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Interview: Sarah Perry on writing, religion and water

18th Sep 2014

Interview: Sarah Perry on writing, religion and water
Sarah Perry’s debut novel After Me Comes the Flood has been hailed as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘marvellous’. We had a chat with literature’s new star in anticipation of her turn at For Books’ Sake’s birthday party.

After Me Comes the Flood is the story of John Cole, who walks out on his life one day and stumbles into a huge house peopled with strangers who apparently know him.

The resolution of that mystery is the only simple element of this modern gothic novel, which is odd, disquieting and an exploration of love in its many forms.

Sarah Perry probably does herself a disservice when she says she doesn’t have the skill to have consciously chosen a ‘voice’, but she is clear that her gothic style emerged without any deliberate effort.

“I suppose the writing shaped itself to the subject, and sometimes even now I look at it and think: good grief, where did that come from?”

Perry was brought up as a Strict Baptist in a home where the only novels were classics and there was little modernity. She ‘did think carefully’ about mentioning her upbringing in her biography, wanting to make sure it was relevant before she did so.

It wouldn’t have been long before people found out though, as she admits: “I’m infamously inclined to divulge everything about myself to near-strangers on the strength of a single G&T. So on the one hand I was quite comfortable with my upbringing being a focus. Everything about my writing has been formed by my early life…I wouldn’t be able to talk about my writing without it coming to light.

“I do have a rather tense relationship with my own strangeness, in that respect: at times I feel appallingly out of kilter with the rest of the world, and at other times I feel quite at ease and am a little startled when asked about it.”

But she has a character, Elijah, who’s a former preacher, the book is set over a week, and one chapter begins with ‘On the morning of the sixth day’. That must be deliberately Biblical?

“Oddly,” she says, “it’s often not until after I’ve written something that I realise what I’ve been up to. I remember how I began that chapter, and was typing merrily several paragraphs in before I quite noticed what I’d done (readers familiar with the King James Bible probably start bellowing ‘Bingo!’ by about page 50). The book was initially set over five days, but it began to demand more time and space, and so days were added purely for pragmatic reasons.”

It’s a week full of heartache and distress, mostly provoked by love – and not always traditionally acceptable love.

“It is a great annoyance of mine,” Perry says, “the insistence that love is a particular thing that we must all…transact in certain socially sanctioned ways, and that if it transgresses any number of unwritten rules it must not be love, but something else.”

Love causes her characters to act badly, and Elijah’s response to that, despite his apparent loneliness, is why Perry believes he has the healthiest attitude towards it: “He’s so completely unsurprised and non-judgemental about what it might lead us to do.

“Whether it’s deceit or cruelty or unfaithfulness or coldness – Elijah, he’d shrug, and smile, and spread his hands, and say: well, what can you expect – we’re probably all sinners, and none of us any better than the other…”

“the writing shaped itself to the subject, and sometimes even now I look at it and think: good grief, where did that come from?” How does she feel about the house her characters inhabit? Sufficiently well-rounded to be a character in its own right it’s ostensibly a place of refuge; but it’s undeniably sinister and bad things happen there. Despite that, Perry is “rather hoping that readers bring to it houses that have meant a great deal to them.”

And what about water, near or in which some of the most important scenes take place?

“There must be something in us all that calls us to the water – something half-spiritual or some fragment of an evolutionary survival instinct. So I don’t know whether my being so strongly drawn to water is particularly unusual but it’s a longing I have: I can’t bear to be away from the sea for long, and I can’t bear to be near the sea and not in it.”

The majority of Flood’s narrative is in the form of John’s diary, something Perry has never kept. But there are elements of herself in John the writer: “That John uses the act of writing as a means of making sense of things is a drive that I have.

“I’d like to say that his opening plea is mine – that he wishes he had a better voice to tell his tale – because that would be nicely humble, wouldn’t it? But I’ve never thought that: I don’t want any other writer’s words, I’d just like to carry on hammering away at mine until they fit.”

After Me Comes the Flood is available now from Foyles and most good independent book shops.

Interested in exploring the gothic? Sarah Perry recommends:

“Melmoth the Wanderer, which was written by an impoverished Irish cleric in 1810 and is the single most chilling thing I have ever read. I’m always begging people to read it. In terms of modern Gothic I’d say read Hilary Mantel’s Fludd, which treads perfectly the boundary between the real, the imagined and the supernatural.”

Live in London? Catch Sarah reading tomorrow night at our fourth birthday party.