I’d like to welcome Christina to layered Pages to talk with me about her story, Oliver & Jack in Axminster Workhouse. She was born in Waco, Texas in 1962. After living on a variety of air force bases, in 1972 her Dad retired and the family moved to Boulder, Colorado. There amidst the clear, dry air of the high plains, as the moss started to grow beneath her feet, her love for historical fiction began with a classroom reading of Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
She attended a variety of community colleges (Tacoma Community College) and state universities (UNC-Greeley, CU-Boulder, CU-Denver), and finally found her career in technical writing, which, between layoffs, she has been doing for 18 years. During that time, her love for historical fiction and old-fashioned objects, ideas, and eras has never waned.
In addition to writing, her interests include road trips around the U.S. and frequent flights to England, where she eats fish and chips, drinks hard cider, and listens to the voices in the pub around her. She also loves coffee shops, mountain sunsets, prairie storms, and the smell of lavender. She is a staunch supporter of the Oxford comma.
I love stories that take place the Victorian era! What do you like most about this era?
There’s something less complicated about the Victorian era that I like. Back then the rules were more straightforward than they are today. You knew who you were and where you were situated in society. You lived in the same village all of your life. For entertainment, people went for long walks.
I suppose I could be accused of viewing that time through a very rose-colored filter, but it would have been very exciting to live in the time when Darwin changed the world with his book, On the Origin of Species, or when photography was first developed. And the clothes were always a draw; ladies wore bonnets and had long skirts, men work frock coats and top hats, and as long as you weren’t in a position of being poor, the world seemed like an amiable place.
Please tell me a little about your story, Oliver & Jack.
Oliver and Jack met when Oliver was just 10 years old and had walked 70 miles from the workhouse where he was born to London, where he met up with Jack. Jack instantly saw that Oliver could be manipulated and took Oliver under his wing and introduced him to Fagin and the art of picking pockets. So you could say that theirs was an inauspicious beginning.
Five years later (when the Oliver & Jack series picks up), they meet again, when Jack comes back from being deported. (It was a thing, you know, you could come back, if you had the right backing. You could get an F. P a full pardon, and if someone would pay your way, you could come home to England.) Upon his return to London, Jack determines to seek out Fagin’s gang, and go back to his old way of life. Alas, as everyone who has read Oliver Twist knows, Fagin was hanged at Newgate Prison and Fagin’s gang was scattered to the winds.
The only person from those days that Jack can track down is Oliver, who, in Jack’s eyes, is the reason for the gang’s downfall. Over time, Jack’s goal of badgering Oliver into an early grave turns into a courtship, one that blossoms when Oliver turns to Jack for help when things go wrong, because Oliver knows that Jack is the only person who won’t judge him.
Their relationship strengthens when they leave London for Lyme Regis, as Oliver is wanted by the law, and Jack can’t bear to watch Oliver go off without him. From there, after their arrest, they are sent to Axminster workhouse, where under the harshest conditions, each of them learns what they are willing to do to save the other one from a terrible fate. The most recent book, Out In The World, is a honeymoon of sorts for the boys, as they wander along the roads and riverbanks of London in the early spring.
Describe the seaside in Lyme Regis.
Lyme Regis is a seaside village built around a lovely harbor; the harbor is renowned for the structure that was built into it to hold back the pounding sea waves, and that is the Cobb. It’s very picturesque and shows up in movies almost as its own character. The village is built on a hillside, quite steep, but this means that from just about anywhere in and around the village you can see the sea.
What kind-of books are Jack & Oliver accused of stealing?
Jack and Oliver are accused of stealing books from the library of Sir John Talbot, the owner of Rhode Hill House. Those books are: The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, Child Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. In all actuality, they merely borrowed the books so that Oliver could read them out to Jack while Jack recovered from his illness. However, while they were down working at the Cobb, the housekeeper, who doesn’t like Jack, found the books beneath the mattress in the sickroom. Seeing this as a chance to get rid of Jack, she called the local constables on him. Oliver wouldn’t let Jack get arrested alone, so he attacked the constable and got himself arrested as well.
Could you give an example what it’s like in the workhouse?
Back in those days, it was a common opinion that the poor were poor because they deserved to be, and when they asked for help, they were lazy and deserved to be punished for it. Subsequently, workhouses were designed to be as grim and uninviting as possible. This was to deter people from actually seeking financial help.
Upon entry, you were stripped of your clothes and belongings, dressed in what was tantamount to a prison uniform, separated from your partner and children. Then, you had to follow the strict workhouse rules, which detailed every moment of your waking day. Rise at seven in the morning, eat a paltry breakfast of bread and broth, work at breaking stones, or field work, or picking oakum, or smashing bones, then eat a paltry lunch, followed by more work, a paltry supper and then bedtime. That was it. If you broke the rules, spoke out, rebelled, you were punished in a variety of ways, including beatings, reduced rations, time in the refractory room, extra chores, and on it went.
Workhouses, for the most part, were sturdy structures built to keep the poor in their place. The walls were built high so you couldn’t look over them, or escape over them.
What is the relationship like between Jack & Oliver?
That depends on through whose eyes you are looking at the relationship. Personally, I’d like to think that it is a loving and balanced relationship, and certainly that Oliver and Jack bring out the best in each other. Sometimes, though, they bring out the worst in each other, which I suppose is true with all couples.
Oliver is book-smart, and understands the stratification in society and how to work within those layers. He’s somewhat stodgy in nature, but he has a flash paper temper and a taste for gin. Jack, who couldn’t give a fig for what society thinks is street smart and likes the comfort of a known and familiar environment. Sometimes he teases Oliver beyond his ability to remain calm, and the temper will surface. Sometimes Jack needs to disappear into his own head, and the place he goes to to do this is the curve of Oliver’s arms.
Jack knows that Oliver is afraid of being hungry, so he takes it upon himself to make sure that Oliver always has had something to eat. Oliver knows that Jack likes to sleep in, so while he himself is an early riser, he will tip toe out of their shared bedroom, and let Jack doze the morning away.
The biggest point of contention between them, and one that currently has no resolution is the fact that what Jack does for a living (picking pockets) is illegal, but for Oliver, that’s not the most important part. Oliver lives in fear every day that Jack will get arrested and hanged. At the same time, he knows that Jack is who he is, and picking pockets is a part of that.
What was your inspiration for the premise?
For the premise of In Axminster Workhouse, I had been exposed to the idea of workhouses when I was quite young while watching the 1969 movie Oliver! Ever since then, I’ve wanted to write a story set in a workhouse. I think from the very beginning of this series, I’ve had my eye on the moment in the timeline where it would make the most sense to send Oliver back to the workhouse, to make him relive his worst fears, to put him through the wringer and see what he was made of.
How much time did you spend writing this story? Where in your home do you like to write?
I wrote In Axminster Workhouse in about three months, and Out In The World in about two months. Typically, I write in the evenings and on weekends, and I have a 2,000 word-a-day writing goal, which I usually meet when I’ve had the right combination of sleep and caffeine.
Typically, I work on outlines and notes in a local coffee shop. Then, at home, I work at my desk in my bedroom. From that desk, I have a view from my window and can see the weather and sunsets as they happen over the mountains, which can be both distracting and inspiring.
I used to write on a PC, and still use it for many things. But in order to be able to control all the aspects of books, from writing to publishing, I purchased Scrivener, which is a writing tool specifically designed for writers. The more advanced version of Scrivener runs on a Mac system, so I bought myself a Mac Mini, and have been very happy with the results.
What is up next for you?
I’m currently working on Book #5 in the Oliver & Jack series, called On The Isle Of Dogs. After the honeymoon feel of Book #4 called Out In The World, the On The Isle of Dogs story will be a much darker story with a grittier feel. In it, Oliver and Jack encounter an old enemy from their past, an enemy who wants to tear them to shreds.
What is your favorite Victorian Novel and why?
My favorite Victorian novel written in the Victorian era is Oliver Twist, of course! I’ve read it many times, studied it really, and the copy I currently own is worn around the edges. I like it because I relate to the main character, Oliver, and the trials he goes through in a world that doesn’t make much sense.
As for modern novels set in the Victorian era, my favorite is The Crimson Petal and the White written by Michael Faber. The reason I love it is its realistic feel. The Victorian era was grubby and dirty and messy and unsanitary and could be a cruel place to live in. In his novel, Faber doesn’t flinch or shy away from issues and conditions that other books gloss over.
Blog Tour Schedule
Thursday, February 25
Spotlight & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus More
Friday, February 26
Guest Post at What Is That Book About
Tuesday, March 1
Review at Raven Haired Girl
Wednesday, March 2
Review at Book Nerd
Thursday, March 3
Interview at Dianne Ascroft Blog
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Review at Svetlana’s Reads or Views
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Guest Post at She is Too Fond of Books
Wednesday, March 9
Spotlight at A Literary Vacation
Friday, March 11
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Monday, March 14
Review & Giveaway at History Undressed
Wednesday, March 16
Spotlight at Historical Fiction Addicts
Friday, March 18
Interview at Layered Pages