A Q&A with Nydia Hetherington, author of
A Girl Made of Air
Beautiful and intoxicating, A Girl Made of Air brings the circus to life in all of its grime and glory, and is published to a raft of deserved praise and recommendations. Debut author Nydia Hetherington took part in a Q&A with Foyles to give a little more insight in to her beguiling novel and her own experiences and inspirations.
Please tell us a little about your debut A Girl Made of Air
A Girl Made of Air is the story of a high wire walker born at the end of the second world war into a travelling circus. When rejected by her mother, she’s taken in by a circus performer with mythical heritage, who teaches the child the art of funambulism. Now an adult, living in New York after rising to stardom on the cabaret scene, the narrator tells her tales through the transcribing of notebooks, diaries and letters, embellishing them with memories as she goes. The act of transcription is a way to launder the past, make good her mistakes. It’s a many layered novel, exploring how we use stories to navigate through past harm and inherited trauma, how we translate those stories and in turn, how we pass them on. Although the book is dark in places, it’s tinged with magic, folklore and hope.
What five books or authors inspired your writing?
I first read The Yellow Wallpaper in my twenties. It’s really a call for women to gain intellectual and physical agency over their lives. The story’s vivid claustrophobia has an almost magnetic power over me. Even now, if it catches my eye on the bookshelf, I have to pick it up.
It’s hard to describe my love of Wuthering Heights. Stories within stories, unreliable narrators, gothic darkness, cruelty, revenge, passion and Yorkshire. It has nourished my imagination, fed my dreams and fuelled my need to be a teller of tales.
Another big inspiration is the wonderful Geek Love. It’s a gorgeous grotesque, so provocative yet funny and as fierce as it is tender. Katherine Dunn’s writing has taught me how to anchor a packed narrative to place and time.
I cried the first time I read The House of the Spirits. It’s a political allegory dripping with magic and beautiful imagery. When I tearfully got to the end of the book, I simply turned back to the beginning and started again. I just wasn’t ready to leave it yet.
From childhood, fairy tales have been my lifeblood. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grim, is like treasure to me. All life is here.
Tell us more about your background in the circus?
I don’t actually have a circus background. I trained in Paris in physical theatre and clowning. The theatre clown isn’t the same animal as the circus clown, although there are obvious crossovers, including the red nose (the smallest mask in the world). There are no gags, as such. It’s a way of looking at the human experience and describing it, theatrically. I worked in theatre in Paris for many years. The lines between devised theatre, cabaret and circus are less opaque in France than in Britain. There’s a more fluid attitude to the art of the spectacle. I have performed under canvas, though. The walls move according to the elements outside. It’s quite a thrilling experience.
Does your central character Serendipity Wilson have any real-life inspirations?
She was inspired by a place rather than a person. For me, she is the embodiment of the Isle of Man. I lived there as a child, but we left when I was still very small. My first memories are of the island landscape and of course, of the fairies. I was very fond of the fairies as a child, almost obsessively so. Serendipity Wilson is built entirely on my experience of leaving a place that is my first memory of home. She’s inevitably imbued with a childlike magic, deep folkloric traditions, mists and an ancient association with the sea. She is my longing for a place that, because I left, even though I have a deep personal connection to it, I can never belong there.
Could you tell us more about Manx mythology and your research that you have woven into the story?
I’ve always known snippets of Manx mythology. I grew up hearing stories about the fairies, and with names like Manannán mac Lir and the Buggane floating around my consciousness. We knew an old man who had the basement flat of our building when we lived on the island, he was a Manx speaker who kept a parrot in a cage and was a great one for old Manx superstitions. So those bits of half remembered tales came in handy as a starting point. But my main source materials were Sophia Morrison’s 1911 Manx Fairy Tales and A W Moore’s 1891 The Folk-lore of the Isle of Man. Sophia Morrison was an incredible figure and a really important advocate for Manx culture and language. She travelled the island collecting ancient tales from old folk and writing them down verbatim, as a sort of oral folk history. The result means some of the st The folk lore of the Isle of man ories are quite sparse and leave a lot of room for someone like me to fetch up and reimagine them. They are glorious pieces of folklore and although I’ve messed about with them quite a lot for my novel, I love the integrity of the originals.
Was it a challenge to weave feminism into the period of your novel?
Stories are a powerful tool for change. We need to be careful how we tell them. Change the nuance slightly and the message is altered forever in the mind of the reader (for believe it or not, there is always a message). My book takes old folk tales and attempts to tell them through the prism of feminism, with all the facets and colours on show. Then there are the individual stories of the characters, sometimes told, perhaps, with a hint of cruelty. I hope the book shows that the telling of a story through this prism does not have to be a heavy blow of ideology; it can be magical and hold a great deal of beauty and subtlety. But feminism does always have to be the ballast, the thing that holds the story fast and true.
Originally from Leeds, Nydia Hetherington moved to London in her twenties to embark on an acting career. Later she moved to Paris where she studied at the Jacques Lecoq theatre school before creating her own theatre company. When she returned to London, she completed a creative writing degree at Birkbeck.