Q&A with Judy Hepburn


1. Tell us about your book

I Was There…Ira Aldridge is set in nineteenth century London. It’s a story about Fred, a young Black boy who works backstage at the Theatre Royal in London. Fred gets to meet Ira Aldridge, a Black American actor who takes over the part of Othello. When something goes missing during the opening night, Fred saves the day and when Fred needs help, Ira helps him to put things right.

2. Did you do any historical research before writing? And, if you did, what was the most interesting thing you found out?

Plenty! I walked around Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal early one morning when the streets were empty, taking pictures. Wikipedia was so helpful I actually made a (small) contribution! Doing research without the internet is still interesting but much more time-consuming.

So many new inventions were occurring at the same time as this story. Life was changing fast. It must have been so exciting to live then. It got me thinking that every age must feel very modern. I knew a bit about Ira Aldridge but it was fascinating to read about his life. He left the United States at such a young age and travelled so much during his career. He made the most of things and turned setbacks into opportunities.

3. If you could invite three historical figures to a dinner party, who would you choose and why?

I would send invitations to General Dumas, the Black Count who fought for the French Revolution. Napoleon saw him as a rival and didn’t treat him well. Dumas stayed true to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité while Napoleon went on to be an Emperor. The second person at the dinner table would be Alexandré Dumas, the General’s son, who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo. The third person to the dinner party would be Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman pilot. She earned her international pilot’s license in 1921. Alexandré was only four years old when his father died so I’d like them to meet each other again. And for us all to hear how Bessie, such a pioneering woman, achieved her goal would be inspiring. We would regale each other with stories and I imagine a lot of laughter and banter.

4. What was the hardest part about writing Ira Aldridge?

It was quite challenging to embed the key facts of Ira Aldridge’s life up to that moment into a story and in a way that wasn’t artificial.

5. What are your top tips for aspiring authors?

I love what Pablo Picasso said: “Inspiration will come, but it must find you working.” So I keep saying to myself ‘just write it down.’ That would be my top tip. The second would be to “park” our inner censor until the moment when it becomes useful, which is later in the process of creation.

6. What’s your favourite book?

At the moment my favourite book is ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman. It’s short but epic. It captures Germany in the 1930s and two schoolboys on the brink of becoming men. The end made me gasp with surprise and emotion.

I Was There… Ira Aldridge by Judy Hepburn is out now.

Ira Aldridge

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