Happy New Year, fellow readers, writers and watchers of the world. Here’s hoping 2021 turns out to be memorable in a more positive way.
Today I’m delighted to be introducing a new series to the blog as the first post of the year. ‘Talking (new) fiction’ is similar to the ‘2, 2 and 2’ series, begun in 2014 (56 posts), in that it features authors talking about their newly released books. However, I have decided to rest the ‘2, 2 and 2’ series for now, in favour of more in-depth conversations with authors about works of literary fiction that I’m excited about.
My first guest is Perth writer and editor Josephine Taylor. I’ve admired Jo’s work ever since I came across it while I was fiction editor of the journal Westerly. Her story ‘Sigh-Co’ went straight to my shortlist and was published in volume 60, no. 2 (2015).
Jo’s own story has shaped the trajectory of her career and her writing, as will become clear in our discussion here. She was forced to surrender her profession as a psychotherapist after developing chronic gynaecological pain in 2000. Years later, research into the condition informed her prize-winning PhD thesis, an investigative memoir. She is now Associate Editor at Westerly and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Writing at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and presents on disorder and creativity. Her writing has been anthologised and published widely.
The book we are discussing is Jo’s debut novel, Eye of a Rook…
‘Now, Mr Rochdale.’ The surgeon leans back in his leather chair. ‘Before I give you my diagnosis, I require some facts from you about your wife. Is she restless—perhaps, excitable? Or is she of a melancholic disposition? Even…shall we say…withdrawn from you?’
In Victorian London, Arthur Rochdale’s wife Emily is struck down by a pain for which she can find no words. In desperation, Arthur seeks the aid of Isaac Baker Brown and contemplates the surgeon’s terrifying treatment for ‘hysterical’ women at his London Surgical Home.
Almost 150 years later, writer and academic Alice Tennant explores the history of hysteria to make sense of her own mystifying and private pain. Although she has direct access to a medical profession that should be able to help her, it seems that little has changed since 1866.
Circling ever closer to Arthur and Emily’s story, Alice begins to question her own life and marriage. With understanding comes the discovery of the possibilities of creativity—and a newfound knowledge of self that will change the course of Alice’s life.
‘Following where it took me…’
AC: The opening lines of a novel often contain within them a glimpse of the whole. Sometimes this is so oblique as to be barely discernible, but in Eye of a Rook, the first lines are immediately arresting in their directness and immediately revelatory of the novel’s territory:
It hurts like a toothache that pierces the bones of your face and shoots through your thoughts, scattering them like frightened birds.
What else? Alice opened herself to her body, registering the sensations she usually fled.
It hurts like an earache that squats in your skull and scrawls graffiti on its walls, trashing the house that was once your home.
It’s an introduction that foregrounds, lyrically and powerfully, the experience of Alice’s bodily pain. What it hints at, and what emerges as the novel progresses, is the impact of that pain—the difficult, inconvenient, unstoppable alteration of daily lives, careers, relationships, identities wrought by chronic illness.
I hasten to add that Eye of a Rook is also ‘about’ many other things—love, compassion and resilience among them—but my first question concerns the choice, as a subject for fiction, of pain in general, and the devastating pain of the gynaecological condition vulvodynia, which is poorly understood even by the medical profession. Jo, did you choose it or did it choose you?
JT: Oh, it definitely chose me! I spent a lot of years trying to get away from vulvodynia, trying to get back to the me I was before it began in 2000. After a few years I realised I wasn’t getting any better, for the moment at least, so I began to research vulvodynia and to reach out to other women, initiating a support group. Then in 2007 I began a PhD, writing a memoir that became a detective story—an investigation into the history of genital pain and hysteria, and an inquiry into the misinterpretation of women’s bodies and the silencing of their voices. I was still trying to get away from vulvodynia, but there was something in the writing of the PhD thesis that helped me realise I couldn’t. So I gradually developed a different relationship with vulvodynia, listening to it and following where it took me.
After I’d finished my PhD, I found I was still gripped by the anger I’d felt years before. My frustrated questions were still the same: Why is there such a yawning gap between the incidence of female genital pain and knowledge or awareness around it? Why does it take women so long to be diagnosed? Why is there no adequate treatment? Why is no-one talking about vulvodynia?
I think if I’d recovered or didn’t have constant symptoms, I might not have written more. But I hadn’t and I did, so when two Victorian men came to me in response to a workshop prompt in 2013, I wrote them. That image developed into a scene in my short story ‘That Hand’, in which a man in 1860s London—Arthur Rochdale—is consulting with surgeon Isaac Baker Brown about his wife Emily’s mystifying pain; the scene then segued into part of the opening chapter of Eye of a Rook, and a focus on Arthur’s pivotal decision.
Wounds and scars
AC: I was reminded recently of a piece of advice concerning the writing of trauma that I’ve heard several authors refer to: ‘Write from your scars, not from your wounds’ (attributed to Sisonke Msimang, author of Always Another Country and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela). I understand this to be about putting some space between the living out of trauma and the writing (and, to some extent, the re-living) of that experience. Has that advice resonated with you? And I wonder, in the case of a writer experiencing vulvodynia, whether there might be some difficulty in separating the scars from the wounds.
JT: Yes, that advice does resonate with me, and I’ve referred to it myself on at least one occasion. I think it’s especially relevant and important for those who’ve experienced a discrete trauma and need to put some distance between themselves and the event or experience before writing it; to let the wound become a scar.
As vulvodynia is something I can always feel, and must then live with, it can’t become a scar. I do find, though, that the longer I have it and the more I write about it, the more I create a little distance from the wounding and develop more agency and confidence. Writing fiction has been especially important in this process, though I’ve noticed my pain increase around the time I’m writing scenes that reach a crisis or in which I immerse the reader in the sensations. I’m not sure how coincidental that is, but I think it helps me write more persuasively and in a more embodied fashion. Moving out of that state again shifts my relationship with the pain in quite profound ways.
I’d also say that even for those whose trauma is in a distant past, the feelings and sensations around it can continue in a strange kind of present. I think it’s important to be attentive to and kind with ourselves when writing from these complex and intense spaces.
Shaking the trappings
AC: There are parts of Eye of a Rook that are tough to read at the same time as being utterly compelling, and I’m thinking here particularly about Isaac Baker Brown and the horrific implements he used to ‘cure’ women of their so-called hysteria in the 1860s. But just as horrifying is the societal and legal positioning of women at this time as the chattels of men, ‘the weaker sex’, which meant that decisions about their bodies (and much else) could be made by doctors, husbands, fathers, without consent or even consultation. These are dark spaces in women’s history, and I’m wondering how much they contributed to your decision to make Eye of a Rook a dual narrative.
JT: Definitely! It felt so important to make space for that history, partly because the present-day understanding and treatment of vulvodynia is informed by it. But including the historical narrative also happened spontaneously or intuitively, which is so often the case in writing, right?
After Arthur had announced himself to me, I did make a conscious choice to continue using a male perspective for the historical narrative. I wanted to contrast Alice’s agency in contemporary Perth with Emily’s lack of agency in Victorian England. I was also really interested in what Arthur would do with the power he holds when he also feels so deeply for Emily.
The more shocking elements in the novel around Isaac Baker Brown, his dealings with women and the operations he conducted were very difficult to write, so I’m sure they’re hard to read, if compelling. But there is nothing gratuitous in this: I want people to understand how the past informs current medical and societal attitudes towards inexplicable female disorder. We need to shake the trappings that diminish women’s pain and suffering, replacing them with knowledge, compassion and trust in the woman herself.
When research takes you by surprise
AC: Jo, it seems that Eye of a Rook is interwoven with many layers of your life—not only pain but also your work as a creative writer, your academic life, your previous profession as a psychotherapist. But what about the flights into the unknown that writing this novel has required of you? Did the narrative take you in surprising directions or lead you to new areas of research?
JT: I deliberately placed Alice’s narrative within the time period during which I completed my PhD. This strategy meant I didn’t have to conduct any more research into vulvodynia, and it also meant that I could base Alice’s discoveries on my own.
I hadn’t anticipated how much further research I’d have to conduct into Victorian society and medicine. Fortunately, I loved it! I also continued research into the recipient of a dedication found in a copy of Isaac Baker Brown’s On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females (1866): ‘…with the affectionate love, of The Author’. I was trying to work out exactly how I felt about Isaac; I wanted to separate my fictional Isaac from the historical Isaac and to flesh out someone sketchily comprehended and easily demonised, without minimising the trauma he must have caused to countless women and their families. I did have Alice researching the dedicatee in the novel, but my wonderful and wise mentor, Susan Midalia, advised that it complicated the narrative unnecessarily, so I wrote a personal essay on it instead!
I didn’t anticipate Emily’s letters, but I knew I had to include her voice somehow while keeping Arthur’s perspective central. I really enjoyed discovering just who she was by writing her letters to Beatrice, Arthur’s sister. I also didn’t know, at the outset, whether Alice or Emily would recover or the fate of Alice’s marriage, and I allowed the writing to determine that, which brought several surprises.
AC: I’m always interested in connections between people and place, and the historical strand of Eye of a Rook is set in England—London and beyond. I sensed an intimacy in the way you wrote about the rural locations—the Rochdale family’s Hierde House in the fictional Herdley, and Rugby School. Were these created/re-created from personal associations?
JT: You’re very perceptive, Amanda.
Even at the very beginning, I knew Arthur grew from my father and my sons.
I knew some of Dad’s history, but writing Arthur gave me the opportunity to research it with him in a more detailed way, and this brought us even closer during his final years.
Dad was born in Rochdale, England. He was twelve when the family moved to the Naze House in Chinley, Derbyshire, and he boarded at Seascale Preparatory School, then Worksop College. Like Arthur, Dad experienced a loss that changed the direction of his life, and the news of it was delivered to him by the headmaster in much the same way. Dad was a great walker, and Arthur’s walks with Taffy to and around the Naze in Herdley are informed by Dad’s walks with his terrier Punch. In all of this I was reaching towards something to do with love and mothering that affects who Arthur becomes and the decision he must make on Emily’s behalf.
I was born on a farm near Rugby, so there are childhood sensations and memories from there lodged in my bones, though I don’t have any memories of Rugby School itself. I can’t travel easily, so didn’t return to England while writing Eye of a Rook, but I found I could research Rugby School quite thoroughly from a distance, and Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), by Thomas Hughes, immersed me in that time and place from a boy’s perspective. The Temple Reading Room at Rugby School also provided helpful information.
I did get stuck in these two chapters from Arthur’s early life for some time, but I think that was necessary in order to write and understand him properly. Dad died a couple of months before I finished the final draft, and the constellation of love, loss, mothering and creativity that formed then helped me complete the novel.
AC: When writing, I usually surround myself with photographs, maps, artefacts—things that speak, at least to me, of the world I’m trying to create. Part of that is because I am blessed with a dedicated writing space, but even when I’m writing somewhere else I manage to take a portable version of my clutter with me. So I’m wondering about your writing space, Jo, and whether you’re also a collector of bits and pieces. And if so, whether you would be willing to speak about some item that has been part of the journey of writing this novel.
JT: My bits and pieces are mainly paper based. I had many sentences drawn from novels stuck to my walls while I wrote Eye of a Rook. I’m still very much an emerging fiction writer; I learned so much about voice, expression and perspective from these favourite quotes, and would turn to them for inspiration when I was stuck. I also drew pictures of houses and clothes and purses, making sense of the habits and patterns of daily life in Victorian England, and detailed family trees for Arthur and Emily—I kept all these at hand.
A family treasure from my mother’s side of the family was used as inspiration for some of the meals mentioned in the novel: The Housekeepers’ Friend, by ‘A Lady’, published in Norwich in 1852. It’s strange yet endearing to see the childhood scribbles of my great-grandfather Harry Edrich inside the cover. In the novel, I repurposed my mother’s memories of her grandfather (Harry) in Ena’s memories of her grandparents’ marriage: Them that are lashed to the post must take the strikes.
The most useful item was Edward Weller’s Map of London, from 1868. I printed sections of the map as I determined where the characters lived and walked, and sticky-taped them together. Often Victorian London remained laid out on the floor, and I had to jump over it to get out of the office! It was a wonderful surprise when Fremantle Press sent me the concept cover, and designer Nada Backovic had incorporated this map into the background. I’m very grateful for everyone’s patience as I requested shifts in the positioning of the map! I wanted visible the location of Emily and Arthur’s home on Portland Place and parts of the routes taken by Arthur in his city walks. I’m just thrilled with the result.
‘Silently and under the cover of night’
AC: Rooks appear throughout Eye of a Rook and on that striking cover. Without entering into the territory of spoilers, can you talk about how they work metaphorically in the novel? Did they enter into the writing by stealth or was there always a rook guiding you?
JT: Rooks appeared in Eye of a Rook by stealth: silently and under cover of night. After deliberately writing the rooks from Thomas Hughes’ 19th-century Rugby School into Arthur’s school narrative, they started popping up unbidden. When I discovered, while researching the 1860s streets of London, that ‘rookery’ meant ‘slum’ as well as the place where rooks gather and nest, some of my thoughts and feelings around mothering and caring for others less fortunate coalesced.
Increasingly, the rook acts as a reflection of Arthur’s state of mind; through that, I was also gesturing towards Alice’s understanding of two bodies, reached through her experience of pain: ‘One, a symmetrical image reflected in the mirror and the sight of other bodies, whole and cohesive. The other, a figure in fragments, its bits and pieces scattered through the brain.’ Without giving too much away, the rook is critical in the creative process of bringing fragments together and making something whole and good. Again, I felt that this decided itself in some ways, the rook guiding me in the later stages.
And, yes, I love the glossy rook on the cover!
Image credits: author photo by Charlotte Guest, 2018; photos of the Naze and the author’s father from Taylor family records