We spoke to Imogen Hermes Gowar, author of our book of the month, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock...
What inspired you to write the novel?
While I was working at the British Museum, I started challenging myself to write little pieces of fiction inspired by the artefacts in the collections. The British Museum has a 'real' mermaid in its Enlightenment Gallery, and the story came to me almost fully-formed as I looked at it. Certainly my main character, Jonah Hancock and Angelica Neal, were there right from the beginning. I'd always been really interested in the eighteenth century and had read a lot about it, and the story made perfect sense set in that era. I really enjoyed my research process as a result, which I think is incredibly important - you have to love your subject if you want to stick with it.
Was it difficult to get published?
So much of selling a book is about being in the right place with the right manuscript at the right time, and I was very lucky that when it came to finding an agent and then a publisher for The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, things went very smoothly. I didn't have to deal with a lot of rejection with this particular book: the enthusiasm for it was wonderful, helped I think by the fact that historical fiction seems really popular right now.
On the other hand, I'd spent many years working towards that moment. I've got a great big rejections folder - which I'm still adding to - and a few failed novels under the bed. Learning to be a writer - of any sort, let alone one of any merit - was not easy, and it took most of my life. Perhaps it looks like an overnight success story, but for me it was like climbing a mountain, in tiny steps over years and years.
What motivates you as a writer?
I like to learn. I often start with a question - a dilemma, perhaps, or maybe just wondering what it might be like to be in a particular situation - and I set out to answer that question. It's investigative, for me. I try to put myself in other people's shoes, and when I have a moment when the curtain lifts - when I feel I can really understand why somebody might hold a particular opinion, however different it is to my own - that's when writing feels like a success to me. The world is so big and there are so many things I'll never experience; the best I can do is empathise.
Where do you write?
At a big farmhouse table in our rather small London flat. The table has accompanied me through several homes, ostensibly for eating at (it's hosted many a dinner party, to be fair), but I like to have a lot of space about me when I write, and the dining room is usually where it's at. I hate sitting at a cramped little desk pushed up against a blank wall. I quite often light an oil burner or a scented candle. That sounds very fancy, but when your workspace is in your home it's far too easy to write in your pyjamas and eat leftover takeaway for lunch, so I think there is something to be said for making it pleasant and special.
Which writers have influenced you?
I have so much admiration for Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. Both achieve real perfection in their novels, and I read them as a study as well as a pleasure. The louche, savage, dark short stories of Saki occupy a very special place in my heart, but I think the most direct influence on my own work has been Claire Tomalin, whose biographies of Dora Jordan and Jane Austen brought the late eighteenth century - and women's place in it - alive for me. I can't imagine I'd have written The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock without her scholarship.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock. Barber was born into slavery in Jamaica and given to Samuel Johnson at the age of about ten. Once freed, Barber continued to live with Johnson for most of the rest of his life, ending up the chief beneficiary of his will. Barber's story illuminates the lives of the eighteenth century's several thousand Black Londoners, now forgotten or unreachable. Culturally we imagine we have a very clear idea of slavery and empire, but actually we know very little of the quite knotty legal and social position of free Black people in Britain: the limitations placed upon them, and their striving for personal fulfilment and recognition. It's a very readable book and very important, not least in acknowledging that Britain has never been racially homogenous.
What would you be if you were not a writer?
An aspiring writer? Actually, I'd have loved to be an osteoarchaeologist. It's another way of connecting with humans who lived long ago. I studied archaeology, anthropology and art history for my BA, and worked in museums for years, so I can't imagine a life in which I wouldn't be thinking about history in some way.
Read more book reviews and author interviews from the TOAST Book Club.
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