Exploring Historical Narratives – An Interview with Jackson Marsh

Jackson Marsh discusses his pen name, fascination with historical fiction, intricate research, and the diverse themes in his captivating novels.

Jackson Marsh, the esteemed pen name of James Collins, has been a beacon in the world of gay historical fiction since his emergence in 2017. Born during the blizzards of 1963 in Kent, England, Collins’ life journey has been as diverse and vibrant as the characters he crafts. From his early days in theatre, writing and directing musicals, and performing cabaret, to his numerous office jobs, Collins has now settled on a serene Greek island with his husband, dedicating his time to full-time writing.

In this interview with Reader’s House Magazine, Marsh delves into his transition to writing under a pseudonym, the allure of historical settings, and the meticulous research that underpins his vivid storytelling. He candidly shares the inspirations behind his diverse themes, from the oppressive environments of Victorian workhouses to the nuanced portrayals of mentorship and romance. Marsh’s novels, rich in mystery, adventure, and romance, offer a poignant glimpse into the lives of gay men in history, brought to life with sensitivity and depth. Join us as we explore the creative process, influences, and experiences that shape the remarkable works of Jackson Marsh.

You began writing as Jackson Marsh in 2017 to publish gay fiction separately from your other works. How did this transition impact your writing process, and what prompted you to explore this specific genre under a new pen name?

I invented Jackson because I already had a loyal following for my James Collins books about living on a Greek island, and I didn’t want to confuse my Symi readers with overtly gay novels. Once I’d freed myself from my concerns, the stories came easily, each an improvement on the last in style, voice and storytelling. Ironically, seven years later, many of my Symi-book readers are now loyal Jackson Marsh fans, and I find myself discussing gay Victorian London at the kafeneion.

Your books often feature historical settings, such as the Victorian era in Deviant Desire and the late 1800s in Guardians of the Poor. What draws you to historical fiction, and how do you balance historical accuracy with the creative demands of your storytelling?

Historical fiction takes us to a world in which our ancestors lived, loved and died, and I find that fascinating to explore.

I now have twenty-one novels, in three linked, ongoing series set between 1888 and 1892, starting with Deviant Desire. I specifically wanted to explore what life was like for gay men during a time when homosexuality was illegal. I’d always had an interest in the post 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act era (which made ‘gross indecency’ a crime), because of its impact on gay men. I wanted to bring their hardships to a modern readership, but this is not without its challenges.

My characters exist in a different era and must speak and behave accordingly. The trick here is to engage the reader with relatable characters who behave as the era demands, but to do it without using anachronisms. For example, I can’t use words like paperwork, acidic, acerbic – everyday words now, but not then. I find the meticulous research needed to ensure accuracy feeds my creativity rather than limits it.

Guardians of the Poor touches on themes of trust, honesty, and survival within the oppressive environment of a workhouse. Can you elaborate on the research process you undertook to authentically depict the experiences of your characters in this setting?

To understand how my characters lived, I not only read factual history books but also newspapers of the time, and this leads to more and better ideas. Guardians of the Poor was inspired by a sex scandal in the Chelsea workhouse in 1890. It was an abuse of power story and highlighted injustice against gay men. I set Guardians in the Hackney workhouse because I had been inside it when it was a hospital, and used ‘Indoor Paupers’, written by an inmate of another London workhouse in 1885, as my main resource. I also used writings by James Greenwood, one of the first investigative journalists who put himself in a workhouse casual ward for a night in 1866, and other on-the-scene accounts. These not only give me facts, but emotions which feed into my imagination when developing characters. I search out maps, plans of buildings, advertisements, images, whatever I can find in printed form or online. My characters take railway journeys according to original timetables of the exact day the story happens and buy products from shops that existed. I have a deaf character in Guardians, and my research into what his life would have been like included learning basic British Sign Language.

Living on a Greek island since 2002, how has your environment influenced your writing, and do elements of Greek culture or island life find their way into your novels?

My books, like Symi, are cosmopolitan. Symi is a melting pot of nationalities and customs, both from its history and its modern visitors, and my books draw on the many nationalities and customs I encounter here. Although Symi and Greece may not appear overtly in my Jackson novels, many of the characters I encounter on the island find their way onto the page. Symi also gives me the opportunity to take peaceful walks on the hillsides, during which I am apparently talking to the goats. What I am actually doing is telling myself the next chapter or interviewing a character.

Your novels often include diverse themes such as mystery, romance, and adventure. How do you manage to weave these elements together seamlessly, and what challenges do you face in maintaining the balance between them?

An author must decide which comes first, the romance, mystery or adventure. My Clearwater and Larkspur series are principally about male friendships. The romance or bromance is the frame that holds the canvas on which the adventure is played out, and the mystery is what brings them together. I use a simple framework in my planning: there must be an emotional throughline for the romance/bromance story, and an action throughline for the physical story. As the tension builds in the action, so the romance moves forward (or backwards), and the mystery becomes more mysterious. All the time I am writing, I am in the story with the characters, and aware of which stage each of the throughlines has reached. Characters overcome emotional hurdles so they may advance to the climax, and thus, the story weaves logically, with each element being as important as the others.

The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge and other books in the Barrenmoor Series explore themes of mentorship, grief, and age-gap romance. What inspired you to write about these themes, and how do you ensure your characters’ relationships are portrayed with sensitivity and depth?

The Mentor collection of four unrelated but same-themed stories were the first books Jackson wrote and are mainly about coming out. The characters are based on people from my past, because truth is the answer here, and the aim is to create a believable and compelling story with relatable characters by drawing on observation and self. At times, it’s painful or embarrassing to put on paper what you have kept in your heart, and technically difficult to translate it into a character, but that is the only way to ensure the truth, and that is what fiction must do; tell the truth.

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