Taking her cue – Rosie Garland interviewed about The Palace of Curiosities

The Palace of Curiosities, Rosie Garland‘s debut novel, is a great read (review here). She was kind enough to answer some questions that I had about the book. As well as an author, she is a poet, cabaret artiste and a member of the band, the March Violets. The novel is long listed for the Desmond Elliott prize.

How far does your background in cabaret and Goth help in the exploration of the strange and the ways of expressing identity?

I’ve said this before – but central to my work is my fascination with outsiders; whoever they might be. If you look at my writing – whether poetry or fiction – it often explores themes of difference. I’m interested in characters who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates they have been provided, and the friction that occurs when they try. I know that comes from always having felt like an outsider myself.

What, or who, are your influences for this novel?

I was inspired by the life and struggles of Julia Pastrana, a nineteenth century Mexican woman who suffered from hypertrichosis terminalis, where the body is completely covered with thick hair. Discovered by an entrepreneur who billed her as The Ugliest Woman in the World, she toured the USA and Europe. She died three days after giving birth to his child. This proved inconvenient for her widower, who promptly had her stuffed, along with her infant son, so that he could continue to exhibit her.

However, my novel isn’t a re-telling of her story. I wanted to create new characters who would tell their own stories – the result is Eve, the Lion-Faced Girl and Abel, the mysterious Flayed Man, who are the star attractions at Professor Arroner’s Astonishing Palace of Curiosities.

I found it interesting that Abel resists being written when the tattooing fails, as does his memory of his own past. Was this an experiment in how somebody might create themselves in an absence of data or self-knowledge?

A question that has always intrigued me is what it would really be like to live forever. I’ve never felt particularly satisfied with the fictional explorations I’ve read, which veer between polarities of eternal partying and angst. Personally, I think it would be unbearable; one would only manage the weight of innumerable memories by forgetting. Which is how Abel copes.

I got the sense that Eve and Abel are almost elemental, certainly closer to their nature. Both of them just are, and do not appear to take on extra masks in comparison to Josiah Arroner or the visitors to his place who pretend to be civilised. Is this an expression of the carnival, that it allows masks to be dropped or identities demonstrated in other ways?

It’s no mistake that the characters who regard themselves as ‘normal’ (Alfred and Josiah Arroner, for example) are the ones with the most to hide. They are the ones who are engaged in a struggle to conceal dangerous secrets about themselves.

How much research did you need to do to create the London and the tantalising glimpses of Abel’s history?

The question of research is one that could be discussed for hours, and each writer would have a different approach! It’s true that I am fascinated by history, and read a lot of non-fiction for pleasure. However, I am very careful not to fall into the trap of letting research dominate. That way I’d not get any writing done…

Is the use of Eve as a name a way of writing against the notion of Original Sin, in that she moves the world on after the fire and creates a world based on real knowledge and desire?

No, is the simple answer.

But your question demonstrates just how much each reader brings to a novel – and that’s the magic of fiction. People read into a story what they will: whether it’s finding personal significance in a character’s name, or perceiving meaning in a character’s actions that the author did not intend.

I chose Eve because it was my grandmother’s name – simple as that.

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