EDITORS NOTE: From debut author Imogen Hermes Gowar comes The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, an atmospheric historical fiction novel set in 18th century London. The elegant prose and magical realism transports you to a world of opulence and turmoil. Gowar’s rich visuals and detailed descriptions kept us reading and reading and reading! We had the opportunity to catch up with Imogen recently. Read on to discover her answers to our questions!
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is such a unique story. Where did your inspiration come from? Was there something in particular that drew you to mermaids?
I’ve been interested in the supernatural since childhood, and that definitely includes mermaids. I was particularly compelled by the traditional mermaid myths: the idea that they had a dangerous, inexorable power as much rooted in melancholy and longing as in anything erotic.
I was also really interested in the way people thought of mermaids, as opposed to how they were displayed. The goblin-like counterfeit mermaid effigies that were popular in the eighteenth century and beyond didn’t bear a huge resemblance to the sexy damsels of popular imagination, but people were willing to be taken in by them nevertheless. While I was working at the British Museum I came across one of these fake mermaids—it’s made from a monkey’s torso stitched to a salmon’s tail—and it is oddly chilling. I could immediately imagine the sort of man who might want to acquire it: how he would bridge the gulf between how it looked and what he wished to believe.
Which character came to you first most clearly in writing the novel? Did this change by the end?
When I was standing in front of the mermaid’s case, I had a triad of characters in my head immediately. Angelica Neal, my heroine, was clear as a bell; then there was Mr. Hancock and his sister Hester, who ended up quite a minor character. I was really interested in her psyche— the way a middle-class, middle-aged woman’s bids for control can only really manifest as ‘meddling’—but this was not her novel.
The character I surprised myself by bonding with was Mrs. Chappell, Angelica’s procuress. According to eighteenth-century tropes, a madam is the most despicable of women, but I believe that to create convincing characters you must respect them and listen to what they have to say for themselves. I always had great fun writing her, but the more I let her in, the more I cared about her. It’s probably significant that these two characters are both post-menopausal women, a class of people summarily discarded by eighteenth-century society. They were not valued particularly in their own time, but this doesn’t mean we can’t value them now.
You started out in Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History, and you work in museums. Would you say your background perfectly suited you to write this book? Did you have to do additional research to depict Georgian England so well in this book?
I came to my degree just wanting to know about people, and how they tick. I thought studying artifacts was a more ‘honest’ way of accessing real lives than via texts, although I was set right on that pretty quickly. So yes, I was certainly always looking for stories, and for ways to experience lives different from my own. I expect my archaeology professors were very glad that I made the transition into fiction—they aren’t disciplines that sit well together! But I did learn all my research skills from my undergraduate degree, and I researched for this novel just as I’d research for a dissertation. I chose the era partly because I was already comfortable with it, and loved it, but it took nearly a solid year of research before I sat down to write the book. For me, it was non-negotiable that I absolutely immersed myself in that world.
There is a feminist angle exploring the choices of women in restrictive 18th century London society. Why was it important for you to include this? What was the biggest surprise that you found while researching women’s roles in society?
To be honest, there was no way I couldn’t include it. The more I studied 1780s women, the more I saw what a tightrope they all walked: they had very few legal rights, lacked independent means and generally had no professional training. Some women did run businesses, but there’s no escaping the fact that the framework of their society was formed by men, and pretty much every woman had to expend mental, emotional and physical energy on either keeping men happy or acting in defiance of them.
Have you always wanted to be an author, or is this something that is a recent passion?
I’ve wanted to write since about the time I became literate, but my parents always emphasized the fact that I’d have to have a ‘real’ job to support myself. Luckily I loved history and museum work, so that was an easy career choice if not a lucrative one. I never ever expected to make any sort of a living out of writing and to have published this book at all still amazes me, but I guess I just had a quite single-minded determination to write it whatever the outcome. Writing makes me joyful, and for as long as that’s the case I will keep doing it.
Do you have any rituals or do you do anything special to get in the mindset to write?
Honestly, I think the only thing for it is to just dive in. My only ritual is procrastination. Ideally, I’d write in a tidy room with a nice candle burning, but this is all window dressing. The real discipline is getting over the fear of starting—when I’m in a good place I can write anywhere.
It is so exciting that you are getting so much amazing response to your debut novel! Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? Did you get any great advice from veteran authors that you’d like to pass on?
The other women on the Women’s Prize shortlist were really kind to me. I don’t know if I received advice, but I was thrilled to see Kamila Shamsie win it—she’s been shortlisted four times and has a career to be proud of. There is a lot of buzz around debut novels, and it’s easy to get sucked into that when it’s you: what I saw watching her was that it’s unhealthy to expect to get everything all at once. You just keep on writing, and you do it to make yourself better rather than in expectation of anything. You accept that each novel you write does the thing it’s meant to, and if you really want a particular accolade, you have to have the humility to wait for it. That probably applies to most of life
What’s next for you? Do you have any other books in the works?
I’m working on something new, but I know better than to say too much about it till it’s done. Who knows how it’ll confound me.
Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History before going on to work in museums. She began to write fiction inspired by the artifacts she worked with, and in 2013 she won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA. Her debut novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition and shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award. You can find her on Twitter. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is available on September 11 in Half Price Books stores and online at HPB.com while supplies last.