Today's post is an interview with novelist, poet, singer and performer, Rosie Garland. Rosie has enjoyed an eclectic career, ranging from singing in post-punk gothic band The March Violets, through touring with the Subversive Stitch exhibition in the 90s to her alter-ego Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen, cabaret chanteuse and mistress of ceremonies. She has published five solo collections of poetry and her award-winning short stories, poems and essays have appeared in a number of anthologies and collections. She is winner of the DaDa Award for Performance Artist of the Year and a Poetry Award from the People's Café, New York. She also won the Mslexia Novel competition in 2012 and her debut novel The Palace of Curiosities was released in March 2013 by HarperCollins.
I first met Rosie when we were both involved with Commonword, in Manchester, and our work was included in the Transparency poetry anthology. We also worked together on the Hic Dragones Wolf-Girls anthology, which included Rosie's short story 'Cut and Paste'. Recently, Rosie wrote a guest post for a short blog series on women and body hair that I hosted on this site.
Today though, I want to find out more about Rosie's award-winning debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities.
Rosie Garland: I'll try to keep this brief! As it says on my book blurb, I have always been a cuckoo in the nest. I've been writing and performing for as long as I can remember – I've recently found a stash of miniature books I wrote for my dolls, and an early performance memory is playing an Elf Queen in school at the age of five. I sing as well – whether that's in post-punk gothic band The March Violets or alternative cabaret character Rosie Lugosi. I've published five solo collections of poetry and my award-winning short stories, poems and essays have been widely anthologized.
SW: Life sounds pretty exciting, then!
RG: Life has been particularly exciting since I won the inaugural Mslexia Novel Competition in 2012. As a result, my debut novel The Palace of Curiosities was published in March 2013 by HarperCollins. And in 2010 I was given the all-clear from throat cancer. So all in all I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
SW: Let's talk about The Palace of Curiosities, what's the book about?
RG: The Palace of Curiosities is set in early Victorian London. It is about what it’s like to live on the boundaries of what is perceived as human, the struggle to remember and hang onto who and what we are, and just how important that is. It is told through the eyes of Eve, the Lion-Faced Girl and is interwoven with the story of Abel, who is also an outsider – just not in such an obvious way. But both of them are freaks of nature, and both are searching for escape. The novel explores life on the fringes of society, what it means to be different, and traces their struggle for self-discovery on the boundaries of what is perceived as human.
SW: Where did the idea come from? Were there any particular sources of inspiration?
RG: I was inspired by the life and struggles of Julia Pastrana, a nineteenth century Mexican woman completely covered with thick hair. However, The Palace of Curiosities isn't a re-telling of her story. I wanted to create new characters, and the result was Eve, the Lion-Faced Girl and Abel, the mysterious Flayed Man. It's set in an early Victorian sideshow, but unlike a number of other circus novels (like Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus) I wanted the 'freaks' to speak for themselves. They tell their own story – it felt very important that they spoke in first person rather than having someone else speak for them.
SW: Did you do much historical research?
RG: 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...
SW: Between The Palace of Curiosities, your story in Wolf-Girls and your guest post on this blog, I'm noticing a bit of a theme... what is it that fascinates you about hairy girls?
RG: Women's relationship with their hair is particularly fraught – we mustn't have too much, and we sure as hell shouldn't have too little. I discovered this when I was diagnosed with throat cancer whilst working on the first draft of the novel. I lost all of my hair, and lived the reality of female baldness, which I discovered was just as laden with judgments about what is acceptable and what is 'freakish'.
SW: Did that have an impact on the creation of your protagonist, Eve?
RG: This informed and influenced the creation of Eve. I took the concept of female hairiness to its logical extreme. Eve has hypertrichosis, a condition where the entire body is covered in a thick mat of hair. Her 'difference' is overwhelmingly visible, yet she is determined to get by on her own terms. She does not shave herself to pass for human. She fends off exploitation, discovers fulfilment, self-expression and self-reliance. I've been told that Eve's hairiness can be seen as an interesting analogy for being queer in a heteronormative world. I'm happy if she makes one person think about what it means to be female and have body hair.
SW: The Palace of Curiosities is certainly making its mark - top of the Waterstone's hardback fiction chart and nominated for the 2013 Desmond Elliott prize in its first couple of months - but could you tell me a bit about the book's 'birth'? How did it get from idea to the top of Waterstone’s charts? Was it an easy journey?
RG: How long have you got? I'll give the short version of what has been a very long journey. I'd been with an agency for twelve years, and had given them four novels. But however hard I tried (and did I try), however hard I worked on editorial suggestions, nothing seemed good enough. Twelve years of can-you-make-it-more? can-you-make-it-less? No one could accuse me of not trying.
SW: That sounds pretty dispiriting - you must've felt like giving up at times.
RG: I had pretty much given up on the idea of writing fiction. My agent had stopped replying to my emails and my confidence was shot. I realized that if I was going to get anywhere it would be under my own steam. So I entered the Mslexia Novel Competition. And won it. That was the turning point. It boosted my confidence as a writer more than I can describe. It's taken twelve years to get to this point – a bumpy and at times demoralizing ride, with a lot of rejections.
SW: But an amazing result, after all that?
RG: This news is, quite simply, breathtaking. I'm still pinching myself to check it isn't a dream.
SW: You're known for many things (music, poetry, performance, short stories, essays... the list really does go on...), what made you decide to make the move to novelist?
RG: It wasn't something I consciously sat down and decided to do. When I'm asked 'how long have you been writing?' the answer is 'always'. I wrote my first novel when I was aged nine. It was a thrilling adventure involving super-heroines battling sharks and other dangers. With pictures.
SW: Do you find novel-writing different to other forms of writing?
RG: It's very different to writing poetry. An easy answer would be to compare a novel to a marathon and a poem to a 100 metre sprint – but that's not quite it. Sure, a novel takes far longer to write (unless you are a very slow poem writer indeed). The only way I can describe it is that it feels like I use different parts of my brain when writing poetry and fiction.
SW: I'm interested to know what sort of things you like to read. You mentioned reading non-fiction for pleasure, but do you have any favourite fiction writers?
RG: I'm an avid reader of non-fiction, especially the history of medicine. But I have very eclectic tastes – maybe it's easiest if I say what is currently on my bedside table: Tove Jansson's Tales from Moominvalley, a History of Ossuaries, Sarah Hymas's poetry collection Host, Ivor Brown's Chosen Words, Aesop’s Fables, and The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth.
SW: Quite the eclectic collection! So... what's next from Rosie Garland? Can we look forward to another novel?
RG: Most definitely! I don't just have any old novel deal with HarperCollins, it's a two-book deal. I am currently very busy on the second. Don't want to say too much about its themes yet, but it will involve people who don't fit. As I've said elsewhere, 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.
SW: Cool - I'll look forward to finding out more in due course. Thanks for talking to me today, Rosie. Before you go, I'd be mad not to ask one final question (even if it is a bit of cliché... do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
RG: Don’t give up. If you are determined to be a novelist – do it. Practise your craft. Find ways to nourish and support yourself. Don’t just accept feedback - seek it out and use it. In addition – when faced with a decision, I have this question I ask myself. How long will I be dead? It helps get me off my arse. Cancer sure put things in startlingly clear perspective. There's nothing like getting a glimpse of your sell-by date to provide a boot up the backside. Don't put it off. Write that poem, that novel, that opera, that play. Do it now.
The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland is published by HarperCollins and available now from all good bookshops.