Sarah Perry talks to Alexander “The Engineer” Lim, host of AuthorStory by alvinwriter.com about her book, The Essex Serpent.
“I had a lot of rejection and I had a lot of failure, but I carried on.” ~Sarah Perry
After Me Comes the Flood, came out in 2014, with The Essex Serpent, her second novel, coming out two years later.
Sarah admits that she didn’t know what she was doing when she wrote After Me Comes the Flood, comparing the experience to having one’s teeth pulled out and returned again. Her experience with writing The Essex Serpent was a lot easier, as she was able to get three or four of the main characters and the main plotline set out during 45 minutes of a car ride with her husband. The novel is based on a legend of a mysterious beast / monstrous serpent which terrorized Essex villages, and she decided to place it in the Victorian era, as this was a time of scientific discovery and social turbulence.
Sarah noted that people today tend to think of the Victorian Age as being ancient and quaint, but in reality, by the 1890s, England was already modern, with the London Underground already having been in operation for thirty years, anaesthesia was given for dental work and to pregnant women for delivering babies, the Embankment in London was lit up with electric lights and there was a lot of social and intellectual ideas that were coming into play, such as feminism and the ideas of Marx and Engels. Sarah wanted to show the Victorians to be as progressive as they were, instead of the image that is commonly attributed to them. She already had some grounding of the Victorian Era and researched to ensure the correctness of the ideas she had on the era, and made sure that she researched only enough to make sure the characters and era rang true, one example of which was watching YouTube videos of surgery to make the doctor character come true.
Sarah acknowledges that her characters come to mind as strongly as if she knew them very well, and that the relationships amongst the characters is something that she is more involved in creating, as she is interested in the nature of intimacy, friendship and attachment. She created the character of Francis, which is the son of the main female character, would be characterized as autistic today, to see how people would react to him before a time when autism was a recognized condition as well as for people to think about their own behavior. Sarah also wrote her main female characters, Cora and Martha, to correct the misconceptions people today have about women in the Victorian era, pointing out that women were active in politics and social justice, math, science and medicine by the time of the novel’s period setting. She pointed out that Victorian age lots of women were interested in Marx and Engels because the philosophies of the latter two attempted to create equality in society, which women subscribed to, as they weren’t socially equal to men.
Sarah acknowledges that she is interested in a lot of things and that she puts some of these in her books, and that people who are interested in these same things - such as medical science, socialism, the natural world, relationships, the Victorian age - can find these in The Essex Serpent. She remarks that her first novel was rejected by 19 publishers, which goes against the impression that successful novelists have always been successful novelists. As she tells audiences in literary festivals, “If you’re a writer and you’re getting knocked back, told you’re not good enough, well, so was I.”
Purchase from Amazon: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry