For Books’ Sake Talks To: Diana Souhami

Diana Souhami
Diana Souhami is the author of ten extraordinary books, the majority of which focus on strong, pioneering women in history. These have included such greats as Greta Garbo, Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein and many more.

I caught up with her to talk about her latest books, her interest in strong women, and lesbian culture from history to today...

Diana Souhami’s latest book, Murder at Wrotham Hill, details the life and murder of Dagmar Petrzywalski, as well as the subsequent trial of her killer, Harold Hagger.

Their “dismal fate”, as Souhami puts it, is all set upon the backdrop of the 70million people killed in the Second World War. Although “character drives a narrative…place, era and circumstance define the journey.”

Indeed, all of Souhami’s books are somewhat dependent on their time and context, and including these factors in her writing makes personal circumstances more engaging and universal.

She describes her ideal subject as “deep-thinking, deeply attractive, ever so deeply transgressively sexy, complicated and accomplished.”Inspiration for the book, Souhami tells me, came from her desire to “write about the 1940s, subvert the Agatha Christie genre of murder as a puzzle and express my loathing of the way the State institutionalises killing.”

When asked what drives her writing in a more general sense, she highlights “attraction, interest, curiosity, opportunism, luck and need” as key elements.

As for her other work, Diana Souhami mentions the need for an “underpinning conceptual idea.” Gertrude and Alice, the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ relationship, was based on “the irony that a long happy marriage, of the sort that eludes many couples, was achieved by two eccentric lesbians.”

Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter was inspired by “hypocrisy…Mrs Keppel was adored because she was the King’s mistress [but] her daughter was packed off to Paris in disgrace because of her love affair with Vita Sackville-West.”

These concepts run through all of Souhami’s books, and a desire to subvert convention pulses just as strong. All of Souhami’s subjects are dark, enigmatic, strong and deeply rebellious for their time.

Indeed, she describes her ideal subject as “deep-thinking, deeply attractive, ever so deeply transgressively sexy, complicated and accomplished.”

Many of her subjects could be summed up with these words – Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Greta Garbo, Hannah Gluckstein. Many of those she writes about are gay – and this is something she feels passionately about:

“I started writing about lesbians 25 years ago in the hope of contributing to breaking the history of silence. Acceptance can’t happen without openness, and I believe we should all try to speak out in our own way.

If you’re silent and invisible you’re no trouble to anyone. You’re so buried you’re assumed not to be there. So, historically, we have to dig deep to shed light on ‘these practices’, rid them of insult, turn the wrongdoing around, name and shame the abusers.”

As for the LGBTQ community of today, Souhami is optimistic. She names women she admires (Donna Deitch, Jodie Foster, Deborah Warner, Carol Ann Duffy, Annie Leibovitz, Maggi Hambling, Tasmin Osmon…), but stresses the importance of fair and equal legislation:

“Just laws are so important: equality legislation for marriage, work, property and so on. On an individual level, I’m disturbed by ‘coming out’ stories of young lesbians: rejection and insult, benign feelings derided.”

As for progress? Diana Souhami thinks the answer is “to not be defensive, and to have some kind of collective sense…to set the agenda and not to feel victimised. Tatler threw a lesbian ball last year…there should be more of that. A bit of stylish lesbian separatism is no bad thing.”

Although she did let me in on the fact she’s currently writing a novel and a play, Souhami is “superstitious of talking about work in progress”, so the subject of these remain a mystery. Luckily, though, Diana admits she may never give up writing – “she died with the quill in her hand”

Diana Souhami’s latest book, Murder at Wrotham Hill is available now. Published by Quercus, it’s available for Kindle and in hardback.

Emily Reynolds