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INTERVIEW: Essie Fox, author of 'The Somnambulist

Friday, May 31, 2013

Essie Fox is an English author and illustrator, whose first book, 'The Somnambulist', is a dark Victorian melodrama featuring family secrets, a mysterious grand house, a spooky pre-Raphaelite painting, flamboyant actors and soothsayers, repressed religious cymbal-shakers, and a murder. What more could anyone ask for?

Here, Essie answers my usual questions about daydreaming, reading, writing and sources of inspiration,and talks about her new book, 'Elijah's Mermaid', which sounds utterly fascinating and is so going on my MUST BE READ list 

Are you a daydreamer too?

I have always been a daydreamer. As a child I used to lie in bed making stories up inside my head – often speaking some of the parts aloud. If I had a favourite book or television drama then I would try to continue those stories, taking the characters I loved the best (don’t’ they call that fan fiction these days?) and then hoping that I would go to sleep and continue to dream of them again. Something else that I loved to do, and still do now, was to think of my favourite fairy tales and then spin new ones around them – I think you must understand that all too well, Kate!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
It took me a while to see the wood for the trees. I always loved reading and the study of literature. But I interpreted that interest as a desire to work on the editorial side of the publishing world. It wasn’t until I was much older, when my daughter had grown up and left home, that I actually had the time and the courage to ‘see’ what my dream really was.
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in the English countryside, in a small town in rural Herefordshire which is on the Welsh borders. I left there to study at Sheffield university and from there I came to London. Now, I am based between Bow in East London and the town of Windsor, which is very much to the west of the city. You could not really find two more different areas – and both provide settings for my work.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

For The Somnambulist, there were two main inspirations. One was a painting by Millais which is called A Somnambulist and which many say was itself inspired by Wilkie Collins’ sensational novel, 'The Woman in White'. 

The second inspiration was when I went to visit an old music hall in London’s East End. Even though it is now crumbling and in a sorry state of repair, the hall simply came alive for me. I could hear the popping of champagne corks, the clatter, the bang and the laughter as if it was all still lingering there, an echo from its Victorian heyday. The next morning I woke up with three distinct characters in my mind – and one of them was a singer who worked in the music halls.

For my second Victorian novel, which is called Elijah’s Mermaid, a painting was once again a great source of inspiration. This time it was A Mermaid by JW Waterhouse, and that image then led me to think about an imaginary Victorian artist who is increasingly obsessed – to the point of madness – with painting his muse as a mermaid or nymph.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

Not at all. I have that first spark of inspiration – almost like a buzz of excitement that simply can’t be shaken off until I write the ideas down. I usually know the beginning and have a fair idea of how the novel will end, but as to how I get there...that is very much unknown. I like to let things develop – for the characters to take control. 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Not as such – I tend to dig deep into memories. But once a book is being written, I do find myself dreaming about the characters, and often waking with fragments of their dialogue in my mind – as if my brain is still working away on the story while I’m sleeping. It’s also a bit like a crossword puzzle, in that the dormant brain can often come up with solutions to plot problems, or to clarify a dramatic situation that was less obvious when awake.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

With the book that I am writing at the moment - yes! I was recently Googling a very mundane household matter, regarding some local planning applications. When I typed in my house address I was directed to a local history site where someone was discussing the life of a Victorian woman who established a house of refuge for unmarried mothers and prostitutes. That woman happened to die in my house, though she did not own it. I think she must have been a friend of the residents. Anyway, it turns out that her refuge was called The House of Mercy  - and in the novel I’m writing now, the imaginary Victorian woman who lives in and owns my (real) house is a spiritualist medium whose name happens to be Mercy – almost as if another version of The House of Mercy.

Where do you write, and when?

For the first draft of a novel, I confess that I mostly write in bed. I have a little table on legs (an invalid, or breakfast table) and my laptop fits onto that perfectly. It’s very comfortable – if not a little embarrassing if people call in the middle of the afternoon, when I might have to answer the door while still in my pyjamas.

What is your favourite part of writing?

That first buzz of inspiration when the concept of story is so exciting that you simply can’t wait to start writing. It really is the best high in the world.
What do you do when you get blocked?

I go for a walk with the dog. 
I also find that if I take a few days off and go to stay somewhere completely then different ideas will suddenly flow again. It’s almost as if a change of scene allows the mind to free itself – or to see things in entirely different ways.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Oh, it’s almost too full. I have so many ideas that I would like to develop, and I know I’ll never have the time to take them all through to completion. If only novels didn’t take such a long time to write!

But, the things that I find most inspiring are almost always visual – films, scenery, paintings, objects seen on visits to museums. There will almost always be something which plants a seed in my imagination.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
No – only the first cup of coffee that I get up to make every morning. I don’t start to write at all until that coffee is there by my side
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Oh, ten doesn’t really seem enough and this is something that changes with me from day to day, or week to week. But, at the moment...

Wilkie Collins
Thomas Hardy
Muriel Spark
Graham Green
Angela Carter
Sarah Waters
Kate Atkinson
Rose Tremain
John Fowles

Angela Carter (image from The Scriptorium)

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Something that has a clever and intriguing plot, with characters that I can relate to. Something that moves me and enthralls me, and that makes me think – wow – if only I could do that. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write, write, write. But, also read, both the best in your chosen genre or style, but also as widely as you can.

Don’t try to write for the market. Publishing moves so slowly that by the time your novel is completed that ‘fashion’ may well be on its way out. Instead, write from your heart – what obsesses you – what you would love to read yourself. That passion will always shine through and help to make your work sparkle. 

What are you working on now? 

My third Victorian novel. It’s all about the theft of a sacred Indian diamond, with curses and prophecies and Hindu gods. There is a glamorous maharajah, and also a spiritualist medium, not to mention a charismatic villain and quite a lot of ghosts. It’s the most overtly paranormal novel that I’ve ever attempted to write. I’m having such fun with it.

I have to say it sounds wonderful!
Beverly Swerling commented on 31-May-2013 09:24 PM
God! How I love that "Mercy" story. That's the kind of serendipity that makes research feel like destiny. Thanks for a great interview, Kate. And thanks for your fascinating books, Essie Fox.
Marci Jefferson commented on 01-Jun-2013 02:07 AM
I love dark Victorian melodrama, but this sounds absolutely fascinating! Oh, and I love Rose Tremain!! Best of luck with The Somnambulist!
Kate Belle commented on 01-Jun-2013 09:17 AM
I love hearing about those synchronous writerly moments when the inner and outer meet. And I love the title of this one, so intriguing.
Stephanie Renee dos Santos commented on 01-Jun-2013 11:02 PM
Your novels sound interesting and I loved the story of serendipity, could it be that writers are "called" to retell/recreate certain stories? As I write historical fiction too and have some crazy tales of coincidence also! Great interview, thank you both blogger and author!


Stephanie Renee dos Santos

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