|Photo with kind permission of the author|
23 March 2013
Who or what inspired you to write your book Death and the City?
The idea was a belated response to hearing two talks. I heard Roger Luckhurst talking about London and gothic fiction at the Bishopsgate Institute, and Sarah Wise talking about the Italian Boy case at the Shoe Lane Library in the City (a case of Burking - killing people to obtain their bodies). Both spoke about London's burial practices and the attitude of the living toward the dead. As I was born and grew up next to a park which once was an independent Victorian cemetery, I'd been used to the closeness of the dead, but these two people's words lurked at the back of my mind and demanded a response.
I decided to address the question of the dead through fiction, partly because Catherine Arnold has written an excellent book called 'Necropolis' which charts London's funerary history from Roman times, but principally because with fiction you are allowed to access emotions and provoke reactions which cause the reader to experience the question in ways denied to the reader of non-fiction.
What was the writing process like and how long did it take you to write the first draft of Death and the City?
The collection took about a year to write. It was an interesting process, because I set myself the task of using only what I've called folk history. In other words, all the settings for the twelve stories are things I have learned from growing up in London; rather than reading around and finding things which would be interesting subjects for stories, I dredged my memories to provide subjects. This means, I hope, that there's more authenticity in the telling of each story. It also underlines my basic theme, which is that the closeness of the dead to the living in London embodies the closeness of the past to the present.
How did you research your subject matter, and what are you favourite methods of research?
Of course I used the internet, and there's a list of sites visited in my acknowledgements; I found old London maps particularly useful when getting my local geography straight and checking where you could and couldn't go. Having said this, the internet was used largely for fact-checking. Experience was at the heart of my research. Two of the stories are based on visits I made to Spitalfields Charnel House and Bromley Hall respectively with my friend Brad, who morphs into my husband (!) and a fellow academic in the stories, but I relied on my own memories for the other locations I've described, which I then redressed in period costume, as it were.
Also I picked on odds and ends. For instance, for the flyover story I watched two episodes of The Sweeney before I got started, to get into the linguistic mood, and the title 'Those Hot Venetians!' for a musical comedy version of Othello comes from an exhibition at the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton (it was a seventeenth century English glassmaker's assessment of the glassmakers of Murano in Venice). There are hints of others' works too. Cadfael intrudes ever so slightly into the medieval story, which also contains more than a nod to Peter Ackroyd, and there's a (genuinely accidental) hint of the dementor in the Tudor story.
I don't have a favourite method of research. You have to approach writing from so many different angles if you want it to have any depth or complexity. Accuracy of detail is important, of course, but it mustn't be slavish. This is fiction, and what matters to the reader is that he or she is taken into your mind and made to feel the things you feel when you think about your subject. They must experience the sights, the smells, the way things feel, as well as your emotions and reactions. If you're disgusted or horrified, happy or approving, they must be too, at least while they're reading. You only get this from going to places and from observing how people react to things.
London is a very special place - what is it about your book that will pique the reader's interest?
Apart from the variety of stories and settings, I hope that the reader will enjoy the authenticity of the portrayal of the areas of London covered in the book. Through research and personal experience, I have tried to evoke what these places feel like now and felt like then. As a tour guide, I know how there are so many stories lurking beneath the surfaces of London, and how unexpected they often are, so I have tried to give the reader not just an idea of the past, but also the knowledge that these stories are part of the city we know, and at least some of us love, today.
If you could meet one person from history, who would it be and why?
One of those awkward questions: there are so many. I'm tempted to say St Augustine: for a theologian who thought so deeply that he inspired and influenced so many thinkers after him, he was a supremely human person, and I think he would be a reassuring person to talk to. However, it has to be William Shakespeare. I know that his private life is a bit of a let-down when compared to his creative life, but he was a genius of a writer. I would love to hear how he spoke in everyday life, whether there was any hint of the richness of his written style, and whether his thoughts were as profound as his works suggest. It would be interesting to see whether he had any idea he would come to be so important to us, and whom he rated as better than him.
Of course I'd love to hear his anecdotes, they would be priceless: was Richard Burbage really such a good actor, and just how much of a pain in the bum was William Kempe? It would be fun as well to see what he would think of the alternative authorship question and of the candidates put forward. I think I can imagine what he'd say about the snobbery that thinks a middle-class boy from Warwickshire couldn't have written such good stuff!
Thanks again David for sharing so much of your time to answer our questions.
Jaffa and I wish you continued success with your writing.