This is the fourth in Historia’s series of interviews with writers shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Crown awards. Caroline Lea is the author of The Glass Woman, which is shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Absolutely. At school, I was obsessed with the Wars of the Roses and, in particular, Richard III. I was a voracious reader; my mum started buying me historical fiction because she was sick of me scorching my way through books in days. Historical novels, at often over a thousand pages, seemed to provide the most value for money. She bought me a book called The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman for my twelfth birthday; I was hooked: it’s wonderful and utterly transporting.
I’ve always used reading as an escape, and find stories set in the past both absorbing as a reader and intriguing as a writer. They enable me to hold up a slanted mirror to current issues: how might a woman in remote Iceland in 1686 react if her husband was controlling and secretive? While societal influences may direct our behaviour and beliefs, our fundamental human emotions and desires are universal and utterly fascinating. It’s the appeal and magic of historical fiction.
How did the initial idea for The Glass Woman come about?
I love dark, gothic tales and the way the sense of fear often creates brilliant heroines: my novel has (generously) been compared to Jane Eyre, Rebecca and The Bloody Chamber, (Angela Carter’s fin-de-siecle retelling of the myth of Bluebeard), all of which I adore.
I wanted to write a story about a woman who, after marrying a man and moving to a remote setting, finds herself terrified by the strange, secretive nature of her husband, while also being isolated in her new environment – not necessarily a new trope, but one that I wanted to examine in a different light and a distinctive setting.
I’m fascinated by the way in which dysfunctional relationships are so often based around control and power. It’s the subtle nature of gaslighting that makes it so disturbing; I’ve certainly been in relationships where I’ve felt utterly trapped by coercive control, under the guise of ‘care’, and I have barely recognised myself in my fear-filled reactions. I wanted to write from that place of reduction, and also to explore both sides of that story: why would a man be so fixated on controlling his wife? What might his motivation be?
The book is set in Iceland in the 1680s – what attracted you to that particular place and period?
Iceland is a magical, wonderful place, with brutal and beautiful landscape; its history of mythology and legend refined my story. The Glass Woman takes place against the background of the Icelandic witch trials, at a time when ‘new’ religion and age-old beliefs in myths were in conflict, so there’s a sense of dread within the novel, which intensifies Rósa’s own terror about the rumours surrounding the death of her husband’s first wife.
I’ve always been interested in mythology and, when I started my research, I discovered that many of the Icelandic myths of trolls, spirits and ghosts are so powerful that people still believe in them today: in 2013, there was a (successful) petition for the Icelandic government to divert the path of a new road, because it would disturb the rock which was the home of the huldúfolk. And these beliefs certainly make sense when you see Iceland’s mountains, geysers and volcanoes, and understand that it always has been a land that boils and freezes its people; it is still a country in which people go out walking and simply disappear.
Is historical research a pleasure or a chore?
Research is a wonderful, beguiling distraction from actually writing, and is certainly a rabbit hole into which I frequently, happily, lose myself. One of the gifts of historical research is that it is an Aladdin’s Cave of inspiration; one of the curses is picking which gems should find their way into the story. It can be all-too-tempting to include everything but often a sense of time and place is best articulated through a fairly light touch: no one wants to feel like they’re reading a history lecture in the middle of a novel.
I was lucky enough to meet with two Icelandic history professors while researching, and their response to one of my more obscure questions on seventeenth century Icelandic life was, refreshingly, “aren’t you writing fiction? Make it up!”
Did your research for The Glass Woman turn up anything unexpected?
There were lots of wonderful discoveries but my favourite is probably nábrók or ‘necropants’. These are a magical way of ensuring lifelong wealth, and involve flaying the skin from a corpse, from the waist down, and then wearing the skin as trousers. You must then steal a coin from a widow and place it in the scrotum. As long as you don’t remove this coin, the scrotum will always be full of money. I’m not thrilled at the thought of scrabbling around inside a scrotum for my loose change, but it can’t be much worse than searching for pound coins in the dog-hair-and-biscuit deathtrap under my sofa cushions.
What was your path to publication?
I’ve always wanted to write and have a computer hard drive exploding (sometimes quite literally) with poetry, flash fiction, short stories and novels that I’ve ‘saved for later.’ I was lucky enough to find my wonderful agent, Nelle Andrew, through submitting the first fifty pages of my manuscript.
Nelle is brilliantly insightful in the editorial process, and made me redraft The Glass Woman for a year and half before sending it to my fantastic editor, Jillian Taylor at Penguin. I couldn’t ask for a more incredibly perceptive champion of my work. I’m also hugely lucky to have a wonderful publishing and publicity team behind my novel, all of whom are fierce advocates for The Glass Woman. It definitely takes a village to write a novel and I’m so very fortunate that my particular village is full of brilliant, inspiring, talented women.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Read a lot. Don’t be afraid to rewrite: if a scene isn’t working, don’t keep tinkering with adjectives and adverbs; scrap it and write it again from scratch – possibly from a different perspective, or a different point in time. It will feel hard but they’re only words; they don’t run out.
Protect your mental health. Writing, like mountaineering, is a pursuit for masochists: it’s a hard slog, with only occasionally glimpses of the summit through the clouds. It’s important to set small goals and to keep going.
Try not to take criticism too personally; it’s crucial to show your work to people who will be brutally honest (one of my favourite comments from a close friend, on reading the first draft of The Glass Woman was that it was “like being in Iceland; the supermarket!” At this point, I knew I had to work on a creating a sense of place). Find writer friends; they will understand the hell of the scene that simply won’t work.
Grit your teeth through the hard days; better days will come.
And finally, can you describe your book in five words?
Secrets. Myths. Fear. Love. Ice.
Portrait of Caroline Lee: Bill Waters
Stykkisholm (Stykkishólmur) on Snæfellsnes; engraving from Jules Leclercq’s La Terre de glace, Féroë, Islande, les geysers, le mont Hékla, 1883: via Wikimedia
The explosion of Eyjafjallajökull at Fimmvörðuháls, 2010: Ulrich Latzenhofer via Wikimedia
Sorcerer’s Abode, Bjarnarfjörður: Ásgeir Kröyer via Flickr
Northern Lights over Snæfellsnes: posted by Fulvio Meloni via Flickr