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Rosie Garland – polymath poet, singer, artist, performer and storyteller extraordinaire

August 27, 2016

Rosie Garland is a polymath poet, singer, artist, performer and storyteller extraordinaire. Having devoured her novels, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to her about her love of reading, history, and, of course, outfits.

An interview with Rosie Garland

Cover of The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland.

Cover of The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland.


Cover of Vixen by Rosie Garland

Cover of Vixen by Rosie Garland


Genevieve Jones: As you know, I loved both of your books so far, particularly for the way that you made the worlds your characters inhabit so real that for too short a time, the reader feels like they themselves are living in a Medieval village or Victorian London. Thank you for the chance to quiz you on some of the ways you made that happen.


The Palace of Curiosities is set in Victorian London in the mid-nineteenth century, and Vixen also in England, but a Medieval village this time in the mid-fourteenth century. What drew you to these two quite different time periods and places?


Rosie Garland : Thank you so much for those fabulous words! There’s no finer compliment. It’s a true pleasure to have the chance to talk with you.

Forgive me if my answers are somewhat roundabout. My writing journey has had plenty of detours and unexpected changes of direction, so perhaps that’s fitting. I do love going off on tangents. You discover the most unexpected things…

Rosie Garland on curiosity

I shall start with curiosity, a very good place to start. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been possessed of a ‘satiable curiosity. I’m fascinated by, well, pretty much everything, especially history. I was lucky to have access to public libraries (an early and abiding love). As an avid reader, I made quick work of the contents of the children’s library and remember the proud and exciting day, age ten, when I was allowed into the adult section. Of course I’m an avid reader – to quote Stephen King “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”


I discovered the joy of being transported to other worlds via the magic of words. It wasn’t long before I started telling my own tales. I have a cough-sweet tin filled with books I created for my dolls. This curiosity underpins what I write and why I do it the way I do.


Years before I began to write The Palace of Curiosities, I read about the life of Julia Pastrana. Born in nineteenth century Mexico, she suffered from hypertrichosis terminalis, where the body is completely covered with thick hair. Discovered and purchased from her family by an entrepreneur who billed her as The Ugliest Woman in the World, she toured the USA and Europe. She died three days after giving birth to his child. This proved inconvenient for her showman husband, who promptly had her stuffed, along with her infant son, so that he could continue to exhibit her. She wound up in a museum in Norway (no idea how) and was only repatriated to Mexico and given a decent burial in February 2013.


However, The Palace of Curiosities isn’t a re-telling of Pastrana’s – or anyone else’s – life. I’m not a writer of factual history books, however much I love reading them. I tell stories set in the past. I feel there’s a very important difference. I’ll try to explain.


I create my own characters. I wanted Eve, the Lion-Faced Girl, to make her way in her world, and find a path that was neither tragic nor unrealistically twee. In particular, I wanted the ‘freaks’ to speak for themselves. Unlike a number of other circus novels (eg Angela Carter’s mistressful Nights at the Circus and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus) Eve tells her story in first person. So does the other main character, Abel, another person with an extraordinary body.


In ‘Vixen’, I was drawn to another passion of mine – medieval history. The novel opens in 1349, and is set in an isolated village deep in a forest in the south-west of England. The arrival of a mysterious young woman – the Vixen – turns the lives of the villagers upside down.


I am fascinated by times when the world is on the cusp of massive change, specifically that moment before those changes take place. I view it rather like an in drawn breath, held and not released. ‘Vixen’ is set during one such period of upheaval: the year the Black Death struck England. I wanted to capture that sense of a deadly force and its inexorable advance.


One of the many pleasures of historical fiction is the opportunity to give a voice to those who don’t make it into the history books. A motif running through all my fiction is that of being an outsider; someone who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates on offer and the friction that occurs when they try. I’m fascinated by what goes on around the edges, off the map. By a curious coincidence, medieval manuscripts are a beautiful exemplar. The strange, playful and plain anarchic creatures that bounce riotously in the margins are a joy. Check out the Luttrell Psalter for some especially off-the-wall creatures. Keep an eye open for foxes, appearing as tricksters, frauds and charlatans. Which links nicely to the theme in Vixen of people not being all they seem.

Rosie Garland on clothing the character

GJ: Mama stared at his waistcoat, a gaudy affair of vermillion brocade before which I could have warmed my hands… A stain of sweat [crept] around his hat brim”. This is such an evocative description from The Palace of Curiosities. Did you base the clothes on real garments you had seen (in a museum for example) or did they come from your imagination or a composite of details from different places?
Rosie Garland : Thank you! It’s an honour to discover that my writing has made a memorable impression. Every reader brings something new to a novel. I love that synergy between reader and writer. People tell me fascinating stories of what they ‘got’ from ‘The Palace of Curiosities’ and ‘Vixen’ that I wasn’t aware I’d put there. But that’s a different interview.


Josiah Arroner’s waistcoat isn’t a specific one. It’s the distillation of decades of museum visits. Whenever I find myself in a new town, I check out the local museums and art galleries. There’s a serendipitous pleasure in simply walking around a place I’m visiting for the first time and stumbling upon surprises. It’s astonishing what’s tucked away where you least expect it. Which links to my love of tangents and detours.


In some ways, the waistcoat itself is unimportant. My interest is in Josiah Arroner and what his clothes tell us. There he stands, sporting his fancy waistcoat, yet his hat is battered and sweat-stained. He thinks he is making a grand impression, but unbeknownst to him he is revealing shabbier aspects, whether he wants to or not. Also, the scene is written from Eve’s point of view. So it’s not me who observes these telling features about Josiah Arroner – it’s Eve. And although she sees it all and what it hints at for the future, she still goes and marries him.

On storytelling

GJ: How much research did you do for each book, and where did you look for information?  When you had all that information did you feel like you had to be strictly historically accurate or did you ever bend the truth a bit to fit in with the story?


Rosie Garland : There’s a famous saying, ‘write what you know’. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but it seems a bit limiting. I’d say that my writing springs from what I’m passionate about, rather than what I know. I was fascinated by the Middle Ages years before I thought I’d ever write a novel, let alone Vixen. I read for pleasure, that kind of deeply engaged reading that furnishes rooms in the house of my imagination. Sure, some of the corners are out of focus, and the furniture a bit blurry, but I visit that room and write. It provides a background hum rather than specific details, which feels like a different kind of research.


I think of it like a painting; let’s say Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. The face and clothing are rendered in precise detail. The trees, although definitely trees, are indistinct. The face and clothes are the part of the picture that carry the ‘story’. Sure, the trees need to be trees and not spaceships, but we don’t need to see every leaf. In fact, if we could, it’d get in the way. I carry that notion into my descriptions, and don’t overload the reader with distracting information.


I am a storyteller. I want my research to be invisible and not stick out like a sore thumb. I liken it to a good foundation garment, which holds everything firmly in place and hides the wobbly bits. You can swan around wearing a slippery satin dress, secure in the knowledge that no-one can see the bra strap or the elastic line of your knickers. Everyone is admiring the beauty of the gown.


That’s only my opinion. There are famous, vastly wealthy writers who do the opposite; plonking wodges of historical data into their novels, seemingly cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia. Think I’m kidding? Here’s one example, plucked at random from Dan Brown’s novel, ‘Inferno’.


Mind you, Dan Brown is a gazillionaire. Clearly, I know nothing.

Rosie Garland on detail and research

GJ: Are there any historical details you discovered about either period that you loved but didn’t make it to the books?
Rosie Garland : Loads!


An early draft of ‘Vixen’ featured a chapter where Anne visits the village well. My editor made the valid point that this chapter covered much the same ground as the one where Anne goes to the beach. They were repetitive: not in the detail, but in the development of the relationship between the two women. She suggested I choose which chapter I wanted to keep. She made it clear she was not criticising my writing, or the research. Her motivation was purely what was best for the narrative. It was fantastic advice, and helped me grow and develop as a novelist. I couldn’t ask for a better editor than one who wants to help make my novel the best it can possibly be.


I chose the latter. Would I restore the deleted scene if offered the opportunity to create a Director’s Cut of Vixen? No. The novel didn’t need both chapters. It’s far tighter with just the one. Directors’ Cuts of movies are – and this might lose me friends – often unwieldy and self-indulgent. Consider the Director’s Cut of Aliens (Ridley Scott 1986, and incidentally one of my favourite movies of all time). The filmography is great, but it drags. Seriously, I do not need to know that Hick’s first name is Dwayne.


As Paul Johnson said, “It’s not what you put in but what you leave out that matters”


And whenever I find myself overdoing the detail, I heed the advice of Joseph Finder, a self-confessed research fiend. “Every hour you spend doing the fun stuff of research is time you’re not writing. And I’m here to tell you that research, while fun and often necessary, is addictive and dangerous. Take the word of a research-aholic: don’t let this happen to you. Don’t overdo the research, because the story is what’s important. Without a story, your pile of facts is worthless.”

On the future

GJ: Finally, what’s next? Will you be setting more stories in these times and places, or has something else caught your eye?


Rosie Garland : Thank you for asking! My next novel, The Night Brother, is due out in June 2017, with The Borough Press, who also publish The Palace of Curiosities and Vixen. I’m very, very excited.


The Night Brother is set in Manchester. I’ve wanted to write a novel based there for a long time. I love the place, with its industrial heritage, amazing architecture and radical history. There I go again, writing from my passions…


It takes place in and around 1910. Europe is teetering on the brink of a World War, a time of new political movements, not to mention the struggle for women’s rights. I’ve picked a moment right before it all tips over, a theme mentioned above.


In the initial draft of The Night Brother, I tried a present day setting. It didn’t work. Next, I explored the possibilities of the late 17th century. That didn’t work, either. The characters chafed against the period into which I was trying to force them. It felt like I was playing with a child’s hammer bench: that brightly coloured child’s toy where you have to hammer the pegs through the correct hole. Despite my Herculean efforts to write them elsewhere and elsewhen, they had made up their own minds about a suitable era for themselves, thank you very much. As soon as I kowtowed to their wishes, the words flowed. With novels, as well as in life, there is absolutely no point trying to knock a square peg into a round hole.


GJ: Many thanks, and we look forward to reading your next creation!


More information on the phenomenally talented Rosie Garland can be found here: