Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Interview with Antonia Hodgson, author of The Devil in the Marshalsea

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Antonia Hodgson to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, The Devil in the Marshalsea. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Antonia. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Devil in the Marshalsea
It’s set in 1727 in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. My narrator, Thomas Hawkins, is a young gambler who is thrown into gaol when his luck runs out. He is forced to share a cell with a strange, dangerous man called Samuel Fleet. There’s a rumour going about the prison that Fleet killed his previous cellmate. Trouble ensues. 

What inspired you to write this story? Where did it begin?
It began with the character of Thomas Hawkins. He’s terrible with money, so I had the idea that I would begin his story in a debtors’ prison. It all spiraled from there!  

The Devil in the Marshalsea is the fictional story of Tom Hawkins. Can you tell us a bit about Tom’s background and the impression you hope he makes on your readers?
Tom is twenty-five years old. He was supposed to become a country parson like his father, but he has a different life in mind. He likes taking risks, is easily bored and has excellent legs. At the beginning of the novel he is at a crossroads, not that he’s noticed. His life is adrift—he’s spent three years living on his wits, gambling, drinking, and whoring. His time in the Marshalsea will have a huge effect on him for many reasons. 

I hope readers will be gripped by his story and intrigued by his character. I hope they want to go on an interesting journey with him. I find him very good company. (But I wouldn’t live with him.) 

The book documents Tom’s stay in The Marshalsea Gaol. What about London’s notorious debtor’s prison appealed to you as an author?
So many things struck me about the Marshalsea. Firstly, it was a prison of two halves. The Master’s Side was relatively comfortable, with a coffeehouse, a chophouse, even a bar. Then there was the Common Side, where people were shoved together in tiny cells to starve, suffocate and die of gaol fever. It was very easy to run out of money and find yourself on the wrong side of the wall. It seemed such a powerful image of debt—both in a literal and metaphorical sense. And a very dramatic place to set a novel. 

I also loved the idea of setting a crime novel in a prison. It provides an inherent tension, to have a killer at loose in a closed setting. 

The book itself hosts many colorful residents. I personally liked Madame Migault and Moll King, but I wonder, who was your favorite?
I loved writing Samuel Fleet (Tom’s enigmatic and dangerous cell mate)—but he’s entirely fictional. I’m pleased you liked Madame Migault so much. It seems so improbable that there was a French fortuneteller living in the prison at the time—but she really was there! 

Another character that stands out in my mind is William Acton, head keeper of the Marshalsea. How much of his character is fact and how much is fiction?
With Acton I felt a real duty to stay as close to the truth as possible. There are two very good sources of information. A prisoner called John Grano wrote a diary of his stay in the Marshalsea from 1728-9 and was on good (but complicated) terms with the Governor. Grano would often relay conversations with Acton, which helped when it came to dialogue. 

Then in August 1729 Acton was put on trial for murder. In those days, if you were convicted for murder you had to defend yourself. There is a full account of the trial, so I drew a lot from that as well. 

Here are some of the things we know about Acton. He could be very charming. He called the prison “his Castle.” He used to be a butcher. He purposely made the Common Side as bad as possible so that people would pay extra to stay on the “safe” Master’s Side. He stole the Charity money intended for Common Side prisoners and let them starve to death. He tortured and beat prisoners. He loved his wife and son. 

What, if anything, can you tell us about the ‘Ghost’?
Hah! Well, in 1729 the Government produced a report on the state of London’s gaols. (It was this enquiry that led directly to Acton’s trial for murder.) Among the pages of evidence is a story about a prisoner who was chained up in a strong room. One night he is visited by the ghost of another prisoner—a man named ‘Arne’. He tells the terrified man that he was killed and seeks justice. When the prisoner asked about the prison, it turned out there really was a man called Arne who had died a few months before. 

Now—I don’t happen to believe in ghosts. But what struck me is that this story was submitted as evidence within the government enquiry. There’s even a little sketch of the ghost appearing at the strong room window. (I’m not sure why he didn’t walk through the wall. Life is full of mystery.)

This was the age of enlightenment, the age of reason. But the government was still adding ghost stories into serious parliamentary enquiries. It’s one of the things I love about the period—it is full of contradictions. Reason and superstition. 

The novel begins with a quote from Daniel Defoe: “Conscience makes ghosts walk, and departed souls appear.” Defoe was a man of his age. He believed in spirits, but he also believed that most of them were conjured up by guilt, or conscience. 

Nearly three hundred years separate you and your readers from Tom’s England. How did you bridge the gap in time to recreate London under George II?
A Swiss traveller to London wrote a letter home in 1726, complaining that “debauch runs riot with an unblushing countenance.” He said that the English were “mighty swearers,” overly fond of liquor, were rude to their “betters” and cared more about their freedom than religion. 

The gap is always smaller than you think. 

But seriously—in the end it’s the characters that help you to bridge the gap in any historical fiction. Times change, people don’t. Which I think is a wonderful, powerful message. 

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
There’s a scene when Tom is able to leave the prison for a short while and sits out in the open air. It’s an important scene for various reasons, but it’s also a short, still moment in quite a fast-paced story. Without giving away the plot, it’s also a very poignant moment. And slightly melancholic. Tom isn’t melancholic at all, so he wouldn’t describe it in that way. But I love melancholia. I would happily write an entire novel of bittersweet, heart-aching scenes of deep melancholy. Peppered with a few jokes and the odd murder, of course. 

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?
Sometimes scenes can be hard for quite dull reasons—the technical side of having a lot of characters who need moving about. Or when you have to convey some important piece of information without it seeming forced. These are not very romantic or exciting challenges, but they are often the most troublesome.  

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I don’t think so. Things changed as I wrote but I enjoy that part of the process. I’m pretty ruthless with characters and concepts—with everything, in fact. No one is safe! If it’s not working or relevant, it goes. 

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Devil in the Marshalsea and if so, what did you alter and why?
I was extremely careful with real characters such as Acton, where there was really good primary information. I also had to set the book in 1727 because I didn’t want Tom to be in prison at the same time as John Grano, who wrote the contemporary diary. I knew too much about the events in the prison from 1728-9 and of course Grano makes no mention of murders and ghosts and a chap called Tom Hawkins . . . However there were other real characters, like Trim the Barber, who are mentioned only briefly in Grano’s diary. I felt I could invent what I liked when it came to Trim. Though always on the understanding that he was in debt, was known only as ‘Trim the Barber’ and still worked his trade from the gaol. You only need three facts like that to understand a lot about a character. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
It would be extremely unwise to go out for the night with Tom. You’d end up going for “one last drink” at some seedy dive, then wake up the next morning collapsed in the gutter with no wallet and a thumping hangover. Actually on reflection that does sound quite fun. 

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast of actors to play the primary roles in a screen adaptation of your work, who would you hire?
A production company has optioned the book for TV, so you never know . . . I sometimes play this game with my agent, mainly so we can just say ‘Tom Hiddleston’ to each other for a bit. But I imagine he’s rather busy. And it would be intriguing to cast a complete unknown—there’s a lot of talent out there. Philip Glenister (a fantastic British actor) would be great as Acton. He’d be able to capture the charm and the violence.  

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process?
Well first of all, I absolutely love it. I know writing is agony for some people, but I find that settling down to my desk and dreaming up another world is sheer, immersive pleasure. Even when it’s hard and I want to delete the whole book and throw the laptop out of the window. 

I have a day job, so I work at the weekends, first thing in the morning, the odd lunchtime, every holiday (we have more of these in Europe). 

I plot things out just enough to get started and then everything changes in the writing. But I do put a lot of thought into the main characters before I begin. 

Who are your favorite authors?
I tend to fall in love with individual books rather than specific authors. I do love Dickens and Austen, but that’s rather like saying I like breathing and eating. My favourite contemporary writers are Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro. Also John le Carre. Ursula K Le Guin. Alan Moore. Oh and a thousand others. I’m travelling so can’t scan my shelves. I’ll get home and realise I’ve forgotten someone important! 

What are you currently reading?
I read a lot of non-fiction when I’m writing—history and social science, music memoirs. One of my favourite books of recent times is Quiet by Susan Cain. 

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I have a full-time job as well as the writing, so honestly don’t have the time for hobbies. I catch up with friends. 

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate?
Coffee, coffee, green tea, coffee. 

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
I have just delivered the first draft of book two, so I’m taking a short break. In fact, I’m in New York! But I already have an idea for book three…

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Antonia Hodgson is the editor in chief of Little, Brown UK. She lives in London and can see the last fragments of the old city wall from her living room. The Devil in the Marshalsea is her first novel.





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PRAISE FOR THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA

“Hodgson…conjures up scenes of Dickensian squalor and marries them to a crackerjack plot, in her impressive first novel…Hodgson makes the stench, as well as the despair, almost palpable, besides expertly dropping fair clues. Fans of Iain Pears and Charles Palliser will hope for a sequel.” –Publishers Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)

“The plot develops almost as many intricate turns as there are passages in the Marshalsea…Hodgson’s plotting is clever…the local color hair-raising.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Satisfyingly twisty debut thriller…so well detailed that one can almost smell the corruption, and the irrepressibly roguish Tom makes a winning hero.” —Booklist

“Historical fiction just doesn’t get any better than this. A riveting, fast-paced story…Magnificent!” —Jeffery Deaver, author of the bestselling The Kill Room and Edge

“Antonia Hodgson’s London of 1727 offers that rare achievement in historical fiction: a time and place suspensefully different from our own, yet real. The Devil in the Marshalsea reminds us at every turn that we ourselves may not have evolved far from its world of debtors and creditors, crime and generosity, appetite and pathos. A damn’d good read.” —Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian and The Swan Thieves

“A wonderfully convincing picture of the seamier side of 18th-century life. The narrative whips along. Antonia Hodgson has a real feel for how people thought and spoke at the time—and, God knows, that’s a rare talent.” —Andrew Taylor, author of An Unpardonable Crime and The Four Last Things

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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: June 10, 2014
Released by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN-13: 978-1444775419
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical Mystery

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Check Out All the Stops on Antonia Hodgson's The Devil in the Marshalsea Blog Tour Schedule


Monday, June 10
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, June 11
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, June 12
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Monday, June 16
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Friday, June 20
Interview at Reading the Past
Monday, June 23
Guest Post at Kinx’s Book Nook
Wednesday, June 25
Review & Giveaway at Book Nerd
Monday, June 30
Interview at Caroline Wilson Writes
Tuesday, July 1
Review at Mina’s Bookshelf
Thursday, July 3
Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews
Monday, July 7
Review & Giveaway at 100 Pages a Day
Tuesday, July 8
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Wednesday, July 9
Spotlight at Layered Pages
Friday, July 11
Review at Princess of Eboli
Spotlight & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection

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