Article published on July 7, 2017.
Reviewer Sara read and loved Natasha’s new novel, The Bedlam Stacks, so we put the two together to find out more…
Sara Garland: Congratulations on your success with your debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree. It was great to have the opportunity to read your second book, The Bedlam Stacks, which I thoroughly enjoyed and consider to be refreshingly different. You evidently have an affinity with Japan via your efforts to learn its language, having undertaken a scholarship there and incorporating it in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, but Peru, where did this inspiration come from?
Natasha Pulley: For a little while I was writing advertising copy for — and I know this is properly exciting — reprints of Victorian scientific monographs. I found Clements Markham’s account of the 1860 quinine expedition in my work pile, thought it was brilliant and decided I’d steal it. Once I’d started writing it became very obvious that it would be a terrible story if I didn’t learn Spanish and get out to Peru myself.
SG: I am curious, how do you pace & balance the need to research a historical novel against the desire to write a story, bubbling away in your head amidst a sketched story outline? Is it a keen discipline to gather everything first or a balance of write a bit, read a bit, allowing the story to evolve accordingly – or is it all held mainly in your head until you can let rip on the keyboard?!!!
NP: It’s very slapdash. Story always comes first; in Bedlam Stacks, I knew I wanted to write about a forest and a man who lived there. Research comes in when I’ve got the bones of the idea and it’s time to say, well, which forest, and why would outsiders go there. It helps me to have a few bursts of research here and there, a solid week or so every three months. There’s no such thing as wasted reading. Either it goes in or it stops you making a howling error. There is no discipline involved whatsoever.
SG: Merrick briefly appeared in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Was there something about his character in that book that you deliberately chose to delve into and develop into this book, or was there always an off shoot about an illegal quinine gathering trip that had sparked plans much earlier on in your imaginative pre-writing stockpile??
NP: The first drafts of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Bedlam Stacks were written at the same time, so Merrick was always around, even while Watchmaker was being constructed. One way not to go mad writing a book is to write two together, so you never get sick of anyone.
SG: Raphael, is a very deep character that is irresistibly interesting. He has a strong, self-assured personality, yet there is much layering underneath his tough exterior. For this reason he stood out for me and I wanted to know more about him and learn his thoughts. Was he the character you always set him out to be or did he evolve differently?
NP: He’s always been more or less himself. He was always quite frowning, but his history has changed a lot — in this version, he’s never left Peru, but in the original draft he trained at the Vatican, for example. Of all the characters though, I think he’s been altered the least. He’s who the whole story is built around.
SG: I loved the Markayak statues, can you explain a little more about them and where did the idea for these come from?
NP: They’re not my idea, they’re real! Markayuq are still dotted about the Peruvian countryside. In real life they tend just to be outcrops of stone in the landscape, but historically they were treated as thinking, feeling things — which is part of a more general Incan belief that stone was alive. In several local stories, the village Markayuq is supposed to be a person who turned to stone to watch over a place. In Bedlam Stacks, I made them look much more like people than the real ones do, but that’s really all I changed.
SG: When it’s not writing (albeit probably not that often) what other things/interests compete for your attention?
NP: Not much, I do it always.
SG: Do you ever manage to get time to read? If so anything you’ve presently got your eye on or have just read?
NP: I definitely read. It’s mainly non-fiction — my favourite thing is Jstor — but fiction does get a look in too, usually when I realize I’m writing badly and I need an antidote. I’m about to dive into Daniel Godfrey’s sequel to New Pompeii, which I loved, and I’m pottering my way through The Mysteries of Udolpho as well.
SG: As Japan more confidently opens its doors to tourism and there is a growing interest in its culture and its beauty, have you considered how your role as a writer can help positively influence views and build upon this awareness & quiet fascination – or is that outwith your thoughts, which are more focussed on enjoying the writing and sharing the story and historical backdrops??
NP: Absolutely the former. Writers have a duty not just to show what different places look like and sound like — you can get that off a documentary — but to show how those sometimes very foreign-looking things are actually completely familiar if you just hold them under the right light. Nothing about Japan or anywhere else is untranslatable or inexplicable. But often there’s not a word for it, so you have to tell a story to explain.
SG: Is it right that we are heading back to Japan proper for your next book? What are you able to tell us about it & how long can we expect to wait before we can read it??
NP: The next book is a sequel to Watchmaker called Pepperharrow. Thaniel and Mori go to Japan, half for Thaniel’s job and half for mysterious reasons of Mori’s own. Part of it is set in Tokyo, part right in the far north of Hokkaido where the sea freezes. There will definitely be ghosts, Tesla’s theories of electricity, nationalist protests, and another cameo from Merrick. The first draft is sitting on my editor’s desk now, but I don’t know when it will be done — it’s impossible to say when you’ll hit a screaming crisis and rewrite everything!
About the author
Natasha Pulley studied English Literature at Oxford University. After stints working at Waterstones as a bookseller, then at Cambridge University Press as a publishing assistant in the astronomy and maths departments, she did the Creative Writing MA at UEA. She later studied in Tokyo, where she lived on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, and she is now a visiting lecturer at City University. Winner of a Betty Trask Award, Pulley’s first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, was an international bestseller, a Guardian Summer Read, an Amazon Best Book of the Month and was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. The Bedlam Stacks is her second novel. She lives in Bath.
Follow Natasha on Twitter @natasha_pulley
From the mysterious and shadowy forests of Peru, The Bedlam Stacks is a dazzling historical novel which blends magic with reality to astonishing effect.
Deep in uncharted Peru, the holy town of Bedlam stands at the edge of a forest. The shrine statues move, and anyone who crosses the border dies. But somewhere inside are cinchona trees, whose bark yields quinine: the only known treatment for malaria.
On the other side of the Pacific, it is 1859 and India is ravaged by the disease. The hunt for a reliable source of quinine is critical and in its desperation, the India Office searches out its last qualified expeditionary. Struggling with a terrible injury from his last mission and the strange occurrences at his family’s ruined estate, Merrick Tremayne finds himself under orders to bring back cinchona cuttings at any cost and dispatched, against his own better judgement, to Bedlam.
There he meets Raphael, a priest around whom the villagers spin unsettlingly familiar stories of impossible disappearances and living stone. Gradually, he realises that Raphael is the key to a legacy left by two generations of Tremayne explorers before him, one which will prove more dangerous and valuable than the India Office could ever have imagined.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley, published by Bloomsbury Circus on 13 July, 2017, in hardback
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