Written By: Victoria Phillips
Mary S. Lovell is a British writer best known for her acclaimed biographies of Beryl Markham, The Mitford Girls, Bess of Hardwick and the Churchill family to name a few. Her books have topped the New York Times best sellers list and have won international recognition. The Sound of Wings, her definitive biography of aviation legend Amelia Earhart, was adapted into the major motion picture ‘Amelia’, starring Richard Gere and Hilary Swank.
Lovell wrote her first book in 1981 at the age of 40, and is known for her intensive research methods. An extraordinarily interesting woman with a passion for aviation, equestrianism, sailing and travel. We sit down with Lovell to talk about her writing process, new book and why she chooses to spend 5 months of the year in Barbados.
When did you first visit Barbados?
In 1986 as part of a two-centre holiday – a week here at the Royal Pavilion, and a week at the Royal St Lucian Hotel in St Lucia. I have never returned to St Lucia, but this is my 32nd year in Barbados.
What stood out to you on your first visit?
The warmth and friendliness of Bajans – real Bajans, I mean, not people who have migrated and now live here. It still does.
What’s your fondest memory on the island?
I have so many but one would be the first time I visited Barbados. It was mid-winter when I left the UK, and as I stepped out of the plane I felt the warm wind and the sunshine, and saw the vibrant colours of flowers for the first time in months. In those days, as passengers reached the immigration hall they were always greeted by a steel pan band and helpful, smiley people who welcomed you to the island. Another treasured and very romantic memory is dancing under the stars with my beloved late husband at the old Sandy Lane.
Bathsheba, one of Mary’s favourite spots in Barbados
When your friends visit, where is one place you always take them?
Oh dear! Where to start. But since I live on the west coast, a trip to the East Coast and breakfast or lunch at the Round House is a must for any newcomers.
You spend 5 months of the year in Barbados. What is it about the island that keeps you coming back?
It’s still the friendliness of Bajans, but I have seen a lot of changes in 31 years. All the same, Barbados is my second home and after I have been in the UK for a few months I start getting homesick and twitchy to return to Bim.
Do you ever write here?
I have done when under pressure to meet a deadline, but I write non-fiction and I need my library of reference books and research notes (which run to many thousands of pages – impossible to bring with me) when I am writing. So it’s not ideal. I have, however, often edited proofs while here.
You’re a best selling author and four of your books have been optioned for movies, yet you started out as an Accountant and Company Director. What sparked the transition into writing?
I broke my back in a horse-riding accident and was confined to bed/armchair for a long time. I had already done some research on a local subject out of personal interest in the area where I then lived (New Forest) and while I was not able to go to work I turned these notes into a book. No one was more surprised than me that it was accepted by a publisher and sold well. I have never looked back.
Who do you decide to write about?
I have never gone looking for subjects – they seem to come to me – often a publisher will suggest a subject and if I like the idea I will research it further. Or a friend will suggest a subject. I don’t always write about the people I have researched – sometimes I find I am not interested, or they have done one interesting thing and the rest of the life is mundane, and sometimes I just plain don’t like them. It takes me 5 years to research and write a major biography. I wouldn’t want to be shacked-up for 5 years writing about someone I disliked.
Mary S. Lovell in Palmyra, Syria. Taken on her last trip there in 2010 just before the war began. “I used to go annually for about a month and guide groups of tourists around this still very remote place.”
You mostly write about strong, pioneering women. Do you see some of your own characteristics in these women?
Oh, Vikki, I would dearly like to think I had the characteristics of the women I have written about. Actually they live the sort of lives I would like to have led were it not for mortgages, school fees and all the other responsibilities that keep one for going adventuring.
What does your creative process look like?
Biographers aren’t necessarily ‘creative’, in fact it’s essential that they stick to facts, although it still has to be readable and keep readers wanting to turn the page. I can spend up to 2 years (more sometimes) just researching my subject. This is full time work and has taken me all over the world to meet people who knew my subjects or to visit library archives containing material about my subjects, such as diaries and letters. When I was researching Amelia Earhart I travelled round the United States for almost 8 months, just visiting libraries and interviewing her surviving family and friends. When I researched Beryl Markham and I spent several months in East Africa, and for Jane Digby I travelled to the Middle East – that was hard because of the language, and I had to go back again and learn some Arabic.
Have you created any habits for better writing?
Once I have my research done it is collated in lever arch files, in strict sequential date order, and cross references by subject matter as well. So that when I sit down to write I am driven along by the material I have gathered. When I am researching I stick to normal working hours – 9 to 5 and often this is dictated by the opening hours of resource centres – though of course I can travel outside of those hours. But when I start the writing process I work from 5.30 am until 2pm – often 7 days a week. I stop for lunch and then work until about 5pm polishing what I have written during the morning. It can take 9 months to a year to do the writing and is a very antisocial process.
Lovell’s latest book The Riviera Set
You started writing at age 40, do you have any advice for people who want to change career direction at any age?
Ah, I changed careers at 40 because I broke my back horse-riding. As I was bedridden for months I had plenty of time to think – but I didn’t think of writing as a change of career, merely something to pass the time. I was just lucky that my books took off. I had returned to work when my Beryl Markham book soared to the top of Best Seller lists in the USA and UK and I landed a massive advance to write about Amelia. At that point I realised I needed to work at writing full-time.
Tell us about your latest book, The Riviera Set.
This was a subject I was asked to write about. It is a group of rich and quite often famous people such as Winston Churchill, the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, Prince Ali Khan and movie stars such as Rita Hayworth and Giene Terney – who in the mid 1930’s were A-list celebrities. This book is about one of the houses these people used to meet at for holidays and junketing in the South of France and what they got up to. At the time the media (newspapers and newsreels for there was no television then) were not as intrusive as they are now so most of the stories were unknown about. All the same I have been surprised at its popularity and some great reviews.
Quick Fire Questions
What book should everyone read?
My very favourite book is, oddly enough, a novel. It’s Shogun by James Clavel. It seems to have everything for me – great storytelling (but based on fact), great writing, romance, adventure and a certain amount of education – in this case about Japanese history. I have reread it countless times.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I am very self-disciplined about my work. You have to be to get a book out. Even if you have a day when don’t feel like writing, you have to sit down and write. Even poor work is preferable to no work, and you can always edit it on a day when you feel more like working.
Where is your favourite spot in Barbados?
Oh dear – that’s a tough one. I am going to have to say the park at Bathsheba where I often take a foldup chair, my Kindle and a packed lunch and just sit and chill on my own for the day, watch the waves or maybe a turtle grazing on the reef. But I adore Carlisle Bay for swimming.
Your favourite quote is?
Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Tomorrow may never come!
What’s left on your bucket list?
I want to return to beautiful Syria when this appalling war ends. ISIS have destroyed many of the wonderful ancient buildings, but I am homesick for this lovely country.
Who would you ask to your last supper and what would be on the menu?
Oddly enough I have the answer to this question written in the back of my diary. There are many unanswered questions in British History, so I have a dinner party planned for when I get to heaven (I hope) where I will invite the following people and ask them all one question, which they must answer truthfully.
William Shakespeare: Did you write all the books published under you name? (I think you did)
Elizabeth I: Were you and Robert Dudley lovers? (I think you were)
Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester): How did your wife Amy really die? (I think she was probably murdered)
Richard III: What happened to the Princes in the Tower? (I think murdered by Henry VII)
Anne Boleyn: Were you unfaithful to Henry VIII? (I think not)
Amelia Earhart: How did you die? (I think you ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean about 100 miles from Howland Island on your round-the-world flight in 1936).
Inside my beach bag there is always:
A Kindle! I never thought I would abandon books for an electronic reader – but Kindles are so convenient. I can download from here at any time and so I never need to haul dozens of books across the Atlantic as I used to.
You can find all of Mary S. Lovell’s books on Amazon – follow link here.