Istanbul, a city which I love very much. The first time, thirteen years ago now, I lived there for a month so that I could really get a feel for the place. I stayed in a wonderfully eccentric hotel, and couldn't resist getting my character, Elizabeth Staveley, to stay there too! Her experience of being haunted by the person she is researching the English slave girl Celia Lamprey is something I became very interested in when I was writing historical biographies myself. Biographers live in such close imaginative proximity with their subjects that it's very hard sometimes to stop yourself feeling that they are really there, just behind you.
Q: Your cast of characters indicates that some of the characters are based on real historical figures. Is it more or less challenging to work with a character who actually lived?
A: Just different. None of the real characters are well-known, but there was just enough information about them really to fire up my imagination. In the case of Paul Pindar, for example, who really was a Levant Company merchant, I knew that he was about thirty, very clever, shrewd, and gentleman-like, and also that he had already amassed a large private fortune trading in Venice. It was well-known amongst his fellow merchants and this was really intriguing that the sultan's mother (also a real character, and perhaps the most fascinating of all) took a real shine to him, and had tried to arrange a private meeting with him, although it probably never took place. Or did it? It's questions like this that really get me going!
Q: What aspect of life in the sultan's harem did you find the most surprising?
A: How regimented it all was, more like a convent or a particularly strict boarding school, really. As a general rule the women were not allowed to speak at all in the sultan's presence, which is why they all learned sign language. And how powerful the sultan's mother was. I was just so fascinated to try to imagine (because there are almost no historical records) what kind of a person she must have been to have made the transition from an illiterate thirteen-year-old slave girl to the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.
Q: You've written several travel books. How does your travel writing influence your fiction?
A: Hugely. Travel writing is the best possible apprenticeship for writing all kinds of other things because it teaches you about observation. In between having the idea for 'The Aviary Gate' and its commissioning, I wrote two history books, too, and these were equally useful because they taught me how to do the right kind of research. How else would I have known that 'goose turd green' and 'dead Spaniard' really were new color names that merchants gave to their cloth in the late sixteenth century!
Q: How did your childhood as the daughter of a diplomat influence your choices as a writer?
A: Pretty much the whole of my childhood and early adult life was spent abroad in Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. From the age of ten I was sent to boarding school in England, but home, crucially, was always somewhere abroad. It was a strange life in many ways, but I have to say that I absolutely loved it, and it had an enormous influence on me. It is, I have no doubt at all, the reason I am a writer. Later, my first husband was a travel photographer, and I spent ten years traveling the world with him and writing about it, as though having spent all my early life on the road, I somehow forgot to stop! Two of my earliest books are travel books about Bhutan and Mexico and all of my books, history and novels included, are (I realize now, looking back on them) about women negotiating lands and cultures that are foreign to them in some way. In 'The Aviary Gate' both of my main characters, Elizabeth in the modern story and Celia Lamprey in the sixteenth-century story, are doing precisely this. It's an enduring fascination for me.
Q: In your last book you wrote about courtesans. Why are you so intrigued by the idea of kept women?
A: I am very interested in women's survival strategies. Courtesans used their sexuality as a way of acquiring money and independence in a man's world, and I found that incredibly intriguing. In 'The Aviary Gate' the women of the harem are doing much the same thing, although in their case it is power that they are after. And all the time that I was writing about them, I was acutely aware just how high the stakes were. Under the Ottoman system in this period, only the son of one concubine could become the next sultan (there was no system of primogeniture) and the rest were all killed on his accession. The stakes don't get any higher than that.
I was obsessed by the idea of the Valide, as the sultan's mother was known, a woman who, as I mentioned, existed in real life but whose real story we can never know for sure because of the secrecy surrounding the harem. She was a peasant girl from Albania who rose to become the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire. What did she have to do, what did she have to be, to achieve that? It makes my head swim just to think about it!