Today I’m delighted to welcome Essie Fox to one more page to talk about her latest novel, The Goddess and the Thief. Essie divides her time between Windsor and Bow in the East End of London. Her debut novel, The Somnambulist, was selected for the Channel 4 Book Club and was shortlisted in the New Writer of the Year category of the 2012 National Book Awards. She is the author of The Virtual Victorian blog :www.virtualvictorian.blogspot.com Welcome Essie!
Your third novel, The Goddess and the Thief has just been released in paperback; please could you tell us a little about it and the inspiration behind it?
The Goddess and the Thief is the story of Alice Willoughby who was born and then raised as a child with her widowed father in India. There, her beloved ayah – or nanny – fills her mind with tales of Hindu gods, and when Alice is taken to England to live with her spiritualist medium aunt those stories continue to haunt her.
Matters take a more sinister turn when Alice is introduced to the mysterious Lucian Tilsbury – who has also spent years in India. He has only returned to England to try and steal a sacred stone that was ransomed as a spoil of war at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war. His reasons are political, having befriended the boy maharajah who was deposed from his golden throne. But he also has a personal dream relating to a prophecy about some of the Hindu gods. It is in Lucian Tilsbury’s world of deception, seduction and ‘mystical magic’ that Alice finds herself immersed – with her future and freedom bound up in the fate of the diamond that he hopes to steal.
How did you go about your research and was there anything that surprised you?
I actually live in Windsor, so the settings and history of that place are ‘around’ me all the time, even going so far as to use my own house for many of the novel’s scenes – as well as the church that stands opposite, with its looming black spire and the bells that toll every hour through the day and night. They can sound very eerie and ominous.
When if comes to the Indian parts of my story, I admit I have never been to the Punjab which is where many early scenes are set. However, the Victorians provided so many records for us to see – with photographs, letters and diaries, not to mention the novels written by those authors with Indian connections.
What I learned could be quite harrowing. The Empire’s ambition for trade and expansion saw many thousands dead in wars, and many Indian artistocrats deposed when their kingdoms were then claimed in the name of Queen Victoria. In my novel I feature on the fate of the boy Maharajah Duleep Singh who was brought to England as a child where he lived in great wealth and privilege, but really he was nothing more than a glamorous bird in a golden cage – never free to travel home again or reclaim the kingdom that he’d lost.
I was also sorry to read about the memories of those children who’d been born or raised in India, where Indian nannies cared for them before they were sent back to England. More often than not they never saw or heard from those dear friends again, and what the poor ayahs must have felt is heartbreaking to contemplate.
Did you have a favourite character to write?
My favourite character is Lucian Tilsbury; the anti-hero, or villain if you will. His character is complex. His motives are influenced by his past, especially events in India – whether they occurred during his time with the British East India Company army, or later, when he’s taken in by an extreme sect of Hindu sadhus, or priests. Those devotees or Shiva inhabit the sacred burning ghats where they drink human blood from human skulls, not to mention other depravities. By the time he arrives back in England, when he meets with Alice Willoughby, he has become a man obsessed with religious beliefs that may be real or may be the result of insanity.
I had great fun when looking back on his Indian exploits, which were loosely based on certain events in the life of the Victorian adventurer and historian, Sir Richard Burton. I also managed to incorporate some Indian folktales that Burton translated, with the stories of Vikram and the Vampire which are heard by my narrator when she is a child in India.
But, I also very much enjoyed writing about Alice’s Aunt: Mercy, the fake spirit medium who holds séances in her Windsor home. All the aspects of her spiritualist trade were fascinating to research. And then, as a character, she is so bitter, jealous and angry due to events in her own past that – quite unlike her name – she has no compassion at all for the niece who soon becomes a rival for the affections of Lucian Tilsbury.
You write the excellent Virtual Victorian blog and The Goddess and The Thief and your two previous novels are both set in the era; what drew you to this period in particular?
The novels came before the blog.
I have always loved reading stories set in the Victorian era – whether they be written now, or in the actual era. But then, one night when I had been on a visit to Wilton’s music hall, which is in the East End of London, I woke the next morning with a such a vivid idea for a novel of my own that I simply couldn’t stop myself from starting to write it there and then.
That novel required a great deal of research, but I came across so many facts, and could only include so many in the pages of my book. So, I set up The Virtual Victorian to write articles about the rest… and the blog has been running ever since.
What are your top three blogging tips and what do you enjoy most about blogging?
I think that’s the most important tip. If you love your subject and are inspired that passion will, hopefully, then be passed on to your readers. Blogging can require a lot of work – especially if it’s a factual record as The Virtual Victorian is. There is no payment – unless you ‘monetarise’ your site and allow your host to advertise. I don’t do that. But I do consider the interaction that I have with readers and fellow enthusiasts as being a sort of reward. And then, the blog also provides a permanent diary for my research. I often refer back to posts that I’ve written over the past few years when working on a new novel idea.
Be Disciplined. Blog Regularly
I don’t think you need to post every week – although when you first start up your blog that might be a good idea – to build up your content archive, as well as your readership; to let them know you are serious and around for the long haul as it were. But, once your blog is established, once or twice a month might be enough. Any less than that and your audience may soon forget that you exist.
Be Generous. Share blogs by fellow Writers
If there are other blogs that cover similar interests to your own, don’t see them as rivals. When posting on social media sites why not share those blogs that you enjoy. You will not be diluting your own readership – if anything you may well find that you gain new followers from those readers who then link back to your own site. You may also find new friends in the authors of those blogs, with whom you can share your own passions and interests.
If you could visit a time and place in history, where and to what era would you go?
I would love to travel back in time to visit London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The size, scope and ambition of the show was absolutely enormous. It encapsulated so much about the developments in industry, science, medicine and art going on in the nineteenth century. It also happens to be the setting for an early scene in my novel, when Alice is a little girl attending the show with her father; when she looks into a golden cage and sees the Koh-i-noor diamond. The sacred stone was then displayed as a spoil of the Anglo Sikh wars. It was absolutely enormous and considered to be priceless. Even so, many visitors complained that the diamond lacked ‘sparkle’ and glamour – even when lots of gas lights were set up around it to try and make it glitter with light. But Alice sees its inner glow, and something else that will affect her future in the coming years – when just like the diamond she will be trapped within another sort of cage.
And finally what can we expect next from Essie Fox?
I’m working on a new novel, but this time it’s not Victorian. Silence Electric will be based in the Edwardian era, and also the 1970’s. It’s the story of a young man – a journalist – who goes into a Brighton junk shop and sees the photograph of a girl who once starred in Edwardian silent films. He manages to track her down, and finds an old woman now in her eighties who is living as a recluse…and the reasons for that lonely life she gradually relates to him.
Thank you Essie.
The Goddess and the Thief is out now in paperback and ebook formats.