Friday, September 23, 2011

Interview with "Kill-Grief" Author Caroline Rance!

If you like novels about 18th-century England...murders...dark jails...hospitals filled with vomit and sores; gin; brandy; laudanum; addiction; friendship; love; and redemption: then do I have a GREAT book for you!

It's called Kill-Grief (Picnic Publishing, 2009) and it's written by Caroline Rance, who just happens to live almost 5,000 miles from me (as the crow flies from Texas to England) but has become a frequent and faithful correspondent, and friend.

I first became familiar with Caroline's work via her amazing website and blog at The Quack Doctor where she shares stories, illustrations, and information about the history of medicine, especially "panacean powders, pills, potions, procedures and pamphlets," which - as anyone who reads this blog knows - is right up my alley!

Caroline has also written a novel, Kill-Grief, and since I already admired the blogging she was doing, I just knew I had to read it! And I'm so glad I did!

Here is the description of the book from Caroline's personal website (here):

Chester, 1756

The hospital stench. The blood. The lecherous surgeon.

Mary Helsall does not like being a nurse.It’s a job that will have to suffice for now. At least until she has achieved the task she came to the city to do. In the meantime, rotgut gin and a volatile relationship with hospital porter Anthony will help her get through each day.But who is the mysterious patient who claims to know what she’s got to hide? He knows all about her infatuation with a thief-taker, about her connection to the notorious Northgate Gaol, and about the shocking events of her recent past.From the stormy seashore to the screams of the operating theatre, and from a backstreet gin shop to the fetid dungeons of the prison, Mary searches for an independent future.Before she can find it, she must fight the attraction of oblivion and make a choice between duty, money, and a love overshadowed by addiction.

Make sure you check out Caroline's website for excerpts, reviews, interviews, and how to buy the book (I have a signed copy!).

I thought it was terrific book, made all the more impressive in that it is a debut novel but exhibits all the qualities of a book from the pen of an experienced writer. I've rarely read a book where the descriptions give a better sense of place, sound, sight, and well: smell.

Caroline obviously did a lot of research (as you'll read in our interview below) to make the narrative authentic but she avoided the trap into which many historical/period novelists fall by showing off her writing rather than her research.

There is a big difference: I've read a few novels lately, set in the Civil War, that actually had footnotes...don't get me wrong, they were imaginative stories, but their emphasis on pointing to their research distracted from and overshadowed the storytelling...and since these are novels, and not nonfiction, the story should prevail.

In Kill-Grief, Caroline has emphasized the story without sacrificing authenticity.

I'm so pleased that Caroline agreed to answer some questions. She has great advice and experiences that can help other writers out there...people interested in history well learn something about hospitals, physicians, surgeons, courts, prisons, and more. Most important, Caroline has something I wish I had more of myself: Imagination!


Jim Schmidt (JS): To borrow a phrase from Austin Powers: allow yourself to introduce…yourself!

Caroline Rance (CR): I'm Caroline Rance, and I write lots of stuff – including my blog, The Quack Doctor (here), about the strange history of patent medicines. I’m also part of the blogging team at Strictly Writing (here). Kill-Grief is my first novel and is set in a hospital at the end of the 18th-century gin craze. It's about a nurse discovering how her own determination can enable her to survive.I'm originally from the North West of England but now live in the countryside about 30 miles outside London. Because I'm British, I talk about the weather a lot, drink Earl Grey tea, and like wearing hats. I've never met the Queen though.

[By the way, I learned from Caroline that "Kill-Grief" was a nickname/slang for gin; thus inspiring the title of the book]

JS: What inspired you to write this novel?

CR: I was doing some research into the early days of Chester Infirmary, and although the hospital records were mostly rather dry, I occasionally found interesting snippets about the staff and patients. I wondered what their lives had been like and how they ended up there, and I started to imagine what their stories might have been. The porter was briefly mentioned as having been chucked out for drunkenness, and this was the beginning of the gin theme in the book.

JS: How long did to take to write and edit?

CR: I started it while I was supposed to be revising for my university finals... so that's ...erm... quite a few years ago. After I graduated, I felt obliged to get an awful job just to prove that my four years' study hadn't been a waste of time, so my ideas of a writing career fell by the wayside. Some time later, I decided that what I really wanted was to write a novel. Not to 'be a famous writer,' just to finish a book. I went back to the characters I'd started with, and once I got going, Kill-Grief took about 3 years to complete. I finished it the day before I gave birth to my son, and then used the night-time feeds as an opportunity to edit it!

JS: Was it a solitary venture or do you belong to a writer’s guild/critique group

CR: I wrote it on my own, but when it was almost finished, I was looking up agents online and found a writing community called WriteWords (here). I joined and uploaded my first chapter for critique. I was terrified – I'd hardly ever shown my writing to anyone else and thought: 'I won't be able to kid myself any more: they'll tell me I'm rubbish and should just give up.' But the first comment began 'This is terrific...' and it gave me so much confidence.I'm not a member of the site any more, but the community really encouraged me through the challenging process of submitting the book to agents and publishers.

JS: Why Chester (official city website here) and not a locale that readers would (presumably?) be more familiar with, especially American readers who are familiar with London, but think the rest of the country is labeled “Here Be Dragons?

CR: I grew up in Wirral Рwhere Mary comes from in the book Рand Chester was the nearest city (though when I was a kid we tended to go to Liverpool a lot more). When I was studying History at university I decided to write about Chester Infirmary, so I could combine the research with trips home.This research inspired various fictional characters, and I wanted to write about them in the setting where they originated. There was also an element of wanting to rebel against London-centric historical fiction Рthere's a bit of a clich̩ about protagonists arriving in London and immediately finding themselves amongst the colourful characters of St Giles' Rookeries Рbut mainly I just wanted to write about the area I knew. At the time, I hadn't been to London much, so it wasn't a setting that would naturally come to mind. It didn't really occur to me that anyone as far away as the U.S. would ever hear about the book, so I'm afraid I didn't consider American readers - sorry!

[Caroline - no apologies! But hopefully, American readers will hear about your book!]

JS: What would Mary and Anthony (the two protagonists in the novel) recognize in Chester today?

CR: The layout of the four central streets is the same and there are many buildings left from Mary and Anthony's time – including the Blue Coat School, where the infirmary started out. The main things they'd find familiar, however, are the Rows and the Walls. The Rows are unusual covered walkways built into the sides of the houses and shops, and they give Chester a unique atmosphere. They've evolved over the centuries but the general principle of them has existed since the Middle Ages. The city walls still form almost a complete circuit of the city and take about half an hour to walk round. I walked round them a lot while working on Kill-Grief.In the 18th century, Dr John Haygarth (later famous for his experiments with Perkins' Metallic Tractors) wrote that the Rows and Walls made the city a healthy place because people could get up to a higher level, out of the dirt. He was also of the opinion that Chester women were particularly beautiful!

JS: The hospital, where a good amount of the story takes place, seemed to be a philanthropic venture; can you explain?

CR: Chester Infirmary was one of a new wave of 'voluntary hospitals' springing up across the UK in the 18th century. They were run by committees of local well-to-do philanthropists, who wanted to provide a service to the working poor but didn't necessarily know what they were doing. At Chester, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of a hospital, and plenty of people pledged money, but the administration fell to the select few and those who promised funds didn't always get round to paying. Although it was a charitable institution, the hospital wasn't just for any random pauper who showed up. It was for the 'respectable poor', and patients had to be recommended by a regular donor – if you needed treatment, you had to have the wherewithal to approach a charity subscriber and grovel for a recommendation. The very most disadvantaged wouldn't stand a chance, except in an emergency. This is why the character William Hartingshall gains a frosty reception from the committee – he's not the kind of person they would normally accept, but they can't go against the influential Mr Barnston, who has his own reasons for admitting him.

JS: The surgeons were addressed as “Mister” and the physicians as “Doctor” and there was a definite “pecking” order…was this a remnant of the barber-surgeon days?

CR: Yes, it was – surgeons were still trained by apprenticeship while physicians had a university degree and were entitled to be called 'Doctor' (though these degrees could be a bit dodgy – certain universities in Scotland were known for awarding them on receipt of cash). By the time in which Kill-Grief is set, surgeons had gained better social standing, but there's still a clear distinction between them and the physicians. Dr Tylston, for example, is a good guy but wouldn't dream of attending a gruesome operation. The operating theatre heroics fall to Mr Racketta – he's an unpleasant character, but he has the steeliness to keep calm during surgery... and afterwards just to carry on being as unpleasant as ever.

JS: I was surprised at how long it took for one of the characters to get to trial…I had always assumed that as we went back in time, justice – for better or worse – was more swift…the prison conditions were dreadful…where did you learn about them?

CR: Circuit courts would travel round designated areas of England and Wales to hear trials – usually landing in each town four times a year at Assizes and Quarter Sessions – so if you were lucky (or unlucky) enough to be arrested just before the judges arrived, you wouldn't have to spend so long in gaol. Prison reformer John Howard visited Chester's Northgate Gaol in 1787 and described the horrendous conditions. Some aspects were far worse than anything that appears in Kill-Grief – there was a dungeon called 'Little Ease', carved out of rock and only 17 inches at its widest point. It also had moveable boards to make it even smaller. It didn't fit in to my plot, however, so I had to leave it out.

JS: Three things (at least!) really struck me as I read the novel: 1) contrasts between cleanliness and dirtiness; 2) claustrophobia…people (esp. women) couldn’t even walk up stairs without their dresses rubbing up against walls, etc; 3) love vs. friendship, and the struggle of friendships, esp. – it seems, anyway - for women…am I on to something?

CR: Great question – this could be a whole blog post by itself! Cleaning is one of Mary’s duties as a nurse, but she finds it impossible to keep the dirt at bay – mud, dust, bodily fluids and bugs always return to the hospital's clean surfaces. It's a battle that also rages inside her when she tries to give up the 'dirt' of gin – addiction is always waiting to creep back in.The contrasts of literal dirt and cleanliness mirror other contrasts too – for example, the way Mr Barnston's impeccable attire masks his moral ambiguity.

Claustrophobia isn't a theme I set out to explore – but it kept appearing. Everything closes in on Mary – sometimes it's the walls of the prison; sometimes it's the demands of the hospital patients. Even Chester's Rows add to the feeling of being enclosed. She wants to escape – not only from these physical boundaries, but also from the confining expectations of marriage; from a patriarchal society that leeringly accepts her being a nurse but laughs at the idea of her becoming a surgeon; even from the strange experience of living in a rich man's house. Gin gives her a temporary sense of escape – but she realises that determination is the only thing that will really help her break free.

Love versus friendship is a difficult theme to explore because there's now a cultural notion that friendship is more lasting and worthwhile. A modern woman’s female friends are supposed to be there for her when some loser guy is messing her around. But Mary has never experienced anything like that – the women in her home village have treated her with contempt and she feels alienated by the idea of close female friendships. Her best childhood friend was a boy, but the relationship was ruined by their community's assumption that they will marry. Mary starts out with an immature and obsessive interpretation of romantic love, but such strong feelings are easier for her to understand than the confusing minefield of friendship.

JS: Did I hear you are going back to school?

CR: You heard right! I'm going to Birkbeck College, which is part of the University of London, to study 'Medicine, Science and Society: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives'. If anyone asks, though, I usually just say 'History of Medicine', as that's pretty much what it is.

JS: What are you working on now? I can’t wait to read it!

CR: It's provisionally called 'The Love of Freaks' and is about a girl who tries to make a living by exhibiting a fake 'mermaid' on the street corners of Liverpool. Through various peculiar circumstances she ends up travelling to London, where she gets involved in a freak show run by a charismatic American impresario. (I've come round to the idea of featuring London in a novel!)Meanwhile, a charlatan is trying to persuade an overweight baronet to sponsor his research into a 'Fat-Reducing Operation'. He plans to run away with the money, until the baronet's young wife makes it clear that she wants the operation to go ahead – and to go drastically wrong.The two narratives collide and involve death, sex, kidnapping, elopement, visits to the zoo... all the usual stuff.To be more soppy, though, the book is really about the elusiveness of unconditional love.

JS: Is it hard to have a foot in the fiction world with your writing and in the nonfiction world with your terrific Quack Doctor blog and your other reading, or do they compliment each other?

CR: It can be a challenge, but a good one. I think I'm a non-fiction writer at heart and would like to write books on the history of medicine one day. But when I blog at The Quack Doctor, I have to resist the temptation to imagine what the practitioners and their patients were thinking and feeling – I can't assume anything beyond the evidence.

JS: Gin or Brandy?

CR: If they were the only choices – gin. But I much prefer Scotch whisky, or a nice cup of tea.

Thank You, Caroline!

Best wishes for success in your studies and in your writing!

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