Sunday, January 19, 2014

UNDER THE JEWELED SKY by Alison McQueen: Author Interview & Excerpt

If you have a soft spot for narratives that draw you in exotic locales, moral codes and social settings of a distant time, then Under The Jeweled Sky by Alison McQueen (read my review here) is your cup of tea. A star-crossed love story set against the backdrop of the British expat circles during the mid-century political upheaval that tore India, McQueen's historical novel will be published in paperback on January 21st by Sourcebooks Landmark. The author graced my blog with the favor of an interview and a juicy excerpt. Read on and enjoy.

1) Alison, your latest historical novel, UNDER THE JEWELED SKY, is a heart-breaking  love story set against the historical backdrop of a country torn by political upheaval. Can you briefly introduce the players and their conflict? How did you decide to portray that particular time period and locale?
Under The Jeweled Sky is a tragic tale of love and loss set in the dying embers of the British Raj. The story unravels the fragile construct of a severely dysfunctional British family and watches its slow disintegration in the wake of World War II, the subsequent partition of India, and a scandal with terrible consequences.
The tangle of politics and diplomacy during both periods seemed like a fitting backdrop to the disordered lives of the characters, with layers of deceit and half-truths and nothing being quite what it seems.

2) Which part of the genesis of this book was the most exciting one to work on and which one the most challenging? Research the time period, the expat world building, the love story, or the character development?
The research for Under The Jeweled Sky took months. At the British National Archives, I unearthed declassified documents from the 1957 Macmillan government which would have caused a great deal of diplomatic embarrassment should they have been leaked at the time. Everything I read had been rubber-stamped Top Secret.
The archives catalogue a mire of political corruption and inaction, naming names and pointing fingers of accusation. I had started out without too much idea of what I was actually looking for, only to stumble across all manner of declassified secrets, some of which ran to hundreds of pages. Very little of it ended up in the final manuscript.
I loved creating the maharani characters. Part of the story is set in a maharaja’s palace in 1947. Although the fictional palace and its location are anonymous, I did have an inside track into life inside an Indian palace. In her twenties, my mother was hired as the private nurse to the Maharaja of Indore’s mother-in-law. She arrived there from Bombay and was shown to her quarters, an enormous suite in a grand building set across the grounds from the main palace.
A car was sent for her every morning, but she said that she preferred to walk. So off she would go, strolling through the grounds while the car followed along a few yards behind, driving at snail’s pace in case she should change her mind. Her breakfast would be served to her on a solid silver service, with a footman standing by should she want for anything.
From what she has told me, I am not sure that she handled it particularly well. She said that she didn’t want any fuss, which was quite the wrong way to go about things in a palace. There was also an incident when she was caught preparing her own boiled egg, which didn’t go down at all well. The cook was quite overcome with grief, and my mother never ventured to lift a finger again. 

3) Period dramas and costume-drama-inspired-fiction have been enjoying a season of revival in recent times (see Downton Abbey). What do you think is the reason why so many readers/viewers around the world are so charmed by the past?
Today’s modern world is so fast it leaves us spinning. I was born in the sixties when kids played with fuzzy felt and everybody thought a computer was a great big room filled with reel-to-reel tape cabinets. Friends would meet in Hyde Park for softball and none of us had a cellphone. They didn’t exist. Yet we all knew where to go and nobody ever suffered for being off radar for a while.
Period drama removes all the traffic of modern living. I think that there is a little part in all of us that yearns for a slower pace, a simpler existence. With technology stripped away, there is nowhere else for the focus of a story to fall except on the minutiae of human life. We are drawn in completely, like voyeurs unable to turn their heads from the scene of an accident. Time slows down in a climate of letters, and no one dares to speak their thoughts directly. The sense of anticipation is unbearable, and that is the attraction of it.

4) Your previous novel, THE SECRET CHILDREN, is set during the 1920s. In UNDER THE JEWELED SKY you chose a mid-century feel. Both stories unfold in India. What other time period and historical event would you like to explore for a future novel?
I am currently working on another novel set partially in India and touching upon a subject that remains one of the last taboos. The draft is still at an early stage so I am keeping it under my hat for the time being.
5) I have heard of authors using a story-board to outline their books.  You have a professional background in advertising, a field where this creative tool is frequently used. Did you apply any of the trick of the trade to the writing process?
Advertising is not for the faint hearted. It’s a fast, tough business and you had to learn to survive, particularly back in the 1980s when women often had to work twice as hard to prove themselves amid rampant sexism.
Copywriting is an exacting craft. Every word has to fight to be there and must earn its living, and you have to hold your work up every day and invite people to shoot it down. It taught me a great deal about brevity, but more importantly, it taught me how to receive criticism from a very young age.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Alison!

Paperback, 408 pages
Sourcebooks Landmarks, January 21st 2014


In sharp contrast to the palace’s opulence, Jag and his father shared one small room in the servants’ quarters, a collection of uniform low--level buildings set at the very periphery of the palace compound, intended to house the imperative staff in a manner convenient to the Maharaja. Not all the servants lived within the grounds. Many relied on the ramshackle dwellings that had sprung up in haphazard fashion, sprawling across the town that had grown up nearby. Jag’s father’s hours were long and unpredictable, often taking him away for extended periods when the Maharaja traveled the country, but never when he went overseas, as he did increasingly often, particularly when there was trouble afoot. Jag’s father would not cross the black water, and this the Maharaja accepted. For a devoted Hindu, to leave India’s holy soil would cause untold offense to the gods, rendering the soul irredeemably lost. The Maharaja got around this by taking as much of his homeland with him as he could, in particular the great silver carriers that would be filled with water brought down from the sacred Mother Ganges. This way he could continue to perform his devotional ablutions without offending the deities, no matter if he was in Patna or Paris.

Jag had spent the morning at the elephant house, washing out the stalls. There was talk that the animals would soon be sold off or sent to zoos, with perhaps just one or two being retained for the sake of posterity. The contents of the pilkhana were testament to a bygone era, of elephants caparisoned with giant silver howdahs and gilded jewelry encrusted with precious and semi--precious stones, huge anklets adorning their painted feet, jeweled plaques on their foreheads. There were trappings for other animals too, the horses, camels, and bullocks used to draw the ceremonial carts. The paraphernalia in the pilkhana required constant cleaning, a routine that had continued despite the likelihood that, once the country was reborn, it might never see the light of day again. The thought of it had saddened Jag, that such ancient splendors should have to fade, but there would be no room for them in the new India, the India that would belong to its people.

Sophie’s voice broke into his thoughts.

“If you could change one thing in the whole wide world, what would it be?”

Sophie dangled her feet in the pool beneath the fountain in the orange garden, Jag sitting propped up against the wall behind her, facing the other way, lost in thought as he so often was, his long legs stretched out on the brief lawn laid out before him in a neatly clipped circle. No one would see them here. The garden was completely walled in and not overlooked at all: no windows or walkways, no panels or spy holes. Nobody ever went there, except the malis, but only in the early mornings, to tidy and water and take whatever fruit had been ordered by the kitchens.
“One thing?” Jag said.
“Hmm.” He thought about it. “I think it would have to be that my mother was still alive, so that my father would be happy.”
“Oh,” Sophie said, disappointed that he had chosen something so solemn.
Jag looked up at her, watching her shuffle her feet in the water, her head tilted to one side. He sensed that his answer had not satisfied her.
“Or I would make it that I had been born rich, like the Maharaja, so that I could spend my time reading great books or entertaining important friends with pig sticking and tiger hunting.”
“Where has he gone to this time?”
“To Simla,” Jag said, “to talk to the Viceroy about the arrangements. Some of the other Maharajas have gone too. They’re worried about what will happen to their kingdoms after independence.”
“Simla. I’ve heard of it. It’s supposed to be very nice there.”
“It’s where the government goes in the summer. Delhi is much too hot for them. It boils their brains.”
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“In another week, perhaps. It’s impossible to say. He’s always changing his mind.”
“You must miss your father when he’s away.”
“I used to,” Jag said. “But now, it is different.”
“How do you mean?”
Sophie knew exactly what he meant, but she wanted him to say it aloud.
Since his father had gone, they had been as thick as thieves, giving no mind to the time or the arc of the sun as the days came and went. When his father was around, their adventures were restricted to a few stolen hours whenever he could get away. They had taken to hiding notes for each other, tiny slips of paper, folded tightly and pressed into the gap between the stone slabs beneath the enormous marble urn by the path that led to the formal gardens. The area around it was high--planted, with towering palms surrounded by lower shrubs of fragrant hibiscus and showy pink bougainvillea. Sophie checked their secret postbox several times a day, in the hope that she might find a message telling her where they could meet and when. It was difficult for Jag to get away sometimes, as there was always something his father wanted him to do: attend to a chore somewhere or copy out long passages from books which his father would cast his eye over briefly before throwing away and setting him on the next one. Sophie would have been furious if any parent or indeed teacher had done such a thing to her, and she said so, but Jag didn’t seem to mind. His father expected great things of him in the new India, and his education would lead him to a better future, where he could be a man without a master, if he worked hard enough. One day he might even have servants of his own.
“You ask too many questions,” Jag said slyly. “You know why I like it when my father is not here. It is the same reason why you like it.”
Sophie laughed, the game over.
“What about you?” he asked.
“If you could change one thing in the whole world, what would it be?”
“I don’t know really,” Sophie said. “Right now, I’m happy with the way things are.” As she said it, it dawned on her that this really was the first time in her life that she had ever felt truly happy. She leaned back and looked down at him sitting beneath her, smiling up at her, and they sat like that for a while, keeping their thoughts to themselves. Jag dropped his head and picked at the grass, splitting a blade open with his thumbnail and putting it to his lips, blowing hard, trying to get a squeal out of it.
“You shouldn’t sit on the grass,” she said.
“Why not?”
“They only bite the English.” He tried again, a feeble squeak coming from the blade.
“Seriously. Please don’t sit on the grass. It’s dangerous.”
“If you insist.” He pulled himself up by the elbows and sat on the edge of the fountain with her. “But you’d have to be very stupid to get bitten by a snake. They’re afraid of people. A snake would only bite you if you marched right into it and took it by surprise. It’s not the snakes you have to worry about. It’s the scorpions.”
“Very nasty,” he said, putting the blade of grass to his lips again. “And they’re not afraid of people at all. They’re not afraid of anything. If one of those stings you, you’ve had it.” He blew another squeal, this time much louder.
“Really?” Sophie’s eyes darted to the ground, and she slipped her feet out of the pool and tucked them beneath herself tightly.
“Oh yes. You are sure of a long and painful death, with hallucinations and convulsions and your whole body on fire. And there is nothing anyone can do to save you, not even a doctor like your father. So you had better be careful.”
“That’s horrible.”
“Very horrible.”
“Do you know anyone who has died from a scorpion?”
“Oh yes. It happens all the time. People are always treading on them and dying. It usually happens when they get out of bed. Scorpions like to hide in people’s slippers while they are sleeping, and of course the poor person gets out of bed with bare feet, and the next thing they know…” Jag tossed his head casually and flicked the blade of grass aside.
“No!” Sophie stared at him. “You’re making it up!”
“No, I’m not. Hey! Look at that!” Jag bent swiftly to the ground and picked up a stray pebble, partially hiding it in his hand. “It’s a scorpion!”
Sophie shrieked and flew up from the fountain’s edge, snatching up her shoes and running for the path. Jag ran after her, hand outstretched, waving the pebble and laughing wildly.
Fiona Ripperton fanned herself as she walked back to her apartments, thinking that she might have a gin and tonic when she got there. She had given up trying to find Sophie. It was a lost cause.
Mrs. Ripperton had come out to India when she was not much older than Sophie was now, and was under no illusion that the girl would be entirely at sea without her guidance. Mrs. Schofield didn’t strike her as a particularly maternal sort. A prickly woman, unaffectionate with her family, far too Christian and quick to find fault with her daughter. Fiona Ripperton had always dreamed of having a girl to fuss over rather than the son who had sucked them dry. Oh, she loved him, of course, they both did, but there has to come a time when a mother’s devotion wears a little thin in the face of a committed wastrel. He was his wife’s problem now, a nice Canadian girl who couldn’t have known what she was getting herself into. Mrs. Ripperton was in no doubt that Michael had married her on the double--quick so that he could sail away from all the debts and bad feeling he had left in London. Silly boy. They had known they were fighting a losing battle before he turned twenty--five, but what could one do? They threw good money after bad before finally cutting the apron strings on his thirtieth birthday, much to his umbrage. If she could have had her time again as a mother, there were a hundred things she might have done differently, but then, she had finally conceded to herself, the results would probably have been the same. Mrs. Ripperton had come to the firm conclusion that some people were just born that way, and that there was very little one could do to alter the pattern laid down by the Creator. But if she had been too loose a parent, then there was one thing of which she was certain. Mrs. Schofield had been far too strict. Sophie was as timid as a mouse in her mother’s presence. It was all quite at odds with the bright, cheerful girl who popped her head around the door of the ADC’s room, volunteering to fetch the tea or to lend a hand with the escalating heap of filing. Popular as sixpence she was, and clearly adoring of her father. Yet the moment Mrs. Schofield appeared, she would shrink into the woodwork, barely uttering a word. Too much mothering, Fiona Ripperton said to her husband sometimes, venturing an opinion about how much better a job she would have done of raising a daughter, had they been blessed with one.
As her self--appointed guardian angel, Mrs. Ripperton would see to it that Sophie was saved the misery of having no one of her own age to talk to. Decidedly young at heart, she contrived to overlook her sixty--two years and made a point of seeking Sophie out whenever she could and sticking to her like glue, taking her to help out at the Baptist mission, jollying her along and slipping into nonsensical juvenile banter, at which she felt she was particularly gifted. The thought of the poor girl being stuck in the company of her parents and the other palace cronies filled her with a crusading sense of purpose. There were no other young people here, which, in her opinion, had been a dreadful oversight on the part of her parents. If Sophie had been her daughter, she would have taken the time to present her properly at a coming--out party rather than extracting her from all lively society and cooping her up in this great mothballed mausoleum. It was no place for a youngster on the cusp of womanhood. What on earth must the Schofields have been thinking? Still, everybody knew that they would be moving on soon, and there was plenty of time for Sophie to go and kick her heels up in London and find herself a nice young man.
They were supposed to go to the mission this afternoon, and Mrs. Ripperton had called at the Schofields’ apartments an hour ago, only to be told that Sophie had gone off to the library. Fiona hadn’t mentioned anything about their loose arrangement, not after the last time, when Mrs. Schofield had behaved as though her daughter had run somebody through with a sword. Instead, she had sat and taken tea with Veronica, even though the woman hadn’t had an ounce of conversation in her. Afterward, she had gone to the library, but Sophie was not there either, and she hadn’t been seen in the ADC’s room since Tuesday. Mrs. Ripperton couldn’t help but worry. She hoped that Sophie wasn’t hiding in a corner somewhere, mopping buckets of tears and wishing that she were back home. Wherever she was, finding her had proved quite impossible. It was as though she had simply vanished into thin air.
It was hot today. Perhaps Mrs. Ripperton would make the gin and tonic a large one, then take a little lie--down.
Sophie came bursting around the corner, running as though her very life depended on it, shoes dangling from her hands, the expression on her face close to hysterical.
“Sophie!” Mrs. Ripperton rushed toward her. “Whatever’s wrong, my dear?”
Sophie came to an immediate, skidding halt, her face flushed red, breath coming hard. She stared wide--eyed at Mrs. Ripperton before glancing quickly over her shoulder. There was nobody behind her, just a quiet, empty path. Mrs. Ripperton clutched Sophie’s elbow and steadied her.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Sophie snatched her breath for a moment, looking down at herself, dark spots of water on her dress, her feet bare. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“What on earth have you been doing?” Mrs. Ripperton ran her eyes up and down the girl’s somewhat disheveled figure.
“I…” Sophie tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound utterly ridiculous. “I thought I saw a snake.”
“With no shoes on?”
“Have you taken leave of your senses?”
“I was hot,” Sophie said. “I took my shoes off and put my feet in the fountain.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Ripperton didn’t quite follow. “So where was the snake? In the fountain?”
“No. I mean, I was sitting there and I thought I saw one in the grass, and…”
“You really should have put your shoes back on first. Dearie me.” Mrs. Ripperton clucked to herself. “Look at the state of you!”
“Please don’t tell my mother,” Sophie said. She looked around nervously again. There was no sign of Jag. “I told her I was in the library. She doesn’t like me wandering around. You won’t say anything, will you? She’ll be awfully cross if she thinks I’ve…” The poor girl looked stricken.
“Not a bit of it, my dear.” Mrs. Ripperton took hold of Sophie’s arm and tucked it firmly into her own. “Mum’s the word. Now come on. Let’s go and get you tidied up a bit, shall we? We can have tea in my apartments, and you can tell me all about it. A snake, eh? How tremendously exciting.”



  1. Thank you, Mina for a lovely article! It was delightful chatting with you.

    1. Immensely pleased to have you, Alison! Loved, absolutely loved UNDER THE JEWELED SKY.

  2. What an insightful interview. Thank you to both Mina and Ms. McQueen.