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  • Elizabeth Alexander

Candlelight Reading Interview

Beatrice from Candlelight Reading was one of the 18 wonderful hosts who showcased Lies That Blind on their blogs during my recent The Coffee Pot Book Club virtual book tour.

Some of them were content with excerpts from my novel. But I particularly enjoyed thinking about and writing responses to the interview questions. Here's what I told Beatrice:

1) Why did you choose to write your book in this era?

I’m sure in most cases, an author chooses the era they write about based on their previous interest in, say, the Tudors, or the American Civil War. In my case, the era chose me.

I’d recently begun living on the island of Penang, Malaysia, and became interested in the story of how an agent of the East India Company—my antagonist, Captain Francis Light—took possession of it in 1786. From being sparsely inhabited jungle, Light carved out a new trading settlement he called George Town, in honour of King George III. A chance conversation with a local publisher suggested that Light hadn’t been entirely truthful in his dealings with the island’s legal owner, the Sultan of Queda (now Kedah). Having always loved research almost as much as writing (I’ve been a freelance features journalist since the mid-1980s), I couldn’t help myself. One set of records after another implied that Light had gilded the lily in promising the sultan that the EIC would provide him with much-needed military assistance, in exchange for ceding Penang to them. I also discovered, through delving into the political situation both in India and London at the time, that this was never going to happen. I felt immediately that I had a strong human-interest story on my hands – one full of conflict, hubris, and the usual lack of appreciation for the consequences of deception.

Previously, my love had always been for ancient history—particularly the Greeks and the Egyptians—but what I found particularly fascinating about the experience of writing Lies That Blind is how much the late 18th century mirrored current experiences, complete with ‘fake news’; a corporation (the East India Company) that thought only of profits and shareholders’ dividends while ordinary people’s lives were ruined, particularly in India; and one that required a huge government bailout because it was ‘too big to fail’. I often wonder, almost 250 years on, whether we’ve advanced all that much!

Cannon at Fort Cornwallis, Penang

2) What is the most surprising thing you discovered while you were researching this era?

Oh, there were so many! But one thing that really interested me were the different ways that the three European colonisers in the region treated inter-marriage. From what I’ve read about the Dutch and the English, both nations originally prohibited their employees and officials from consorting with local women. The East India Company, for example, was so focused on making money rather than keeping their employees happy, that they originally banned women from Britain coming to their Indian presidencies—even married ones—citing the expense and distraction.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, were much more strategic and enlightened. Envious of the wealth gathered by Venetian traders, they were the first of the European powers to become interested in the East—especially the spice islands. By the middle of the 16th century, they were the dominant European force in the Malay Archipelago. Here’s what surprised me: as the Portuguese became more entrenched in the region, the King of Portugal, Manuel 1 (1495-1521) went so far as to issue a royal decree encouraging his subjects to marry local women. To call them ‘half-breeds’ or other insulting names was made an unlawful and punishable offense. From then on, the wives and children from such marriages were to be known as Portuguese Eurasians. A smart man, King Manuel! He realized that by encouraging inter-marriage, his men would more quickly learn local languages, which in turn would help them establish firm business relationships, thereby giving them access to insider knowledge as to where the most valuable commodities could be found. This extremely religious king also saw such marriages as boosting the spread of Catholicism in the region.

As I said, the Portuguese took a very different approach to either the Dutch or the English. And although inter-racial relationships were common enough between East India Company men and local women, marriage was generally frowned upon. That’s probably why the East India Company agent who appears in my book (the historical figure of Captain Francis Light) never married the half-Portuguese, half-Siamese Martinha Rozells, with whom he “cohabited” (that actual wording used in Light’s will!) for 22 years, producing five children.

3) Can you share something about the book that isn’t covered in the blurb?

In the blurb I briefly mention that my protagonist, Jim Lloyd, becomes very fond of Francis Light’s young son, William Light. Let me tell you a little more about that character. In the story, in addition to Jim’s duties as Light’s assistant, he takes on the role of tutor to the boy. William, as with many characters in my novel, is a real historical figure. He was sent away to England (can you imagine!) at the age of seven years, to be educated and looked after by an old friend of Light’s in Suffolk.

As readers will discover when they get to the end of my novel, Colonel William Light went on to become even more accomplished than his ambitious father. William is known as the founder of Adelaide, South Australia, having spent his earlier career as an army and naval man rubbing shoulders with the likes of King George IV, the Duke of Wellington (of Waterloo fame!), and Mohammed Ali, the Pasha of Egypt. There was even some speculation that while serving on HMS Bellerophon, William met Napoleon Bonaparte, and acted on behalf of Lord Keith in demanding Bonaparte surrender his sword after the Battle of Waterloo.

After his appointment as Surveyor-General of South Australia, it was William who determined the optimal location of its new settlement, named Adelaide in honour of the Queen Consort of King William IV. That angered several land-grabbing settlers who had expected the settlement to be positioned elsewhere and accused William of ruining them. I was thrilled to read that when this was made known to Colonel Light, he said one particularly vociferous accuser could publish all the grievances he liked in the English newspapers but would be taking a great deal of trouble and expense merely to prove himself an ass!

4) If you had to describe your protagonist, in three words, what would those three words be?

Naïve; impetuous; ambitious.

5) What are you currently working on?

Promoting my novel! I never see the point in spending years researching and writing a book, as I have, then leaving its success to chance. Plus, I suppose I’m unusual as an author given that I love the marketing side of things. So, in addition to writing blog posts about all the supplementary facts I discovered while working on Lies That Blind, I’m always looking for ways to bring it to potential readers’ attention on social media, as well as traditional media. As any author knows, that’s a full-time job in itself.

There are more answers from me on the original Candlelight Reading blog post, here:

Would you do me an enormous favour? If you have already read Lies That Blind - would you please leave a review on one of the Amazon sites (you don't have to have bought my novel from Amazon to do this), or Goodreads, please? Many thanks in advance.


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