The quintessentially English Charles Palliser was, in fact, born in the USA, in Massachusetts, near Boston. He arrived in England at the age of three and lives here still, in North London. A former academic, he read English at Oxford and taught nineteenth-and twentieth-century literature at Strathclyde University in Glasgow prior to becoming a writer. He is best known for The Quincunx, an epic work of gothic Victorian fiction which sold over a million copies worldwide and won him numerous accolades and legions of devoted fans. Publishers Weekly (US) commented that while “quintuple the length of the ordinary novel, this extraordinary tour de force also has five times the ordinary allotment of adventure, action and aplomb.” The Guardian dubbed him “our leading contemporary Victorian novelist.” Following on from The Sensationist, Betrayals and The Unburied (another densely plotted Victorian mystery), his fifth novel, Rustication will be published this November in the US and the UK by W. W. Norton & Company. In anticipation of this exciting event, Charles kindly agreed to talk about his work with erstwhile History Girl, Linda Buckley-Archer.
LBA: The news that you are about to publish a new novel after a break of over ten years, will delight your many fans. Could you give them a flavour of what to expect in terms of genre, story and setting?
CP: The novel is in the form of a diary written by Richard, a boy of seventeen, in late December and early January 1863-64 and so it covers just that month. He comes home in disgrace and finds his mother and older sister in crisis following the mysterious death of his father while he was at Cambridge. From a position of affluence as the family of a high-ranking Church dignitary, they have mysteriously become almost destitute. They are now living in a big but dilapidated old house in a remote village on the South Coast of England where they seem to be ostracised by their neighbours. Each of the three members of the family is lying to the others and concealing various things. They squabble with increasing bitterness as the winter closes in, trapping them in the house together.
Inserted into the diary is a series of obscene and threatening anonymous letters which are spreading terror in the isolated community and are accompanied by increasingly violent acts against livestock.
Suspicion falls on Richard and he is, indeed, a troubled young man. Tormented by sexual feelings he feels guilty about and by remorse for the offence which led to his suspension from University, he resorts to alcohol and drugs and his mental equilibrium is gradually destabilised.
He becomes obsessed by a succession of girls and women whom he stalks and terrifies. Meanwhile he sexually exploits his mother’s maid-servant of fourteen. All this time, as hints and fragments of evidence suggest, a cunning plan is being carried out to commit a murder and pin the blame on an innocent person.
LBA: Like The Quincunx, your latest novel has an intriguing title. For those of us who have not come across the word before, could you define ‘rustication’?
CP: The word “rustication” essentially means something like “being in the countryside”. It has long been used by Oxford and Cambridge Universities (as well as some of the older public-schools) to mean “suspension” from the institution. The origin of that is the idea that if one left Oxford or Cambridge one was, in theory, being sent into the countryside – even though one might be going to a big city. In the novel, my central character, Richard, is suspended/rusticated from Cambridge and returns to the house of his mother and sister which is in a very remote part of the country. So both meanings apply.
LBA: The world that you create is wholly convincing and I was interested to learn that certain aspects of the story have their roots in real-life events.
CP: Yes, there are two main real-life events behind the novel.
I grew up with a story told me by my grandmother and my mother. In the late 1930 my grandparents and mother were living in a remote village in North Wales when someone began sending vicious anonymous letters. The letters mainly accused people of sexual misconduct and my grandmother was particularly evasive about that. My mother thought that was because the letters possibly accused her father - my grandfather - of having an affair. She remembered elements of the story very differently from her mother, which was in itself fascinating. They both told me what a devastating effect the letters had on the community. Not only did nobody know who was writing them so that everybody was a suspect, but nobody knew what other people were being told about themselves. And, of course, the truth or otherwise of the accusations was known only to the victims.
The second is a notorious murder case about twenty-five years ago. The police became convinced that a certain man was the killer of a young woman and they managed to entice him into a lonely-hearts correspondence with a policewoman who, guided by a forensic psychologist, pretended to be turned on by sadistic fantasies and tried to lure him into boasting about violent acts he had committed. The hope was that he would confess to the murder. I read a book that quoted the correspondence and argued that it showed that the man was a psychopath. I formed the opposite opinion and thought he was trying very hard but completely unsuccessfully to imagine what it would be like to be sexually excited by sadistic acts. It turned out that I was right and the man was completely innocent. That episode gave me the idea of writing a novel that would put the reader in the position of reading two texts and trying to decide if the same individual had written both of them and if he was a man with violent and perverted impulses.
|I have met Charles and this picture does not do him justice! - Mary Hoffman (ed)|
LBA: The fiction of the Victorian era clearly exerts a powerful pull on you. What aspects of the historical period and its literature appeal to you most? If The Quincunx which – to quote the History Girls’ own Essie Fox – “out-Dickensed Dickens”, to what extent did you set out to reference Victorian mystery writers (such as Wilkie Collins) in Rustication?
CP: I’m so immersed in that literature that I don’t even do it consciously. But it seems to me that one of the best ways to keep a reader interested is to do what Wilkie Collins, in particular, does so brilliantly: tease and mislead so that as much as possible is put in doubt until the end.
LBA: To which author (living or dead) would you say you owe the greatest debt?
CP: There are too many. The list would begin with Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, George Eliot, Conrad, Faulkner, James.
LBA: Rustication is a relatively slim volume (certainly compared to The Quincunx), although the first draft, which I read, was substantially longer. How do you approach creating and editing your fiction? Is it a long, drawn-out affair or do you take a disciplined and methodical approach? Dickens and Collins both wrote their novels in instalments and to tight deadlines. Is this something that might have appealed to you?
CP: I wish I could write to a deadline but I seem to have to take a long time and write far more than I should and then in the final phase cut the whole thing in half – as I did with this novel. It’s a very wasteful way to work.
LBA: The ‘envelope’ structure of the novel presents to the reader a journal – the Journal of Richard Shenstone, 12th of December 1863 to 13th of January 1864 – sandwiched between a contemporary foreword and afterword which is penned by a certain ‘CP’. From the reader’s point of view, one of the many pleasures of Rustication is the skilful unravelling of the plot from a tightly restricted narrative viewpoint. How did you set about finding Richard Shenstone’s voice and was it a process you enjoyed?
CP: Keeping to Richard’s point of view was the challenge that made me want to write the book and almost prevented me from doing so. On the other hand, I think I found Richard’s voice fairly quickly but what was more difficult was making it modulate in response to the dramatic events of that single month. He begins the journal as a callow, boastful adolescent. By the end, that voice has changed greatly.
LBA: How did you keep track of the intricacies of the plot? Did you hold it in your head? Were there post-it notes pinned to your walls?
CP: I held the outline in my head but the details of the chronology had to be worked out very carefully on sheets of paper. There are many strands in the novel which had to be woven together in a way that made sense and yet kept crucial facts concealed. Achieving that was frustrating but absorbing.
LBA: You are always very generous in promoting other authors’ work, for example in the regular talks you host at the Stoke Newington bookshop. Is the process of being published something which you personally enjoy?
CP: It’s wonderful to be published but the greatest pleasure is in writing the book.
LBA: Finally, do you have any new projects in mind which you are prepared to share with us?
CP: I work on several novels simultaneously – a dreadful habit! – and one of them is going particularly well. It’s set in eastern Europe under the Nazi Occupation and I’m dealing with the question of how and whether decent values can survive in such conditions.
Many thanks for talking with us!