J.T. Williams Talks … The Lizzie And Belle Mysteries – Portraits And Poison

Former primary school teacher, J.T. Williams uses her work as an educator and historian to encourage children to explore Black British hidden histories.

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries are inspired by real historical characters. Williams is extremely passionate about the power of representation in stories, and writes fiction to shine a light on the Black British past and inspire historical curiosity.

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Portraits and Poison is the second book in the series set in the summer of 1777 on the night of the grand unveiling of Sancho-Mansfield’s family portrait. Soon enough things take a chaotic turn – the painting has been stolen! This theft is only the start, revealing a terrifying secret that haunts the cobbled streets of London. A conspiracy is underway, one that has links to the kidnapping of Lizzie’s friend Mercury. When anyone could be involved, who can Lizzie and Belle trust?

Once again it is up to the two girls to unveil the truth and put an end to the corruption that plagues the city.

We spoke to Williams about her new book and how she came to tell these beautifully written stories …

Introduce yourself? 

[I’m] J.T. Williams, a lifelong Londoner, a mother, a writer, a dancer, a teacher.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …

All my writing dreams coming true…

Tell us about your latest book The Lizzie And Belle Mysteries – Portraits And Poison

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Portraits and Poison is the second book in my historical mystery series set in Georgian London. Bold and brilliant Black British heroines Lizzie and Belle are based on real-life historical figures Dido Belle, an heiress raised at Kenwood House, and Elizabeth Sancho, daughter of the African Abolitionist writer, Ignatius Sancho.

Each mystery centres a different theme. In the first book, Drama and Danger, the girls form a friendship to solve a crime at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, but end up uncovering a much darker plot that threatens their families and their community.

In Portraits and Poison, the girls take on the art world when a precious portrait is stolen and they discover a series of disturbing paintings. The books invite us to consider Black representation in the arts. It’s up to the girls to work out how to take back control of how we are seen.

How did the idea for a book series come about?

I’m passionate about Black British history and the untold stories from our past. I was working as a researcher and creative writing facilitator at the British Library when I discovered the fascinating histories of Black Abolitionists in 18th century London. Black families and communities surviving and thriving, living and loving despite the challenges they faced. That was a world I wanted to explore in my writing. I was running a workshop for teachers on these amazing figures when I met Jasmine Richards, CEO of Storymix. She came up with the idea of a mystery series centring Sancho’s family and commissioned me to write it – and the series was born.

Tell us about any highs or lows you encountered whilst working on the book and any solutions

Everything happened so quickly at the beginning. Jasmine pitched the project to Farshore Books and they offered me a contract to write two books straight away, so suddenly, we were off. The research process for historical fiction is slow and painstaking, so balancing that with the creative writing process is a challenge, but it’s the interaction between the two that I find so compelling. Some days I’m walking the streets where my characters lived and breathed, others I’m pinned to a desk in a library for hours on end, writing, writing, writing. Knowing instinctively what the work needed from me on any given day and following that instinct was crucial.

What’s your current plan B?

I don’t view things in terms of Plans A or B, more just alternative routes towards the desired endpoint. I’ve always been pretty nimble and flexible when it comes to my work. Over the course of my life I’ve been happy to re-train, start again, try something different. I trained as a teacher in my late 30s for example. But writing was always what I wanted to do. And now I’m doing it, I’ll continue to do it, no matter what. Like most writers, I supplement by income by running workshops, teaching etc. But I enjoy doing those things – for me, they are a fundamental part of the job of writing.

What’s made you Sad, Mad and Glad this week?

This week has been massive. Drama and Danger was recently shortlisted for the 2023 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Seeing the book in so many window displays and signing piles and piles of them was just magical. We didn’t win, but to even be acknowledged by such a prestigious competition is a huge achievement and the awards ceremony was definitely one of the highlights of my life. So, that whole journey has been infused by a little of all of those sentiments.

Illustrations: Simone Douglas 2022

What are you watching right now?

With my family I’m re-watching the BBC adaptation of War and Peace we alternate with re-watching Stath Lets Flats, which I absolutely love. Whilst home alone, I watched Get Out this week. I saw it at the cinema when it came out, but had to watch through my fingers at the time. It skewers brilliantly the uncanniness of unspoken racism.

What are you reading right now?

So many things all at once as I’m also currently a full-time PhD student, developing historical fiction for adults alongside critical analysis of the archival research process. Right now, I’m immersed in the new edition of Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate. I find reading interviews with writers so nourishing. It can save you when the work pushes you to the wall.

What are you listening to right now?

This week, Nina Simone, Thundercat, Billie Holiday, Samara Joy. I went to see Samara Joy at the Jazz Café with my husband a few weeks back. I’m a huge jazz fan and have spent many hours listening to women’s voices over the years. That young woman can sing. You know when you’re in the presence of an incredible talent, a power, someone whose voice will still be weaving its magic years from now.

The last thing you saw on stage?

Ballet Black (Read TBB’s Review) last week at the Barbican. An absolutely stunning performance of Nina Simone’s life story through jazz-infused ballet, choreographed to her music. The lead dancer gave her everything on that stage. A generous act of total creative expression that left us breathless.

What’s on your bucket list? 

I don’t have a bucket list, but I have so many books in me right now, I’m on a mission to make sure I get to write them all.

Celebrate someone else?

Jasmine Richards, Storymix Founder and CEO. Jasmine saw that we needed fiction for children that centred Black and Brown children as main characters; we needed joyful stories, across all genres. She set up her own business, a fiction development studio to support writers and illustrators of colour to get their careers off the ground and make beautiful books. She’s a writer herself, an editor, an advocate, a champion of Black talent and a true visionary. She’s also just been shortlisted for Editor of the Year in the British Book Awards. And, most importantly, she’s a wonderful, kind woman with a huge heart.

Celebrate yourself …

I used to be hesitant to openly celebrate my own achievements, but that’s changed over the last few years. I started writing full-time for the first time during lockdown. Since January 2021 I’ve written two short stories, two novels and a history book for children, while working on my Masters and PhD. It’s never too late to step into your power.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

No-one’s but my own. But I do take inspiration from so many women who have come before me, writing through motherhood. The Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, a single mother to five children, wrote her fiction while also working and studying at the time. She got up super early in the mornings. That made me realise that anything is possible. During lockdown I was up most days at 5 or 6am, writing.

How has the response to the Lizzie and Belle books been?

So positive. And I’m thrilled. It shows me that young readers are ready for these stories, and that they’re curious to know more about Black British history in all its complexity. It’s so gratifying to be able to go into schools, for example, and discuss your book directly with readers. And I’ve heard from young Black girls that they love seeing two Black girls on the cover of a historical novel. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Where and when can we read The Lizzie And Belle Mysteries – Portraits And Poison?

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Portraits and Poison is published by Farshore Books on Thursday 30th March. You can already pre-order it online and it’s available from all the big retailers as well as independent bookshops.

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