Why did you decide to go for a purely historical novel, after your last few have been dual narratives?
Iris and Ruby and The Kashmir Shawl were dual narratives, Constance and Lovers and Newcomers were single-strand, so I tend to dip around a bit. Going back to earlier novels The White Dove and All My Sins Remembered, for example, have historical settings so this isn’t a first for me. I was attracted by this period of late Victorian history – and I chose it deliberately – because it was a period of change. Increasing economic prosperity for a wider section of people meant that there was money to spend on leisure pursuits like theatre, there was more public transport, and most importantly women were beginning to demand more of a voice. Eliza Dunlop wants to break out of the narrow world she has been born into, and this is the story of how she achieves it.
What was it about the world of the illusionists that attracted you to set a novel amongst them?
I became fascinated by stage magic when I was writing about Rainer Stamm, the mountaineer-magician (and spy) in The Kashmir Shawl. The more I read about the classic devices of illusion – disguise, distraction, misdirection and so on – the more I thought about the parallels with fiction itself. What is real, and what do we imagine?
What sort of research did you have to do? Are any of the characters based on real theatre folk?
I did a lot of reading, for example about the new science of the period. Electricity was coming into general use and illusionists and illusionists employed it in creating new tricks to dazzle audiences. There was a famous dynasty of stage musicians called the Maskelynes, who had a theatre called The Egyptian Hall in the Strand, London. I drew a little on these real-life people and places, and I also thought of Wilton’s Music Hall in the east end when I was picturing the Palmyra in the book.
The book is quite creepily Gothic in places, are you a fan of the Gothic? Did any authors or classic texts inspire your writing?
It was fun to create a slightly Gothic atmosphere – those gaslit, Ripper-haunted streets and alleys – so there’s Dickens, of course, and Mary Shelley, and there’s a fabulously creepy story called The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann that influenced me when I was writing Heinrich Bayer and his Lucie.
Was it strange basing a book in this country? I know you are a very keen traveller.
Not really. ‘The past is another country’, after all.
Do you see this as the start of a new direction to your writing? Are you researching another historical novel at the moment?
Maybe. In a way I hope so because I don’t want to be writing the same book over and over again. At the moment I’m engrossed in the second part of The Illusionists. There should be a line on the last page saying ‘to be continued…’
After that, I have an idea for a big project that combines history and a wildly exotic setting. I can’t really say any more about it yet.