Interview with

Author of The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman

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Were there any real life inspirations behind your writing?
  • A lot of my experience with backstage drama as a regular chorus member in two semi-professional opera companies found its way into the story. The scene where a character angrily throws her shoe at her dressing-room door is based on a real incident, as is the rivalry between two women for a young feckless tenor.
    I’m lucky enough to have visited London often, including while I was writing the novel, and walked around Covent Garden and the houses on Maiden Lane. It really helped to get a concrete sense for the setting. All the operas and composers are real, and I drew inspiration from many real events of the era.
What about real life inspirations for the characters?
  • There were quite a few blind men in the 18th century who were highly accomplished in their professions: Sir John Fielding, composers John Stanley and Turlough O’Carolan, among others. John Stanley conducted several oratorios for Handel, learning all the notes by ear, as Tom does. I borrowed the scene of Tom recognizing a woman by holding her hand as she steps into a boat from the life of Carolan. His drinking and flirting with women also come from Carolan, at least in part. I borrowed Tom’s unusual method of cane use and echolocation from the real life of James Holman.
    At the beginning of the novel, Tom is composing a ballad called “London.” The real composer is Henry Carey, who like Tom was the illegitimate son of a nobleman, and made his living composing both operas and ballads. His life was a model for a character who is educated but not upper class, and who alternates between high and low society.
    Many of the secondary characters are based on real people of the era: Betsy Careless, Sally Salisbury, Princess Seraphina, Lord Mordington, Farinelli, Anna Maria Strada, Veracini, among others.
When you wrote Tom, how did you think about striking a balance between cultivating a gallant, self-assured protagonist, and showing the reality of living with physical limitations in a society that's not set up to support them?
  • In many ways, I designed Tom’s character as a counter to the stereotypes I was seeing in romance novels, where disability is often used as an engine for angst. It didn’t match up to the real experi-ences of people I have known, who are after all just people doing the best they can with the cir-cumstances they’ve been dealt. As the song says, “What can’t be cured has to be endured.” This was especially true before modern medicine and support services.

    In a lot of novels with a blind man as the main character, he’s lost his sight recently and is angry and bitter. The plot is about a woman helping him to adjust as they fall in love. I wanted to do the opposite, tell the story of a man who has been blind his whole life and instead of bitter and angry, he’s resilient and cheerful. He may make some bad decisions but he doesn’t need a nursemaid. Al-so a lot of historical romance is about the aristocracy but I wanted to focus on the lower rungs of society.

    I also find it breaks the illusion when a historical novel about a person with a disability has the character somehow magically intuit modern adaptive technology, such as training a guide dog or using a white cane the way people are trained to do now. If you look at the evidence of real lives, people were just figuring things out for themselves in very idiosyncratic ways. Of course the more money you had the easier it was to create the support you needed.

    As you say, Tom lives independently because he has people helping him. One of the ways I tried to balance this was making him financially well off, enough to be educated and live comfortably, but also not so rich that he never has to work and has his every need met immediately, which would be boring. He’s related to aristocracy but not really part of that world, and not bound by those social expectations.

    One of the big differences between Georgian society and today is that back then almost everyone who could afford it had servants. Tom is supported not only by his friends and family, but by the servants he employs. Often in historical fiction, the work of servants fades into the background (probably in my novel too) and we don’t notice how important it is.
To shape Tom's exploits and habits (his ability to navigate by echolocation with a tapping cane, for example), you did research on real blind men of the period who lived colorful, striving lives. Can you share with us one or two of your favorite anecdotes about some of these historical figures?
  • John Fielding is by far the best known example. He lost his sight as a teenager, then went on to become a magistrate and with his brother, Henry Fielding, founded the Bow Street Runners, Lon-don’s first police force. While his career is evidence that a blind man could excel in Georgian socie-ty, I felt he was almost too famous to use as a model or as a character. There have already been several novels and a TV show about him, which are all very enjoyable, but I didn’t want to rehash what those have already covered.

    The two main models I used for Tom are the composers John Stanley and Turlough O’Carolan. Stanley played the organ and conducted several oratorios for Handel. He had a remarkable memory, and could learn an entire oratorio after hearing it only once. Carolan was an Irish harper and composer, who like many blind men at the time earned his living by traveling from house to house, performing and composing music in praise of his hosts. He was a prodigious drinker and womanizer, and his tunes in praise of alcohol and women are still performed today. Some of Tom’s more libertine habits come from him. I also borrowed an incident from Carolan’s life in the plot, in which he recognizes a woman when he holds her hand to help her into a boat.
What else attracted you to writing in the Georgian time period?
  • The gorgeous clothes, of course! The robe a la française, with pleats from the back of the shoulder to the floor is so elegant. And for the men, the white stockings and breeches that show off their legs. It was before Beau Brummell decided that men’s clothing had to be boring and plain. How are we still stuck with that ideal today? What can I say, I love a man with long hair and a tricorne hat.

    I was also inspired by the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro, which I think is the most perfect opera ever composed. I ended up setting my novel a few decades earlier though, mainly for politi-cal reasons. I didn’t want to just ignore major events like the Jacobite rebellion, the American Rev-olution or the French Revolution, so I set it before those things happened.

    While the Victorian era is maybe more popular now, I find the Georgian era much more interesting. Morals were a bit looser, there was much more sexy drunken behavior in public. The Georgians really knew how to party.
How deliberately did you think about exploring the contrast between social limitations on women, and on people with disabilities?
  • Yes, I did want to reflect on what academics call intersectionality. That means that our position in society is not just shaped by one dimension like gender or ethnicity but by multiple aspects togeth-er. Tom has a serious disability but he’s still a white man and enjoys at least some of those privi-leges. Part of his journey to a more mature, settled life is to recognize how the women around him have lives that are more precarious than he realizes.

    I really wanted to show a romantic relationship between equals, which I realize would have been very unusual for that era. But it did sometimes happen, especially for people living unconventional lives, such as actresses. So I wanted to mirror some commonalities between Tom and Tess and their positions in society.
What was the role of music in this time period?
  • Music wasn’t just for entertainment, it was also the way the news was spread, as I show in the novel when the characters write a broadside ballad about a public fight they have witnessed. This kind of thing happened all the time. It was also the way you publicly commented on current events, kind of like Twitter today, like when Tom writes a ballad making fun of a popular singer.
How has the public's relationship with music has changed since the days when all music was live music?
  • In the eighteenth century, if you wanted to hear music at home you had to play it yourself, and a lot of people did. The opera was only performed at set times of the year, otherwise you couldn’t hear it at all. And of course every performance was a bit different, and you never knew what might hap-pen.

    Today we have this very staid, boring image of Baroque opera. It doesn’t help that a lot of modern productions are stripped-down, avant-garde and modernist. The truth is that early eighteenth centu-ry opera was all about spectacle—it was like the superhero CGI movies of its day. Both men and women were cross-dressing on stage and the most popular singers were castrati, men singing with almost superhuman high voices. The shock value was for sure part of the appeal. The scene of the riot in the theater, where the patrons rip up the chairs because they are angry about the increase in ticket prices, was taken from more than one real incident. There was even a law passed that protect-ed the rioters from prosecution, saying that people were allowed to register their criticism of the performance.
Did you have a favorite scene or concept that ended up not making it into the finished Adventures of Tom Finch?
  • An early reader asked if I would have Tom meet John Fielding, but I thought that would be too cheesy, also I set the action a bit too early for that to happen. I briefly considered having Tom meet Carolan when he goes to Ireland as a boy, but I decided that also would be cheesy, and I couldn’t think what it would add to the plot.

    I did want to expand a bit more on Tess’s past, the issues with her mother’s family in Naples, but only part of that made it into the novel. Maybe there will be more in a sequel, who knows.
What was the process of turning your book into an audiobook?
  • I was looking around at the Amazon publishing tools and saw the link for ACX. When I saw how easy it was to publish an audiobook, I thought I’d at least try auditioning producers and see how it went. Without really expecting much, I posted a sample. I was overwhelmed to get twenty auditions posted within a few days, most by very talented narrators. It was so gratifying to get so many positive comments from prospective narrators just based on the short sample I posted. Because the novel is about opera, the content really resonated with narrators who have a background in theater and singing. The whole process was so much fun right from the beginning. I was so lucky to connect with a studio that produced a full cast recording, including singing nearly all the songs and adding background music. I'm so grateful to them for bringing the story to life with so much authenticity.

    Thanks to Rowan Mai for writing the questions.
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London, 1735. Covent Garden offers a world of pleasures and diversions, even for a blind man. Tom Finch approaches life with boundless good cheer and resilience,whether he's pursuing a musical career or pursuing women. Women including Tess Turnbridge, a soprano with a burning ambition to become an opera star, and Sally Salisbury, a tough, flash talking whore and part-time thief. Join Tom for a picaresque romp through high and low Georgian society among rakes, rovers, thieving whores and demireps, highway robbers, bigamists, and duelists, bisexual opera divas, castrati, mollies, and cross-dressers, lecherous aristocrats, and headstrong ladies. This meticulously researched, witty and lively tale overturns stereotypes about disability and revels in the spectacle and excitement of 18th century opera.