The Somnambulist, one of the most fascinating debut books of 2011, transported its reader back to the Victorian era with a young protagonist at its heart, and much mystery and twists thrown into the mix. I snatched a moment with its author Essie Fox to get the answers to a few – need to know – questions
1. Hello Essie, what inspired you to write The Somnambulist?
I’d been wondering about trying to write a Victorian novel for some time but couldn’t quite fix on a theme. Then, two things happened –
The first was my interest in the Victorian obsession with Somnambulism (sleepwalking) as being something almost supernatural, symbolic of repressed sexuality and the innate knowledge of the unconscious mind. While researching images I discovered a painting by Millais that is called A Somnambulist and that image perfectly conveyed the mood I wanted to recreate at the core of my novel’s mystery. I even went on to include the painting in the novel.
The second thing – actually an event – was when I visited Wilton’s music hall for a production of the Handel operetta Acis and Galatea. Sitting in that crumbling Victorian venue I was entirely seduced, imagining how it must have been in its nineteenth century heyday – all the clatter and bang, smells of greasepaint and sweat, and so vivid was everything in my mind that I woke up the following morning knowing that music hall was exactly where The Somnambulist was going to open up.
2. What was the hardest part of writing it?
It honestly wasn’t a difficult novel to write. I was so captivated by the theatrical theme and characters that I really enjoyed sitting down each day to see what was going to happen next. I know that sounds strange, but I didn’t plan the novel at all. I let my imagination run wild and although The Somnambulist always had a definite ‘end’ in my mind there were an infinite number of ways in which I might hope to get there. Sometimes I still think of ‘alternative’ stories or different paths that my characters might have taken.
3. The book skilfully manages to transport the reader back through time, was it a challenge for you to create the right sense of time and place?
I did a lot of research.
A historical novelist has to accumulate knowledge about the intricacies and colour of an era’s life – and then have the force of will to leave the majority of those facts behind, for fear of the novel suffering from information overload. You need enough to be sure of your footing, as it were, and for the reader to really ‘believe’ but without having the sense that the research has smothered the true essence of the story.
I also read many Victorian and neo-Victorian novels. I’m sure the influences are there to see, but I hope that my story is also ‘of itself.’
4. Where does your love of all things Victorian stem from?
My grandmother used to live in a Victorian coaching inn – even with its own ballroom and stage which had a distinct feel of Wilton’s hall about it. So I think I always felt comfortable in that sort of architectural world. But also as a little child I remember snuggling up with my mum on the sofa on wet Sunday afternoons, watching all the old black and white films on TV and, in my memory, many of those films were Victorian – such as Great Expectations, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Wuthering Heights, Fanny by Gaslight. I loved to immerse myself in those murky, monochrome, dimly-lit scenarios which always seemed to be seething with melodramatic tension.
5. The book has an interesting mix of fictional and real life places and characters, such as the real life Tredegar Square and Mrs Beeton, and the fictional Paradise Row and Hallelujah Army. Did you clearly decide on that particular mix from the outset, or did it fall into place later on in the writing process?
It all fell into place as I went along. Some actual settings in the East End – such as Tredegar Square, Wilton’s music hall, and a Bow cemetery – were all well-known to me and exuded such a haunting Victorian atmosphere that they almost became like secondary characters in the novel itself. Others were included when my research ‘came upon them’ and they fitted so well within the on-going storyline. But even those subjects which never really existed are strongly drawn from reality. So, there is a Paradise Row but in another part of East London, and the Hallelujah Army is loosely based on The Salvation Army. But, because I felt that some of my depictions were far from favourable (to fit in with the character of Maud who is an avid member) and because I didn’t want to cause offence to all the hard-working and caring members of the modern day Salvation Army, I decided to change the organisation’s name.
There is a much fuller explanation of what is real and what is not in an addendum to the book.
6. Amazingly, the Hammam Bouquet fragrance created by William Penhaligon in 1872 – which one of your Victorian characters wear – can still be purchased today. Do ever see yourself writing a contemporary novel in the future or are you happy for your written work to stay wrapped within the interesting histories of the past?
I would love to write a modern-day novel, but I do so enjoy all the research that goes hand in hand with historical stories, all of those little gems from the past which conjure people and places to life and also, for me anyway, the past is very exotic. What’s more because of a lack of communication, of transport and independence for women in days gone by, there is such scope to place your characters in situations of peril and isolation which you could simply never get away with in a story set ‘today’.
I think the next novel I write will still be historical – only shifting forward into the twentieth century, and perhaps the one after that will sneak a little further forward again…
7. In one sentence, how would you describe the The Somnambulist?
A Victorian mystery which spins a dark web of stolen lives, lost identities, unrequited and jealous loves.
8. How long does it normally take you to write a book?
The Somnambulist took about 12 months. The second novel, Elijah’s Mermaid, which is due to be published by Orion later in 2012, has taken me almost 2 years.
9. Without giving too much away, what can we expect from your next novel?
Here is the synopsis:
‘He says, “You are my mermaid.”’
Taking place in mid-Victorian England, Elijah’s Mermaid is set in a Chelsea brothel with exotic mermaid-muralled walls, a crumbling vine-clad country house, an Italianate villa leased out as an asylum, and a house built on the banks of the Thames full of objets d’art and eerie automata, where the air is always festering with the stench of drains and waste – as foul as the secrets that house conceals.
This seductively dark and sensual novel takes place in the shadowy demi-monde revolving around the ‘respectable’ worlds of Victorian literature and art. It is peopled by writers and publishers, by lost or abandoned children, and a black-veiled syphilitic madam along with her unnervingly dandy pimp. But none of them are quite what they seem, and every one is drawn into the life of a man on the verge of madness – an artist obsessed with water, with painting his muse as a mermaid – a mermaid he wants never to grow up.
With its themes of betrayal and incarceration, and inspired by Victorian fairy tales, Elijah’s Mermaid weaves a magical plot that ebbs back and forth between two individual narrative strands, both of which explore different kinds of love – whether that love be selfless and pure, sexual, cruel, or obsessive.
10. What are the main books that have influenced you most?
For The Somnambulist – I think Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I’ve also been deeply in awe of contemporary writers such as Sarah Waters, Charles Palliser (The Quincunx) and Michael Cox (The Meaning of Night). But perhaps my greatest influence is the work of Angela Carter where the writing is always teetering on the borders of fantasy and reality – though this is probably more apparent in the pages of Elijah’s Mermaid which has also been hugely inspired by many Victorian fairy tales, especially Hans Christian Anderson, and The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley.
11. What do you think makes a good story?
Characters you believe in and whose motivations and actions you become engrossed in – even if you don’t actually like them. A plot that drives you on, wanting to start a new chapter every time you finish the last.
12. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Going to galleries, theatres and films. Meeting up with friends – in real life, and on Twitter (the virtual office water cooler spot for online chat and lots of fun). I love walking my dog, and reading. I also like watching football. I’m a season ticket holder for all Arsenal home games so that keeps my weekends pretty busy – and noisy – not to mention a rollercoaster of emotion!
13. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write the book you most want to read.
Read the best books already available within your specific genre.
Keep a notebook with you at all times to jot down your thoughts on dialogue, place etc. that inevitably spring to mind when you least expect them to. If you are visually inspired, keep a scrapbook or clippings file to refer to. Be prepared for the long slog and then when your first draft is complete and you think you’ve finally ‘finished’, put your novel away for a month or so and come back and go over it all again. Keep going over the manuscript until you can read every single page without finding the need to change a thing. Only submit to an agent or publisher when your diamond is polished up to perfection. Even then, there may still be things to improve, but at least you’ll know you’ve done your best to sparkle.