SO19 talks with novelist CHARLES PALLISER
The name Charles Palliser has been iconic among lovers of fiction set in the 19th century since the author’s debut novel, The Quincunx, appeared in 1990. Since then, Palliser—an American citizen who has lived in Britain since childhood—has published four novels notable for their intricacy and intelligence. His latest, Rustication (W.W. Norton, November 2013) juxtaposes the journals of an adolescent boy with a series of violent anonymous letters to tell a complex tale of secrets, suspicion and family legacy. So19 talks to Palliser about the novel, the 19th century, managing intertwining narratives, and evoking the uncanny.

So19: The Internet has made it increasingly easy to research the  19th century. But it’s still challenging to recreate the physical experience of it, something you do exceptionally well. How do you imagine yourself into a world where things like distance and darkness, say, affect people so differently than they do today?

CP: One of the things that draws me to writing about the past is that it means that my characters have a more vivid experience of the physical world than most of us do now. If we want to travel we simply step into a comfortable car or bus or train. The process of getting from one place to another is (usually) quick, safe, and effortless. We are insulated from the physical world as well as from danger.
As a writer, I find the texture of daily life much more interesting in earlier periods than it is now.

As for how I imagine myself back into that world, I can only suggest that in my own childhood, there were periods when I lived in houses that had no electricity or modern plumbing. Also, from an early age I talked about the past to my grandmother and her sister, both of whom were born in about 1890. I remember being fascinated by my great-aunt recalling that a busy bridge in our town, which a stream of vehicles crossed all day and all night, had been a grassy path with a latch-gate at either end when she was my age in about 1900. I suppose that might have been the moment at which, aged about ten, I realized that the Victorian past is both distant and exotic, and yet at the same time close and familiar.

So19: Though it’s geographically not far from Thurchester, the fictional cathedral town you evoked in The Unburied, the harsh and isolated setting here feels like an entirely different world. It feels just as true to the 1870s, but has its own distinctive character.

CP: The landscape was crucial. I wanted a dramatic contrast with the small cathedral city in which Richard and his family have enjoyed comfort, friendship, and respect. Suddenly they find themselves poverty-stricken and trying to stay warm and dry in a dilapidated mansion in a desolate district where they have no social standing and can be tyrannized by small-minded despots.

So19: The novel is at once earthy and uncanny. There’s an actual ghost story within it, and a pervasive feeling of folk or fairy tale.

CP: I also wanted to evoke the city-dweller’s fear of the empty countryside. Richard and his mother and sister feel menaced not just by the muddy roads, dangerous marshes, windswept Battlefield and encroaching ocean, but also by the feeling that ancient superstitions and fears are making them, as outsiders, the target of resentment and even hatred. I wanted to evoke a sense that in a district as isolated as this one, beliefs older than Christianity have survived, and are deeply malevolent. Threatened by magic fetishes and messages, the family comes close to believing that malign spirits haunt the house.

So19: Despite that eerie mood, concerns about money and respectability are a driving force in the novel. That feels at once true to the period and entirely contemporary.

CP: In worldly terms the family is in a desperate plight. As the only male in the family, Richard is under enormous pressure at just seventeen. He has to get some sort of acceptable position if he is going to rescue his mother and sister. Establishing yourself in a profession without money or help was extremely difficult at that time, when merit counted far less than connections and influence.

So19: For all the darkness in the story, Richard’s voice is always robust and frequently very funny. Was that your intention from the start?

CP: I wanted Richard to be irritating but likeable. He treats the young house-maid badly but that, I’m afraid, was very typical of the period. He needed to have a sense of humor, though at a certain point he loses that entirely. Humor comes from seeing things in their context, and someone close to mental collapse loses the ability to do that.

I think readers will have quite a complicated reaction to Richard. He arrives home hiding guilty secrets from his mother and sister, worried about the family’s plight, and curious about the sudden death of his father, which has plunged the family into disaster. He finds a situation far worse than he has imagined, not just in worldly terms but in terms of the dynamics of the family.

The real issue, Richard gradually realizes, is that the death of his father, the scandalous circumstances surrounding it, and the psychological damages inflicted by his father in the past have opened up deep fissures within the little family. Each of the three is lying to the others and concealing various things, especially the ancient resentments and festering hatreds that exist within many families. Faced with that, Richard behaves foolishly, selfishly, and thoughtlessly. But he at least has the capacity to recognize his mistakes.

So19: I really loved the diversity of female characters in the book and their very different ways of understanding and using power. Indeed, though a man tells most of the story, it felt to me that it was the women who truly defined it.

CP: I didn’t consciously set out to make women so prominent in the novel, but at a certain stage I realized that that was the case. I suppose it came about because I wanted to deal with a fatherless family and with the “politics” of a small community. The latter really means the struggle for respect in a small society, including the important role played by gossip. I think it’s safe to say that women play the determining role in all of that.

So19: Edward Courtine, the narrator of The Unburied, has chosen in some sense to be prematurely old. In contrast, Richard Shenstone embraces his youthfulness: he is full of appetite, avid for emotional and sexual connection. What was it like to write such a voracious and energetic character?

CP: I realize only now that in my four novels (putting aside Betrayals, since it is such a weird kind of book) I have had a male central character representing a single distinct age. In The Quincunx John starts as a small child; throughout most of the novel he is about fourteen, only reaching adulthood at the end. The protagonist of The Sensationist is in his twenties. And as you say, in my last two books I have a man in his fifties and a boy of seventeen. That wasn’t deliberate but perhaps, without realizing it, I wanted to explore those different ages.

Edward Courtine, as you suggest, has resigned himself to quite a high degree of disappointment. If he ever had elevated expectations of what life could offer him, he has lowered them considerably. He watches his former friend, Austin Fickling, with a mixture of disapproval and envy as he sees him stepping across various moral and legal barriers in search of happiness.

Courtine is an observer who finds that he has been drawn into a wicked conspiracy as an unwitting accomplice. Richard, in contrast, discovers that he is a conspiracy’s victim. He is certainly not guiltless. Even before the novel opens, he has become implicated in some rash and immoral actions. I wanted him to be at a crossroads, as I suppose we all were to some extent at that age. (For most of us, of course, the choice is not so stark.) One path leads towards self-indulgence (in alcohol and drugs and sex) and increasing insensitivity towards other people. The other offers the chance of reformation and a journey towards respect for himself and others. It is because he finds himself in a situation of extreme danger—moral as well as physical—that he is forced to make a choice.

So19: You’ve noted elsewhere that you can’t write to a deadline. Can you talk a bit about your process?

CP: I took twelve years to write The Quincunx, which was very long and complicated, but only two years to write The Unburied, which was almost as complex but in a different way. I don’t know why I didn’t manage to write Rustication in the two or three years as I had expected, rather than nearly nine.  I can keep deadlines for articles and reviews, but I no longer even try when I embark on a novel. For me it would be pointless to write a novel that I knew I could complete within a limited length of time. The enviable novelists are the ones who can embark on a novel unlike anything they have written before and still bring it home inside a couple of years. Apart from The Unburied, I don’t seem to be able to do that.

So19: The mysteries of your novel are numerous and intricate, while the documents through which you have chosen to narrate them are deliberately limited in what they know (Richard’s diary) or what they say (the anonymous letters). It must have been difficult to keep all the narrative threads from tangling, and figure out how and when to reveal their elements. Could you talk a bit about your process for shaping and structuring plot? Do you outline, chart, rely on intuition and/or revision….?

CP: As I’ve said, the novel took seven or eight years to write. A great deal of that time was devoted to exactly the issue you’ve identified.

Once I’d established the basic sequence of events, I had to work out how the various strands fitted together. That was a frustrating and absorbing business in equal measure. I had to drip-feed to the reader different kinds of information in a sequence that was plausible in terms of the characters’ motivations; mysterious or anomalous, given that so much of the action is conspiratorial and therefore secretive; and intriguing, without becoming obscure or baffling. The information is coming from several directions: from Richard’s own observations recorded in his diary, from remarks he hears from other people without always understanding them, and from the vicious anonymous letters, which contain clues about their authorship that had to be neither too obvious nor too elusive.

I kept track of all of that through a long process of endless revision. I use outlines a great deal in writing my fiction. They let me focus on a specific aspect of the narrative without being distracted by details.

I know already that some readers, even very sophisticated ones, have not followed the narrative in the way I hoped. But on the other hand, a number of early reviewers and guinea-pigging friends have gratifyingly found it a page-turner. All I can do is to write the kind of novel I’d enjoy reading, and I love being teased and challenged. Bless Wilkie Collins for inventing so much of that technique.

So19:  Let’s close by talking about reading. What 19th-century authors do you most enjoy?

CP: I like the obvious writers of the 19th century: Austen, Dickens, all three Brontës, Eliot, Hardy, James, and Conrad, if he counts as Victorian. I’ve never got on with Trollope and can’t read Meredith at all. I find most of Thackeray fairly uninteresting with the astonishing exception of Vanity Fair, which is utterly brilliant. I find Scott pretty dull but he has some wonderful characters and scenes.

Twenty years ago it might have been surprising to mention Wilkie Collins but he has, thankfully, undergone a revival. At his best, he is wonderful. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are easily his most successful books, and can teach all writers a great deal about constructing an ingenious narrative, as well as using multiple narrators to mislead and finally enlighten readers. But No Name is also pretty good and Armadale, though often absurd, has many good things.

Those are all pretty mainstream. There are some minor novelists I like. James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner is an amazing book. Again, it is technically a goldmine of opportunities, with its many levels of narrative and its use of an unreliable (in fact, deranged) narrator. Maria Edgeworth was an extremely intelligent novelist—an intellectual and an early feminist—and Castle Rackrent is very entertaining.

That assumes that I’m being asked about British and Irish novelists, of course. I haven’t mentioned the French and the Russians, or other writers of that period whom I like, including Melville and Eça de Queiroz.<