Author On the Bookcase: Julia Stuart, author of The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise

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Author On the Bookcase
Julia Stuart

Both my parents are from England, all my relatives live there, and I visited the Tower twice. So, I really enjoyed The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise and am so excited to welcome Julia Stuart, author of The Tower, The Zoo and The Julia StuartTortoise! Julia's novel is about the Tower of London and its inhabitants --human and animal. All the Beefeaters actually live in the Tower and this story is about one Beefeater named Balthazar Jones, his wife, Hebe, and their the 180-year old tortoise. Oh, and Julia threw in a couple of very eccentric characters who called the tower home, as well -- the Tower’s Rack & Ruin barmaid, Ruby Dore; portly Valerie Jennings; the lifelong bachelor Reverend Septimus Drew; and the philandering Ravenmaster. When Balthazar is tasked with setting up an elaborate menagerie within the Tower walls to house the many exotic animals gifted to the Queen, life at the Tower gets all the more interest­ing. Then Hebe runs away.

The Tower, the Zoo,  and the Tortoise is filled with humor, charm, beauty, heartache, grief, and love that calls to mind the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, and of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Where did Julia get her idea of The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise? She tells us from a "plump blue folder on which I’ve written the words 'book ideas' ." Is it that simple? 

Please continue, Julia -- just let me get a cuppa.

Authors famously don’t like to be questioned about where they get their ideas from. I suspect it’s because they’re asked it so often. Yet I still think it’s one of the most salient questions a reader can ask. You can’t write a book about a menagerie of exotic beasts housed at the Tower of London, a beefeater who collects rain samples, and a chaplain who writes erotica and expect not to have to account for it somewhere down the line.

I have a plump blue folder on which I’ve written the words “book ideas”, in the hope that it will provide me with some. It is filled with articles torn out of newspapers and magazines that have either made me laugh or tugged at my heartstrings. They are not fully formed plots (alas), just scraps of intrigue that may be useful one day, if only for a scene.

The inspiration for The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise came from an article I read in a weekend supplement. It told of the beefeaters who not only worked at the Tower but lived there, quite literally being locked in at night. I thought it was a great setting for a novel, but couldn’t come up with a plot, so I put it in the folder and got on with my first book. When that was done, I was drawn again to the Tower community. I paid a visit and bought numerous guidebooks hunting for inspiration. I then came across the tale of the Tower’s menagerie, which spanned 600 years and finally closed in the 1830s. Further research unearthed the fact that the Queen was still being sent animals in the 1970s, many of which were kept at London Zoo. I decided to bring them back to the Tower and institute a modern-day menagerie.

Choosing its inhabitants proved much easier once I’d found an animal encyclopedia in my local bookshop. As I read through it, I noticed some of them had curious characteristics. It mentioned a tiny shrew that could expire when under stress, a compulsive overeating glutton, and lizards that could run on water in emergencies. I found the monkeys that flash their private parts when they feel under attack at London Zoo (a sign offered that helpful nugget), along with the bearded pigs.

The Tower, The Zoo, and The TortoiseIn the novel a bearded pig is thought to have escaped from the zoo, and deluded members of the public send newspapers their grainy photographs of it running through their gardens. This comes despite the fact that the pig is actually locked up in the Tower. The inspiration for that was simply the British public’s love of an escaped animal story. I don’t know why we like them. We just do. Particularly in the summer when the sun has finally come out and we’re all a little startled.

Naturally, all my ideas don’t come from my blue folder. Some arrive from a dusty, foxed part of my head while I’m getting on with life, or once my hands are over the keyboard. A chaplain who writes erotica? No idea what sparked that one off. A collection of rain samples? Couldn’t tell you. A romance between two elderly people as they lie dying in the hospital? Search me.

So what potential scenarios lie in store for the future? A quick delve into my folder reveals a story about a happy, plump seal being found on a grass verge five miles from the sea; a man who fired cannons to greet historical ships being given a 12-month conditional discharge for breaching his firearms license; an invasion of Liechtenstein by Swiss soldiers that no one noticed; and the Princess Royal’s secret obsession with lighthouses. I’m not sure whether any of these curiosities will make it into my third novel, but there’s every hope for the fourth.

Thanks so much, Julia, for revealing what might be in your fourth novel. I'd go with Princess Royal’s secret obsession with lighthouses!


"A Beefeater, his wife, and their nearly 180-year-old tortoise live in the Tower of London, and if Stuart's deadly charming sophomore novel (after The Matchmaker of Périgord) is any indication, the fortress is as full of intrigue as ever…the love story is adorable." —Publisher's Weekly

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