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The Dressmaker: Kate Alcott on Character, Location & Writing History

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Special Guests | Women’s Fiction

By Hazel Gaynor

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The tragic sinking of RMS Titanic in the early hours of the morning of 15th April 1912, with the loss of 1,503 passengers and crew, is an event which continues to fascinate and evoke strong, emotional responses and 2012 saw the centenary of the Titanic tragedy being marked with many touching, commemorative events across the globe. It is then, little wonder, that this historical event continues to inspire authors, documentary and film makers over and over again.

With her sixth novel The Dressmaker author Kate Alcott (the pen name of Patricia O’Brien) wanted to tell the ‘other’ side of the Titanic tragedy: the story of the aftermath and what happened to the survivors. It is an intriguing perspective of a well-known event and is a fascinating read because of that. Already a New York Times Bestseller, the novel was published in the UK and Ireland in late February. I asked Kate how the idea for The Dressmaker first came about?

‘I’ve been fascinated by the tragedy of the Titanic for years. When I realized the 100th anniversary of the sinking was coming up in 2012, I knew I wanted to write about it. But could I tell a fresh story – giving readers a new perspective? There were dozens and dozens of books already written about it, and if I didn’t have something new to say, I shouldn’t even try. One question kept hammering in my head – what happened after the sinking? Some 1,500 people died on that ship, but over 700 survived. They had to endure the U.S. Senate hearings – from which the painful fact emerged that only one lifeboat went back to pick up additional survivors. I suspect many of them were haunted by unanswerable questions: had they done the right thing in those last frightful moments? Who was brave, who was cowardly? Where ultimately, did the blame for such a disaster lie? Yes, the aftermath. That’s what I wanted to explore.’

The Dressmaker centres around the relationship between fictional Tess Collins, a maid who aspires to be a dressmaker, and Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, a renowned dress designer of the era. So, what was it about Lady Duff Gordon which inspired Kate to tell her story? ‘Lady Lucile Duff Gordon was at that time the most famous couture designer in the world,’ she explains. ‘Her style was imperious and her talent remarkable. The fact that she and her husband survived in a lifeboat that held only a handful of people brought a deluge of criticism down on them. Fairly or not? To this day, we don’t know. The more I read about her, the more I felt her coming alive with all her faults and strengths. I decided to make her the fulcrum around which my tale would revolve.’

With The Dressmaker, Alcott successfully manages to inter-weave the historical accuracies of a real event and a real person within a fictional context. Was this difficult to achieve? ‘The most important rule is, you can’t alter basic historical facts. It is in the realm of the unknown that a character comes “alive” in fiction. That’s where imagination takes over, and to merge reality and conjecture in a believable way is both the pleasure and challenge of writing historical fiction.’

Writing about such a well-known historical event, which stirs so many emotions within so many people a hundred years later, is quite an undertaking (I should know, I have done it myself*). I asked Kate how she carried out her research. ‘I relied heavily on the actual transcripts from the Senate hearings,’ she explains. ‘These were the raw voices of people deeply traumatized by an incredible disaster. I could almost hear them. Beyond that, I used historical materials and accountings – particularly from the newspapers of that time. Reading the papers of the next day as they scrambled to tell a terrible story was a great way to put myself at a 1912 breakfast table, sipping coffee, reading in horror of an almost inconceivable tragedy.’

With many novels already behind her, and now with the international success of The Dressmaker I wondered what other authors Kate Alcott admires and which books she would most love to have written? ‘I am mesmerized by Hillary Mantel,’ she admits, ‘and would love to have written Wolf Hall. In my dreams! My favourite authors include Russell Banks, Wallace Stegner, and the wonderful, wonderful Edith Wharton. I could add many more, but that’s the top of the list.’ When asked to describe her own writing, she responds, ‘that’s really up to others to judge that. I try to be entertaining, accessible and…..’

So, what can we look forward to next from Kate Alcott? ‘My new book, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, will be published by Doubleday in February, 2014. The story is centered on the notorious 1832 trial of a preacher accused of murdering one of the young farm girls drawn to work in the cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. It is at heart a love story – a man and woman drawn together across class boundaries, yet caught up in a tragedy not of their making. I loved stepping back into the years of the industrial revolution for this one. And I hope my readers will, too.’

*shameless self-promotion alert. See ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel’

About the book

The Dressmaker centres around Tess Collins, a young maid who dreams of being a dressmaker. On the docks at Southampton, she has a chance encounter with renowned couturier, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, who is about to board Titanic with her husband and sister. Overhearing that Lady Duff Gordon is in need of a maid, Tess makes an impulsive decision and joins the Duff Gordon’s on their voyage to New York, hoping that, once there, Lady Duff Gordon will help to turn her dressmaking dreams into reality.

While including reference to many well-known protagonists of the Titanic disaster, and covering the actual sinking with real pathos, Alcott moves the action on quickly to the survivors on the Carpathia and to the focal point of this novel – what happened in Lady Duff Gordon’s lifeboat? Did she and her husband refuse to go back for survivors? Did they bribe the occupants of their lifeboat to protect themselves and if so, were they justified in doing so? It is this moral dilemma which sits at the heart of the following Titanic Disaster Hearings in Washington which Alcott covers with compelling, dramatic scenes.

Tess finds herself thrown into the middle of the court proceedings, and her loyalties to her employer are tested to the limit. Lady Duff Gordon’s unpredictable temperament doesn’t help to endear her to Tess and, despite her promise that she can help Tess achieve her dream of being a successful dressmaker, Tess soon regrets ever getting involved with Lady Duff Gordon and begins to mistrust her and her motives.

In addition to writing in the real individuals of this event (including the ‘unsinkable Molly Brown, Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay), Alcott adds many fictional characters into the mix, including two very different love interests for Tess and a wonderfully written press reporter Pinky Wade. All serve to add another interesting dimension to the plot and the narrative and remind us that this is not just a novel about a well-known disaster, but is also a novel about human relationships, trust, loyalty and ambition.

At its heart, The Dressmaker reflects on the split-second decisions we make which can change our lives dramatically. It is pacy, well-written, full of drama, atmosphere and dilemma and is sure to fascinate anyone who is interested in the Titanic as well as anyone who enjoys quality historical fiction.

The Dressmaker is published by Sphere. Visit Kate’s Facebook page for more updates.

(c) Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor runs writing.ie’s Carry on Writing blog and is an author and freelance journalist. She started writing when she left her corporate career in March 2009; initially focusing on her award-winning parenting and lifestyle blog, Hot Cross Mum. She has since gone on to write regularly for the national press, has appeared on TV and radio and writes a book review blog for Hello Magazine as well as regular features for writing.ie.

Her debut novel ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel’ was self-published in March 2012 and went on to become a number one bestseller on the Kindle Historical Fiction and Historical Romance charts. Staying with her passion for historical fiction, Hazel has just completed her second novel, for which she hopes to find a publisher very soon!

Originally from North Yorkshire, Hazel has lived in Kildare for the past seven years with her husband and two young children. Hazel was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in October 2012.

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