About The Author
Natasha Pulley lives in Ely. She studied English Literature at Oxford University. After working 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 spent nineteen months in Tokyo on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo–Japanese Foundation. Her highly acclaimed debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, was a historical fantasy thriller set in atmospheric, smoggy Victorian London and Japan, which features a mysterious Japanese watchmaker who can ‘remember the future’, a feisty young female physicist and a clockwork octopus called Katsu.
Her new novel, The Bedlam Stacks, is set mainly in Peru, where Merrick Tremayne has been sent by the India Office to collect some samples from the fiercely guarded cinchona trees which are the source of the quinine so desperately needed to combat malaria (an expedition inspired by the one that was successfully undertaken by Sir Clements Robert Markham, a 19th-century geographer to the India Office). But mysteries abound in the holy town of Bedlam, on the edge of the forest, where the statues appear to move and to enter means certain death, while the priest Raphael, ostensibly there to guide Merrick, seems to have an agenda all of his own...
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler chatted to Natasha about why friendship gets a raw deal in fiction, blurring the border between fantasy and reality and why it helps to be laughed at when learning a language.
Below that is another interview with Frances about Natasha's earlier book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, in which she and Natasha discuss the appeal of the Victorian period, why mirrors and rings play such a crucial role in fairy tales and the difficulty of functioning, and especially communicating, in Tokyo's wholly different culture.
Questions & Answers
What made you decide to set the bulk of your book in Peru, and having spent 3 months there to research the language, religion and history, in what ways did it differ from your expectations?
It had to be in Peru because I knew I wanted to write about the quinine expeditions, so that was pretty cut and dry. When I got there, it wasn’t so much that things were different to how I’d thought, but much more extreme. Altitude sickness was something I’d heard about, but experiencing it was mad and the effects were nearly overpowering. Inca ruins are a hundred times more impressive in person than in pictures, too — I didn’t realize how huge Machu Picchu is, or what it’s like to try and walk around it at eight thousand feet.
We share Merrick’s journey and empathise with him as our guide. But how do you reconcile the fact that he has smuggled opium and is now on the hunt to illegally procure cinchona trees?
I don’t! Morality changes over time, and in his time, running opium was, if not perfectly acceptable, at least not reprehensible. The cinchona plantations from the stolen cuttings probably saved an awful lot of lives too.
You enjoy puncturing the Victorian self-satisfaction with progress by having Raphael produce a sophisticated distillation oven that had been there for hundreds of years. Do you think the British still have a distorted view of what progress actually comprises and Britain’s own contribution to the modern world?
Absolutely. There’s a lot the Victorians did invent, but of course it’s possible for different cultures to invent the same thing independently. My favourite is Hero of Alexandria, who was writing around the second century AD; anyone who thinks the vending machine was invented recently is wrong.
Can you tell us something about the origins of the statues that abound in Bedlam, the markayuq?
Markayuq are real. You can still see them today; they’re outcrops of stone all through Peru and originally they were little shrines. Markayuq means something like warden or guardian of the village.
As in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, male friendship is at the heart of your novel. What fascinates you about this particular dynamic?
The worst feeling of injustice I ever got from a book was realising that Watson leaves Holmes behind in the end. It made me really start to take issue with the idea that the relationship fictional characters tend to most prioritise, eventually, is husband or wife. Friends get left behind. I didn’t want to write that.
In your first book the vibrant Grace Carrow plays a small but necessary part. In this one you’ve created another strong and lively woman in Minna and yet you don’t allow her on the journey with the men. Do you consciously avoid portraying women in your novels?
I consciously avoid portraying myself, so to an extent yes. In Minna’s case, she doesn’t go with them in the book because it just struck me as unrealistic. The expedition was incredibly dangerous and the fewer people who went, the better, and there was no clear role for her to fill. I couldn’t find any record, either, of her having crossed the Andes with Markham’s real expedition.
Especially having spent so much time in Peru yourself, do you share Merrick’s view that England has a ‘reading religion… that needed books to explain itself’ whereas Raphael’s religion is image-based, and was this an important distinction for you when writing the book?
One of the things that struck me at the cathedral in Lima is how visual South American Catholicism is. There are shrines and paintings and everywhere, and not just shrines — they’re absolutely incredible, and bright, much more so even than in the Vatican. It feels like a religion designed to be looked at, for sure. Speaking to people in Lima, even teachers, there were plenty who didn’t even realize that Protestantism is a kind of Christianity. Which I think is fair enough — Protestant cathedrals look nearly as different to South American Catholic ones as Tao temples do.
Nature is glorious in your book, magnificent and sensuous, strange and wonderful. Yet you also give it a helping hand, with, for example, luminous pollen. Can you say something about this mixing of fact and fantasy, the fluidity of reality which you apply not just to nature but also to time and historical and scientific facts?
Part of the idea is that I think it’s a good experience in a story, to not quite know where the border between real and fantasy is. It makes the magic more magic if it might just be real. But the other side of it is that I love magic but I haven’t got a good enough imagination for high fantasy, so the real world has to be the foundation instead.
The notion of time, what is lost and what endures or is handed down, is central to both books. What underpins your interest in it?
I don’t think it’s any single thing. I grew up reading Phillip Pullman and Robin Hobb, so it was a healthy diet of subjunctive histories and possible worlds; but I don’t think you have to have read about it to feel how weird it is, when you can see that something extremely different would have happened if you’d done something a fraction differently — car crashes just missed, times you didn’t fall off a cliff — or more unnervingly, if you can’t see what you did that stopped it, if anything. I think it’s one of the oddest experience of being human, to see that other future that didn’t quite happen.
Merrick is constantly thinking about language both on a practical and a philosophical level. And yet he is also aware that ‘no effort at translation will ever have more subtlety than smoke signals over a canyon’. What aspects of your time, first in Tokyo for your earlier novel, and then in Peru for this one, were the most fundamental in helping you cross the borders and access the culture and mindset?
It really helps when someone laughs at you, even if it is embarrassing. Japanese was terrible; I came back from Hokkaido after about a month speaking slightly northern Japanese. The word they use in Hokkaido for ‘husband’ means a geisha’s patron in the south, so when I asked my boss how her patron was…
At the language school in Lima, lisping like they do in Madrid is outright forbidden in the early classes. An American guy said ‘athul’ instead of ‘azul’, and the teacher said, stop that unless you’re gay. Once you know what people think is funny, it’s miles easier to communicate, and much less smoke-signally.
Although they are totally different, your two books have much in common, not least a guest re-appearance from The Watchmaker as well as thematic preoccupations, and a striking blending of genres. Will your next book be in a similar vein?
Yes. The next book follows on from Watchmaker. Thaniel and Mori go to Japan, apparently for Thaniel’s health, but he soon realizes that Mori has plenty of other, stranger reasons. Katsu is back, by the way, with a wheel.
Previous interview by Frances Gertler with Natasha Pulley on her debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
What appealed to you about the Victorian period?
A lot about the period appeals to me because, like some fantasy, it’s different but accessible. The language is distinctive, but you don’t need to be a philologist to read Victorian newspapers or novels, so research is very easy. It isn’t like trying to decipher the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. The culture too is more or less ours, whereas if you go further back in history, very basic things change completely. If history’s a foreign country, Victorian England is a lot like going on a weekend trip to Rome: you can pretty much read the menus and nobody is doing anything really confusing. The further back you go, the more foreign it becomes.
It’s also a time of huge technological progress. I think the reason steampunk really starts to come into its own in this period is that technology isn’t a novelty any more — it’s something that surrounded everybody all the time. Importantly, it was complex. Even looking it now, you can’t see at a glance how it works or how it was made. As soon as an object has that sort of mystery (quite rare in the rest of history — objects like glass and smelted metals have it a bit, and it’s interesting that mirrors and rings play such a crucial role in fairy tales) it becomes a fiction quarry.
How did your time in Tokyo feed into the novel, and did it do so in unexpected ways?
When I went, I thought there was no way I could possibly learn much about nineteenth century Japan while I was there. I don’t read Japanese well enough to parse Meiji era documents, and Tokyo is an extremely modern city — I think the oldest standing structure was built in the sixties. It isn’t like London, where you can walk around and find streets still nearly just as they were a hundred or two hundred years ago. What I didn’t expect at all was how much older culture is still preserved. I think a lot of people there worry about having become too westernised, but I didn’t find it westernised at all beyond a very superficial level.
Sometimes it was so different I had trouble functioning. My whole manner in English would be rude in Japanese: I ended up having to find equivalents for bizarre things, like my sense of humour, as well as the translations of single words. Some of that filtered into the book in the sections set in Japan — before I went, I’d read about the huge effort Meiji-era politicians went to in order to communicate properly with countries like England and America, but I don’t think I understood what it really must have entailed until I had to try it in reverse.
In the period of the novel there was still a preoccupation with measuring time and timekeeping. Now we are attempting to tame it. How do notions of time underpin your novel?
Time in the book is very plural; it has branches and missed ways, and lost futures. What happens in the story is a series of unlikely futures that should never have occurred. I don’t know enough about physics to say whether or not that’s how time really works. I only remember reading something by Stephen Hawking that said it was basically pear-shaped, which sounds right, if unfortunate.
How have the social pressures faced by the marginalised changed since the period you are writing about?
I’m not sure the social pressures themselves have changed immensely, but the way we respond to them — are allowed to respond to them — has. If some twerp says that women scientists are only good for crying and falling in love, the response now can be as mild as ridicule. Nobody had to blow up postboxes or chain themselves to anything to prove it was silly. They just posted brilliant memes on Twitter about Marie Curie.
That sort of thing is only possible, though, if your society lets you be irreverent without being inappropriate. If it doesn’t, one of the main routes for dealing with prejudice and social pressure is bricked up. You could do it to a certain extent in the nineteenth century of course — otherwise there’d be no such publication as Punch — but not with today’s scope.
Student Grace Carrow is an appealing figure, what gave you the idea for this cross-dressing theoretical physicist?
Virginia Woolf. Or I think it was Virginia Woolf. I heard an anecdote of hers once about being turned away from the door of the Bodleian. I remember the lecturer taking as it a damning example of sexism and thinking actually, it would probably have been all right if she’d stolen a pair of trousers.
Your book combines history with fantasy and is also a thriller. Did it contain all these elements when you conceived it?
It was always history and always fantasy. It started life as three short stories. The first was about the Clan na Gael bomb, the second was about the music Mori forgets, and the third was about Katsu. The plot arrived pretty late, so any thriller element is much more recent.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I’m not sure. Human brains are like alchemy experiments; you put in all sorts of recognisable things, boil them all up together and through a tangle of confusing tubes and devices, and then in a little vial right at the other end comes something that doesn’t especially look like any of it, and can’t be changed back. I think I put in a lot of Sherlock Holmes, high fantasy books, Oxford, a steampunk exhibition, haiku and anime, but there is assuredly other stuff I’ve forgotten.
Did the process of writing the book change your view of the Victorian period?
Yes. I always had a vague feeling that it was full of immensely complicated industrial things I would never understand; trains and the underground and marine chronometers and so forth. What took me by surprise was that really, most of it wasn’t complicated at all. You want to run trains underground? Dig up the street. All you need are lots of shovels and a clever person with some maths. What blows me over now is that people were galvinised enough to get it all done with what what they had at the time, and so quickly.
Are you working on another book and if so, can you tell us anything about it?
OF COURSE. The next book is called The Bedlam Stacks. It’s about the botanist for whom Mori originally made the clockwork pears, Merrick Tremayne. Mori’s in it briefly as a little boy; he takes himself on holiday to China and meets Merrick during an illegal tea-gathering expedition.
Who are the writers who have influenced you?
Arthur Conan Doyle, Robin Hobb, Susanna Clarke, William Golding, Neil Gaiman, Philip Reeve, and Susan Hill are probably the biggest fiction influences for me. Oliver Lodge’s essays too.