I’m delighted to welcome Wendy to my blog for an interview, and have teamed up with her UK publisher, Simon & Schuster, to offer a copy of her book to five lucky folk – find out how to enter at the end of this blog post.
On to the interview!
How would you describe your debut novel, The Painted Bridge?
My shorthand description of The Painted Bridge is that it’s about photography, madness and the sea. A longer version might be: The Painted Bridge is set in London, in 1859, in a private asylum for women. It’s the story of Anna Palmer, a woman who has made a mistake in her life and who has reached a point where she is forced to learn to see things for what they are.”
Where did you get your inspiration for the story?
I took inspiration for The Painted Bridge from a range of sources. I’d spent a Christmas in Caernarvon on the north Wales coast and had read about shipwrecks on the treacherous rocks there, and had walked on the wintry beaches. At about the same time, I came across the work of Dr Hugh Diamond, a Victorian psychiatrist who believed that the then-new science of photography could be used to read mental illness from the features of the face. Underlying these things, I had a persistent idea in my mind - about a woman who saw visions. These elements were the foundations of what became Anna’s story.
Why did you choose ‘The Painted Bridge’ as the title?
The eponymous bridge is inspired by a real one, in the grounds of Kenwood House in north London, where I walk regularly. It is a bridge that is not what it seems! I don’t want to give too much away but, trapped in Lake House asylum, Anna Palmer must find a way out of her situation. What at first appear to be ways of escape – appeals to doctors, the bridge itself – are illusory. And yet ultimately the bridge is made to serve. The metaphor of ‘finding a way across’ underlies the whole novel.
Photography plays a big part in the novel. To what extent did you research the techniques involved?
I totally enjoyed researching the photography aspects. I’ve been fascinated by photography for many years and have always taken photographs. It was a very powerful experience to visit the archive at Bethlem Royal Hospital and there to see and hold 19th century photographs of women patients.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend a wet collodion workshop, held at the London studio of artist Minnie Weisz, and run by two New Yorkers who are fine practitioners of the art of wet collodion. From that, I learned about the smell of the chemicals, the feeling of the glass plate in your hands and also formed the idea for the opening and closing images of the novel – in which the world is seen through a lens, upside down.
Tell us about your main character, Anna Palmer.
Anna is a solitary character from a precarious family, trying to make a life for herself in the ways that were open to Victorian women. She has married a scoundrel but can’t allow herself to realize it. She grew up by the sea and the sea seems to wash through her being, in her memories and the way she sees life, and in her passionate commitment to aid for seafarers. The experience of incarceration at Lake House could make or break her and it is up to the reader to decide whether or not she is ‘mad’, as charged by her husband.
Along with Anna, every character within the novel has their own personal journey. Was each character’s emotional arc planned from the beginning?
The emotional arcs were planned in embryo from the beginning but each of the minor characters grew in substance during the writing. Lizzie Button and Talitha Batt are incarcerated alongside Anna, and at first she can see neither for who they are. Emmeline Abse, wife of the proprietor Querios Abse, finds her own form of freedom through the events of the winter of 1859. Even Querios Abse will ultimately escape from Lake House. The book appeared to me during the writing of it as a mosaic, in which each tiny piece by the end found its place in the pattern.
If you wrote a sequel to The Painted Bridge, which characters would you like to follow and why?
I have written a sequel to The Painted Bridge! Although I think of it not as a sequel exactly but as a ‘linked’ novel. The Sacred River, which will be published in July 2013, is the story of Anna Palmer’s older sister Louisa Heron, and Louisa’s daughter Harriet. Harriet appears only as a baby in The Painted Bridge, but is a young woman of 23 by the time Magic begins, in the winter of 1882.
I wanted to explore the character of Louisa further. I knew all about her background, growing up like Anna in a flint-knapped house on a clifftop near the port of Dover in Kent, in an unconventional family. Louisa is a more complex character than Anna Palmer, and for reasons of her own, doesn’t always do the right thing. By 1882, she is forced by Harriet’s illness to leave a fogbound London for the light and warmth of Egypt - with consequences for each of the three main characters that could not have been foreseen. Yael Heron, the third member of the party that sets out for Alexandria, never comes on stage in The Painted Bridge although Louisa mentions her.
If you could go back in time to the year the novel is set, 1859, for one day only, where would you go and why?
Shortly before publication, we made a short film trailer for The Painted Bridge, in which actress Sarine Sofair was in costume as Anna Palmer. We filmed at Brockwell House in Lambeth and the film shows Anna beating on the door of her room, looking out of the window of ‘Lake House’, dancing (her great love) alone in the grounds. During the filming, I felt as if I had gone back in time, as if I walked with Anna Palmer in the walled garden, felt her fear and frustration as she paced the day room. It was an uncanny experience.
Apart from that – I’d love to go back on any very ordinary day and just walk amongst the people of London, listening to their conversations, smelling the roasting chestnuts and the bunches of violets (and the sewage, probably). I’d have a gin in a public house, hold a baby, maybe try on a pair of laced boots or wield a quill pen! Take a ride on an omnibus. Very ordinary things interest and move me.
How do you organise your time when writing?
I don’t have a cast iron routine but just work consistently, day after day, often in the evenings and at weekends as well. The Painted Bridge took me two years to write. I like writing while sitting on a couch, with my feet up. It gives me the feeling that I’m not really working, just amusing myself and I think that’s not a bad feeling to have in writing fiction.
By my computer I currently have a pen, my mobile, and an origami fortune teller. What’s on your desk?
I like the sound of your fortune teller. Often on my desk there are heaps of postcards, print-outs from archive.org of old texts or reports, copies of photographs, reference books – and always my trusty Dictionary of Etymology (to prevent modern words creeping in to the mouths of 19th century characters.) Other times, I’ll have a big clear out and get out a can of furniture polish and my desk will be completely empty, which helps give clarity. My talisman throughout the writing of The Painted Bridge was the card of my agent, Ivan Mulcahy. I had it on a shelf in front of me and his belief in me helped me find more in myself. On my noticeboard, I have a quote from the wise and wonderful Hilary Mantel: “Imagination only comes when you privilege the subconscious.”
Can you share some information about your next writing project?
The Sacred River is now in production and will appear in hardback in July this year. I’m gestating a new novel but it’s too early to say anything about it yet. I see writing as a path, and it’s my hope that I can stay on that path.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Three pieces of advice have helped me very much.
One is not to judge your first draft too soon; just let it come out, you can improve it later.
The next thing is to give yourself time. It takes time to write a novel, thousands and thousands of hours. Progress is not even; you can be stuck for ages then have a series of major breakthroughs in understanding the characters, the story.
Finally – in the later stages - read the work aloud, again and again. Let your ear tell you what should stay and what must go or be rewritten.
Thank you, Wendy! It was fabulous to find out more about the background to the novel. And many thanks to Simon & Schuster for offering five of my blog readers the chance to receive their own copy of The Painted Bridge.
How to enter
Leave a comment on this blog post = one entry in the hat
Tweet about (and link to) this interview mentioning me @jayneferst (so I won't miss your tweet) = two entries in the hat
Link to this interview on your blog (and let me know in a comment) = three entries in the hat
So your name could potentially go into the hat six times! The giveaway is open to all readers of my blog no matter where you are in the world, and is open throughout the month of February. The five winners will be chosen at random.
In the meantime, do visit the links below to find out more about Wendy and her writing.
Wendy's website (and book trailer mentioned in the interview): http://wendywallace.co.uk
Wendy's Twitter: https://twitter.com/slangular
The Painted Bridge: Amazon
(The hardcover is out now, the paperback will be released on April 25, 2013)