Michael Gallagher in conversation with Joan Taylor, author of the critically acclaimed Conversations with Mr. Prain and the historical The Englishman, the Moor and the Holy City, about the first Lizzie Blaylock novel, The Bridge of Dead Things:
JT: What made you want to write a Gothic mystery novel for young people?
MG: When I was thirteen there was hardly any transitional fiction (which would now be called young adult fiction) to bridge the gap between children’s books and those meant for adults. Unlike today, where there is so much choice, you went straight from The Chronicles of Narnia to To Kill A Mockingbird. Quite a culture shock, believe me, even to a keen reader, which I was. So when I started trying to write a novel, I was determined to pen something that my thirteen-year-old self would have loved—to make up for what I missed out on—and I’ve always loved a good mystery! The Gothic element came about when I was fishing around for ideas and happened to catch a short documentary about Victorian séances on television. In it the psychologist Richard Wiseman talked about the medium Florence Cook and her relationship with the highly respected pioneering physicist Sir William Crookes. Florence Cook would get tied up behind a curtain and go into a trance, and then out would pop the materialized “spirit” of Katie King, purporting to be the daughter of a buccaneer pirate. Amazingly, Sir William, who had been investigating psychic phenomena since the early 1870’s, put Florence to the test and pronounced her abilities to be genuine. I was fascinated! How could an intelligent, sophisticated man like Crookes be taken in by such obvious hokum? I began to see a possible plot forming, but with the roles reversed: a relatively innocent young medium with genuine powers (which she doesn’t yet know how to use) and a manipulative, scheming impresario who tries to bend her to his will, set against the potentially creepy backdrop of Victorian séances. Soon a number of other classic Gothic strands were starting to sneak in: the mad woman in the attic, the hunt for the accursed jewels, the restless spirit seeking vengeance for his or her murder.
JT: Do you believe we can communicate with the dead?
MG: To be perfectly honest, no. But I do think that the dead occasionally try to communicate with us! I remember once being woken, as was another member of my family, by the smell of toast being cooked—though in reality there was no toast, nor was there anyone in the kitchen. In my own mind, I’m quite sure it was the spirit of my grandmother letting us know she was still thinking of us. Many eminent Victorians did believe, however, and when writing this novel, one of the more interesting questions I had to tackle was: what on earth would the dead possibly want to say to us? It occurred to me that they’d probably come out with exactly the same things that they said when they were alive. A bit of an anti-climax really. Bearing this in mind, there’s a wonderful if throwaway line in the book when Albert’s explaining his difficulty mimicking men’s voices and makes the observation, “Lucky for me…it’s not very often that women ask to speak to their dead husbands”!
JT: What is Lizzie’s biggest hope?
MG: It’s something that Lizzie would never consciously acknowledge—in fact she would vehemently deny it—but the truth is she’d hope to learn that it was not her who drove her mother away from home and the bosom of the family. Secretly she’d like to be able to blame this on Mary, her sickly sister who always needed constant care and attention as an infant—and, of course, this makes Lizzie feel extremely guilty. Although she appears to worry about her sister throughout most of the novel, I think it’s quite telling that she never once reports a thing that Mary says. Lizzie’s biggest conscious hope, however, would involve her gaining some control over her roller-coaster life. She’s happiest when her days are ordered and predictable and she has a set of safe, well-rehearsed routines to follow. It seems kind of mean that I never give Lizzie her heart’s desire, but that’s what drama is: preventing or delaying your characters from achieving their goals.
JT: What is the scariest thing in this novel?
MG: The scariest thing? Oh, that’s easy. Mrs Silver and her husband. You’re never quite sure with them what is real and what is not. Though you’re invited to buy into Simeon’s version of events, that what they do is some kind of grisly ventriloquist act, by the point where he says this, Simeon has lost a certain amount of credibility, so, like Lizzie, you sense that there really is something truly disturbing afoot. They’re the stuff of nightmares. I had amazing fun writing their sections of the book. The minute you set foot in their two-room apartment in the heart of bleakest Soho, you are so far from normality that anything can happen—and I made sure that it did!
JT: If you were to describe Victorian London in three words, what would they be?
MG: Soiled, drunken, and bruised—all words, in fact, that Lizzie associates with the pear smell that comes upon her when she’s about to have a fit—not that she herself would ever use them to describe her own city! Even so, at least part of her brain is aware that Victorian London is a gloomy, sunless place, with an undercurrent of violence that is barely suppressed.
JT: Why the smell of pears?
MG: I wanted a very distinctive taste and smell that would immediately cue the readers that something was about to happen—in this case, one of Lizzie’s fits. After linking the smell of pears with her fits a couple of times, I only needed to mention the word “pears” and everyone would know what was coming next. It’s the writers’ equivalent of a leitmotif in classical music. Pears were the perfect choice for this because they have such a complex range of scents. Some varieties can be almost nauseatingly floral, and, when ripe, will give off the unmistakable whiff of alcohol. Out of interest, I use the same device in the second Lizzie Blaylock book, The Scarab Heart, where the arrival of the Egyptian god, Amun, is always heralded by a certain smell. It’s a great way of telling people what’s going on without actually having to say it outright. The readers get to know things that the characters don’t.
JT: Is Lizzie Blaylock dangerous?
MG: Most definitely! And she knows it, too—hence her reaction at the end of the novel. Frankly, I think it’s a tribute to her that she doesn’t go on the rampage, smiting all of her enemies. Maybe one day she will! In the fifth book, perhaps? Though it’s a wonder she’s not doing so by the third…