Posts Tagged ‘interview’
I am a devotee of novels set in the ancient world and much of my reading centres around that period, though over the past few years I have strayed more and more outside my comfort zone. I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the darker side of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with that I’ve found a resurgence of my old love of mysteries and whodunnits. Action and adventure novels set in the Victorian era have to be truly exceptional to attract me, but I am becoming a sucker for a good 19th century mystery. D. E. Meredith, Essie Fox and Robin Blake are some recent highlights.
How nice to have discovered another author who knows how to weave an enthralling mystery in such a dark and fascinating world. Dark Asylum is actually Thomson’s second novel and, while I have not read the first, I will now have to remedy that. I’m sure I’m in for a treat.
Thomson conjures up a dark and chilling world full of vivid and memorable characters all bound up in a (in this case certainly) complex plot that kept me guessing right to the end. Actually, I thought I had it pinned down twice and was wrong both times, which is nice to experience. And despite the darkness of the setting and the subject matter, Thomson manages to interject just enough quirky humour to keep the book a hearty read that drew me back in every spare minute. In fact, while there are moments in the book that made me squirm a little, there were also moments that made me chuckle out loud and note down the page number to repeat a humorous passage to my wife.
Dark Asylum takes us on a voyage through the world of Victorian madness, its diagnosis and treatment, the institutions that dealt with it and the world from which it sprang. There are doctors here both likeable and dreadful, who are experimenting with phrenology, drugs, lobotomies, therapeutic treatments and so much more. It is a world of medical upheaval and change, and not all of that change is pleasant or tasteful. One thing worthy particularly of note is the characters. They are both vivid and interesting, and they are each memorable and individual, which is not always the case in such a genre.
It is not until about 1/4 of the way through the book that we begin the true mystery, though the lead up to this point, introducing the characters and their world, is made all the more relevant by a side-tale running throughout, telling the backstory of our villain. That information is slowly released throughout, and never too early. Best of all, the unveiling of the truth towards the end is another corkscrew of twists and surprises.
This is, quite simply, a cracking book and deserves to be read. Go get yourself a copy. And as an extra treat, I have been in contact with the publisher and E. S. Thomson agreed to answer a few questions for me, so if the review alone has not tempted you to delve into Jem Flockhart’s adventures, have a little peek into the mind behind them…
* * * *
Are the locations in Dark Asylum based on real buildings either extant or now-vanished? Do you visit buildings of the period to flesh out your vision in preparation for describing them?
In this case no, I didn’t. I made everything up or used books of the period that described places. The apothecary, the asylum, the convict transport ship are all out of my own head but based on what I read. I have been in a Victorian asylum building – I used to work in one (Craighouse, in Edinburgh) – and very grand it was too. But it was built in the 1870s, and Angel Meadow was an old asylum, from before the asylum building programmes of the 1870s and 1880s. Most of these sorts of places – smaller asylums – no longer exist.
Dark Asylum is set in a harsh and very dark world. The Victorian London of which you write is a Gothic masterpiece of gloom, misery and wickedness. Given both this and the grisly subject of which you were writing, how do you attempt (and clearly succeed) in lightening the tone with moments of humour? It must be something of a balancing act.
Actually, I find I do get tired of the gloom and darkness. And at those points, just when it seems too much, I put in some humour – mainly to give the reader a rest. I think that people are often absurd, even when they try not to be. Dr Mothersole and his curious ideas for treating the mad, or Mrs Roseplucker, the brothel-keeper who turned to writing Penny Dreadfuls, were very easy to do. As you say, the difficult bit is knowing when do do it, for how long, and when to stop. Did I succeed? I’ll let others be the judge
I was interested to see how far you pushed the boundaries in this novel in places. Is there anything about the era or setting that you are tempted to write out, or are uneasy about describing?
I suppose it depends where you think those boundaries are. I’m uneasy about describing child prostitution – which is probably why I had the child who was pimped by her mother leap out of the bed and beat her would-be rapist to death with a poker before he had chance to do anything to her.
You have some truly colourful characters in Dark Asylum, a number of which I loved. Do you find it difficult to create characters who stand out so when the setting of your books is an era of conformity and often drab uniformity?
No I don’t find it difficult. I think there were more eccentric people in this period than people realise. What is difficult is finding roles for women that are not boring or completely anachronistic. I got round this by having a cross-dressing main character. But if you want feisty women in your novel (and I do), this is not as straightforward as it is when writing a novel set in the present.
Jem is an interesting character and I found myself often wondering how she gets by without accidentally revealing her true gender. Clearly there are moments in the book where people have an inkling, but presumably you are limited in the situations you can describe (for instance having to share a room/bathroom with someone?)
Jem is based on James Barry, who spent her life dressed as a man, and practiced medicine as such in the British Army for her whole working life. Barry graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university some 40 or so years before women were permitted to study medicine. Clearly, if she could live her life disguised as a man in such a male environment then I can manage it for Jem in a novel. She doesn’t share a room, so that’s never a problem. Some people seem to guess than Jem is disguised – but no one ever comes out with it and says “you are a woman!” – so you never really know whether they have worked it out or not.
Your first Jem Flockfart novel was set in the same locale as this, and I note from the back matter of the book that your next is also set in London. Are you not tempted to set a novel somewhere more familiar to you (Lancashire or Lothian for example?) Edinburgh clearly has rich pickings in the Victorian era
I left Lancashire 30 years ago, so it is not familiar to me at all anymore. As for Edinburgh, in fact, almost all of the medical history details in the books are Scottish – mainly because I know about it thanks to my PhD, and also because Scottish medicine and medical education were surprisingly dominant in this period. Scotland punches well above its weight in the history of medicine. So in fact i am using a lot of Scottish detail. However, I set the books in London because I wanted a large anonymous city, much of which has been rebuilt since the 1850s, rather than the smaller more intimate locations of Edinburgh, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. I based the location of the first Jem story on St Thomas’s hospital in London, which was indeed knocked down to make way for a railway in the late 1840s. Yes, I know Edinburgh intimately – I’ve been here for 30 years, but I didn’t want so distinctive a place to have a central part in the novel. London in this period was massive, stinking, sprawling – and undergoing great change. I wanted all this in my novel. Besides, Edinburgh is currently very well represented by historical novelists. As a result, I don’t think the pickings are as rich as you might think.
A frivolous one to finish: what do you like to read for leisure.
Crime fiction mostly – Sherlock Holmes is an old favouite. At the moment I’m reading Chris Brookmyre.
* * * *
Thank you, Elaine, for your time. There you go, folks. Buy Dark Asylum and immerse yourself in a great read.
You may have missed my review of Anthony Riches’ latest epic a week or two back, but if you did, here’s a little treat for you. I’ve been treated to a nice little Q&A session with the author himself. Hopefully if you’ve not read my reviews or possibly even his books, this interesting and enlightening little interview will push you to doing so. After all, the Empire series continues to ride at the crest of the wave of current Historical Fiction.
My blog reviews of the last four books can be found here:
and my goodreads reviews of the previous three here:
So without further ado (ron ron ron, ado ron ron), here’s a little peek into the mind of the man behind this fantastic series:
Q. In ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ you take significant steps towards dealing with some of the background plot that has underlay the entire series so far. Did you consciously decide to bring the series over the last few books to a position where that could happen, or did the progress of the series serendipitously put you in a position to deal with it?
A. I have a masterplan…*smiles smugly*…*then looks shifty*…oh alright, no I don’t, not really. What I do have is a load of history books and an overactive subconscious. The way it works is that I read the histories, find a relevant fact, and then off we go. So, for example:
**spoiler alert** (don’t read this if you’ve not read book 6 yet!)
it’s recorded that a consignment of coins stamped with a head that wasn’t the emperor’s was at the root of the death of a certain praetorian prefect in about AD185 – and so it wasn’t rocket science to draw a line from Dacia (where the gold came from), through Britannia (where it was intended to be used in the purchase of legionary loyalty) to Rome (where the Tungrians take it to see justice done)
**spoiler over, (bet you wish you hadn’t read it now, don’t you!)
Picture me in the Henhouse (writing hidey hole) grinning with smug pleasure as my “cunning plan” came together without conscious volition.
And you thought it was all cleverly planned, eh? What do you mean, ‘no, I didn’t’? Harrumph.
Q. In book 7, your locations are more vivid and intricate than ever before. How important to you is it to visit a place that you are going to write about first?
Hugely. I’ve been to all of the locations. All over northern England and southern Scotland, Belgium (Tungria), Rome several times…the only place I’ve not been is Romania (Dacia), just because I ran out of time – did it show, I wonder? And of course I’ve not yet been to…ah, but you don’t want to know where book 8’s set, now do you?
Q. Was it a whole new experience after 6 books which revolved strongly around military campaigning on the empire’s borders to instead work on something more intrigue based in the great city? And given a choice, which do you prefer?
A. Both (**copout alert**). It was a huge change, and I loved it, but it gives me big problems in book 8 from a ‘getting back to basics’ perspective. I’m like a farm boy who’s seen the big city and then has to go back to his plough… Although it’s nice to get the Tungrians back on stage, especially my latest soldier character, ‘Jesus’. You’ll know why they call him that when you meet him!
Q. Your books contain a few historical characters as well as your fictional ones, such as Commodus, Cleander and Clodius Albinus. How do you go about deconstructing the myths about those people and then assembling them to portray within your story?
A. What I actually do is a mixture of debunking as much myth as I can (for example, the revisionist view of Perennis is that he was probably doing a decent job of being emperor in the absence of Commodus showing any interest) with the reality of needing characters who can fit into my version of the late second century (which mean that he is also the man commanding the loyalty of the Knives). I think the two approaches can co-exist pretty well. Clodius Albinus was reputed to be ‘the best of men’, but who can say what was motivating the writer, in an age where you had to get paid to be able to afford to write, and there were no pubic institutions to do the paying, which only left individuals – like Clodius Albinus! And after all, this is fiction!
Q. Although the bulk of the Roman military was made up of auxiliary forces and native units, the most famous fighting force was the legions and it is with them that 90% of the public will immediately identify when they think of Rome. What prompted you to write about the less famous auxilia than the legions?
A. I just felt it was time someone had a try at them, and it was great fun. After all, it was the auxiliaries who did the lion’s share of the fighting by the time of this series, so the first time one of my characters called the legions ‘roadmenders’ there was a real snigger in it for me. Mind you, that might rebound on the Tungrians at some point. They may not be auxiliaries for ever, you know!
Q. Book 8 looks to be set in the east. Beyond that, what does the future hold for ‘Two Knives’ and his companions?
A. Another 25 years of war on every frontier, civil war, the biggest battle of the second century which lasted two days (TWO DAYS!!!), a military strongman, treachery, honour and blood. Lots of blood!
So thank you to Tony for that and a reminder that book 7 (The Emperor’s Knives) is out now in hardback and book 6 (The Eagle’s Vengeance) is released in paperback tomorrow.