Your Languedoc trilogy was a love letter to France’s Carcassonne. Is this one a love letter to Sussex, where you grew up?
In part, though I confess it’s a rather grisly, grim and gruesome love letter. Whereas Labyrinth was inspired by the true history of Carcassonne, The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a work of imagination, a story of revenge and retribution – ultimately redemption too – set against the backdrop of a real place. In 1912, Sussex was much as it had been a century earlier. The old traditions still hold sway. The villages are isolated and hardly touched by the modern world. The novel begins during a storm in a graveyard on the Eve of St Mark, where Sussex folklore has it that the spirits of those destined to die in the coming year will be seen walking into the church at midnight. Connie – the daughter of the local taxidermist – is there, hidden in the shadows. The Sussex folklore of birds – as omens, as harbingers of disaster – was also a key inspiration. So, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, the novel is as much a love letter to a vanishing way of life, to lost innocence, as it is to Sussex itself. I’ve written a handful of stories set in Sussex before, but it’s taken me all this time to write properly about home. I grew up in Fishbourne, just outside Chichester in West Sussex, in the 1960s and 1970s. My challenge when I was starting out as a rookie novelist was that, there, I was always somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s friend or pupil. Later, somebody’s work colleague, somebody’s partner, somebody’s mother. It was impossible to be a writer first and foremost. I had to go away and fall in love with another place – Carcassonne, my adopted home – to learn how to be a novelist, before I was able to come back and write about ‘home’ home.
Landscape is hugely important to you. In all your books it seems to reflect and drive the emotions of your characters. Why does it mean so much?
For me, stories are inextricably linked with place. That’s to say, I don’t think you can simply write a story and set it down in any old location. Rather, the unique landscape or skyscape or seascape gives birth to a particular, distinctive kind of story. Many of the novels I most admire – Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, du Maurier’s short story The Birds – have landscape at the heart of things. Landscape is, in some ways, the central character.
Growing up in Sussex in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent lots of time outdoors. Walking, exploring, climbing hand-in-hand with my Mum and Dad on the Trundle in the Downs above Goodwood; playing hide-and-seek with my two younger sisters in the ancient yew woodlands of West Stoke; pretending to be an explorer on the Iron Age mounds at Kingley Vale. My favourite place, though, was the Fishbourne Marshes. I spent hours there, long summer afternoons, creeping through the reed mace that rattled like bones when the sou’westerly wind was blowing; kicking my heels against the old sea wall when the tide was up, watching the oyster catchers and gulls; picking my way across the black, oozing mud at low water to the ruined mill in the centre of the Estuary. Moving back to the area in the 1990s, with a young family of my own, I found myself drawn back to that landscape of my childhood. More recently, I took to walking there with my dog, remembering the child I had been. Remembering the creepy museum of taxidermy we’d visited in a nearby town, all those years ago. Then, I started to go further back still. I tried to imagine the landscape of 1912, pictured a decaying house set on its own out on the Marshes. I imagined the black rooks and crows massing on the gables of the house at dusk. Finally, I saw a young woman, Connie, living in that isolated house among the glass bell jars of her father’s taxidermy collection . . . So, out of the landscape, the novel took shape.
My beloved Dad died in 2011 and my brilliant Mother died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months ago. My grief is still raw, a living thing, but I find comfort in walking through the landscape of my Sussex childhood. They are still there, in every rock and stone and tree. My characters see their emotions and their histories reflected back at them in the landscape in this same way. Landscape links them – links us all – to what has gone before and what is yet to come.
You love ghostly, Gothic and mystical themes. What inspires you about them?
I’m intrigued – and inspired – by the way in which history and mystery meet. How stories come out of what we fear as much as what we love. Everyone’s had that terrifying, heart-stopping moment in the middle of the night where we wake, startled by a strange noise or an unaccountable shadow glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. For me, this smudging of the real world and the dark world of the imagination is where the most exciting stories lie. The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a thriller about how the sins of the past will come back to haunt the guilty, about how evil can lurk beneath the innocent surface of things. It’s a why-dunnit, as much as a who-dunnit. All Gothic fiction has key characteristics: extreme weather and a threatening landscape; macabre happenings; a sense of events hurtling towards a violent conclusion. What better inspiration for a story than all of this…
The book’s dedication to your husband and children is touching. How do they help you to write?
Because they are as proud of me when things go badly, as well as when things go well. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where our parents encouraged us to try our best, to be proud of our achievements, but also, always to support one another. To be ourselves. No writer works in isolation. She – or he – does it with the support of those who are there with a cup of tea when writing’s going badly or with a glass of champagne when things go brilliantly. Writing is enjoyable and possible and exciting because my family is there to share it with me. Highs and lows, triumphs and failures, providing inspiration and welcome distraction in equal measure. They make it possible for me to dream, and without dreaming, there’d be no writing…