Saturday, 11 June 2016

Blogger Interview: Moira Redmond

'There are clothes in all books. I realised that
they could be an indicator of character'


© Moira Redmond
I have read plenty of books and marvelled at the various narrative elements—suspense, ingenuity of plot, action, characters, pace, setting, atmosphere, expressions, and this, that and the other. Never have I noticed clothes in books, not until Moira Redmond—journalist, writer, and blogger—brought them to my attention through her aptly titled blog Clothes in Books. Every day, she features a different book and describes certain aspects of clothes, or accessories, in her reviews. She is the undisputed fashion critic of fiction characters.

Here, Moira tells us a bit about herself: “I worked in all kinds of journalism, from world news for the BBC to writing a book of etiquette, now ending up writing about books, which is a nice way to finish my career. I live in Winchester in the UK with my husband and have two grown-up children. We also had a very happy period living in Seattle, USA, and it was there that I first began working on websites, for Microsoft. I spend far too much of my time reading, but I also love opera and every other kind of music. I go up to London a lot for opera, theatres, music and exhibitions, and I also like walking with friends.”

So what makes ‘Clothes in Books’ a perfect fit? Moira Redmond takes us on a tour of her well-tailored blog and more.

Moira, when did you start blogging? What prompted you to become a blogger?
I started blogging in January 2012: I had been looking for a new project, as my children grew up and another job I had been doing came to an end. I thought it would be nice to do something self-directed.

‘Clothes in Books’ is such a fascinating theme for a book blog. When did you first notice clothes in fiction and what made you choose this theme for your blog?
Even when I was a child, I noticed the clothes in books, and I empathised with heroines trying to find the right outfit for some big party or audition. That carried on—there are clothes in all books. I realised that they could be an indicator of character. I often tried to visualise what my favourite characters wore, and the whole idea came to me in one go—I knew there must be other people who loved books and would love to see a picture of a beautiful ball-dress or shirt.

Did you think of other blog titles before deciding on the very original ‘Clothes in Books’?
No! It seemed obvious that this was it, though I did check that no-one else had come up with my idea first. I was surprised no-one had.

Do you think books would have been “naked” if authors didn't write about the clothes their characters obviously wore?
I notice and miss it if authors don’t specify. I honestly think it’s a missed opportunity, it can tell us so much about characters. I can understand in some very spare styles of writing it might not seem necessary. But sometimes an author will say, ‘Anna dressed with care’ or ‘ he wondered how formal the event would be’ or ‘she spent some time shopping for a new outfit’—and then they don’t describe the clothes! And I say ‘tchah’ to myself—fancy not telling us what Anna wore.

Which genre of books has the best description of clothes? Can you mention a few authors who “dress up” their characters really well?
Two main categories:
 

1. As you know, I love crime fiction—and the great thing there is that, often, the clothes can be important. Authors will often use clothes as a shortcut—the girl in the slinky gown is a heartbreaker, the lady in tweeds is a respectable spinster. And I strongly approve! And then the clothes can sometimes be a clue in themselves—either for disguise or—that well-known trope—someone borrows a distinctive piece of clothing, and is then murdered. Who was the intended victim?

The women crime authors tend to do the best clothes: Patricia Wentworth is very good, and Dorothy L Sayers—they have really visualised what their characters are wearing. Agatha Christie does not give a lot of detail, but she uses clothes splendidly in both the ways I mention above.

2. The other category is novels of the mid 20th-century—what are sometimes disdainfully called ‘women’s novels’—the kind that are often reprinted now by Virago and Persephone. These are marvellous books about emotions, relationships and life as it was lived. The clothes help to give a vivid picture of life then, and again some of the authors have really thought out the clothes.

Examples are Nancy Mitford, Rosamond Lehmann, EM Delafield—all of them feature heavily on my blog!


"The women crime authors tend to do the best clothes: Patricia Wentworth is very good, and Dorothy L Sayersthey have really visualised what their characters are wearing. Agatha Christie does not give a lot of detail, but she uses clothes splendidly..."

You usually comment about clothes worn by female characters. Is this because there is not much to write about male clothing?  
I would LOVE to write more about men’s clothing, and I take the chance when I can – but the descriptions tend to be less frequent and less detailed, and in the end the women’s clothes are usually more attention-grabbing. I am reading the James Bond novels at the moment and hoped to find splendid men’s clothes there—and I have found a few—but in the end the women tend to win!

How do you know which books have sufficient descriptions of clothes and accessories? 
I don’t! Of course, some authors I can rely on, but most people will have something. When I was first starting out with the blog I made rules for myself and would desperately find some mention of clothes somewhere, even if it was irrelevant and minor. Now I have eased up on myself. So if there is no obvious clothes mention, I will look for something else I can illustrate—so a description of a beautiful work of art, or a group of people gathered for an event. I enjoy the challenge of always finding something, even if the clothes connection is tenuous!

Is it satisfying to read an entire book and then review only those parts about clothes?
Well, the answer to that is that I cheat! As I say above, I was quite strict when I started out, and I really stuck to specific clothes and descriptions. A lot of my entries are still like that, but if I want to write about different aspects of a book, or about a book with no clothes, then I just do these days. My blog, my rules.



How do you distribute your time between blogging every day and writing for other mediums, like The Guardian?
I am very lucky: I am at the end of a long career in journalism, and now work much less, there isn’t the pressure to earn so much, and I can please myself. It would be a rare day when I didn’t do something for the blog, and it is time-consuming—but then it means reading counts as work! I have a very easy relationship with The Guardian, so when life is busy I don’t do anything for them, then I come up with something. I also do some voluntary work, and have a family who take up a lot of time. So I have quite a good balance. As I said, I am very lucky.

Have you ever felt like giving up blogging and only reading books like we once used to?
Sometimes when the books are piling up and the posts aren’t written, and I’ve committed to read one thing but really want to read something else, I say to myself, ‘Why do I do this?’—but not seriously, I am not temped to give up yet.

Finally, Moira, what has blogging done for you, and especially for your own reading and writing?
Blogging has been such a positive thing in my life, in all kinds of way I didn’t expect. I have loved making so many friends, such as you, and feeling part of a big blogging community. My friends are helpful and supportive, and I learn something from them every day (and not JUST that they’re always adding to my TBR list!). I can’t imagine life without you all now—and I love that it is so good-natured and friendly. When people talk about the bad side of the internet, which does of course exist, I wish they could also see a blogging community of book fans where there is never a cross word, just kindness and interest and encouragement.

I have loved finding the incredible picture resources out there for my blog posts—they are obviously the basis of every post I do, and I am astonished every day by the amazing photos you can find, and the generosity of those who put them online and allow people to share them. I think most people have no idea what wonderful visuals can be found.

I think I read more current, new novels now because publishers send them to me. And, of course, I notice clothes even more than I ever did—often as I’m reading I am already working out where I think I might find the right image.

And I think trying to blog so often, find something to say, I hope might improve my writing style.

Thank you very much, Moira.

43 comments:

  1. Prashant - thanks so much for asking me to be part of your feature - I was delighted and honoured. Now I feel important, and I really enjoyed thinking about your (great) questions and coming up with the answers.

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    1. Moira, you're most welcome. It was my pleasure and I enjoyed doing the interview. Thank you for being a part of this series, and especially for responding so quickly. Your answers provide an insight into thematic and innovative blogging and will, no doubt, be a valuable lesson to bloggers and book readers.

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  2. A very lovely interview, Prashant and Moira. It is true for me also that I now notice clothes in books and also when there is a lack of clothing description. I also love how Moira illustrates posts with images she has found.

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    1. Thank you, Tracy. All credit to Moira. She was very generous with her answers. I never gave clothes in books a thought. In fact, I don't even remember noticing them. Now, however, I'm conscious of clothes as well as other seemingly unimportant elements in a story.

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    2. Thanks Tracy and Prashant - it makes me so happy when people tell me that they notice clothes in books more now! Soon I won't have to do any work at all, as others will pass on the right books to me...

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  3. I'm a recent, but huge, fan of Clothes in Books. Thanks, Prashant, for this interview, and it's nice to find another one -- yours -- to add to my online reading list.

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    1. Paula, thank you for visiting my blog and appreciating. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. I draw inspiration from my friends and fellow-bloggers like Moira.

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    2. Thanks Paula and Prashant- your kind words have made my day.

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  4. I think there is a niche in crime fiction for a clothes obsessed blogger turned sleuth who solves murders by her careful observations of clothes!

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    1. Bill, that's an interesting idea. Maybe, someone who has a famous clothesline and works undercover as a detective or a fashion guru who makes criminals walk the prison ramp. I see a tailor-made mystery series.

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    2. What a great idea Bill! I think my future best-seller status is assured. (You will get a credit, though I won't insult you by offering any of the millions I will make...)
      Bill has special status on my blog as practical and bad weather consultant - when some romantic heroine is gazing out into the storm on a clifftop thinking deep thoughts, he will tell us that her hat would have blown away, her jacket wouldn't keep her warm for a moment, and her footwear is totally inappropriate.
      At this point I normally spit out my coffee laughing.

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  5. What a lovely and interesting interview! I couldn't agree more about the wonderful blogging community; I am lucky that mine includes both of you. And you've given me some fascinating new ideas for thinking about both my own blogging and my writing. Why not say what Anna wore to the party, especially if you mention she dressed with care...

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    1. Thank you, Margot. And I'm lucky because my blogging community includes you and Moira. What I like most about blogs is that they don't have the formality or the impersonal touch of websites that you can't relate to. Blogging allows you to connect and make friends and share cultures with one another.

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    2. I bet you can think of something good to say about Anna, Margot! Whether it's a brilliant blogpost on missing descriptions, or a clever new short story. I enjoyed your own interview with Prashant, and am delighted to be following on from you.
      And yes, Prashant, the friends are the best part.

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  6. Enjoyed this interview. Not a subject I spend a lot of time on, but will take a look at Clothes in Books, the blog.

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    1. Thank you! I hope you enjoy your visit. And in the spirit of the blog may I say how much I admire that hat?

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    2. Thank you, Oscar. Moira's blog is well worth many a visit. I discover new authors and books every week.

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  7. You're welcome, Moire (and Prashant). Moira, I was pleased you mentioned Persephone Books, because I have bought a number of their books in the last year and haven't had a clunker in the bunch. "Miss Ranskill Comes Home" is one where I particularly noticed the clothes. She'd fallen off a ship in the South Pacific in the late 1930s, was rescued by a naval vessel after WWII had started and returned to the UK. The clothes she had were in rags, and I really empathized with her clumping around in a navy lieutenant's shoes while on the ship. And when she finally went to a shop in England and got completely kitted out from the skin out (I appreciated the description of the underthings), and found that, even with a good amount of money, she couldn't buy anything because she didn't have any ration coupons! It takes those kinds of concrete details to really bring a time and place to life. Sorry for rambling!

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    1. Oh my goodness, Paula, I don't know that one at all and must obviously read it immediately, it sounds splendid. Thanks for the tipoff...

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    2. I will check out Persephone Books. Thanks for mentioning it, Moira and Paula.

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  8. Great interview. I'm still guilty of not paying enough attention to the clothes, despite Moira's best efforts!

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    1. Thanks, Col. I don't pay attention to a lot of details in books but I'm learning as I read. Sometimes it's the small things that matter.

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    2. I know you do your best, Col, even as I look out for noir moments and gruesome deaths so much more now after reading your blog...

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  9. A great idea for something to investigate. I don't think I've hardly ever noticed them in books. I do notice them sometimes in videogames.

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    1. Thanks, Charles. I agree, some of the characters in video games do wear bright and flashy clothes, and armours, that you can't help notice. In fact, I notice them on the television screen even when my son is gaming!

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    2. I'm all for everyone noticing them more - so I hope you will Charles...

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  10. Prashant – Thanks for another great interview. I too read Moira’s blog and she has heightened my awareness of clothes in books. Right now I am reading some Dashiell Hammett and I wish he had added a few more details into his stories. Hammett was a master of lean prose and it is a fine line as to how much to put in and how much to leave out. He was writing for readers of his time who knew what his characters would be wearing. But we are so far away from the time those pieces were written that I only have images from old movies to use when trying to imagine a room full of police detectives.

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    1. Yes, Elgin, Hammett was so spare a writer that his first detective -- the Continental Op -- didn't even have a name!

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    2. Paula – Don’t get me wrong. I like spare. And Hammett is cool. I plan to do a post soon about some of his stories, their spareness and coolness.

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    3. No, I was just making a little joke. I also appreciate Hammett's style.

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    4. Thank you, Elgin. I have never read Dashiell Hammett even though his "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man" have been on my list of books to read for a very long time. Another author known for fairly "lean prose" was Mickey Spillane whose paperbacks I read several years ago. I think the most descriptions of clothes are in the classics and early 20th century fiction.

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    5. I am more forgiving of those with a spare style. But one of of my all time favourite clothes moments comes when Sam Spade jumps out of bed at the beginning of Maltese Falcon - his clothes are described in detail, including his underwear which is called a Union Suit....

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    6. Yes, a Union Suit was another term for "long underwear"...I have no idea how it got that name. Maybe first worn during the US Civil War by Union troops?

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  11. Really enjoyed this Prashant - that Moira does a lovely job! And very good to see her work celebrated - I certainly think a lot more about descriptions of clothes than i ever used to :)

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. Very glad you enjoyed it. Moira does a terrific job, I agree. I notice clothes in books more often now than I did.

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    2. My work is done Sergio! Nothing makes me happier than hearing people say that.

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  12. This is one of the best interviews of a blogger I've read in quite a while. Excellent questions and detailed frank answers. I learned a lot about the origins of one of the most unique book blogs out here in the blogosphere and enjoyed reading about Moira's life. Thanks to both of you!

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    1. John, thanks for your generous praise. Moira's "Clothes in Books" is definitely "unique." I, for one, can't imagine publishing such a focused book blog. I should have read plenty of books, and sadly, I haven't, not to mention the patience and perseverance of writing almost every day.

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    2. Thanks for those very kind words, much appreciated.

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    1. Thank you, David. I will be covering more book bloggers in coming months.

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    2. Thanks David. I love reading about other bloggers, so only fair to answer Prashant's excellent questions myself.

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