I’m very happy, along with Jaffa Reads Too, to be kicking off the blog tour for Janet Ellis’s compelling debut novel, The Butcher’s Hook (you can read my review here). Janet kindly agreed to answer some questions (I could have provided pages of them but – spoilers) her answers to which I hope you will enjoy.
Anne Jaccob is quite a singular character. A protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable but there does need to be a level of acceptance with the reader. There are influences to set against her behaviour but how important do you think the period you chose is to encouraging that acceptance (I can imagine Anne garnering little sympathy in a modern setting)?
Hmm… setting aside what Anne gets up to (I know that’s not easy!), she’s almost like those friends who are trying but loveable, isn’t she? But, yes, although I hold firmly to the belief that people of any bygone age feel all the big emotions – like love, greed, hate, jealousy and sorrow- and the little ones (scorn, irritation etc) as we do, there’s no doubt Anne’s a child of her time. Her sequestered, claustrophobic existence and her unique experiences have helped her make interior decisions that manifest in rather dramatic exterior actions. And having no peer group, no confidante and certainly no therapy does leave her adrift. added to that is the fact that, as a girl in Georgian England, her opinion was of no consequence and her future decided without consultation. All that gives her plenty to rail against. Nowadays, she might have found other outlets. I wonder….
Your settings are richly-evoked, centred as they are more in the sensual than the visual. Did your research take you to any interesting places, or bring any unexpected discoveries?
I hadn’t linked the fact that I’m short sighted with the reliance on our other senses in my writing till now! But I suppose the visual clues- the art and architecture- are more instantly available than what London smelled of, its noise and even its temperature. Making one of the characters a butcher’s apprentice meant I wanted to find out what happened in the abattoir and the shop. I spent some time in the library of The Worshipful Company of Butchers, trying to find answers to specific questions and often stumbling across unexpected facts. The actual details of the killing haven’t changed much over the years, but the way cattle were driven into London in great herds – often having swum from island to mainland – was fascinating. And people’s attempts to disguise their lack of washing (of themselves and their clothes) with various scents must have added to the heady cocktail from the open sewers that ran through many streets and the manure from all the horses. And when I’ve been trussed up (that’s how it feels after our comfortable clothes) in Georgian period costume, I’ve been only too aware of how long it would have taken Anne and Fub to remove those clothes for, well, anything.
I felt a distinct nod towards Dickens in the naming of Mr Onions. Did you feel the influence of our rich literary heritage when you set out to write The Butcher’s Hook? What were the books that inspired you?
Anything you read is like a little building block, isn’t it, helping to build your thoughts. I’ve always read voraciously and widely, and must have been taking it all in. It’s hard to refine my inspiration down to one or two books – but as a child I adored Black Beauty, I really loved Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Rumer Godden, Mary Renault and Daphne du Maurier. I could go on. I’m (very) flattered by the allusion to Dickens, his depictions of people are so vivid that if you’re reading something by him, you can’t help seeing everyone around you in Dickensian mode (I like to pass the time on train journeys by casting my fellow passengers in Dickens novels). I collect names, too, ready to give them to unsuspecting characters as they appear. I expect Onions was hoping for something fancier, though.
I recently finished reading Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of The Sea Maid, another book set in the mid-1700’s with a strong female protagonist hemmed by convention, although the paths these two women take are very different. What are your thoughts on these books being considered feminist novels, especially where strong female characters in classic novels (Lizzy or Kathy or Jane) don’t necessarily draw the same comparison?
I haven’t read that yet – it’s on my list. It’s an odd one, the F word, isn’t it? I have no hesitation in describing myself as a feminist (I’m perplexed by people who don’t, to be honest) and Anne draws no line between getting what she wants and being a woman, so she’s signed up. Despite the fact that the characters you mention are hidebound by social convention, I still think they’re in favour of an equal society – and both the Brontes and Jane Austen took swipes at what women of their time were expected to do over what they could have achieved. I’m happy if Anne’s attitude stands for strong women and seizing opportunity. Although some of her methods are ‘don’t try this at home’.
The dynamic between mother and daughter is quite affecting. Again I suspect this would be viewed in a different manner in a modern setting, but how important is the distance in that relationship in shaping who Anne has become?
I don’t think their relationship is specific to their time, actually. Don’t we all know mothers who don’t feel close enough to their daughters to share real intimacy. Her mother’s acceptance of life’s difficulties and unhappiness, her shutting down after bereavement and her inability to stand up for herself all feel contemporary. Nowadays, she might have been more aware of what her relationship with both her husband and daughter could be, but that doesn’t mean she’d have been able to act on it. That’s what keeps the agony columnists busy (I speak from experience), isn’t it?
There’s a small moment near the end of the book that made me smile it was so in-keeping with Anne’s character (it involves some money and a worn-to-nothing old boot). This scene also serves to highlight the difference between Anne and those characters who are stifled by circumstance. Were you conscious of having something to say about the fate of the downtrodden?
I could make all sorts of claims for wanting to highlight this or champion that, the truth is more that Anne, as an equal opportunities opportunist (!) seizes the moment constantly. But the moment you mention was there to illustrate that she was never going to be overwhelmed by sentiment. Or gratitude, come to that. I felt really sorry for that chap – her, not so much.
Alongside the harshness there’s a dry humour too. Did you know when you began that you wanted those moments of levity or is this something that rose naturally from Anne’s disposition?
Yes and yes again. My favourite people are the ones that make me laugh and think, both together. Often, the darker the circumstance the more likely we are to find inappropriate humour in it, although we can’t often admit it. It helps us adjust to the awful reality in a way, doesn’t it? I knew early on that Anne would have a sideways take on things.
Behind every great book there’s always a host of people who have assisted in some manner along the road to publication. What’s the best editorial advice you had for The Butcher’s Hook?
I’ve had a plethora! From the word go, my agent and my editor and their teams have been terrific in their clear-sighted approach to making the book better. Probably the best bits of advice were ‘Don’t be scared of the copy edit’ (it looks TERRIFYING when it first arrives) and ‘Do it again please,’ (but way more cleverly put) when I’ve been the teensiest bit, um, lacking in some rewrites.
Novelist is one of many features on the map of your career and I always think it’s difficult for people who come to writing when they are well-known for other things. For my money, The Butcher’s Hook is a great story well told. Was it important for you to feel your work was accepted for its quality and not your name?
Have you always written? Has it always been an ambition to write?
Thank you SO much and, you’re right, it is hard to change careers. I’ve absolutely no regrets about what I’ve done so far – far from it – but the book is incredibly important to me. I’ve never minded looking daft as an actress or presenter (just as well), but I take my writing very seriously. That’s one of the (many) reasons why it’s taken me this long to produce a book. When my agent first suggested I submit The Butcher’s Hook under a pseudonym, I wasn’t keen – I HAD written the thing, after all. But he convinced me that decisions about the book should be made alone, without any possible connection to past occupations. He was so right – and it’s a fact that I hug to myself, with joy. I’ve always written, though I’ve never finished a book before – but it was a massive ambition. The only one I ever had, actually. I knew I’d be an actress….as you do when you’re a child – but could only dream of being an author.
Is there anything you can tell me about your next novel? Historical fiction again or will you be looking in a different direction?
It’s set in the Seventies (history for some!) and is about an affair, a mistaken connection and making the wrong choices. I’m not sure how it’ll finish, but I didn’t know how The Butcher’s Hook would end either, so I’m not too worried. That’s not true, I’m VERY worried, but I’m hoping Marion, Adrian and Sarah, my new characters, are going to help me out.
My thanks to Janet for answering these questions, and for The Butcher’s Hook. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a fabulous novel, and I hope the first of many. Thanks also to Rosie Gailer, Yassine Balkecemi and all at BookBridgr.
Don’t forget to catch the remaining stops on The Butcher’s Hook blog tour.