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Why Write About the Past?

Today I have the pleasure of having Jane Borodale, author of The Book of Fires, (which I reviewed a few weeks ago) guest posting today! Take it away, Jane!

Thanks Trish for having me to visit. Writing this post got me thinking again about why I write about the past, and what my key motivations were for The Book of Fires

I’ve always been fascinated by the complications of human warmth, how so many of our emotions and ambitions lie seemingly dormant whilst under the surface they are somehow gathering in, compressing, concentrating in subconscious preparation, so that when the moment of spark comes, the whole can come alight. So I was hoping to write about transformation of a kind, and an exploration of fire seemed to offer so much.

I didn’t set out to write a historical novel – it was a story that I passionately wanted to tell, which happened to take place in the past. Using the historic present tense was an instinctive choice – writing about the past as if in the present can create (as in a play) a sense of climbing into a moment – as if to try it out. I’m intrigued and frustrated in equal measure by the unreachability of history, the gaps, the missing bits, the subjectivity, the difficulty and contradiction of it all, and creating a story about the past as if it’s current implies you are removing the filter, the mediating obstacles. I know the past is ‘other’ but I want to go there, and take people along with me. I want to summon it up – I know I can’t, but the trying seems vital. I want to imply that if my character were to take off her cloak, we could slip it on and it would still be warm. I think perhaps that’s a reason that I write – to try to work out what it is about the past that draws us back to it again and again. I feel haunted by the past, and the way it engulfs us so unknowably. I’ve always felt that particles of the past lie all around us still, call it a kind of place-memory, or a trace of lives, or a faint skeleton of previous warmth, touch, breath, voices. It’s a sensation that is like a smell – we can’t see it but we know it’s there.

Writing in the present tense is also a way towards bypassing nostalgia, which is the enemy of good, vigorous historical fiction. As a reader I’m always looking for fiction that tackles the past as though it is real life, with all its baggage and trouble and discomfort, not as a stage-set for cosiness.

My protagonist Agnes Trussel is in some ways a kind of archetype – she represents countless unfortunate girls throughout history who fell into the trap of illegitimacy. But I wanted to give a twist to that sadly-familiar Hogarthian tale of a slide into mire, to try to find a new way of looking at an age-old predicament. Pregnant and unmarried in the eighteenth century, she knows the options available to her: dangerous back-street abortion, desertion at the foundling hospital, self-administered herbs or miscarriage, abandonment after the birth, carrying the child to term and being forced by the parish to marry the father so that she would not be a burden on parish resources, or living a life of shame and forced into prostitution or crime as the only means of making a living.

Both Agnes and pyrotechnist John Blacklock, whom she works for as assistant, are in different states of grief – he for his dead wife and she for her home and family life before guilt and shame were uppermost. I knew that I couldn’t let her process her trauma immediately – the way that she allows fate to propel her could not have happened if she was less doggedly in denial. Her withheld nature was a survivor’s method – a kind of don’t-look-down stubbornness borne of pain and guilt. But at the same time I wanted her natural, uneducated intelligence to grow and flourish as the novel progresses, which is why her language becomes more sophisticated, for example. From the beginning she observes the natural world very closely, and sees details with unusual clarity. To intensify this I gave her synesthesia, so that she experiences colours in terms of taste, smell and texture as well as vision. In many ways I wanted her to think on a purely visceral level – through her fingertips.

Agnes’ delight in the richness of the chemistry and substances she is learning about is also mine – it was hugely exciting to delve into eighteenth-century science, with its language still straight out of the alchemists – and seductively poetic – but newly precise and yielding important discoveries (oxygen!). For the history of pyrotechny itself I had to go back to contemporary sources, which was thrilling; small printed pamphlets at the British Library that breezily described, often with detailed diagrams, how to make detonating balls, skyrockets, quickmatch, fiery rain. They were sometimes working books that had clearly been used over the years, with black thumbprints on dirty pages. I looked at programmes for firework displays at eighteenth-century pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall, engravings of gala events, royal celebrations. I went to see fireworks, in case there was anything I’d forgotten since the last time I saw any. I had fireworks propped up in my workroom, in the drawers of my desk. I made big bonfires. My children began to think it was normal to eat supper by the light of one guttering candle.

Immersion in work has always been a way towards healing, and I had been surprised in my research to come across evidence of women, particularly in the skilled trading or merchant class, who were working in traditionally male occupations. I found, for example, tantalising references to a Mary Clitherow, fireworks maker in the early nineteenth century, and an Elizabeth Grief who was a master-gunflint maker with an apprentice working beneath her.

I wanted Agnes to somehow embody the strengths of the working Sussex landscape that she comes from (and which she returns to in dream and memory once she has arrived in the squalor of London); the chalk Downs with their vast, uncompromising plainness of beauty. And as I wrote I found that her story was also about contrasts and juxtapositions – city and countryside, agriculture and industrialisation, nature and science, science and art, strength and weakness, faith and fear, darkness and light. And fire seemed to be the perfect metaphor for the fusion of opposites – coldness and deadness transformed into heat, light, energy.

If you have a spare moment, my website is where I talk a bit about the inspiration and research for the book.

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9 Responses to “Why Write About the Past?”

  1. Sandy

    See, this is always the clincher for me. I’ve had my eye on this book for some time now, but the guest post, when well-written seals the deal. I love knowing the inspiration and background of the story. Excellent post.


  2. Beth F

    I would love to more about “women . . . in the skilled trading or merchant class.” I loved Jane’s book and hope she writes more along those lines. I love being immersed in a time period and in another’s life. It doesn’t have to be epic to be successful; Book of Fires takes place in, what?, less than a year.


  3. Sheila DeChantal

    Great interview and the book looks wonderful! I really enjoying historical fiction and I like it when authors take a piece of history and add on to it. The fire is an excellent metaphor.


  4. jennygirl

    Beautifully written post! I like your thought process and reasons for the heroine in your story. Also, the scientific aspect of the fireworks never crossed my mind. I’m sold! I’ll keep my eyes out for this one. THanks Trish! And thank you Jane for your post.


  5. zibilee

    Very interesting post! I like the fact that you can see the character mature throughout the progression on the novel. I have heard a lot about this book and have been reading great reviews all over the place. I am definitely going to be picking up this book very soon. I will have to let you know what I think of it!


  6. Lisa

    I always love to get the author’s take on the book. It always seems to make the book that much more interesting for me.


  7. Stephanie

    Great guest post. I read this book a few weeks ago and enjoyed it a lot, so it was nice to get some of the backstory from the author.


  8. Cori

    Looks like an interesting book! And this was a great guest post — informative and well-written. You can tell she’s passionate, too. Not to mention the cover of the book looks gorgeous. Win win!


  9. Laurel-Rain Snow

    I have an award for you here:


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