About The Author
Born in Manchester, Carol Birch published her first novel while living in Ireland, but now lives and writes in Lancaster, a place she knows well from childhood holidays. She also teaches creative writing and reviews regularly for a number of national newspapers. She names James Joyce as her favourite writer and is also a fan of Martin Amis, Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth McCracken, Steven Sherrill and Toni Davidson.
Her debut novel, Life in the Palace, won the 1988 David Higham Award for the Best First Novel and The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for her second, The Fog Line. In 2003, Turn Again Home was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Jamrach's Menagerie was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the London Book Award.
Her new novel Orphans of the Carnival, introduces Julia Pastrana, the singing and dancing marvel from Mexico, heralded on tours across nineteenth-century Europe as much for her talent as for her rather unusual appearance. Yet few can see past the thick hair that covers her: she is both the fascinating toast of a Governor's ball and the shunned, revolting, unnatural beast, to be hidden from children and pregnant women. But what is her wonderful and terrible link to Rose, collector of lost treasures in an attic room in present-day South London? In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives connect in unforgettable ways.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Carol about the real-life Julia Pastrana, treading the line between historicity and contemporary sensitivities and whether we are beyond the era of the freak show.
Under the interview is a selection of Carol's 10 favourite seafaring tales, which she provided in celebration of the launch of her previous novel, Jamrach's Menagerie.
Questions & Answers
Orphans of the Carnival is based on the life of a real person, Julia Pastrana. What drew you to her story?
First Julia's picture, then an interest in her as a person when I learned more about her. I was very moved by what happened to her and by the story of what became of her and her baby. It nagged at me. I wanted to give the baby some kind of fictional closure. And curiously, during the writing of the book, Julia herself was given a kind of closure in real life.
What type of research did you do into Julia’s life and how much of it made it into the book? Where do fact and fiction collide?
I read everything I could about Julia. I read memoirs of show people who knew her, such as Van Hare and Barnum. I read her medical reports and everything published about her in the Lancet. The basic facts are true, but of course I had to imagine the details and allow speculation free rein.
The story is written from two perspectives, the 18th-century story of Julia’s life and then a 20th- century voice in Rose, a collector of lost things. What prompted you to introduce this second voice?
Rose had to be there to complete the story because it's about Julia's life but also about the strange afterlife of her and her baby. Because the complete story of Julia transcends her own lifetime, there had to be a future dimension. Also the subplot plays with some important themes such as our relationship to physical matter, the emotional significance of objects, etc.
I couldn’t help drawing parallels between the lives of these two women, in terms of freedom, opportunities, experiences, and thinking about whose life was the more confined. Were these themes you were deliberately drawing out between Rose and Julia?
Julia's life was definitely more confined in spite of her travels. There are parallels, but the thematic resonances are more important, and the story of an odd little artefact from the past that linked the two women.
One of the major characters in the novel, Theodore Lent, is a man who could be described as morally dubious; I certainly felt very ambivalent towards him. How do you feel about the man and the character?
Theo Lent is definitely morally dubious, and he did things that were shocking and inexcusable. But he's not the total villain he's usually considered to be. There's hardly anything about him known for sure but researching him was interesting and threw up all kinds of clues, which I may or may not have interpreted rightly. We'll never know. His second wife had fond memories of him, and Julia believed in him. His sins came later, and his actions destroyed him because in the end he couldn't live with what he'd done.
My feelings toward Lent made me think about the difficulty in writing historically-set fiction and treading the line between historicity and contemporary sensitivities. Is this something you consider when writing?
I do consider this, but in the end a historical novel should be true to its time and setting. I find it irksome when I read a historical novel that just seems to plonk late 20th- or early 21st-century people down in history as if they've just arrived by time machine.
And leading on from that, do you think there has been any fundamental change in how people view difference in others in the last 150 years? Are we really beyond the era of the freak show?
Has there been a fundamental change in how people view difference? Certainly there has. Remember that Julia was not considered by many, if not most people, to be fully human. But we're not as honest about all this as we think we are. Witness the popularity of TV shows about people who are genetically or physically rare. Of course people are interested, they always will be. In the old days people went to freak shows, now they watch TV shows or clips on YouTube. And if you look on YouTube at the comments under the very many videos put on by people with differences or disabilities who are rightly refusing to be invisible, you'll see that there's still cruelty and still a feeling amongst some that it's in bad taste for them to show themselves and for us to look. As far as I'm concerned the more normal abnormality becomes, the better.
Julia is written with such warmth, as a kind, talented, open-hearted women and I confess to shedding a tear at key moments of the story, that I feel I would have liked to meet and know her. Is there anyone from your novels that you would like to meet?
I would love to have met Julia. Many of the others I have already met.
And finally, what’s next for you? Where will your writing take you next?
It's playing around at the moment. Something is half-formed but strong.
Ten Nautical Narratives:
'The sea with its labouring waves for ever rising, sinking, and vanishing to rise again is the very image of struggling mankind.' So says Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim. A voyage is a rite of passage, a dream, a reckoning, the ship a microcosm of the world, human society intensified. Extreme characters people the great sea stories, burning brightly above unknowable depths - Ahab, John Silver, Wolf Larson in The Sea Wolf. The sea also drives people mad. No wonder it draws writers as surely as it does adventurers. Here then, in no particular order, are ten of the finest examples of the nautical narrative.
1 Moby Dick - Herman Melville. Massive, endlessly digressive, this magnificent whaling epic is both a fable about the human quest for meaning and a great yarn. The Pequod is a world in itself, doomed by Captain Ahab's obsession with revenge upon the great white whale that took his leg. Dazzling.
2 The Sea Wolf - Jack London. Effete scholar Van Weyden finds himself stuck on a seal schooner in the Bering Sea with the maddest of all mad sea captains, Wolf Larson. Larson makes Ahab look sane. You do not want to be stuck in the middle of the Bering Sea with him.
1 The Seafarer. Wild and yearning as the ocean itself, this Old English poem is a glorious elegy to the romance of hardship, a hymn to endurance. The ocean is a drug, constantly drawing the narrator back to a life of sea-suffering.
3 Das Boot -Lothar-Gunther Buchheim. 'A hairline crack in an egg - that's all it would take to crack our shell.' A German U-boat crouches deep below the waves as depth charges explode all around it. As a study in claustrophobic terror, it's unparalleled.
4 The Odyssey - Homer. Odysseus's epic journey home after the Trojan war is one of the oldest and greatest of all epics. Its language and images have passed into the collective consciousness, whether through Ray Harryhausen's Cyclops or a reading of the original. The sirens are still singing.
6 Lord Jim - Joseph Conrad. Jim jumps ship as a young mate, leaving a boatload of pilgrims to go down, and spends the rest of his life seeking atonement in self-inflicted exile in an Indonesian village. Beautiful prose and a great adventure story; also an acute dissection of idealism struggling with its own human weakness.
7 Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson. Pure adventure. Pirates, parrots, buried treasure, atolls, storms, greed, madness, all pulled together by a master craftsman.
8 The Rime of The Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A superb horror story. The mariner shoots the Albatross and is set upon by both natural and supernatural worlds. Endurance, ghosts, philosophy, mystical musings on a dream ocean. Pure magic.
9 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - C S Lewis. A dragon-headed ship sails dreamily on to the 'utmost east' and the end of the world. The third Narnia chronicle is a small odyssey of haunting encounters on lonely islands and the first sea story ever to carry me away.
10 The Log from The Sea of Cortez - John Steinbeck. Steinbeck's account of his 1940 trip around the Sea of Cortez collecting marine specimens with his biologist friend Ed Ricketts (Doc in Cannery Row). Scientific and aesthetic wonder blend seamlessly with ponderings on life, the universe and everything. The ocean, he muses, is the supreme symbol of the unconscious. 'An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep.' Cthulhu, Dagon and the Kraken still lie beneath.
Below is a list of titles by Carol Birch currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.