Few people had heard of Valerie Martin until last year. The author of several short story collections and the novel Mary Reilly (which became a film with Julia Roberts), Martin wasn't a novice. But it took the Orange Prize to make us notice this quiet American. With Property, her gripping novel about slavery, she pipped the favourite, Donna Tartt, to the £30,000 award. The cash has since allowed Martin to write full time. It also means that her earlier books will now be published here, including Italian Fever.
The daughter of a sea captain, Martin was raised in New Orleans. Shortly after leaving university, she published some short stories and, married and pregnant, began working on a novel. She also got a job in the welfare department in Louisiana. "People come in and you ask them a lot of questions about their personal life and finances and if they're lucky they get food stamps.'' Was it a good training for a writer, listening to all those hard luck stories? "Yeah. All the English majors wound up working for the welfare department. We were talking to impoverished people on one side of the door and on the other side were talking about books and what we were writing.'' She pauses. "It wasn't a bad way to live at all.''
Although Martin was born in Missouri, she doesn't see herself as a Southern writer. "I've got a Gothic streak,'' she says thoughtfully, "but then, so does Hawthorne. I'm definitely drawn to powerful voices.'' Some of her work uses first person narrative, others the third person. How does she choose? "It's the most important decision you make. Every story has its best method, its reason for being, and that has to do with who is telling it. I don't start a story until I'm pretty clear about the point of view. I think of it, I guess, as whether I'm trying to tell the story from inside or out.''
Telling the story from the inside gives Property and Mary Reilly - the story of Dr Jekyll's housemaid - the emotional, claustrophobic intensity of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. Martin nods. "That certainly has been a big influence on me and on both these books.''
Martin sees the two novels as being complementary. "I think of Mary Reilly as a story narrated by a good girl, and Property by a bad girl.'' Mary is the selfless servant devoted to her troubled master. Manon Gaudet is the troubling mistress who cannot fathom why the slaves on her sugar plantation are not more devoted. She feels oppressed by the people she is oppressing. Sexual rivalry and power struggles were never like this at Tara.
Martin says: "It's pretty hard to write about humans without writing about sex, it's such a big part of people's identities. As a young writer I saw sex in terms of power.'' The two are often linked. While working on Mary Reilly, Martin was inspired by the diaries and letters of Hannah Cullwick. This Victorian scullion had a fetishistic affair with, and finally married, the barrister Arthur Munby. (She wore a slave collar. He was aroused by her grubbiness and servile devotion.) Having taught Robert Louis Stevenson's novella many times, Martin was intrigued by the brief reference to a housemaid's "hysterical whimpering'' at her master's possible fate. "I always thought: Why is she so upset?''
Property came out of Martin's own Southern upbringing. "I'd been raised with loads of lies,'' she says. "I started thinking about slavery because people had written about it in ways I thought cheapened it. It was a difficult thing for white people to write about in an honest way.'' She wanted to tackle it from the viewpoint of someone at the epicentre, who has "a lot to answer for but is also speaking in self-defence".
Too intelligent to play the ringlet-tossing Southern belle, Manon is caught in a menage with her brutish husband and the mulatto slave who bears his children. Some readers find her repellent. But Martin would argue that other characters - like the good Catholic aunt - are more monstrous in their double standards. "Manon is a pretty good observer. There isn't much about her world that she doesn't know. She can get very close to the truth and finds it hard to accept. The level of hypocrisy required just to get through a single day... You'd choke if you had to live like that.''
One reviewer complained Property gives no voice to the slaves. But that would be a different book. Martin says, "I'm interested in the way readers respond, especially Southerners and Northerners in America. It's killingly funny to me how many Northerners say, 'You know I've been to the South and it's really like that.' '' Martin is not looking amused. "I live in an area of New York. It's quite nice but all the black people might as well be living in a ghetto. They're poverty-stricken and you never see them. One thing I've always loved about New Orleans is that it's multi-cultured and you cannot go without seeing people of colour. The city has always had a large population of free people of colour, some of whom owned slaves. The militia who rounded up runaway slaves were free men of colour. So when people in the North say how terrible the South is, I think they've missed the point. Their attitude towards the book is that it's made them feel safer and better about how they live.''
That kind of complacency can be found everywhere. In Italian Fever - "the most light-hearted book I've ever written'' - Martin's main character thinks she knows what Latinos are like but gets everything wrong. For Martin, who lived in Rome for three years: "What's interesting to me is how people try to take their world and plant it somewhere else - that's the colonial enterprise.''
Sensible Lucy Stark travels to Tuscany to arrange the funeral of her employer, a trashy bestselling novelist who has died in odd circumstances. Martin loves the Jamesian notion of the innocent abroad - the can-do, naive American wrong-footed by old-world obfuscation. Despite the breezy tone, Italian Fever deals with paranoia and hysteria. Martin uses the Gothic tricks of Mary Reilly - doors opening themselves, spooky reflections in mirrors - to create a sense of dread and dislocation. There's a missing manuscript, a vanished lover, a phantom figure and a good deal of cultural misunderstanding. But the real mystery turns out to be other people.
For thirtysomething Lucy, dizzy with her own libido, it's a last chance for romance and she embarks on a passionate affair. Her employer's death, the works of art, which will last longer than she will, make her think about mortality - something younger heroines aren't prone to do. She learns about herself and knows when it's time to go home.
Martin's Italian sojourn was also an education. She was astonished at how Italians value high art and never take it for granted, even though there's so much everywhere. "There was no getting to the bottom of that country, even if you went to every hill town for the rest of your life.'' Martin smiles. "I feel like that about writing novels. There's nothing new about the novel but every novel has something new about it.''
To order a copy of 'Italian Fever' by Valerie Martin (Weidenfeld £12.99) for £11.99, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897Reuse content