Every body has a price in Victorian England
Preston, 1888: as the century draws to a close, the prostitute murders in London have made young Lydia Ketch’s ‘trade’ a political issue. Lydia, the tough but optimistic daughter of a former workhouse inmate, has spent a year working in the ‘introduction house’ of Kathleen Tanner, a job that has given her an income few others could match.
When Lydia meets Henry Shadwell, a young surgeon with a passionate interest in biology, the two develop an instant – and non-professional – bond. And Henry soon enlists Lydia’s help in his underground sidelines; first as a model for pornographic photography; then as an assistant in procuring corpses for medical experimentation.
With the dangers of her own line of work becoming clearer by the day, and her newfound delight in her own sexuality burgeoning, Lydia becomes disillusioned with her life as a prostitute. And it soon become clear that her trade – and Henry’s – are even more dangerous than either had imagined.
Trades of the Flesh is a gripping novel about the body and its desires, from a precocious voice in historical fiction.
Hi, Faye. Tell us a little about your novel, Trades of the Flesh.
Trades, like Mirrors before it, is a Victorian-set historical, although Trades is set later in the century - the 1880s, to be precise. It features pornography, prostitution, dissection of corpses and other savoury things I can't wait for my family to read about.
Your novels are historical fiction, but they have a unique flavor. If your books proved to be the foundation for a new subgenre, what would it be called?
Funnily enough, I have tried before today to come up with a personalised genre label. I think the closest I came was "dysfunctional bodicerippers".
This is your second novel with Macmillan New Writing. How has the experience been different this time around?
I wrote a guest blog about this, but to summarise, it's actually been very similar. I don't think I've managed to really comprehend the fact that my first novel is out there in the world, never mind my second. So in terms of feelings, having my second novel published feels much like having my first one published - humbling, awe-inspiring and more than a little surreal. As far as practical things go, of course the process of working with Will on the edits, checking proofs and looking at drafts of cover designs has been more familiar this time around, although no less enjoyable.
Your writing is historically and culturally accurate, but at the same time the characters and topics you’ve chosen so far don’t fit comfortably with popular stereotypes about the past. Care to comment?
(Note to self: I will not launch into my lengthy tirade on this topic!) I have been known to bore everyone within a five mile radius when this subject comes up, because it's easily one of my pet peeves. When I started writing historical fiction, it was always my intention to present my characters as people and not stereotypes, which is why I'm not pandering to the (false and simplistic) image of the "frigid Victorians". It astounds me how many people just buy into this idea without actually looking at the evidence from the period (which is why I like to post things like racy 19th Century Valentine's cards and smutty verse by Victorian poets in my blog, and write novels in which the characters utilise the spicier floral symbols from the language of flowers), and I can't understand why we have such a double standard where stereotyping is concerned: if an author were to write a contemporary novel populated with cookie-cutter characters taken from lazy stereotypes of groups of people (based on age, sex, race, sexual orientation, nationality or whatever), any decent editor or agent would quite rightly pull them up on it during the edit or reject the book outright, but when the group of people in question are those who lived at a certain time, it's widely accepted and even expected. To say that I'm glad to have found People In Publishing who don't take that view is an understatement.
Who are your favorite writers of historical fiction?
Hmm...well, quite a lot of my unofficial mentor Kim Wilkins' books are timeslip novels, so they're part historical fiction; and I loved Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin and her wonderfully-titled anthology The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits. Oh, and there's The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, of course, and I like a lot of Philippa Gregory's novels. (My favourite of hers has to be The Wise Woman; partly because it has a Lancashire bad girl as its protagonist and partly because I'm a demented sleaze merchant.)
Okay. Which writers outside the field of historical fiction have most influenced you?
I always have a nightmare trying to define my influences, because I think most artists of all stripes are influenced in one way or another by practically all the art they encounter, whether that influence is positive (I admire the way so-and-so's done that; I wonder if I could do something different?) or negative (that didn't work for me; I'll do things differently in my own work). To give one example from the former category, though, whenever I read anything written by Oscar Wilde I'm always struck by the distinct quality of his voice; both very much 'of his time' and yet so accessibly human as to transcend the barriers of time, and it's something I try to achieve (in my own small way of course - who would dare to compare themselves to dear Oscar?) with my own writing; to create characters who are Victorian but human. That takes us neatly back to the idea of stereotyping again, doesn't it?
Here comes the inevitable: Do you compose by pen or by keyboard, or what...and why?
When I sit down to write, it's always on my laptop. I just find that things flow better, and it saves me having to transcribe it all again later. However, I carry a pen and my diary-cum-notebook with me at all times to record flashes of inspiration too.
Describe your typical writing day (if such exists).
I check my emails and blog comments and the like when I first switch on my computer; it wakes my brain up and gets me into the flow of composing my thoughts and typing. I write whenever 'the itch' starts up - I tend to write my better stuff in the afternoons, but I don't have a set time for writing, really - and when I'm done for the day I update the little online word meter I use to chart my progress. I'm dreadful with numbers, so having a visual representation of work done and yet to do is useful for me.
Cover the Mirrors was quite an accomplished debut, and I’m sure Trades of the Flesh will be just as polished. Do you have any unpublished novels lurking in desk drawers or under sofas, or are your first and second published novels also your first and second novels?
Yes to both - Mirrors and Trades are indeed my first and second novels respectively, but I do have a completed novel stashed away on my hard drive that I'm planning on leaving there for the time being. It was the fourth one I completed, and after looking at it I came to the conclusion that its flaws were evident to me, so they would surely be written in red neon lettering for someone else, so I decided to put it on the back burner for the time being and focus on my WIP and the third book I completed (which I'm currently reworking with my agent before showing it to Will). Edwin (agent) has predicted that The Back Burner Book will emerge again a few years down the line as something "weird and wonderful" - we shall see!
Time to pony up them there Four Random Facts.
1) I feel somehow wrong without nail varnish - natural, nail-coloured nails just don't look right to me. This applies only to my own nails, by the way - I don't go around leaping out at other people with bottle in hand. Your unpainted nails are fine.
2) My fondness for Victorianesque names isn't confined to my writing - my cat is called Lucian and my computer and phone (I had to name them for networking and data-sharing purposes, for one thing) are Quincey and Cornelius.
3) My favourite Cottingley Fairies photo is the one of Frances Griffiths in the fairy ring - she looks so bored to be there.
4) I hate hot weather, and carry a parasol and fan when I have to be out in the hot sun for a considerable length of time. This isn't an affectation (although my black lace parasol is a thing of beauty) - it's a genuine dislike of baking myself.
And one more, semi-random fact. It has come to my attention that most of us mispronounce your surname. Would you like to explain the proper pronunciation?
Ah, well I can tell you one thing - it isn't pronounced in the same way as the guy who shot Lincoln. For ages I struggled to find a way to explain this online (where of course I cannot simply say my name out loud), until a friend solved the problem for me by coming up with this simple guide - it rhymes with 'soothe', not 'tooth'.
Finally, what's next now that you've done your two novels for Macmillan New Writing?
Well, disregarding the aforementioned back burner, I have one completed novel, a WIP and a few ideas for future projects, so that keeps me busy. As for when any of them will emerge into the public eye, time will tell - Edwin and Will met recently for the first time to discuss me and my work (the writer's equivalent of Parents' Evening?), so hopefully we should be able to think about some plans for the future fairly soon.
Trades of the Flesh is published in paperback as of early September, and the striking cover should make it easy to spot in the stores. Good luck to Faye and the book!