Following on from yesterday’s review of The Blackheath Seance Parlour, here is a Q&A session with Alan Williams, the author. Please note that the interview contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet (you should), please go to the review page instead.
Q: You obviously spent a great deal of time researching the local area, as mentioned in the appendix. Are there any historical leaps that you had to make for artistic purposes?
A: There are. One of the most iconic buildings in Blackheath is the Tea Hut and although it wasn’t standing there in the 1840s, I had to drag it back in time to be in the book. It’s too much a part of Blackheath to omit. I also had to play with the time frame of the Clarendon hotel. In the early 1900s it was three separate houses used by the ship builders of Deptford. One became a bed and breakfast but the rest of its history is at best vague. And then there is Montague John Druit.
Q: Why the decision to make Montague John Druitt the murderer? Did you spend much time reading about his association with the ripper murders, and his unfortunate demise? Do you have an opinion about what really happened at the school where he taught?
A: Initially, I wrote Druitt in because I wanted to give a nod to a different part of Blackheath’s history but the more I read into his background the more intriguing it became. His is a story in itself. He was a respected barrister who also took on a job in a school in Blackheath. There was an accusation that he had interfered with a boy there, though it was never proven, but the social shame of being homosexual during that age, the passing of his father, then his mother’s mental decline, incarceration and death six months earlier had to have played a huge part in his own mental state. And because there was a family history that increasingly revolved around mental illness, particularly in that unenlightened age, he would have been frightened for his own sanity or at least aware that it might also claim him and he hinted at this in the letter he left. So having been dismissed from the school and with the (supposed) severance cheques from the school still in his pockets, he wrote a note reading “Since Friday I felt I was going to be like mother, and the best thing for me was to die.” Then he filled his pockets with stones and threw himself to his death in the Thames.
On top of this came the accusations that he was, in fact, Jack The Ripper. There is much that isn’t known about Druitt, so drawing him back and placing him in The Blackheath Séance Parlour allowed me to use the switch of personality that was, I think, placed on a frightened and lonely man during a witch hunt. The more I think about Druitt, the more I want to write his novel.
Q: Were there any other local characters/places that you wanted to include but couldn’t?
A: The church was the biggest shock. The novel is set just before the building of it had begun and although this played out somewhat as a strength, my first reaction was ‘How can I write a novel set in Blackheath with the church missing?’ When people think of Blackheath they think of the church. If you Google it, you get the church. The church is the celebrated icon of Blackheath. In the novel, Blackheath was the only parish not to have a church of its own so I brought in the architect who originally built it and had a horrifyingly drunk Maggie attempt to seduce him in the Gypsy Moth.
I brought in a lot of the actual people who did run each shop in 1840s Blackheath. (Thank you Neil Rhind for your book Blackheath and Environs – in my eyes, the Blackheath Bible.) And there were many, many more people with staggering and globally important histories right down to the women on the convict ship, that I would like to have included but Blackheath, once you start digging, offers up such a history that you could write a dozen books about it so I had to put the brakes on fast or mention briefly them in passing.
Q: How long did it take to write? Your bio says that you work within the film and television industry. Did script editing bring out the frustrated novelist? How do the two processes differ?
A: It took a year to write, then six months to rewrite. The scenes with Maggie in them wrote themselves. She’d walk onto a page and I could almost just sit back and watch what happened. I spent many an enjoyable afternoon in the Hare and Billet writing her.
As for the difference between script editing and writing, they are intertwined to a degree but also poles apart. It’s much easier to go in and sharpen other people’s work but with your own, sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. I let Séance Parlour sit for six months to gain some distance from it before I went back in with the red pen.
Q: If the reader accepts that Klaus Van Dyne is an evil genius, and can graft bodies together to form human wings (which is a fantastically creepy reveal incidentally), why would this gruesome but scientific process cause the children to become flesh eaters? I enjoyed them simply as flying demons – did they need to become vampires too? Do you think of them as vampires?
A: Thank you. I see them as people with an altered physiology and with that comes a whole new set of base instincts. Their nurse tries to stop their cat and mouse games with animals when they are children but it becomes clear to her that it’s a part of their primal instinct she can barely suppress. If anything, for them, it’s more about the thrill of hunting or a way of dealing with problems. They are set aside as a species with no peers or role models and they do still depend on injections of various solutions found only in birds and other animals to remain healthy and because of these factors they become a rule to themselves. I didn’t want to create a vampire that skulks about and has an evil plot, I wanted them to be more raw.
Q: Whilst reading the book, I had the strange sensation that the people who could contact the afterlife were the rationalists, and the men of the establishment (priests, scientists) were the mystics. Do you believe in contact with the afterlife? The book feels quite critical of organised religion at times – are you speaking through Maggie?
A: It was an age when science was beginning to challenge religion and women were beginning to take a stand. The women in Séance Parlour are very strong-minded, Maggie in particular and her dislike of Father Legge turned her against religion. I think it became a battle of wills between the two characters and in turn a battle over the church’s monopoly on faith. Like science, the séance parlour becomes a threat, chipping away the church’s power and influence.
Q: Where’s the spookiest place in Blackheath?
A: You have to go a long way to beat a good thick fog on the heath itself.
The Blackheath Seance Parlour is on sale now £10 from Amazon.