New Voices: Carys Davies, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Tadzio Koelb & Daniela Tully
Introducing us to history’s thrilling hidden stories are debut novelists Carys Davies, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Tadzio Koelb and Daniela Tully.
While exploring a bookshop, Carys Davies, author of West (Granta/Simon & Schuster, 2018), uncovered a startling fact that stirred her imagination. She explains: “Back in the 1990s, in a second-hand bookstore on Long Island, I picked up an old edition of the journals of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition to find and map a route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. For years the journals sat, unread, on a high shelf in my study at home in the north of England, until one day I got them down and began to read. What really snagged my imagination wasn’t the account of the expedition, though—it was a brief reference in the introduction to the piles of enormous bones which, throughout the 18th century, had been turning up in a Kentucky swamp, and the speculation that the mammoth creatures the bones belonged to might still be alive somewhere in the West, in the uncharted expanses beyond the frontier.”
It was, according to Davies, “one of those thrilling details that drops you straight into the head of someone from another time, that allows you to see the world as they saw it, in all its undiscovered strangeness.”
The consequence of this discovery was that she was also “dropped” into the United States of the early 1800s, “plunged into a world that was being settled by Europeans, a world where the indigenous population was being driven out of their ancestral lands in the east—driven, as would later become apparent, towards extinction.”
At that “fascinating moment in history,” she says, her novel West “began to emerge. As I began to write, both ideas—the bones and the expulsion of the Native American tribes—became entwined in a story which sees my hero, Cy Bellman, a British settler and Pennsylvania farmer, set off alone in search of the giant animals, leaving his young daughter, Bess, behind.”
As Davies wrote, she “continued to read, diving into the amazing archives of the New York Public Library, where I found handwritten diaries and letters (of settlers, government officials, palaeontologists alike), lists of goods offered by the US government in exchange for Native American lands, copies of treaties, original contemporary maps of the early 1800s, and rare published travelogues from the period.”
What emerged from her research is a story about a widowed mule breeder from Pennsylvania, Cy Bellman, colossal ancient bones in a Kentucky swamp, giant monsters, and Bess, the daughter he leaves behind with his uncommunicative and morose sister and nothing but a promise to return after two years and a gold ring. Davies describes the novel as “a story about wonder and curiosity, love and faith; a tale of greed and loss, betrayal and revenge, of hope and faith.”
Daniela Tully’s inspiration for her novel Hotel on Shadow Lake (Legend/Thomas Dunne, 2018) grew out of a moment that she has never forgotten. This was, she says, “a day in which I saw my own grandmother at her most vulnerable and fragile. It was the year 1990, and I just arrived home from school, where I found my grandmother sitting in our kitchen, sobbing into my mother’s arms. Her trembling hand clutched a yellowed envelope. Adolf Hitler’s face, in the upper right corner, was the first detail that jumped out at me.
“The date on the stamp read December 1944. It turned out that the letter inside was from her twin brother, who had died in WWII. In it, he bid my grandmother and his mother, my great-grandmother, farewell, feeling that he wouldn’t survive the war.”
About this unexpected gift from the past, Tully reveals: “As happened with several other letters sent from the eastern part of Germany shortly before the end of WWII, this one, too, had been imprisoned behind one of history’s darkest dividers, only to be set free after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Starting from this emotional family event, Tully was able to create her main protagonist. “Martha Wiesberg (my grandmother’s first name) receives such a letter, except that hers contains much more than a simple farewell—instead, it opens old wounds, and unearths long-buried secrets.” The central character’s quest is like a treasure hunt from 1930s Germany to the forests of America today, which ultimately leads to the Montgomery Hotel, with the unusual family that owns it and the “spirits that live on in deep surrounding wilderness.”
Secrets and ideas can lie dormant in our minds, as if waiting for the right moment to be used creatively. Imogen Hermes Gowar, author of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker, 2018) had one such idea, as she explains. “It sounds absurd to say that I wrote The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by accident, but it’s almost true. A tiny gem of an idea—a merchant, a courtesan, and the terrifying mermaid that draws them together and almost tears them apart—had lurked in the back of my mind for a long time. I’d even written a short story about it, but, wrangling with a different novel I considered to be serious and weighty and worthwhile, I dismissed it. When I eventually started writing it, it was as light relief from that Proper Novel: I’d altogether forgotten that writing can be (ought to be!) fun, but this story came to me swiftly and joyfully, and what made it extra pleasurable was that I already loved the period.”
Eighteenth-century London was one of great contrasts and great excess, from the poverty of Gin Lane as captured by the artist William Hogarth, to the Marie-Antoinette style picnics arranged to amuse the aristocracy. However, Gowar believes that “For all its hypocrisy and filth, the Britain of the 18th century had a cartoonish, dynamic joie-de-vivre which I still find irresistible: the language was baroque, singular, pungent, the colours bright, the sex dirty. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a curation of all the things that delighted me most about 18th-century London, where a courtesan might eat a bank-note between two slices of bread, and where scientific enquiry was hobbled by the vastness of the world and the briefness of life. Mermaids of the sort Mr Hancock acquires really were exhibited in London, and bawds like Mrs Chappell really did throw eye-popping orgiastic parties in lavish brothels.”
However, Gowar points out that “Like most novels-in-progress, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock still presented me with plot headaches, timeline snags, and the odd existential crisis, but the research carried me through. I did not resent returning to my desk because the 1780s was a place I loved to be. I hope my version of it is as pleasurable to read as it was to write.”
In Trenton Makes (Doubleday, 2018), Tadzio Koelb’s main character wants their share of the American dream, but in Trenton, New Jersey, achieving this dream isn’t simple.
Koelb explains: “There are many motivations that might lead an author to choose an historical setting. In my case the choice was suggested by the material that inspired me, but it was cemented by thematic concerns.
“Abe Kunstler, a woman who kills her husband and steals his identity, was triggered by the liner notes to an album of music by Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who was discovered at death to be biologically female. Tipton had ‘married’ twice (once to a stripper) and adopted children, and I began to imagine the enormous difficulties he would have faced in having to keep his body—the inescapable fact of his person—a secret.”
Koelb was faced with a challenge. “In order to highlight these difficulties, I wanted to set the story in a period not so different from our own, but lacking the (admittedly still meagre) resources now available to gender-fluid people; in short, I wanted Kunstler to be a perfect outsider, one who could therefore represent all outsiders, and indeed the outsider in each of us. By setting his story against America’s 20th century wars, I was also able to allow the character’s rise and fall to mirror the country’s as it sank from the elation of the Greatest Generation to the defeats (military and moral) of Vietnam.”
While carrying out his research, he says, “I was aided by a community of ‘industrial archaeologists’ who taught me about previous methods of wire-rope manufacture; by the U.S. Army Center of Military History; and by The Taxi-Dance Hall, a study published in 1932 by sociologist Paul Cressey. What might prove to have been my most important resource, however, is the enormous archive of radio programmes available on-line, which allowed me to hear how people talked and to learn what it interested them to talk about.”
Historical fiction writing at its best seamlessly integrates facts with settings, plots and characters that will intrigue and thrill their readers. Davies, Gowar, Koelb and Tully have all aspired to achieve this. They followed and transformed their initial sparks of inspiration by carrying out detailed research into the periods they have set their novels in, before blending the “might have been” with intriguing historical backdrops created to entertain and enlighten their readers.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is a prizewinning short story writer, Associate Fellow at two British Universities, researcher and workshop designer. Please do email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you discover any debut novels you would recommend.