Monday bookishness – The Lost Orphan by Stacey Halls

Okay. New week, new plan. Every Monday I’m going to post something about a book I want to read/want to recommend/have on my mind.

stacey halls
Stacey Halls

And so I’m kicking off with a new piece I have up on the Historical Novel Society website, based on a Q&A I was lucky enough to do with historical novelist Stacey Halls. I’ve read both Hall’s books now and am a definite fan. There are so many great books about these days, but I’d put her very high on my list of go-to authors. The Lost Orphan (The Foundling in the UK) is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?

You can read my write up by clicking here:HNS1But here is the full set of my questions and Stacy’s answers:

What was the original spark for the novel?

lost orphan
American title/cover

 

I get my story ideas from places, and this one came to me when I visited the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. I wasn’t looking for a story idea – in fact I’d just finished the first draft of The Familiars the week before – but I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment. I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children – they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children. The idea came to me to write about a woman who has saved enough to buy her baby back, as a fee was payable for the care the child had received at the hospital – only to be told her daughter has already been claimed.

You have two very different narrators, both flawed in some ways. How did they come to be and how do they help you explore themes of motherhood, nature v nurture etc?

I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me. I knew that the two narrators in The Foundling – Bess and Alexandra – had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.

Historical fiction is sometimes criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters but you have people of colour and immigrants feature in this story. Was that a conscious decision, a natural result of your research, or a bit of both?

A bit of both. I wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.

This is such a vivid picture of mid 18th century London. Did you have any research highlights?

foundling
UK title/cover

Loads! London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality – in London, 75% of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century – it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.

The book is called The Lost Orphan in the US and The Foundling in the UK. Do you have a view on that, or a preference of one over the other?

The Foundling was the working title of the novel while I was writing it, and was changed for the American market because I think the word foundling is less known there.

You have jumped period from The Familiars – early 17th century – to mid 18th. What’s next?

My third novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, which feels like a huge leap forwards in terms of modernity – they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!


Reading this book and chatting with Stacey made me really want to visit the Foundling Museum in London. I love these tokens and the part they play in the novel.

tokens foundling museum
Tokens from the Foundling Museum

Thanks for joining me for my first Monday Bookishness post! Have you read The Lost Orphan/The Foundling? What did you think? Any views on the different titles and cover styles? I’m leaning toward the American version on this one…

Interview with Sarah Perry

I am lucky enough to sometimes have the chance to ask other novelists questions about their work for the Historical Novel Society and write up feature articles. There’s always something more in the Q&A that I can’t work into the articles though. So here’s a chance to read the whole conversation.

Talking about The Essex Serpent with Sarah Perry

essexHow would you set the scene of the historical context and ‘world’ of The Essex Serpent for someone thinking about reading it?

I have been in the habit of calling it a “modern Victorian Gothic novel” – all of which sounds slightly contradictory! But this is in order to try and convey that although this is a novel set in the 19th century, and influenced by the forms and traditions of Gothic fiction, it very much aims to foreground everything which was modern and urgent about that period: scientific progress and debates, political and social upheaval, the early development of feminism, and so on. And while it has a Gothic sensibility, perhaps especially in the depictions of the eerie Essex countryside and the fear of an unknown best, it does not resort to maidens in nightgowns, and cruel villainous counts. I wanted to challenge and interrogate what readers might expect from a neo-Victorian Gothic novel.

 

Although there might be said to be one main story – Cora’s – lots of other characters have important journeys: I’m thinking of Luke, Francis, Martha and Naomi. Did all these interwoven lives arrive in your head at one time or, if not, how did they develop?

Four of the main characters came to me almost instantly – in fact, during the car journey after I had first seen the road-sign which led to the discovery of the legend of the Essex Serpent! I thought first of Cora, and then – wanting to find an emotional and scientific ‘foil’ to her, thought of Will, the vicar. I then thought of Cora’s son, I think perhaps because I wanted to explore childhood and especially how “different” children would have been seen prior to a time of diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders. Luke came next: I have always been very interested in the development of medical and surgical science, and I instantly had in mind this very daring, even rather dangerous intellect who prized his scientific work above everything else, but could never be immune to his emotions.

Other characters seemed to join the cast as I went: Martha, for example, was inspired by some of my research into Victorian friendships between women, and by the lives of extraordinary Victorian women like Eleanor Marx who were so active in politics. I conceived of Stella as a riposte to the old novel trope that a man may be tempted by other women because his own wife is a bit of a shrew – I wanted her to be a loving and vital presence, not a plot device.

 

How important is symbolism in the novel? Is there one monster, or several?

It’s crucial – and there are as many serpents as there are characters. I wanted each to be haunted not by the serpent itself, but rather what the serpent represents. For example, the schoolgirls and Naomi in particular respond to it with a kind of anxiety that I think is very rooted in their youth: it’s almost a phallic symbol, like a version of the “worm” that enters the rose and makes it sick in Blake’s poem. One of Aldwinter’s parishioners thinks of it as a visitation that marks the end times and the judgment of God, while Stella thinks of it as something that she must placate if she is to preserve the village. For Cora, of course, it is the symbol of her desire to find rational explanations in a world which is confusing and full of change.

serpent

Can you talk about the relationships in the novel between the natural and spiritual worlds?

I am particularly fascinated in where we draw the line between what is natural, and what is supernatural or spiritual. There are many things in the natural world which, even when we know perfectly well what laws of physics and biology have created it, still fill us with a sense of wonder. I am especially interested in the “sublime”, which is a key component of the Gothic and something which, according to the essayist Burke, is a sensation which moves us beyond merely experiencing a sense of beauty (such as when we look at a flower in the spring) into a transport of awe, and wonder, and even terror. Most people who see the Northern Lights, for example, are aware that it’s an effect of electrically charged particles in the atmosphere, but are still awestruck by it and perhaps moved to think about their own place in the world, and mortality, and what might lie beyond all those things we can explain. So for example Cora, when she first walks in the Essex countryside, is profoundly moved by what is actually a fairly ordinary scene of woodland in winter, because she has been trapped unhappily in London for so long – so the rainy woods seem to her to represent her innocence, and a promise of a better future. That she first encounters Will in this context and not, for example, in a neat and tidy room in her London house, is really important, I think.

 

Do you have a favourite scene and/or character?

Speaking of the natural and the sublime – my favourite scene is the one in which Cora and Will encounter the Fata Morgana. I became obsessed with this optical illusion – you can see videos of it on YouTube, and it really came to signify for me nature at its most strange and marvelous: an intersection between the natural and the magical worlds. Shortly after I wrote that scene, I took a day off writing to go to one of the very large and beautiful Norfolk beaches where I live, and I saw a Fata Morgana illusion myself. It wasn’t a ship, but resembled great black tower-blocks being built far out to sea, and it was just as strange and magical as I had hoped. My favourite character is Dr Garrett, the Imp. I used to find myself weeping as I wrote some of his scenes: he is the character who most clearly lives on with me.

 

How do you feel about the reception of The Essex Serpent? It’s nominated for several literary awards in the UK and about to be released in the US. I’m thinking this is an exciting time for you!

It’s been a really astonishing time for the book and for me, to the extent that I am not sure that it’s really sunk in quite yet! Every author dreams of their work finding an audience – or at any rate, I certainly do! – but I had never for a moment imagined that it would reach so many people. What has moved me most of all is finding people from Essex coming to events, or writing to me, and thanking me for capturing something about that part of the world which they hadn’t seen written about before. Essex is famously something of a joke in the UK, and not a place that people associate with romantic landscapes, or myths, or earthquakes, so my fellow Essex folk have been really delighted, which has perhaps been the very best thing about it.

 

Lovers or rich and original language will be drawn to The Essex Serpent. Can you talk about your influences as a writer? (Something about Cora put me in mind of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and the scene in the school made me think of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – or am I off-base making connections like that?)

I am thrilled and flattered by those connections: thank you so much!

I had a very unusual upbringing which I think did much to contribute to my writing style, and even to the themes which are present in my work. My parents were members of a very old-fashioned Strict Baptist chapel, and much of the contemporary world was frowned upon. So I was brought up reading, memorizing and reciting the King James Bible, and singing Victorian hymns, and reading things like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. We didn’t have a television in the house, or any pop music, and I wasn’t allowed to attend parties or to go to the cinema; but I was surrounded by classic literature and classical music. I read Jane Eyre when I was eight, and my father bought me a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was ten, and I think all of those influences (the King James Bible most of all!) have created a prose style which is, or so they tell me, quite unusual coming from a young-ish writer in the 21st century! Certainly my style isn’t something which is contrived: it comes as it does, and although at one point I rather resented it and wished I wrote in a more modern style, I have come to accept my own “voice”.

 

What are you writing next?

sarah perryI am currently working on a Gothic novel which is set in contemporary Prague, where I was fortunate enough to live as a UNESCO writer-in-residence last year. It is entailing rather a lot of research into various rather harrowing historical events, and I look back fondly on writing The Essex Serpent as having been a far more pleasurable experience!

New book reviews

With a new edition of the Historical Novel Review out, I can share the three books I reviewed this quarter, plus the feature I wrote for the print magazine. Here they are:

My reviews are available from the Historical Novel Society, but in brief…

Sword of Destiny by Justin Hill. This is a must-read for all the fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shulien is back with some new friends to fight beside. I was so impressed by how Justin Hill made those crazy fight scenes work on the page. For the interview in the latest print edition of the Historical Novel Review, it was really interesting to hear how turning a screenplay into a novel (rather than the other way round) worked for him.

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. Loved this story which is set in Philadelphia – so local history for me! – and starts on the night that Lincoln was assassinated. Both the story and the writing put me in mind of Toni Morrison and I was sorry not to be able to go the Free Library and hear McKinney-Whetstone talk about the book, as I did last year go and hear and see Morrison. This one is definitely on the literary end of the historical fiction spectrum – I so enjoyed the way the point of view shifted in this story – but there are also great characters and it’s a dramatic and engrossing story.

Three-Martini Lunch by Susanne Rindell. For me this would be the perfect thinking woman’s beach read. It evokes a great sense of time and place, reads easily and is full of incident, but also doesn’t shy away from showing that actions have consequences and that the world can be a dark place. There is a great plagarism storyline, lots of love and loss and I particularly liked the bitchy office politics that Eden has to contend with. Susanne Rindell is definitely someone whose books I would look out for. I also really enjoyed her earlier novel, The Other Typist.

The Empress of Bright Moon by Weina Dai Randel. I came to this book (and its precursor, The Moon in the Palace) with no knowledge of 6th Century China and the history of the Empress Consort Wu. What a treat reading these two has been! I can hardly think of any other historical fiction where so much historical detail has been so seamlessly woven into a page-turning story. I’d definitely recommend reading these novels in order. Prepare to escape to another time and place and root for Mei as she battles to make a life at the Imperial court.

1924, the year that made Hitler

A quick link to my most recent article for the Historical Novel Society about 1924, the Year that made Hitler:

hitlerbook

 

This is the kind of non-fiction I really enjoy – clearly well researched but also highly readable and engaging. I particularly liked the way Peter Ross Range gave his view on Hitler’s character in passages like this one:

“When faced with high-risk situations, Hitler’s instinct was almost always to take the leap. Action was his aphrodisiac, his catnip, his default.”

Among lots of interesting insights, I was struck by the discussion of Hitler’s reading habits. Ross Range suggests that historians differ on the amount of reading Hitler actually did. Although it seems pretty clear that he owned a lot of books, as any bibliophile knows, owning and reading are not always the same thing. I subsequently found an interesting article about Hitler’s reading habits in the New York Times, and also this photo of Hitler in his Munich apartment which Peter Ross Range also mentions in his book.

heilbrunn-500