After being awarded this year’s HWA Debut Crown award at the Harrogate History Festival in October, Kate took part in panels and interviews to talk about the passion that made her write a book set in Essex and at sea.
First, a quick crib-sheet
The book interweaves the stories of Luke and of Lou, on the wild Essex coast in Georgian times. The novel is about how their two stories come together.
Lou starts out inland as a sheltered dairymaid on a farm. She is warned off the sea because it took her father and brother. But she is offered a job in the Essex port of Harwich, “a big thundering hardcore dangerous place to be” – so she goes. And then her world opens up.
Luke, meanwhile, encounters the sea in a rather more violent way. At 15, he’s press-ganged into “His Majesty’s damned whore-son Navy” and sent to sea in the warship Essex. Despite the brutal hardships on board a warship, soon he’s “slipped his mooring, can scarce remember what it is to feel anchored,” and answers to a new mistress: “She has him now, the sea”.
The authorial voice: She Rises is imbued with the rhythm and sway of the sea, as this brief excerpt shows.
“So, when I walked round to take my pipe by the tavern door and found a stranger sitting on my own bench, availing himself of the warm evening air, I was wary, guarded. At first. I stood looking at him a moment. He wasn’t just brown and hardy like all the men who passed through. He had a sheen upon him. His face was so rinded and worn away by the ocean winds that he might never have been a soft-cheeked child at all. He had the huge shoulders, the battered bulging thighs of a thorough-going top-man. He must have sensed me there and when he turned his long gaze went right through me, that eye trained to scan the horizon.”
Reviewers have been enthusiastic. One review in The Independent ended: “Each navigating their own choppy waters, Luke and Louise are on a collision course that is meticulously and elegantly plotted from the very first page. The moment of their meeting, when it arrives, is jaw-droppingly good. Packed with smugglers and secret passages, rum-toting sailors, romance, and adventures in exotic parts, She Rises sings to its reader with the dulcet hypnotising tones of its true heroine, the sea; luring you in, then lulling you into its rolling pace.”
And, finally, what Kate says about her novel:
What made you write this story?
Because I went to live in Essex – quite a wild bit of Essex, by the water. And I realised I was quite terrified of getting in a boat (though I can sail now). I’d been obsessed for years with stories of derring-do and Shackleton – but I am the most stay-at-home armchair adventurer with a cup of tea and a book. And I wanted to write a story where the heroine was a reluctant adventurer, where the adventure in the book was the last thing she wanted to do, and what that would do to someone.
Did you choose Louise Fletcher as a young woman to show how life was then, or just to make it more accessible for you to get into her head?
This seems to be such a thing about historical novels, the question of whether you’re writing about the period or about something else. I never actually was actually writing about the period. I just was lucky to find a historical period to set my story in.
The twist in the story – can we talk about that in any way without it being a huge spoiler? Could you say a woman chose to go to sea dressed as a man?
There was a particular period where women could experience sea life. In this amazing period, where identity was so fluid and so fixed at the same time, because it was so inconceivable for women to wear trousers – in a way that it just isn’t now – when you did, you were a man. Men and women were different, but you could switch from one to the other just by putting on different clothes. This didn’t just apply to gender but to social class. The big inspiration for the book was a novel called The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett, in which a Scottish doctor comes to London, gets press-ganged, tries to make his fortune, is not getting anywhere – but at some point manages to put on a set of gentleman’s clothes and walk into a tavern. And as long as he can hold his own conversationally he’s away. Clothes were everything. Also you could disappear and reappear and change your name. I found that really fascinating.
The sea has that, then – communication was so different – it was, go to sea and you’re gone. What real-life period detail helped you?
My thinking in choosing the period was that it had to be the Georgian navy, and pre-Napoleonic because it was much less hierarchical. And I really wanted to get pirates in – I did so much pirate research! But in the end I had to lose the pirates. The period when cross-dressing was at its height was the 1740s-60s, with lots of court cases in Britain and Holland. There was other documentary help. In Harwich, where it was set, there’s this brilliant board with the names of all the ships that were built there around 1740, which gave me a hook to hang it on. And I also had all kinds of information for things like the name of the pub on the quay – and as a first novel that quite helped.
How did you find your style?
The language of that period was my way into writing those stories and characters. I am really grateful.
I think the reason I put off writing for so long was that I felt self-conscious about my own use of language. Of course I wanted to write – but I couldn’t face what I wrote.
So this started as a total pastiche of the Smollett novel. I thought, if I can just channel those amazing rambunctious 18th-century phrases that go on for ages and combine it with all the sea slang that I just love – amazing words – then I can con myself into writing. I wrote about 40-50 thousand words like that, and that somehow broke through my self-consciousness. It was the key to writing this story, these characters, this process. If I could put them through this filter, I knew I could tell it.
But then I had to start toning it down. I put that first go aside for a year. Then I went back to it and reworked it with the two stories – but that was 140-150,000 words. Getting it down to 100,000 was a hard job.
Vanora Bennett is the author of six novels including Midnight in St Petersburg. Her latest book, The White Russian, was published in hardback by Century/Arrow and comes out in paperback in spring 2015.