I don’t often do author interviews on my blog, but here is a wonderful exception! One of the best parts of being a writer is the opportunity to make friends with other writers whose work you love. In honour of her upcoming appearance at Canterbury Christ Church, as part of the Writing Comes Alive series – please welcome, Essie Fox.
Essie Fox is the author of three gothic Victorian novels – The Somnambulist, Elijah’s Mermaid, and The Goddess and the Thief – rich, sensual, and dark tales of spiritualism, obsession, and madness. With her fourth novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, Essie Fox turns to the haunting world of silent cinema, a bewitching novel about an enigmatic film actress and the volatile love affair that left her a recluse for over half a century, in a story that spans the birth of British film to the long hot summer of 1976. The Times describes the novel as “luminous … with a sensuousness to the prose … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling,” and recently selected The Last Days of Leda Grey as the newspaper’s October Book of the Month.
Want to know more? Here’s a fantastically gothic book trailer for The Last Days of Leda Grey:
Hi Essie! I’m always intrigued to learn how a book begins. What was the very first spark for you? There were two separate sparks for this novel. The first was when I viewed a film that had been restored and digitized by the National Film Archives – Panoramic View of Morecambe Seafront: 1901. This film of everyday people taking their holiday promenade has such an astonishing clarity, and I felt myself drawn back in time – straight into that Edwardian Seaside town. Please do view the film if you have a chance. If you do then I think you will understand how it was that I came to be entranced, even if I set my story in Brighton rather than Morecambe. It’s also quite a sobering thought that the joyful little boys we see running along as the camera moves, waving their hats and handerkerchiefs, would have been of an age to then grow up to fight in the trenches of WW1.
The second spark, really more of a jolt of electricity, was a poster I saw in a window front in a junk shop in the Brighton Lanes. This image of Theda Bara – a goddess and vamp of the silent screen – went on to inspire the seductive dark looks of my novel’s main character, Leda Grey: a young girl who grows up while dreaming of becoming a star of the silent screen.
The Last Days of Leda Grey seems a real love letter to cinema, though one tinged with grief, loss, tragedy. What was it about cinema and its history that you hoped to capture? What did you know before you began – and what did you learn that pulled you in new directions? I’ve always enjoyed a good old-fashioned film noir – especially the dramatic weepies in which Bette Davies starred which I often to used to watch with my mum, cuddled up on the sofa on wet weekends – and which, I’m very happy to say, I managed to reference in my book … just as I did some other films that have influenced me through the years.
But, when writing my Victorian novels I also became very interested in the development of photography, and how that then led to moving film – the medium which has since gone on to have an enormous influence on so many aspects of our modern world. And yet, we know so little about the pioneers of early British film – and as Ed, who is a journalist who becomes obsessed with Leda Grey, says when he first hears of them: ‘Why don’t we know of this … I’d always assumed the silent films first started in America.’ Of course, Ed is speaking for me here. I’d imagined the Hollywood silents were all made in the 1920s, whereas the earliest moving films were Victorian and Edwardian – and they were made in England, in Europe, and other countries too – as well as in America.
On the whole these films were very short, lasting just a few minutes or more, which was due to the technical restraints of loading and editing the film. As well as dramatic features, there were lots of documentaries – the films called ‘actuals’ at the time, very much like Morecambe Seafront. The people filmed in these ‘actuals’ would then be given the chance to go and view themselves in theatres, or church halls, or even high street shops – anywhere that itinerant film makers could hire for setting up their screens, and then to charge admission fees when the general public flocked inside to view themselves with wonder – to see themselves flickering like ghosts – just as we can see them now. But now, those people all are dead. I find that incredibly poignant.
A great many early film makers were involved in the photographic trade, or had had theatrical careers. Magicians like George Melies grasped this exciting new medium to expand the tricks performed on stage. And what wonders were achieved on film – with double exposures or split screens allowing the most surprising effects. I found it quite fascinating myself, to exploit so many of these themes when imagining all the old noir ‘films’ that I write about in Leda Grey – films with which have the illusions of ghosts, or men who’ve had their heads chopped off which they then juggle round like balls. And, whether directors made comedies, or stories with eerier atmospheres, the early effects that they devised are often still employed in today. Cruder, yes. Of course they are. The technology has come so far. But, still, remarkable to see.
The Last Days of Leda Grey is particularly interested in time – years and eras and periods that endlessly telescope. Chapter One begins with a young journalist hack becoming intrigued by the first glimpse of a silent film siren whose brother says she is “a fly in amber. In stasis. In inertia.” While the book itself is fluid, with characters and settings that seem to exist in several times at once. As alluded to in the answer above, I find it fascinating to see people who’ve been dead for years coming back to life through celluloid – and appearing so young and full of life in moving images on screens. It is magical. It is also sad to see those flickering shadowy lives and to know they are made of only light. But, there’s something else that I explore, and that is iconic sexual appeal and how it can transcend the years; even if in real life it is transient. That’s the true glamour of film for me. The element of eternity; for as long as that film can be preserved – which is also a problem with old stock as the celluloid is so fragile, degrading and melting, and also – because of its flammability – a truly dangerous fire hazard.
Leda’s memories of her film career are filled with tricks and mysteries. This has struck me in all your books, an interest in the mysterious, from the lure of Victorian spiritualism and the occult to the use of illusions, how easily believers can be duped, particularly in performance, whether onstage or in photography and film. When Ed Peters announces, “I don’t believe that psychic stuff,” it made me wonder. Where are you on the spectrum of believers and skeptics? If you’d asked me twenty years ago, I’d probably say I believed in ghosts. I’ve certainly had some experiences that it’s very hard to rationalize. But, looking back, I wonder – was my mind seeing things in peculiar ways because of the grieving process, because I couldn’t bear to let my loved ones go away so soon? This is something I was keen to explore in the character of Ed, who’s still grieving for someone dear to him when he first comes to meet with Leda Grey – perhaps too keen to transfer his need for love and affection onto a woman old enough to be his grandmother, and who – much to his confusion and shame – he is also sexually drawn towards when he sees her embodied in silent films.
As I grow older myself – as I lose those who are dear to me, I have been thinking more and more about how short our lives can be, aging and degrading just like that fragile celluloid. And how easily we forget the past; all those generations who came before whose knowledge and dreams and experiences can still enrich our lives today. I try to make some sense of this. But it isn’t just general history, or the memories of friends and family that influenced my writing – it’s also the visual inspirations that made such an impact on my youth – with films like The Haunting, or Dead of Night which I saw when I was much too young; the terror of which has remained engrained and still chills me to this very day. There is also The Singing Ringing Tree, or The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – East European and French Children’s TV Shows screened here in the 1960’s. They are both eccentric and gothic in tone, with a sense of darker other worlds. I was really quite obsessed with them, with their magic and their mystery. I’m sure they helped to ‘wire’ me, and to make the writer I am today.
What’s next for Essie Fox? This is my fourth novel, with the first being published in 2011. To be honest, I think I need a break – a chance to get out in the world a bit more, to see the friends and family I’ve neglected over the past five years. My house also needs some attention if I want to stop it crumbling and ending up in the same state as White Cliff House in Leda Grey. But having said that I already have at least three new ideas in mind. The question is can I resist the siren songs that are calling me?
One is a YA adventure with a contemporary character who finds himself flung backwards in time when he enters a sort of vortex. The second is also contemporary – but will have another historical thread, with links to the local folklore from Herefordshire where I once lived. The third is a political thriller, filled with sex and scandal. But I might need to consult a lawyer or two before I make a start on that!
The Last Days of Leda Grey was published by Orion Books on 3 November 2016 in the UK. Essie Fox will be at the Sidney Cooper Gallery on Friday 8 December for Writing Comes Alive, for Canterbury Christ Church. Come on out and say hello! For more information on Essie Fox, her first three Victorian thrillers, or to dive into the first chapter of The Last Days of Leda Grey, please visit her website: