Novel Nights interviews Anna Vaught, whose third novel, Saving Lucia, was published by Bluemoose Books on the 30th April 2020.
Saving Lucia is based on factual characters, but it is a work of fiction.
How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, reshaping their pasts and futures as they went, including killing Mussolini? What if one of those people were a fascinating, forgotten aristocratic assassin and the others a fellow life co-patient, James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, another the first psychoanalysis patient, known to history simply as ‘Anna O,’ and finally 19th Century Paris’s Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann? That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it? How would it all be possible? Because, as the assassin Lady Violet Gibson would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imagination
Anna is a novelist, poet, essayist, reviewer, editor, copywriter and proof-reader. Her website is https://annavaughtwrites.com/
Q: What inspired you to write Saving Lucia?
A: This photograph, seen by chance, and on my own history.
Who was she and where was she, this woman in a beautiful pose with the birds alighting on her? This was the Honourable Violet Gibson, would-be assassin of Mussolini, and she was in the rose garden at St Andrew’s Hospital, where she fed the birds. I knew about the other women, then realised that Lucia Joyce, long a fascination for me, must have been Violet’s co-patient at St Andrew’s – and a story began to form. An adventure. Violet, like Lucia, never left St Andrew’s and I began to think about her life and a whole series of might have beens. Also, I have had – and I have written freely about this – a number of mental health problems for some time as a result of early complex and extended trauma. Sometimes I have been terribly ill. So you see, the four women you meet: their circumstances were radically different from mine, but I did not see them as cases, as mad people: I just saw them in women with difficult and constrained lives.
Q. In Saving Lucia you draw on fact but it’s a work of fiction. How did you navigate the line between fact and fiction? What fictional truth were you aiming for?
A: I think the line is fuzzy and difficult; perhaps it is always – at least for me – uncomfortable. I think of it (I am quoting what Hilary Mantel says in the back of Wolf Hall) as if I am, ‘making the reader an offer.’ Might it have been a little like this? Could it have been? I know the storyline will seem far-fetched to some readers, but I know how it is to use your reading, the pictures in your mind – a still from a film or a beautiful painting – and, most of all, your imagination to help calm you and then give you some freedom in what seems to you to be a circumscribed world which contains a host of proscribed activity – things you cannot do because of how you are or how everyone thinks you are. So, there is much of me and my spirit in the book and this is true. The rest, fact and a fiction which I hope is kind, understanding and which asks of the reader that they ponder the nature of madness (as they understand it) and of sanity, of hidden lives. That we think of these women as extraordinary and they are not commuted to a case.
Q. How did you research the stories of these four women? And from that research, why choose these particular four women in your novel?
Archives, books, personal interviews. Lots of it all. Violet and Lucia because they were co-patients. Violet’s life is utterly fascinating and, of course, she came so close to changing the face of history (the book delves also into alternative history); Lucia is well documented insofar as she is James Joyce’s daughter and some tragic facts of her life are known, but there is a lot which was destroyed because of the actions of her nephew, the keeper of the Joyce estate (who died recently). My heart has always gone with her. I felt these women had, for different reasons, lives that were stifled and ideas that we could not know about. Correspondence not sent; letters destroyed and so on.
Blanche Wittman? Because she is Queen of the Hysterics and the concept of ‘hysteria’ has always fascinated me; also, I felt she was objectified in a painting and I was gripped by that – what was her life like; was she complicit but did she ever have a choice? We know so little about her and yet the painting is reasonably well known.
Anna O. She is a key figure in the history of psychology, treated and made into a case study by Breuer (with Freud’s later attention) in Studies on Hysteria, yet reportedly later sceptical of all that passed. She was different, in that twenty years after her death it was revealed that she was Bertha Pappenheim, a Jewish social worker who did brave and extraordinary work. It was as if she were two people: the case and the woman. That grabbed me. My notion was that these two women, in addition to Lucia, grabbed Violet too. Arresting woman from history with whom she wished to commune and whom she wanted to lift up.
Q. Tell me about your route to publication.
A: I am really quite a new writer. Only four and a half years or so. First two books, autobiographical novel and novella, very small indie (I tried a little with agency representation, but truly not much), third book is Saving Lucia which I got placed with Bluemoose Books but had agent interest and other small presses wanted it – but it had its home. Waiting for publication of that I wrote two short story collections, and the first is Famished, out this September with Influx Press. Connected with this, I got my agent, who is representing all further work. None of that happened as I thought. I did meet with a couple of other agents, but my work was not the best fit for them. But we stay in touch! Like I said, none of this has happened as I thought it would or was advised it generally did. Where are we now? Those first two books are between publishers (not in their original home) – and I can’t say anything about that yet – my second short story collection Ravished is waiting on a read, another novel, The Revelations of Celia Masters (historical fiction), ditto and I am currently rewriting a big novel for my agency which I hope to hand in during September! Along the way, I have published poetry, reviews, features, edited a couple of anthologies and written short stories and creative non-fiction. Later this year, I have a memoir piece out as part of an anthology with Dodo Ink and a piece of weird fiction in an anthology with Unsung Stories.
It varies very much from press to press I think – remember I am still quite a new writer. My feeling. That you get to know other writers from that press and share things. You feel companionship and shared endeavour, overall. Indie presses are so courageous and exciting. I really got into their books a few years back and it transformed my reading; I am hugely grateful. One thing I have absolutely loved is working with my editor – the same editor – so closely. So, at Bluemoose Lin Webb and I took the book from start to finish. I think I am right in saying it may be different people at a bigger publishing house. This has been such a rewarding relationship. With Influx, I love the fact that Gary Budden is commissioning editor with Kit Caless and co-director of the press with him, but he’s also been editing the book with me. I feel I get to see different stages – and I have learned so much. It’s exciting and energising.
Q. I’m interested to see that you’re represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agents. The agency is based in New York, though Kate is based in the UK. What are the advantages of being signed with a transatlantic agency?
The agency is primarily because of Kate. I met her on twitter through, I think, some shared reading and went for coffee and we stayed in touch until I had something we could work on together. I adore her and she gets me. But also, the agency represents a diverse range of clients, are specialists in a number of areas and, also, we are an Anglo-American family. This is one side of my life and I want to divide it two ways. For my kids, too. It feels right. I wanted to have a foot in both countries if I could and from the beginning if possible.
Q. Do you have any advice for unpublished writers?
A: Fake it until you make it – confidence, I mean; imposter syndrome is real and if you didn’t doubt yourself you probably wouldn’t be a very sensitive writer; don’t take rejection personally; don’t forget to enjoy your writing; build networks; take an interest in others; keep the day job – and ABOVE ALL read, read, read: it’s your best teacher. There were a lot of semicolons in that lot, weren’t there? Also, once you start getting somewhere, know that it is up and down and, also, look for possibilities to pay it forward. There are barriers, structural inequalities as in all things: see what you can do to lessen that, say, for under-represented writers or those whose lives have been turned upside-down by chronic illness.
Q: What are your favourite three books?
A: Impossible to say. I mean, I read two or three books a week and that changes my favourite book! I can tell you I am a diverse reader and I love historical fiction, lush settings, lots of literary reference, gothic (I am very influenced by Southern Gothic) and weird stuff. Right now (as I said, it will change!) can I go for Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel?
Q: Tell us a little about your short story collection, Famished, published by Influx Press and out in September.
May I do this, instead and dedicate it to Gary, Kit and Sanya and, latterly, their publicist Jordan Taylor-Jones, who’s been such a pal? It’s the Influx website text.
In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.
Q. And lastly, can you reveal what you are working on next?
I am editing an essay in that Dodo Ink anthology (Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health) I mentioned, waiting on reads for two books (such an uncertain time so we have to suck it up with the waiting; also I need to keep that vague…) and I *think* I can reveal that for my agency I am working on a novel set just before and during WW2 called The Zebra and Lord Jones. I am doing a rewrite to hand to the agency this September. Kate (my agent) and I have been working on that together for a few months. I am also sketching out various other ideas for future work, including a novel about Medieval mystics – with a particular focus on someone I adore, mother, brewer, voyager and mystic, Margery Kempe – and also a novella about Snowflake Bentley – the American farmer and self-taught scientist who photographed and catalogued snow crystals over many winters. Plus, I have another short story collection I’d like to write.
These other things could be abandoned, but Zebra is full steam ahead. I say that in lockdown with three kids and trying to work and having truly little steam! Importantly, though, Saving Lucia is now out, and I need to support her as she fledges and be mindful of the press in a difficult time. I feel I am also gearing up for Famished – I just saw some ARCs and squealed!
Thanks so much Anna,
Interview by Grace Palmer
You can buy Saving Lucia from Bluemoose Books
Famished is available to pre-order from Influx Press