Interview with Kate Murdoch: Challenging Societal Ideals Within the Walls of a Chateau.  

By Louise Sapphira


The Orange Grove allows the reader to come to their own conclusions about the characters. 

Kate Murdoch’s historical fiction novel, The Orange Grove, weaves a narrative of the challenges women go through in the early eighteenth century in France. The conflict is set in motion when the Duc falls in love with a new mistress Letitia. During a conversation that Duchesse Charlotte has with a senior mistress, Henriette, she says:

‘Well, have you met her?’

Turning from the window, Henriette feigned ignorance. ‘Have I met whom?’

Charlotte signed. ‘Letitia. My husband’s child concubine. I know your rooms are tucked away, Henriette, but you’re the most senior mistress. Are you truly unaware of what’s going on?’

The Orange Grove allows the reader to consider the principal theme of morality. Murdoch takes the reader through a time when a male having various mistresses was common. The different scenes show the motivations of the characters and perhaps why they do not follow their values. This makes it hard for the reader to choose between characters as we see their various perspectives, actions, and individual circumstances.

To discuss further these themes and the writing process behind The Orange Grove, I was fortunate to interview Kate Murdoch. I asked Kate what triggered the motivation behind the historical fiction novel.

In response to why Kate writes historical fiction, she said, ‘It feels a bit more protected than to write contemporary fiction [where] it would feel more exposing to me.’ Kate has also written about Renaissance Italy in the Stone Circle, and she said this along with the eighteenth century are ‘so distant’ and therefore ‘feels more disguised.’ When reading The Orange Grove, the themes and motivations of the characters are not black and white and Kate said, ‘that’s what I would intend’ so the reader is ‘just pulled along by the story…the climactic points in the narrative and keeps turning the pages.’

Kate expanded on this and explained that the readers will:

‘Put their own take on it…they might have a different opinion or a different interpretation, for instance, about the issue of morality, which is the strongest theme in The Orange Grove. ‘I try not to be didactic and would hope instead that people simply think about these things.’

We talked about the inspiration for The Orange Grove and Kate said, ‘I think the initial idea was more about the circumstances of the time.’ However, Kate had an interest in the reign of Louis the fourteenth. For instance, she commented ‘how opulent that court was.’ She said this then led her to think about the lifestyles and the value that was placed on status and how this would influence the choices people made, in particular women’s choices.

In the discussion, Kate read out a quote from a journal article titled ‘’Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century’’ by Henri Sée published in Social Sciences. The actor Fleury says:

‘The prince of Soubise was not content to throw gold in the path of his queens of the boudoir—there were a dozen of them—; since he gave each one of them the same household, the same livery and an equipage of the same kind, people remarked when they saw the carriages of his mistresses passing: Here comes the family of Soubise!’

Kate said:

‘I remember reading that and thinking, Wow! At that point, I hadn’t realised that it was relatively common for nobles to have multiple mistresses in the household, and I thought about what those relationships would be like, how it would stretch people’s tolerance, and how catty it might be, and what sacrifices might have needed to be made so that just got things really brewing in my head, and it all kind of went from there.’

In the context of society today and whether the themes in The Orange Grove resonate with readers, Kate said ‘the first thing that comes to mind when [asked] is women’s issues and how we make our way in the world.’ Kate stressed:

‘Having as much independence as possible and having something of your own in life. So, although these women, in the eighteenth century, didn’t really have that, they didn’t have their own vocations. All they had was their relationships with other women, with men, with their children and so they had to maximise those relationships.’ The Orange Grove weaves the voice of those undermined in the past that reminds the reader of the ongoing battle and lack of resolution for gender equality, even today. Kate said, ‘it’s very personal…to each person what they consider a happy ending.’ She gave the example of the mistress Céline who ‘is very much one extreme or the other, that if she couldn’t have exactly what she wanted, which is true love…she felt she had nothing. [Whereas] Henriette is a lot more pragmatic…She’s more self-sufficient…She could see multiple answers to her problem.’

This voice also comes through in Kate’s published flash fiction and short stories, but how did this voice start with Kate? She said, ‘probably from my childhood…as a child I was very reserved… writing stories, drawing and observing…so I can relate to that feeling of being slightly outside…just because I was so contemplative and such an over thinker.’

Kate’s earlier focus was a career as a visual artist. To my question of how this influenced her writing, Kate said, ‘I have always wanted [the audience] to be able to really see each scene, almost in a cinematic way as if they were watching a movie.’ She continued, ‘it is quite common for a writer to try and give the reader what they enjoy themselves.’ She said, ‘when I was a painter…I would go off into this whole other direction.’ This also applies to her writing where her ideas develop and grow. However, she allows them to build and ‘take on [their] own life in writing.’

Kate also writes reviews on books and reads other writers’ manuscripts to provide feedback. About the benefits of reading the manuscripts of other writers, she said, ‘I find it’s easier to write when I’ve been reading a lot…I get very inspired…I think that’s amazing how they’ve done that or how seamless those time transitions are…I certainly learn a lot.’

On her future writing projects, in particular, The Glasshouse and The Shifting Tide, and whether the same themes initially inspired these works. Kate said, ‘it’s very different for each project, but they all started from different jumping off points.’

The initial ideas for The Glasshouse came from a historical event, an earthquake that happened in Messina, Italy, in 1908. Kate said she started thinking about what happened to the orphans of this tragedy. The Shifting Tide, she told me, is about ‘examining part of my heritage.’ Kate explained, ‘I’m half Croatian, so I wanted to learn about that…I also wanted to learn more about the really complex history of the wars there and World War Two in particular.’ She said, ‘the research for that was really challenging.’ She commented that she was adopted, and her biological aunt gave ‘an authenticity read for all the Croatian cultural elements, just to make sure I was on point.’

Kate’s current project is set in the 1920s Paris and is about when Russian immigrants fled the persecution of the Soviets. Kate said the inspiration came from being ‘really interested in the White Russians as a group dispersed everywhere…and the trauma of having to leave their home…and never being able to go back.’ She said, ‘I’m always interested in this idea of people with different agendas and having vastly different beliefs and [if] they ever meet on any level.’

About the journey of writing her current projects, she explained how she is a pantser rather than a plotter. Kate said to be a plotter ‘would just kill the magic for me. It again relates to the painting…that’s how I’ve worked creatively my whole life. How can I be formulaic and more rigid? This is not possible.’

So many elements of Kate’s writing develop creatively and often with a single idea, then builds into something exquisite. But her writing also shows the nature of society.


For about Kate Murdoch