Interview with Julian Fellowes

Posted by Goodreads on July 4, 2016
Julian Fellowes entranced television audiences worldwide with his hit period drama Downton Abbey. Now the Oscar-winning writer is following up with another serving of delicious historical fiction, this time in book form, titled Belgravia. Set in Victorian London, the romantic novel charts the fortunes of two families, divided by class, who are bound together by an ill-fated love affair that sparks during the final turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars. Downton Abbey fans will love the familiar focus on the eccentricities of the English class system, the clandestine affairs, family secrets, social ambition, joyous young love, and dark doings of the scheming and the scurrilous that fill the pages of Belgravia, not to mention the ball gowns and horse-drawn carriages. Initially released via an app as 11 weekly "episodes"—a modern take on the 19th-century serialized novel—Belgravia showcases Fellowes's meticulous attention to historical setting and seamlessly blends the fictional with the real.

Lord Fellowes, 66, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of Robert Altman's Gosford Park, is also a prolific playwright, having written productions such as Mary Poppins and School of Rock. He recently wrote a television adaptation of Anthony Trollope's Doctor Thorne and has plans for a new original period drama set in New York called The Gilded Age.

Describing Belgravia as a "jolly holiday read," he tells Goodreads about his passion for period, why class interests him, and his writing desk in the House of Lords.

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Goodreads: Tell us about Belgravia. Where did the idea come from, and why was it first released in weekly "episodes" like a Dickens novel but via an app?

Julian Fellowes: It was an idea from [British publishers] Orion. They decided they wanted this combination of a 19th-century release pattern and a 21st-century infinite backup structure, so you had this app where you could meet the characters and have cyber tours of the houses—because all the houses in the book are based on real houses—and information about Waterloo and all that as a sort of accompaniment to the novel, and I must say I did find it rather appealing. Of course, in one way to do a 19th-century novel was slightly similar territory for my Downton followers, so I didn't think I was giving them too much of a culture shock. But in another way it was a long distance from Downton to be really involved in the whole Internet phenomenon, which is something I barely understand, so I found it quite appealing.

GR: Did you write it in installments as they were released, or did you write the whole thing in advance?

JF: I wrote the whole thing. I rather admire Dickens's or Thackeray's personal confidence to leave it open-ended and then suddenly do a little more about Little Nell if she's going down well. I just knew I didn't have the nerve for that. I had to know the book. Apart from anything else, when you're writing a book, things you do subsequently change things that happened earlier, so you have to have the power to go back into your earlier work and make it make sense with what happens later. So I don't know how they did it, really.

GR: But Downton had that episodic progression where you didn't know at the beginning how long it would last or where things would end up.

JF: Yes, but you have to allow the characters to develop feasibly. So you can allow the First World War to have an affect on Edith and change her as a character, because I'm sure it did change a great many people. But you can't suddenly turn someone into a murderer. You've got to find the basis of change in their original character.

GR: With Belgravia, which came first—the plot, the characters, or the setting?

JF: I've always been interested in the whole Belgravia development. The Grosvenor family had acquired this great chunk of land on the edge of London in the 17th century, but they hadn't developed it much before the 19th century. Then in the 1820s, in that period after the Napoleonic Wars, there was a real sense of rebirth and rebuilding and growing prosperity because of the industrial revolution. It was felt there was going to be a tremendous increase in the class of the rich and that it would be possible to make a new fashionable area, to develop a whole new town for the rich, if you like. So they took out a map of these rather marshy fields and drew a town on them, and Thomas and William Cubitt were hired to build it. And build it they did in an astonishingly short time—in about 20 years. It had squares for the Super Rich and squares for the Jolly Well Off but not quite Super Rich and then smaller streets, and it was all thought out with this mixture and it just worked. Even the traditional upper classes wanted to be part of it. It was an extraordinary feat.

GR: How did the starting point, the ball in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo, come about?

JF: The idea of starting with the Duchess of Richmond's ball was a combination of me and Orion, I think. But I always like to start a story with an anchoring point. Like beginning Downton with the sinking of the Titanic, it tells everyone where you are, what this world is, what's happening. I do find the Duchess of Richmond's ball—I don't know if "romantic" is exactly the right word, but haunting. All these young men dancing in their evening dress uniforms, and so many of them were going to die over the next three days. It just seems sort of terrible and beautiful in a rather kind of savage way. So I liked the idea of starting the novel with an iconic moment like that. But also I'm very interested in early Victorian England after the Napoleonic Wars, when the industrial revolution was getting going and the whole of society was beginning to adjust to the fact that this was no longer the 18th century. It was a particularly rich period for change, and you suddenly start to get this social mobility. And people with the new money, the new fortunes, the first thing they did, instead of inventing a new society for themselves, was try to imitate the manners and customs of the old rich, which I find so classically English somehow, and I thought wouldn't it be fun to explore that and the changing state of the country and play around with the way these things were developing. I mean, I regard Belgravia as a jolly holiday read. I don't want anyone to think I've cracked out something by Dostoyevsky.

GR: And was that how you came up with Anne and James Trenchard, the nouveau riche social climber?

JF: When James married Anne, he was marrying up; he was making a socially adventurous statement by marrying the daughter of a schoolmaster. But as the years go on, their situation changes. In one sense what happens is that he overtakes her. But in another, because she doesn't really care about all that stuff, she is far easier company for the people James is anxious to join than he is himself. And I think those ironies occur in this journey that we call our life, and I thought it would be fun to examine that.

GR: Was the romance—the love affair between James and Anne's daughter, Sophia, and young aristocrat Edmund, nephew of the Duchess of Richmond—at the center when you began?

JF: Yes, the romance was always at the center. If you have lots of disparate characters, you're always trying to find one single element that connects them all. It doesn't have to be a love story, but it has to be something they're all affected by, even if it's just an earthquake, and I thought this liaison would do that.

GR: One thing you do a lot of is incorporate new fashions or gadgets of the moment that everyone remarks on. In Downton we saw the introduction of the electric lightbulb and telephone, and in Belgravia we see people reacting to the idea of afternoon tea or stamps.

JF: Yes, these things that may well have been the Internet of their day, things about which people say, "I'm sure it's very interesting, but it will never catch on," because it came too late for them to embrace but for their children it was quite ordinary. But yes, I love all that stuff, it is one of my leitmotifs. People understand that everything that seems ordinary was new once.

GR: Class seems central to your work, and you approach it with a mixture of satire and affection. Why do you think you are so interested in class?

JF: I don't think it is that central to my work. My own favorite piece of work is a film I wrote and directed called Separate Lies, which isn't about class at all. But I can see that [the publishers at] Orion were wishing to take advantage of the popularity of Downton, so they produced the idea of writing about early Victorian England. And you can't really write about Victorian England without writing about class, because it was an entirely class-dominated society.

But I am interested in class, there's no question of it. And I think my interest has its origins in the fact that my parents were unequal in that sense. My father was the son of one of those families, but my mother was the daughter of a civil servant, and in 1935 that was quite a difference. His family didn't like her. They thought she'd caught him, and they always treated her with a certain froideur, even after years of her making him completely happy. And I think I learned to appreciate the tremendous pain that all of that stuff can cause, how you can hurt people to the quick with things that don't matter in the greater scheme of things. I became aware of its power in that way—as a shaper of lives, and the endless tests, the endless trip wires, the endless doors through which we must pass—and so, although because of my father I was allowed to be an insider, because of my mother I think I had an outside observer's take on the whole thing, and that I'm sure sowed the seeds of what later became a writing career.

GR: Did you read or reread a lot of 19th-century authors as you were writing Belgravia?

JF: Well, I read a lot of 19th-century authors anyway. To be honest, I only ever read 19th-century novels, and when I'm not reading novels, I'm reading biographies, and I'm mainly reading about the 19th century, so on the whole the 19th century is pretty well covered in my house.

GR: Who are your favorite 19th-century novelists?

JF: Anthony Trollope. Trollope is definitely my favorite. I mean, it's not that I'm monotheist in that way—I love Jane Austen, I love Mrs. Gaskell, I love Thackeray. But Trollope is the one with the most modern sensibilities and, along with Jane Austen, the easiest to read for the modern generation. That's why I was so thrilled to get Doctor Thorne on the television. And I'm delighted it's done so fantastically well in America, because the Americans aren't really Trollope aware at all. It's a double pleasure to feel you've introduced a few of them, and hopefully they'll go and read the book and find the book much better than the television show.

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GR: What was it like returning to novels (your bestsellers Snobs and Past Imperfect were published in 2004 and 2008) after doing television and stage plays?

JF: In one way novels are very good fun compared with television because you're not constantly having to submit your work to a committee. You're just writing it with the editor and trying to get it done. But, of course, it is a massive amount of work. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have done it. I haven't written a novel for a bit, and Snobs—and particularly Past Imperfect—were much more autobiographical and drawn from my life's experience, if I can say that without sounding too pompous. But this is just a holiday read period novel that I hope will entertain people and let them know one or two things about Victorian London they might not have known.

GR: Do you have any unusual writing habits? Do you sit down and write for 12 hours, for example?

JF: Well, if I could. But life isn't quite like that because there's always a meeting and an appointment or a read-through. But I'm very fortunate that I began my writing career proper when I was still acting, and that means I had to write wherever I was. I couldn't go, "Oh, I must get this desk and I can only have coffee out of this mug." That wasn't allowed. If I was in Scotland making a series or somewhere waiting to catch a plane, that's where I had to write. And I never lost that. I write in the country, I write in London. I write in the House of Lords—they give me a little cupboard with a desk in it, and I can shut the door and write there. So basically I write when I can. I have breakfast, I start at about half past nine, and I bang on. And sometimes I have a lunch date or an appointment, and I go and come back and I normally go on until about half past seven or eight, if I haven't gone to a drinks party or something. I've got one writer friend who starts at about five in the morning and stops at lunch and doesn't work for the rest of the day, which is fine except he has to go to bed about 9:15, which I don't think would work for most of us. So I prefer to try and make it fit around a fairly normal life. But I am quite a workaholic, really, if I'm honest. I do sort of bang on, but otherwise I don't think I'd get it done.

GR: Yes, because you wrote Belgravia in something like three-and-a-half months, right?

JF: Yes, I suppose four months, I should think.

GR: Goodreads member Linda asks, "Are the romances you write always planned from the beginning or do they evolve?"

JF: I think the writing of them evolves in a natural way, and the characters become more substantial as you write them. And so you're introduced to your own characters, and you get to know them better as you write them. But the romances are always fairly solidly planned from the start. They're not surprises. Because I use romance as a fairly key narrative tool, really, to bring about different conjunctions and involvements.

GR: What's next for you? The Gilded Age?

JF: Right now I'm working on two musicals: Half a Sixpence, which opens in Chichester in July, and then I'm working on a new version of Wind in the Willows—both of those with George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who I did Mary Poppins with, so there's enough going on, really.

GR: Any plans to write another book?

JF: Another book? I don't know. I've got another script I'm doing, but they've not announced it yet, so I don't think I'd better mention that. And after that I'll do The Gilded Age.

GR: Is anyone adapting Belgravia for television?

JF: I can't help feeling that if anyone adapted Belgravia, it would in all likelihood be me. But no one's come to me for that yet. I think it would be quite good telly, actually, and it would be quite fun if one could find a way to film at the real locations. But we will, as they say, have to see.

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Azuelos (new)

Azuelos Very much looking forward to reading it ! And even more to watching the series, although it is a more remote possibility.

message 2: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Julian, I can't wait to read this. I enjoyed every second of Downton Abbey and am currently following you on PBS with the Great Houses. So much fun. Looking forward to your future projects.

message 3: by T.O. (new)

T.O. Clark Julian, I look forward to reading Belgravia as I have enjoyed all your other books and films. I have often wondered how you were able to write with such clarity about the inside/outside view of the classes - this interview was a delight in reading about your parents and writing habits. Please keep working!

message 4: by Carola (new)

Carola Hume hi julian,
i recognized you in your photo at the top of this page. i loved to watch 'monarch of the glen' a fabulous tv series which was where i first saw you. i loved the repartee between you & richard briers in that series.
sorry i never watched the 'dowtown abbey' series. & i didn't realise you were a writer as well as an actor. fantastic ! my sister & my niece loved downtown abbey. now i that i now you are an author i know what to give my family for their birthdays.
great work!!

message 5: by Cecile (new)

Cecile Gilbert I plan to read Belgravianand predict that all my friends who watched every showing of Downton Abbey will read it too.

message 6: by Susan (new)

Susan I can't wait to read it! I enjoyed Downton Abbey so much - I thank you for that.

message 7: by Maneisha (new)

Maneisha Jullian has captivated me with Downtown Abbey and I am excited that he is back and this time in writing... I am sure I am going to love this!!!!! Keep up the awesome work.... Your supporters look forward to future produuctions

Richard D. Barr We loved DA! Look forward to reading Belgravia, and would imagine that it would be another award winning TV presentation.

message 9: by Jannie (new)

Jannie Ensing I am very much looking forward to reading Belgravia, as I loved Downton Abbey. I love historical reading so here we go again. Love it.
Jannie Ensing

message 10: by Anne (new)

Anne Whiting Carola wrote: "hi julian,
i recognized you in your photo at the top of this page. i loved to watch 'monarch of the glen' a fabulous tv series which was where i first saw you. i loved the repartee between you & ri..."

Oh Carola, Downton was anazing. I was devastated when it finally finished. My ambition was to visit Highclere Castle where it was filmed and i did that last year. A fabulous place, so much history. Maybe you'll be able to find the Downton series. .regards

message 11: by Tina (new)

Tina I am so looking forward to reading Belgravia, Snobs, and Past Imperfect! I became an ardent fan of Downton Abbey, and would be pleased as punch if Belgravia is the next hit series!

message 12: by Diane Luecke (new)

Diane Luecke This book/universe-in-an-App is a very appealing idea. Sounds like it will be a "down the rabbit hole" experience. Don't know why this hasn't been tried before. Can't wait to jump in!

message 13: by Nuala (new)

Nuala I am a Downton Abby devotee.
I shall relish the read of Belgravia,
I am also interested in the methodology in how to release in episodes works via an app.

message 14: by Glo (new)

Glo Goss Julian, Please enthrall us again. Your ideas are amazing. Downton
was like a religious ritual for so many of us. Do it again--and again!

message 15: by Leywa (new)

Leywa Bit late off the mark I know. Loved the series and I bet the book is even better. Keep writing.

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