Getting to know Marilyn Pemberton #author #history #historical #fiction #biography #books

My guest today has a very interesting background before she tried her hand at writing fiction. Please welcome Marilyn Pemberton! Let’s take a peek at her bio and then we’ll learn more about the inspiration for her most recent book.

Marilyn Pemberton retired from being a full-time IT Project Manager in October 2019. During research for her PhD, Marilyn “discovered” Mary De Morgan, a Victorian writer. Marilyn wrote her biography, Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012). There were still many gaps in her knowledge and she decided to write a fictional novel based on De Morgan’s life – The Jewel Garden (Williams & Whiting, 2018). This novel was a semi-finalist in the Chanticleer 2019 International Goethe Book Award for post 1750s Historical Fiction.

Marilyn’s second novel, The Song of the Nightingale: a tale of two castrati, (The Conrad Press, 2019), was inspired by a program on Radio 3. It is a historical novel, set in 18th century Italy that tells of two young boys who are bought from their families, castrated and then trained to be singers. It is a story of passion, revenge, jealousy, love and redemption. It won the Fiction category of the 2020 International Rubery Book Award.

Marilyn is currently working on the second book of a trilogy that will tell of three generations of women who are story-tellers but who face sometimes insurmountable obstacles to getting their her-stories heard.

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Betty: When did you become a writer?

Marilyn: Having finished my English O-levels in  the late 1960s, the first thing I wrote that was not for work or my degrees was a book of little known fairy tales that I put together with a short introduction in 2010 (Enchanted Ideologies: A Collection of Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century English Moral Fairy Tales) when I was 56.I then wrote a biography of Mary de Morgan (Out of the Shadows: the life and works of Mary De Morgan), which was first published in 2012.  My first fictional book, which I suppose got me hooked on the writing of historical novels, was published in 2018, when I was 63. So I am very much a late starter.  I’m still not sure I consider myself as a writer, though.

Betty: How long did you work on your writing skills before you became published?

Marilyn: When I knew I wanted to write a fictional book, The Jewel Garden, I was worried because I hadn’t written anything using my imagination for 40 years or more, so I joined a writing group in nearby Nuneaton. I used to read them bits of the novel and they were all very supportive, which helped my confidence no end. Ann Evans, the leader, also made us write short stories and poetry and to write in genres outside of our comfort zone, which I found immensely challenging but also very satisfying. Being part of a writing group made me realize that I did still have an imagination and that I could use it to write words that other people enjoyed.  I was in the group for about three years before The Jewel Garden was finally published.

Betty: What authors or stories do you feel influenced your writing style?

Marilyn: To be honest I don’t think my writing style has been influenced by any author.

Betty: What prompted you to start writing?

Marilyn: My obsession with Mary De Morgan! On completion of my PhD (as a very mature student) I had found so much about Mary De Morgan that I decided to write her biography. Then, because there were so many gaps in my knowledge about her, I decided to write a fictional account of her life. By now, I was well and truly hooked by the writing bug!

Betty: What type of writing did you start with?

Marilyn: I feel I am repeating myself here. The first book I had published was an academic collection of little-known fairy tales, followed by a biography. Then came the fiction books – all of which have been historical. I love to read crime but there is no way I could ever write it.

Betty: What do you most enjoy writing? Why?

Marilyn: I love writing my novels. I love being lost in a world of centuries ago. Very occasionally I will write a poem if there is the right trigger, but I don’t consider myself a poet, although people have said my writing is poetic. I have absolutely no interest in writing a novel set in contemporary times.

Betty: How did you learn to write? A mentor, classes, conferences, craft books, or something else?

Marilyn: Although I joined a writing group I don’t think it actually taught me how to write – but it did encourage me to write. I have never felt the need to read a ‘help yourself’ book on writing. I have been to a few writing conferences but I went more to hear from literary agents than to learn any skill.

Betty: What do you wish you knew before you started writing/publishing?

Marilyn: How difficult, time-confusing and soul-destroying marketing is. Like most authors, I enjoy the writing, not the prostituting of oneself in order to tempt just one person to buy your book.

Betty: What other authors inspired you (either directly or through their writing) to try your hand at writing?

Marilyn: My interest in the telling and retelling of stories and the difficulties of women being heard is definitely as a result of my obsession with Mary De Morgan, who was a Victorian writer of fairy tales. The current trilogy I am writing is all about women telling tales in a world deaf to the female voice.

Betty: What inspired you to write the book you’re sharing with us today?

Marilyn: Having written the biography of Mary De Morgan, I realised that there were still some gaps in my knowledge, despite years of research: why did she never marry, why did she travel to Egypt, how did she become the directress of an Arab girls reformatory? So I decided to write a fictional account of her life, written in the first person by Hannah, a fictional character, who becomes a life-long friend of Mary. I address all the unanswered questions, using my imagination.

It was a time when women were starting to rebel against Victorian conventions and to strive for their independence. This is a story of Hannah Russell’s physical, emotional and artistic journey from the back streets of the East End of London to the noisy souks and sandy wastes of Egypt; from the labyrinthine canals of Venice to the lonely corridors of Russell Hall in Kent. Hannah thinks she has found love with Mary De Morgan, a writer of fairy tales and one of William Morris’s circle of friends. But where there is devotion there can also be deceit and where there is hope there also dwells despair.


It had been 1882, when I was twenty two and Mary ten years older. By then I had known Mary for two years and had already fallen in love with her. I had wanted to give her something special for her birthday. Over a week of dreary, wet winter days, when Mary had been out of town visiting some distant relations, I created a watercolour garden for her. The flowers were all based on real ones, but I let my imagination run free and mixed winter jasmine with spring cherry blossom; summer delphiniums with autumn roses. The blooms ranged from alabaster to deep purple, and I added even more colour by painting exotic butterflies that balanced on the edge of the petals, looking as if the slightest breeze would blow them off the paper. I had the painting framed and I was pleased with the end result.

On the day of her birthday, February 24th, I invited her around to my house for tea. She arrived promptly at three o’clock and we chatted happily over bite-sized sandwiches, dainty cakes, an assortment of pastries and numerous cups of tea. She asked me what I had been doing whilst she was away and I suddenly felt rather shy. I handed her the painting, which I had wrapped in brown paper and waited nervously for her to open it. Mary, impatient as ever, tore off the paper, giggling excitedly like a small child rather than a thirty-two year old woman, but when the picture was revealed she suddenly went silent and her face paled.

Buy links: Amazon

I find it very interesting that Marilyn wrote a biography and a novel about the same person! I’ve thought about writing a biography of Martha Washington after penning the novel Becoming Lady Washington, but there are already two biographies about her so have not. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Marilyn!

Thanks for reading!


Best-selling Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories

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