Maxine Kite, the heroine of Rags to Riches, is a talented musician – an accomplished pianist and professional cellist – until she meets Brent Shackleton. With Brent she finds fame and fortune in 1930s America, but at the cost of her own emotional turmoil and her moral integrity.
Writing this novel was a challenge. Firstly, it enters the jazz age, and jazz was something I knew nothing about. So I had to do a great deal of research into it. I well remember an acquaintance who was a jazz fanatic; he lent me a number of books on jazz which I dutifully ploughed through, familiarising myself with the artists, their instruments and their best-known recordings. I listened to unending hours of 1930s artists on CDs and sat for hours with him in Wally Scott’s Club in Birmingham watching and hearing it played live – by some fantastic exponents of the genre – while he pointed out the intricacies and subtleties of the music. I have to confess, I didn’t enjoy jazz before I was introduced to this intense period of enlightenment, and nothing has changed!
Secondly, much of the story’s action is set on board the Queen Mary as it churned its considerable wake across the Atlantic to-ing and fro-ing between Southampton and New York. So, more research . . . The QM is now a hotel in some dock in Los Angeles, I understand – so no chance of actually visiting it. But a visit to Dudley Central Library turned up some surprises: they had there copies of the naval architects’ original blueprints for the ship, from which I could glean as much information as I needed about décor, cabins, public rooms etc. With the help of some photographs as well I was so far well-equipped to write with some confidence about the ship itself and Maxine’s association with it. But also they had a book, the author of which I cannot remember, who had been a steward on the ship during the time I was writing about it, and his account of life on board allowed me to add another dimension of realism.
And so to New York and inevitably its jazz clubs. I had never been to New York so I needed to involve myself in more intensive research without actually making the trip – old maps, photographs of buildings that existed at the time but not necessarily still standing. It was the time of the Great Depression that followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and all this impinged on the social and architectural landscape and had to be taken into account. In one part of the story I wrote about the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan opposite Central Park, describing its chandeliers and marble floors etc from photographs and guide books. I was recently in New York, which gave me the chance to check up on what I had written, including the Plaza – and I was relieved to note that I had got it just about right. Phew!
I get the impression that many readers (of any novel and not just mine) seldom consider the amount of research that goes into a book. The truth is, nobody can know everything, and most fiction writers find research necessary. In fact, I love it – it’s an integral part of building a story – and I have learnt so much in the process.