The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters – another extraordinary novel from Michelle Lovric – is published this month. As with all her fiction, it is following and ferreting out facts that leads to the weaving of such fantastical stories. Here, she talks about her routes through research from extremely long hair, to quack medicine and the landscape of Ireland
PJ: For the latest book you’ve had to research, the real Sutherland Sisters, hair, Ireland, quacks and showmen etc. Where do you start?
ML: The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters started when a medical historian friend, Bill Helfand, told me about the Seven Sutherland Sisters, an American septet who rose to fame and fortune peddling quack hair products by letting down their long hair on circus stages. Bill said, ‘I think these girls might interest you.’
He could not have been more right. Their story, like my novel, may seem incredible, but the facts of their lives gives my tale credibility, I hope.
After reading every scrap of material I could find on the Sutherland girls, I looked into the quackery hair products like the ones they sold. I love quack medicine, and have written about it in earlier novels, The Remedy and The Book of Human Skin. Its premise is the lure of words. Worthless chemicals are endowed with almost magical qualities by the process of naming them. Their titles evoke foreign doctors, exotic ingredients, aristocracy. I am interested in the powers of the word as almost sympathetic magic. So as usual I headed straight for the Wellcome Library on that subject. And speaking of sympathetic magic, I looked into beliefs about the power of hair. Cut hair is a dangerous thing. Witches can use it to create storms or make a child wither and die.
My novel is about sisters with torrents of beautiful hair falling from the appropriate places at the tops of their heads. But that raised the issue of what happens when hair grows in the wrong places? So I looked into the life of Julia Pastrana, the Victorian, so-called, ‘baboon’ lady, who was one of the most celebrated side-show freaks of her age.
Apart from words, I am interested in art. Hair in the nineteenth century was almost reinvented by the Pre-Raphaelite painters as a signifier of dangerous feminine libido. So I began to research those ideas, looking at the writings of Elizabeth Gitter, Griselda Pollock and Galia Ofek.
Finally I went to Ireland to do physical research on the post-Famine setting of the novel. That actually set the emotional tone for the book, as I have written here.
Ireland gave me fairies, witches, folk tales and most of all language. I adore the redundancy of Irish language. So several heavy tomes from the philology section of the London Library lived on my desk for many months.
The story of the Harristown Sisters ends in Venice, where I needed to look at the mid-nineteenth century, something I had not written about before. Fortunately the great photographic studios of Venice, including Naya and Ongania, were by that time starting to record the city’s Victorian life. I also wanted to pay tribute to my favourite Henry James novel, The Aspern Papers, so I re-read that, his Venice letters and looked at his circle of friends for their diaries.
After all of that, I sat down to write!
PJ: How do you keep you keep track of all the threads – spread sheets? Notebooks?
ML: Until fairly recently I always kept the story in my head as a kind of organic thing, which grew and grew, occupying more and more of my brain. Some bits were lumpy. Some bits seemed dehydrated. I just tended it until it swelled into the right shape. Lately I’ve had some health issues that have meant I’ve been unable to keep my novelistic garden in virtual order. So I have taken more to writing things down.
I keep a handmade spreadsheet for all my novels. It consists of a grid made up of all the characters’ names, both vertically and horizontally. So there is a box in which to put the main issues of tension or amity between each of the characters. If there are blanks, I find ways to fill them. So everyone is threaded together.
The other thing I do is keep a timeline. This records the time of the day or night and the weather. Both these things allow me to monitor the comfort and exhaustion levels of my characters, which are crucial to how well they are dealing with the plot horrors I am pitching against them. This also stops you from writing 29 hour days and 1 hour nights.
PJ: Since you love libraries and collecting fascinating facts are you never tempted to turn your fiction, story-telling skills to a non-fiction book?
ML: I spent many years as an editor, writer, designer and producer of non-fiction books, about letters, museums, cats etc. I loved it. And in many ways, not least financially, I am sorry not to be in that world any more. It was very sociable, and I worked with a fantastic team of people. It gave me a wonderful lifestyle, taking me to all kinds of places – Paris, Rome, Buffalo!
I’ve been writing fiction pretty much exclusively now for about eight years. These days my goal is to synthesize research into my own writing. After all those years of looking at the work of others, I feel I have things to say for myself now, especially through experiences lived.
PJ: For creative research, you’ve said you sometimes write a character as a poem. How does that work? Do you go for sound, image, metaphor? How does the poem become prose character?
ML: Yes, I very often write a poem, a dramatic monologue for a character, or a dialogue, before smoothing it into prose or conversation.
Poetry makes you work harder at language. It makes you concise and it makes you more aware of the sounds of the words. Images need to be distilled without self-indulgence, efficiently, shockingly.
I wrote several parts of The Harristown Sisters in poetry. There is, for example, a description of Manticory’s red hair by a photographer. And something which does not appear in the book was an extremely long poem written in the voice of the Baboon Lady Julia Pastrana, in which I imagined myself inhabiting her body. It was a necessary exercise in empathy.
I usually place the poem in the relevant part of the book, reading what comes before and what after. Then I let it breathe a bit more … like the idea of Prévert’s “How to Paint a Bird”, where the bird is lured into a cage (a lovely metaphor for capturing an idea in verse).
The almost-final act for Prévert is to paint out the bars one by one taking care not to touch any of the bird’s feathers. And you know if the poem/painting is working, if the bird sings. Only then can you sign the work.