First off, I’d love to chat about Tarare. How did you come across him?
Originally I came across him in a BuzzFeed article, ‘Thirty creepiest Wikipedia pages’ or something along those lines. So I found this page amid a Wikipedia spiral, late at night and quite hungover, scrolled down to the ‘Other Media’ section and was given his biography, somewhat astonished to find that there’s a puppet show and an opera that no one, to my knowledge I should stress, had written a novel about. And his life is kind of one of those stranger than fiction, slotting into an epoch in history that he seemed the perfect lens for. So yeah, it was kind of percolating for a very long time.
Beyond Wikipedia, what was the research process like?
So there’s only really, again, to my, to our, as a human race knowledge, there’s only really one more or less contemporaneous source for this life, which was an article in a Paris medicine journal, which was published, I think it was about seven years after his purported death, and was written by a doctor who had treated him in his life. He describes how Tarare was so stinky that little stink lines would rise off his body. His countenance was so terrifying that animals would flee from him in the streets.
And all the stuff that obviously could not be true point blank in terms of the beats of her life and how I would structure the story, where he was born, how he died, what he did in the intervening period, but also in terms of its tone and that it’s already kind of the main source I suppose.
I’m not a historian, I would consider my knowledge of the period to have been basic layman’s what the French Revolution was about. So, I obviously had to do a fair amount of research around that. But I think very often the most important thing for me is kind of embedding myself or immersing myself in the contemporary literature or like near contemporaneous literature of the period I’m writing in towards storytelling tradition and folk tradition because that felt like a really important way into the peasant psychology in the pre-revolutionary period.
Related to writing style, one of the things I loved most about The Glutton is your prose style. I feel like we’re in a period where contemporary literature is so defined by sparseness.
I think people read for different reasons and write for different reasons. For me, I think particularly coming from poetry, the aesthetics, the vibe, and the cinematic quality of writing are very important to me. And also I want it to be beautiful. I want it to feel adorned and kind of baroque and rich.
But I think it depends on what you’re writing about. And I think historical fiction is a genre where you can have a lot of fun with that. Particularly writing about this period. Going Rococo with the language suits the setting and augments the feeling.
But I always wonder if it’s my background in poetry that means my instincts are just different. I feel like one of the first things you learn is you need to write to be understood. Certainly, if you’re coming at a novel writing from a journalistic background, perhaps that’s something you’re holding in your head.
Whereas coming from a poetic background, I don’t need to write to be understood. It’s not really at the forefront. You know, you sort of learn to try to at least harness the power of ambiguity and the power of strangeness. And I think that’s something that’s been lost a little bit in a lot of contemporary fiction. For me, anyway, novels aren’t necessarily about moral instruction.
I know that you don’t like calling yourself a historical novelist per se and, frankly, in a lot of cases, the genre can feel slightly Mills and Boon-y. But I do think that the genre is having a little bit of a revamp at the moment. Maggie O’Farrell, you, and Hilary Mantel.
I would say that things now do feel less confined by genre convention in a way. I don’t think Mantel’s impact and her influence can be underestimated. Although she wasn’t the first person to write psychologically incisive historical fiction, I think she kind of showed that there is a commercial appetite for intelligent, intellectually dense, psychologically incisive historical fiction that is more than just escapism.
It always struck me as very strange that people want to escape into the brutal and oppressive periods of the past. Well, part of the reason, I suppose, is that so much historical fiction tends to focus on people at the very top of the social order is because they were some of the people who weren’t enduring that oppression and brutality in quite the same way.
But I think that even some ostensibly politically progressive or feminist historical fiction can still have quite a small, conservative element to it. I’m trying to be careful what I say here, but I think there can be a sense that the moral ambiguities and dilemmas we encounter in the modern world can be frightening and confusing. And there’s a sense that if you’re writing about history, those moral ambiguities don’t exist. There’s an obvious bad and good guy.
I mean, people have been discussing it even in the past week, with what’s going on in the Middle East, between people who really, really love dystopian fiction involving oppressive governments, but are really, really not into engaging in the discourse around things happening in the real world now which is quite strange.
I think similarly when people simply adore historical fiction that’s feminist but are absolutely not engaged at all with any contemporary feminist discourse or struggle. It’s okay that you want feminist fiction about the witch hunts, but I find it strange because for me literature informs. I’m one of those writers who I feel like part of the reason I write is because it helps me figure out what I think about things. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that for a lot of people, reading is more entertainment than it is for anything else.
As a final note, you brought up earlier about this kind of general focus on nobility and royalty and class in historical fiction. And for me at least, as someone who’s quite disinterested in reading about the monarchy, it was so interesting to read about someone like Tarare particularly your description is so visceral as well. Describing his disgustingness, not skimming over the… It makes me laugh because the prose is beautiful, but your description is so vivid as well in that sense.
It was fairly apparent from the outset that if I was going to write about Tarare, you couldn’t pull your punches, you had to swing for the walls. You can’t write a novel about a man who was known to eat live animals and have all of that happening off-screen. So, I needed to find a way to do it that wouldn’t be totally alienating for every reader, but I also didn’t want the novel to descend into nihilism or body horror. It’s a novel about the process of monstering, not one that’s to portray him as a monster. I guess it was quite a difficult line to pull.
But he was a character who, from the outset, I kind of fell in love with. He was so easy to write. I hate anything that seems like a mystification because it’s a craft, you’re sitting down and writing and having ideas, but he really was one of those characters who seemed to be doing what he wanted, with relatively little input from me. So yeah, he was really just a joy to write.
Part of the reason it ended up working was because I didn’t really think about it too much. I was so caught up in him as a character, and with scenes with him in, that I was able to quite efficiently dismiss that GoodReads reviewer on my shoulder, being like: ‘This will be too gross for anyone.’ I was writing for me, at the end of the day. And I have a fairly strong stomach.
Image courtesy of Alice Zoo.
A. K. Blakemore is a poet and novelist from London. Her first novel, The Manningtree Witches, won the Desmond Elliott Prize for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the Costa and RSL Ondaatje Prizes. Her second novel, The Glutton, is forthcoming from Granta Books.
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