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Interview with Clare Clark,
author of The Nature of Monsters

Q: St. Paul’s Cathedral dominates the skyline of eighteenth-century London. What is it about this structure that fascinates and inspires Eliza Tally?

A: I embarked upon The Nature of Monsters intending to write a novel about St. Paul’s. As the book developed, it was clear that my story lay elsewhere but my fascination with the cathedral remained intact. I was drawn to the intricacy of its design, the ground-breaking dome that stacked three domes, one inside the other, to create the perfect proportions inside and out. I was fascinated by a structure that had been constructed in transparent homage to St. Peter’s in Rome less than half a century after the English Civil War, when the fear of popery in England was at its height. I had not known that there had been an entrance charge levied on all visitors to the cathedral since 1709, and I loved the idea that tourists picnicked during services and traders sold their wares while upstairs in the Whispering Gallery, people paid to have their initials carved into the stonework.

Of course, it was unrealistic to invest most of these feelings in Eliza, but, all the same, I knew that her experience of London would certainly have had St. Paul’s at its center. Mostly I think that Eliza—and anyone else unfamiliar with the city—would have been struck straight away by the sheer enormity of the cathedral that, in the Baroque grandiosity of its design, would have been unlike anything she ever would have seen. Although Wren’s churches filled the city with their slim spires and elegant towers, it was the vast dome that dominated the London skyline. It took thirty-five years to build, and, at the time that Eliza traveled to London, it had been complete for only eight years. Its ineffable scale was a monument to both the glory of God and the wealth and influence of the world’s preeminent city.

In a world in which human life was precarious and the threat of poverty and destitution was ever present, the cathedral surely would have represented a kind of timeless authority that was awe inspiring. In her different moods Eliza found that timelessness inspirational, as a testament to the power of the human spirit, and bitter, since it seemed to demonstrate a profound disdain for the quotidian lives lived in its shadow.

Q: Grayson Black is a man whose obsessions—science and heroin—ultimately disconnect him from reality. Do you feel that obsession can turn people into monsters?

A: Absolutely I do. By inflating the object of a person’s preoccupation to the point where it blocks out everything else, obsession inevitably distorts that person’s perspective in a way that often renders them monstrous. For people in the grip of an obsession, there is an increasingly sense of a divine or higher power that prevents them from imagining that there is anything unacceptable in the pursuit of their goals. All obsessions, therefore, lead to a distortion of an absolute moral code. This is exaggerated for Black because, in the early eighteenth century, there was no such thing as medical ethics; many of his contemporaries would have shared his belief that the lives of the criminal or the immoral were less important than the pursuit of science. The corpses of several criminals hung from the neck were given every year to the College of Surgeons for dissection, and I suspect many of the college’s illustrious members would have shared Black’s view that this provided a kind of justice for the victims. The progression to using live women for experimentation might have given these men pause but it was not such a big leap for them as it might be for us today.

Black’s drug addiction accelerates this process. Initially used as a means to clarify his thinking, the opium renders him increasingly paranoid and desperate, separating him further still from the balance of rational thought.

Q: The novel deals with maternal impression—the notion that influences on pregnant women can have adverse and disfiguring effects on their unborn babies. While this concept certainly does not seem scientific from our modern perspective, why do you feel it was an accepted belief at the time?

A: The theory of maternal impression was by no means an eighteenth-century invention. It had been an accepted orthodoxy from biblical times—we read in the book of Genesis about Jacob placing birch strips cut with notches among his sheep so that they might give birth to striped lambs. Similarly there is a belief in maternal impression among the ancient Greeks; Plato wrote of it, and, beggars and cripples were forbidden to walk the streets in Sparta, in case their disabilities imprinted themselves on the unborn children of innocent passers-by.

This orthodoxy continued to be widely accepted well into the eighteenth century. When a woman called Mary Toft faked the birth of a litter of rabbits in 1726, the case was seriously debated among the intellectual elite, including the erudite Jonathan Swift. Indeed the first challenges to this theory were put forward in the late 1720s, when Dr. James Blondel set out his arguments against it—and his views were considered deeply contentious.

In my mind, there are several interrelated reasons why this orthodoxy persisted for so long. One was the fundamental lack of understanding of how the human body works and the determination to provide answers to persistent and difficult questions about disability and deformity. Without anyone having the knowledge to provide an alternative explanation, the theory of maternal impression continued unchallenged.

As a result, the orthodoxy was deeply embedded in the culture. Every country woman knew that if a pregnant woman craved strawberries and did nothing to satisfy that craving, her child would be marked with a “strawberry mark.” Similarly, it was commonly accepted that if she pissed in a churchyard her child would be a bed wetter or if a hare crossed her path the baby would have a harelip. Such established beliefs took a very long time to shift and could still be found in rural communities toward the close of the nineteenth century.

Of course, it is important to remember that the belief in maternal impression was supported by a culture defined by a profound and enduring misogyny. The weakness and emotional volatility of women, who should be regarded, according to Lord Chesterfield, as “children of a larger growth,” was accepted by men and women alike. The orthodoxy of maternal impression permitted the males of that time to believe that the child was conceived in perfection, thereby absolving them of blame and allowing the responsibility for the child’s well-being to reside entirely and completely on the woman’s shoulders.

Q: Your first novel, The Great Stink, was a hit with readers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. In light of that book’s success, was it more challenging to write The Nature of Monsters?

A: Actually I was very lucky, although I did not know it at the time! As a result of poor timing on my part, the publication date for The Great Stink was a full year and a half after I sold the manuscript to the publisher. I had completed almost all of the first draft of The Nature of Monsters before I had read a single review of my first book. There was a great deal more work to be done after that, of course, but by then I was sure that the second book would work which took a great deal of the pressure off me.

Q: How do you decide on which historical facts to include in a novel? Do you approach a new project as a historian or as an author?

A: It is not really a matter of deciding which historical facts to include in a book. Facts are only important in so far as they can be marshaled to create a compelling and convincing world for the characters of a novel to occupy, whether that novel is set in the eighteenth or the twenty-first century. I have a particular bugbear about historical novels that digress into long historical discourses; I think there is nothing more off-putting for the reader than being lectured. A novel is not the place to advertise your historical scholarship but to find a place in the imagination that is as informed by fact as it possibly can be.

My approach is to immerse myself as fully as I possibly can in a period, consuming information about everything from food and clothing to politics and economics until I feel as familiar with the world I am studying as I am with my own. It takes months of reading around the subject before I consider myself ready to begin writing. I suppose in that way you could say that I begin as a historian and slowly—very slowly—work my way toward being an author. But even at the beginning I do not work as a traditional historian. I do not have a particular goal. Instead I have a starting point, and I allow the facts to take me on a journey that stimulates my imagination. I feel among the facts for a story, and it is the emergence of that story that guides the scope and direction of my research. I have become better at knowing when to stop taking in words.

That’s when I leave the library behind and start writing. After that I tend to read very little; instead, I depend on my feel for the period and, of course, find the details in my notes. What I would say is that at least 90 percent of the specific facts that I absorb in the course of my research does not get used in the final story but that 100 percent of my reading informs my understanding of a period and is absolutely critical to me as I create a real world in which my characters convincingly come to life.

Q: The Nature of Monsters, like The Great Stink, reveals the dirty, seedy side of London. What do you find so fascinating about exposing London’s underbelly?

A: You would not guess it from the response to my work but my aim has never been to specifically expose London’s underbelly; although, I suppose that in The Great Stink there is a great deal of it. Instead, what has always interested me as a historian and novelist is the daily minutiae of lives lived in places that are familiar to us but in a style and context that it is difficult for us to understand. The dirt and the smell of historical London were habitual inconveniences that its occupants took for granted; tolerance of squalor was ingrained which explains why, in the main, life was raucous and violent by our standards. If we are to get under the skin of a period, it is my view that we need to appreciate the context. If we, as modern human beings, find it difficult to behave well, how much more difficult was it for someone in the eighteenth century for whom life was cheap and filth a daily hazard? Against so dark and brutal a background any kind of goodness and kindness seems to me to shine with startling brightness.

Q: You’ve now covered Georgian and Victorian England, what era do you think you might visit in your next book?

A: I have already begun my next book so I can tell you that I am—finally—leaving London behind. Having written two London books I wanted to explore a new place and have looked to the Colonial period for inspiration. I’ll put it this way: the next book’s setting will be a lot closer to home for a lot of my American readers! I am reluctant to say more than that at this point. Like many novelists I am rather superstitious about unfinished work.