An Exclusive Waterstones Interview With Sarah Perry

Posted on 10th December 2016 by Sally Campbell
After her novel The Essex Serpent was awarded Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2016, in the following interview, Sarah Perry discusses tackling faith, reason, complicated relationships and the rise of the twenty-first century Gothic with Waterstones Online's Martha Greengrass.

Photo: Sarah Perry (c) Jamie Drew

The Book Perry Was Meant to Write

Sarah Perry and I are talking about wallpaper. More specifically we are agreeing that we would both love to recreate the lavish, tactile Morris-inspired design of her novel The Essex Serpent, on our walls and when it comes to this book there is no getting away from the cover, it is a thing of pure beauty.

Perry is fulsome in her praise of Peter Dyer’s design which won the Books are My Bag Beautiful Book Award and perfectly captures the rare and mysterious novel it encases. “He’s a genius… I think I would have staged a protest if he hadn’t won. It pleads the case as book as object. It feels kind of quaint that about three or four years ago people were saying ‘the print book is dead’ - this year has really proved it’s not.”

When we talk, Perry has had a few days to digest the news that she is the 2016 winner of Waterstones’ Book of the Year, taking her place alongside prestigious company and seeing off some fierce competition that included the likes of J.K. Rowling. Yet from all quarters there was an overwhelming feeling that, really, there could have been no other winner.

Of course, any readers of Perry’s immersive, strange and compelling debut, After Me Comes the Flood, could have been in no doubt that they were encountering a writer of rare talent with plenty more tricks up her sleeve. Yet it is perhaps unlikely that anybody could have predicted that The Essex Serpent would be the novel to follow it; it’s certainly a very different animal.

Perry is delighted - “my cunning trick worked!” - yet The Essex Serpent, in many ways, feels like the book she was meant to write - the product of a fully firing imagination. Unlike many authors challenged with tackling that thorny subject of where their inspiration comes from, Perry is clear about the moment the idea came to her.

The Protagonist, Cora Seaborne. The Year, 1893.

"It’s nice because authors are often asked where their ideas come from and they can’t remember but I really can! I was driving through the countryside, my husband had been reading this brilliant little book, published in the Thirties called Companion Into Essex and he told me how in 1669 'The Essex Serpent' had been menacing the villages at the time. I just immediately, immediately thought, what if it came back, what if the rumours came back, but what if it came back after Darwin, when the ideas around natural history and the fossil record had real currency - those middle class women collecting fossils and clergymen going out with their butterfly nets and so on. There’s this wonderful woodcut [of the original pamphlet], which I have now seen for myself.  It’s at the British Library, so you can actually go and see the original inspiration.”

Set in 1893, The Essex Serpent follows Cora Seaborne, a young woman, newly widowed from a damaging and coercive marriage, as she escapes to Essex with her son Francis.  There she finds herself entranced by the mystery of the so-called ‘Essex Serpent’ and determined to prove its superstitious origins are, in fact, evidence of a natural phenomenon. Drawn into her orbit is the clergyman William Ransome, as resolute in his belief that the answer to the mystery lies in faith as Cora is committed to reason. The two can agree on nothing, yet they are inexorably drawn to each other with consequences that irrevocably change both their own lives and the lives of those around them.

The Essex Serpent will be deeply rewarding for anyone familiar with the literature of the nineteenth century.  This is a novel comfortable in its own skin, very much in unforced and seemingly effortless intertextual conversation with the literature of its period – it’s something Perry is acutely aware of: “If you’re well read as a reader or, hopefully, like me as a writer, it’s very difficult to sever off all of the things that have enriched your life and your imagination. It’s tricky as a writer, you have to nourish yourself, by reading the best that there is without reading too much of the same things because then you risk it being imitative - it’s a tricky line to tread.”

That The Essex Serpent feels at once authentic and strikingly original is, in part, due to its central characters, in particular that of the novel’s sometime heroine Cora.  Cora’s relationship with the clergyman, Will, is in some ways a love story. Yet I posit that this could also be seen as a novel about the casualties of love, the multiplicities of human relationships, and Perry agrees emphatically.

Intimate, Tender, Exciting – but not Tiresome

"What I absolutely didn’t want to do was to write a book about two people who madly fancy each other and at the end of the book they fall in love and they get married. That’s so tiresome and life is so much more rich and complex and complicated than that. I wanted to write about a relationship that is intimate and tender and exciting and even erotic but not a conventional ‘boy-meets-girl and they’re soulmates and they live happy ever after’ story.

The epigraph to The Essex Serpent references Montaigne’s On Friendship and the theme is the lifeblood of the novel, particularly the concept of friendship as “indivisible from love.” For Perry what is really fascinating are blurred distinctions, the fault-lines of rich and complicated human interaction and how “the intimacy of friendship can so easily slide into the intimacy of romantic love.” It’s something she thinks is less fashionable in the twenty-first century where she believes we have become “somewhat puritanical - expected to have your monogamous partner and intimate relationships” to the exclusion of all others and “friendships outside of that, tend to be slightly frowned upon.”  

Certainly The Essex Serpent is a complex web of shifting and pleasingly fluid relationships, Perry talks animatedly about her aim to “write about as many different kinds of friendship love as I could find. Ones which blur the boundaries between romantic love and friendship, seeing sexual desire as something cathartic and benevolent, even when it’s not connected to any kind of romantic attachment. I still maintain that Cora and Will are basically friends but that their friendship is capacious and different and subject to change - as human relationships are.”

This is a novel which consistently questions dichotomies of ideas – particularly those that are supposedly in conflict - alternately debating the nature of that conflict and whether it exists at all; speculating that faith and reason, desire and friendship stem from compatible instincts. It is part of what makes this a strikingly original and contemporarily relevant novel and for Perry, walking that line between the historical and the modern is crucial to what she’s trying to convey.

“I think a lot of literature deals in absolutes and I genuinely wanted to ask more questions than I answered. We rather live in a time where we like an absolute; so you either are a person of faith who is very mystical and believes in the supernatural or you are a rationalist and a scientist and you don’t have faith. Actually it’s much more nuanced than that. What I wanted to do was to write a book that was simultaneously modern and historical.

A Living, Natural World Woven with the Uncanny

It is the nostalgia of historical novels that Perry is keen to avoid, particularly where it concerns the character and nature of women. In fact, when it comes to women in historical fiction Perry believes we’ve all been sold a myth.

Far From the Madding Crowd is published in 1874 and there you have Bathsheba Everdeen running her own farm, Women didn’t suddenly appear as cogent, independent beings in 1918, they’ve always been that way. I played with the word ‘cleave’ in the book and the way it can mean to be apart but also joined together. Where is the idea of selfhood and the idea that one can love and love purely but be absolutely content as an individual being, fully formed and solitary?”  

As vivid as any character in The Essex Serpent, is the image of the Blackwater – the heart of Perry’s Essex marshland setting – a place of bewitching power and beauty, a lure and a creeping threat, ever-present in the background. It’s a common theme for Perry who acknowledges she is “completely obsessed” with water.

“I’m fortunate enough to live ten minutes from the beautiful river than runs through the middle of Norwich and I walk there as often as I can, I just am transfixed by it, I love to be near it, I love the liminal quality of it. It’s nothingness. It’s the edge of the world yet at the same time, it can carry you off to anywhere new.”

This persistent presence of a living natural world is essential to Perry’s interpretation of the Gothic, the sense of uncanny which is so woven into her landscapes and prose. She insists that a novel rooted in nature is entirely consistent with the Gothic aesthetic: “If you go to a bit of coastline, the Essex marches where The Essex Serpent is set, it’s familiar but it’s also different depending on the tide. All these landmarks are suddenly gone, or suddenly revealed.

Themes of Victorian Literature Become Entirely New

It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that The Essex Serpent is a novel rich in a naturalist’s eye for detail, from the precise observations of a nineteenth-century operating theatre to Cora’s son, Francis’ curious collections of objects. Perry admits to being a magpie for detail, collecting her own ‘talismans’ around her; inspiration for the world she is creating.  When writing The Essex Serpent her desk, windowsills and walls variously exhibited: a miniature anatomical skeleton, a microscope, a couple of fossils, a stick from the Reichenbach Falls - “I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan” - school prints of fossils and botany and a piece of blue glass.

The latter, is particularly significant as blue – its evidence in nature, the mood it conveys, its suggestion of distance and mystery and loss – colours the pages of the novel. Indeed the latter stages are tinged with it throughout, as if seen through a blue prism, as the colour becomes the obsession of Will’s wife Stella, gradually consumed by tuberculosis. It’s typical of the ways in which common themes of Victorian literature become something entirely new in Perry’s hands. 

“Part of my desire to subvert the Victorian novel was to put in some of your usual hoary old tropes and then subvert them. So we have someone with TB, a thin Victorian lady coughing into a handkerchief but this is not your usual consumption, this is about scientific developments that were around at the time. So she actually looks at her phlegm under a microscope - which is how they would test for the tuberculosis bacterium at the time - and I refer to the surgical advances that were being developed.

It is a science which is, characteristically for this novel, overlaid with a sense of how rational enquiry and artistic sensibility are in conversation with each other. “I was very struck by this idea of spes phthisica and this feeling of being full of hope and joy as a prelude to death. It’s a way of giving way to the inevitable.  I’ve always been very struck by the colour blue and I read Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets which begins with the entrancing words: ‘suppose I were to tell you that I fell in love with a colour’. I began to see that the nature of Stella’s delusion, which is a medically noted phenomenon, was becoming hooked on the colour blue.”

Stella’s obsession is just one of the examples of characters striving, seeking for something beyond the ordinary – where does it come from, this interest in the search for moments of transcendence, the purpose contained in Robert Browning’s 'Andrea del Sarto', ‘Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for’?

A Gothic Resurgence in a Time of Certainty

I’m not in the business of writing ironically or satirically.  I admire it in others but for myself I wanted to write about human transgression and human striving and how both of those things are noble in their own way. I wanted The Essex Serpent to be an enlarging book, in the sense of saying, we are all foolish and little and we stumble along as best we can but if we really reach to achieve sublimity well, maybe we won’t but we would get a little further than if we never thought to try.

The Essex Serpent seems to have hit a nerve, tapping into that rich seam of Gothic literature that seems to be experiencing a resurgence within literary fiction; evident in the popularity of recent novels such as Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. The Essex Serpent is a period piece, no doubt, but it seems to have captured a mood, more resonant with the times than any of its contemporary counterparts. It’s a phenomenon that Perry has her own ideas about:

“My theory is this: That the Gothic in history has resurged immediately after great times of certainty and development around science and rationality and the feeling that everything can be explained. So the institutionary Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published just in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, just as everybody was saying nothing is dark and mysterious, everything can be calculated. As if to say, ‘no, there are still things out there we find very strange and very unsettling and very disturbing’.

Then we have another flowering of the Gothic in the aftermath of Darwin and Lyell so you have Dracula, The Island of Dr Moreau - those late nineteenth century Gothic novels and once again they’re saying I know you think everything can be explained but I’m not sure it can. There are places that can’t be accounted for, feelings you can’t explain away and this tends to flower at times of political unrest. The Gothic is fundamentally anti-status-quo; it’s a way for people to express transgressive thoughts.”

Perhaps, after all, we have always been drawn to things we can’t explain? Perry certainly thinks so: “It’s very tantalising to say, you don’t have to believe everything you’re told, there’s something else out there.



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