Mary Hamer's novel, Kipling & Trix, published this month, won The Virginia Prize For Fiction. The writing of Rudyard Kipling is known to millions but what of the work of his talented younger sister, Trix? Mary Hamer's novel explores dark episodes in the Kipling siblings’ childhood, and follows the reverberations through their adult lives. Here she explains her life-long fascination with Rudyard, describes her search for Trix and reveals four key things to consider when turning the facts of real lives into fiction
MH: As a child his stories meant so much me. When I was seven or eight reading The Jungle Book opened the door to a richer world. Later, I wanted to develop my connection and aimed to do a PhD on him but I was discouraged.
PJ: Why the Kipling siblings and why now?
MH: Timing, in a way. I’d just been writing a book about damage and experience that does harm to children when, in search of a new subject, I turned to Kipling, who I’d always meant to work on. I found I now had a framework for understanding the ill-treatment the Kipling siblings endured as children, seeing how long-lasting the effects might be. I decided to test my theory against the evidence of their later lives. I thought I could see a pattern that I wanted to highlight. Their early experience of loss, separation and terror, disguised as religious instruction, was like a case study. You could never set that dreadful sequence up as an experiment but tracing the later lives of Kipling and Trix allows us to observe how this damage played out.PJ: Your research began in scholarship – why fiction?
MH: I wanted to tell the story from the inside and I didn’t want to argue. I wanted to convince my readers by showing them, getting them to experience what I thought I could see happening. I longed to get away from footnotes but god knows bringing these two lives into chronological alignment, getting those details right nearly killed me. Because I didn’t make a plan at the outset I kept having to retrace my footsteps and recheck.
PJ: As an academic were there inhibitions about inhabiting the emotional lives of these literary figures?
MH: For that I’m sure I drew on my month’s actor training with Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts: I felt I had permission. It was the scholar in me who insisted on fidelity to historical fact. I used those facts, those situations, to generate the emotional lives I inhabited.
PJ: There must have been a wealth of material on Rudyard, but how did you begin to inhabit Trix?
MH: I drew on the wobbliest parts of myself, particularly for her struggles as a writer. When I was imagining her as a little girl, I sort of bounced her off Ruddy. A girl would see things a boy couldn’t. And I was interested in her confusion, bound to this nasty foster-mother for emotional survival yet hating it. I suppose that was partly back-projection from knowing that historically she kept rejecting her fiancé and then relenting. Strands weaved back and forth between her childhood and what I guessed or knew about her later life.
PJ: The childhood scenes are particularly compelling, revealing how brother and sister, though dependents, were gradually becoming rivals. You then track this dynamic through adulthood. Tell us more about the process of keeping true to these inner lives and the historical record.
MH: I always started from the record. First, when they were small, I just used what leaped out at me concerning their experience and their surroundings and imagined how ANY children of their age would have been likely to respond in that situation. And so I continued as their lives went on, really. Do you remember what DH Lawrence said about creating character, based on the allotropes of carbon? “The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond—but I say, ‘Diamond, what! This is carbon.’ And my diamond may be coal or soot and my theme is carbon.” Following DHL, I didn’t think of K& T as different from other people.
From the historical record, and the literary texts, I’d pick up a cue for a scene and then follow them into it. I never wrote in sequence, by the way, just let my imagination lead the way. It meant there were gaps to fill in. Trix tended to fall out of sight for too long, for instance. That’s where I had to join up the dots, really the nature of the whole project.
PJ: Carrie, Rud’s American wife, is an interesting character – one who seems to have always understood the damage in her husband. What research allowed you to step into her shoes?
MH: I’ve spent over forty years as a wife! Seriously, I checked out her back story. At twenty or so she had trekked out West with her brother to the mining and lumber camps: she was bold. But also vulnerable. Her father had died when she was eight and twenty years later the brother she adored died in her arms in spite of all her nursing. You see the pattern. This was a woman determined her husband should not die before his time, capable but vulnerable, asking too much of herself.
PJ: The book is a rich collage of potent scenes – you shift viewpoint and we see Rud and Trix through the eyes of many others. Tell us about the process of structuring the book and keeping track of all the characters, places etc.
MH: Thank you for that ‘rich’. From the first I knew I wanted to see events from the point of view of each of my characters, even the unattractive ones. I really worked at that, writing scenes I’d never use, in order to get inside the life of the odious Mrs. Holloway, for instance. I wasn’t very organised when it came to keeping track of date and places but relied heavily on Andrew Lycett’s detailed biography of Kipling. The most difficult thing was checking/working out where Trix was and what she was doing at the points in her brother’s life that had caught my imagination—then vice versa, as Trix came to take up more space in my thoughts. That meant a lot of primitive and repetitive checking, which was the price I paid for keeping my options open. I’d been afraid that if I made timelines etc before I’d got going with the writing it would pre-empt my imaginative choices. I wanted to uncover a story I wasn’t consciously aware of, not impose one.
Real structuring and organisation—creating the prologue, breaking the work up into sections, all the work to help readers get my drift—came right at the end, in the last six months to a year of working on it.
PJ: You clearly show the further damage done to Rud by the death of his daughter and suggest that this explains his rather unattractive behaviour in South Africa. How much is this a rescue of Kipling for those who have written him off?
MH: Rather unattractive? He was more or less out-to-lunch. It really is a matter of record that he madly idealised Rhodes, a monster, and was brutally and uncharacteristically indifferent to the welfare of Boer women and children. I believe Josephine’s death didn’t so much damage him as bring back his early damage, drown him in it. He was back looking at the world as an angry needy child. I think it’s so much more interesting to ask why, what’s brought about this disturbed vision, than to despise him and write him off. What I hope I’ve done is rescue a sense of him as a private man, once a child, like the rest of us, while maybe implying that this is not an isolated case. That private rage and distress particularly in men, because they’re the ones with power, may underlie and find their expression in public policies and opinions that are disastrous.
PJ: Do you have another historical figure in mind for a fiction?
MH: To be honest, I’m still reeling from the sheer effort of all the research I did for K&T and of converting that into fiction. The reason I wrote about Kipling—I mean started by writing just about him before realising Trix was an essential part of the package—was that I had a sense of unfinished business with him. As I’ve said, it dated right back to my childhood. I sort of owed Kipling, owed him the attention. He did look a bit like my father and I suspect that had something to do with it: I don’t think I ever did my father justice, as a man. No other historical figure carries anything like that charge for me.
I did enjoy taking a ready-made story and bringing it to life, and I love research, libraries and travelling to foreign settings, travelling even down to Southsea, but I don’t want another enormous project. K&T spans about eighty years and it took me ten years to write. If I ever wrote about another historical figure in the same way, I’d plan to focus more tightly: perhaps on Jean Rhys in Paris. I do have a frail link with her, for in those days, she typed up a thesis—very badly—for a dear friend of mine, now dead.
PJ: Apart from Kipling which writers have influenced you and inspired you to write fiction?
MH: Language and writing itself, the power of story is the real answer. It was the library that I loved as a child, the place with ALL the books, so many doors out into a more vivid world. I think Jo March in Little Women was the first writer I ever encountered as a person, imagined or in the flesh. She was the sister with the greatest appeal by miles. ( Did you ever read Jo’s Boys, by the way? I think my love-affair with America began there.) I can’t say that other writers have been behind my own impulse to write, though they’ve made me eager for books. Virginia Woolf alerted me to the need to find the most precise language in order to know what I was experiencing and Antony Trollope showed me how to trust that I understood what was going on between people. But the urge to write came from inside, a drive to name what I felt and knew. It took me a long while to get to that point, for years I wasn’t brave enough to come out in the open and risk it but wrote academic books, under cover, as it were, licensed to argue about serious topics, not simply free to speak.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
MH: I’m waiting to borrow Bring up the Bodies from my daughter. ( If you’re reading this, Emily, turn those pages faster!) I’ve admired Hilary Mantel for many years; ever since I came on Eight Months in Gazzah Street I knew she was extraordinary—painfully acute and how she’s roamed in terms of subject! And now, what stamina, first the deep dark research, then transmuting it into not one novel but three.
I recently read A Line in the Sand by James Barr which tells the story of the struggle between France and Britain for control of the Middle East during the first half of the twentieth century: serious history but told by means of hundreds of tiny narratives, interactions, events, dug out by research and brought to life; exotic settings and absurd goings on.
PJ: What would you say to someone embarking on a novel based on the life of an historical figure?
MH: Don’t do it my way! I had none of the disciplines of the novelist—storyboards, timelines, character outlines—and it made my task more repetitive and laborious in the end. That was because I wanted to keep very close indeed, to shadow, the actual historical facts and recreate them imaginatively. Now I know that if you’re going to do a lot of research and stick to a framework of facts it’s a good idea to create a timeline at the very least! It wasn’t just ignorance and inexperience, though— I chose to write almost in free fall because I really did want to experiment, step with my full weight onto the path of imagination and see if that led anywhere. Would it just peter out? When I let imagination do the selecting from the welter of fact, it took me into a world I seemed to be discovering, reporting, rather than making up. Risky but it could work for you too . . . other than that, there are four things I’d recommend:
1. Make the most of opportunities to explore the places where your character lived, shadow them, so far as you can—I took the train up from Cape Town to Bloemfontein, just as Kipling did in the course of the Boer War and I did it at the same time of year. That made it specially exciting and I valued every shift in the light and every sighting of butterflies. I kept myself excited, stimulated, by physical reality, whether it was walking the streets of Southsea where my characters lived as children, or handling Kipling’s own copy of the Letts diary he kept notes in when he was twenty.
2. Read as many conflicting contemporary accounts of your character, their issues and the events in their lives as you can: that’s the way to get layers, to go beyond the limits of your initial sympathies.
3. As you get into the project, use your own moods as they arise, attribute them to your character and write on from there: you’re very connected now and it will take you forward.
4. And if there are letters, of course, that’s where you’ll find your character’s voice. Notice its range and how it changes over time.
More on Mary Hamer and her previous books, here.
Buy a copy of Kipling & Trix, here