Friday, January 26, 2024

Q&A with Essie Fox




Essie Fox is the author of the new novel The Fascination. Her other books include The Somnambulist. She also created the blog The Virtual Victorian, and she's based in the UK.


Q: What inspired you to write The Fascination, and how did you create your characters Theo, Matilda, and Keziah?


A: I've always been fascinated by the world of the stage and presenting as “other” than oneself - whether by acting and singing, or in less conventional forms of entertainment, such as the acts in rural fairground shows that Matilda and Keziah are involved in at the start of the novel – and then the more glamorous pantomime world of the Victorian London theatres that their adventures lead them to, and in which Matilda plays the part of a panto “fairy queen,” becoming something of a star.


Another form of “entertainment” in the Victorian era was the lure of the freak shows in which people born with physical abnormalities were often displayed before the public as a source of horror or amusement. Theo himself enters this world when he grows up and is employed in an anatomy museum based on one that did exist in London's Oxford Street.


As to my inspiration for the characters themselves, I'm really not sure how they came into existence. They seemed to pop into my mind as fully-formed individuals. From that point on, I was compelled to write their stories down.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I research through library books, sometimes second-hand books found in shops, museums, exhibitions, and also via the internet. The London Library in the UK is a wonderful resource that also offers online documents.


For The Fascination I also spent some time at the Wellcome Collection in London, and I visited the online archives of the V&A - where a lot of stage and entertainment information is available.


One thing I learned that really surprised me was the existence of a Victorian anatomy museum in a shop in Oxford Street. I'd imagined such a place in my mind, but then to discover the real one - to read the newspaper reports that featured it, and to see the printed advertisements - made my scenes come to vivid life.


Something else I learned was that another of the novel's settings - a house that once stood in Chiswick, very near to the river Thames - had in real life been the home of the publisher who first printed the scandalous Georgian novel known as Fanny Hill.


How could I resist the lure of mentioning that in my novel - and even sharing some snippets of that book while one of my characters is reading it?

Q: The Foreword review of the book said, in part, “Exalting those whom society relegates to the shadows and exposing those who do vulnerable people harm, this is an enchanting story set in an erstwhile world marked by voyeurism, showmanship, and superstition.” What do you think of that description?


A: It's a very fitting description. The element of superstition is something I find “fascinating,” with the idea of gypsy curses, and then of old country cures and fake medicines being crucial to my twin sisters' upbringings, and what happens to them in the earlier chapters.


But my main inspiration for the story was a dear friend who was born “different” to other people. She is such a shining light who brings joy to everyone who knows her, and I wanted to create a character imbued with those same qualities.


That is how Tilly - who is exceptionally small and would have been termed as a midget in Victorian times - came into existence.


At the same time, I'd been reading about other human “wonders” of the era, and that's how I discovered more about the business of the freak shows - when those with unusual physical deformities or affected by medical conditions were paraded around the fairgrounds and circuses for the sake of entertainment.


The Fascination is a story that follows the lives of such characters and shows their sufferings and triumphs, as opposed to some of the people bent on exploiting or abusing them. I hope the novel manages to throw a light on society's cruelty and inequalities, bringing with it some sense of justice.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Yes. Whenever I begin to write a novel I always know the opening chapter, and I have a very clear idea of the end. I will also have the general sense of a “theme” in my mind, but as to how my characters get from the start to the end will still be a mystery to me.


I tend to write instinctively and let the story and characters “guide” me. The method does involve taking some wrong turns at times, deciding another path would be far more suitable. But it's also a way of writing myself even more deeply into a plot. I do enjoy the total immersion - of living in my imaginary worlds.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm just coming to the end of a historical crime thriller, which is a little different for me. My novels always involved wrongdoings or crimes to some extent, but this new novel is placed more specifically in the crime genre.


However, it's still very gothic in tone, being based on Lord Byron, one of England's most famous Romantic poets - someone both reviled and revered. The setting of this novel is Venice, literally dripping with atmosphere.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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