Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History before going on to work in museums. She began to write fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA. Her first novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has been widely praised and has generated a queue of curious customers.
1. Who were your literary influences as you were growing up?
I particularly liked Joan Aiken because she used lots of words I didn’t know, and Gerald Durrell because of the way he could move from lyrical, beautifully-observed descriptions to comedy.
My most direct literary influence, though, was probably Jill Murphy. I wrote many of my own homages to The Worst Witch. I wanted to go to Cackle’s Academy very badly.
2. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published in late January. Can you set the scene a bit for us so we know what to expect?
It’s September 1785 and in Deptford a humble merchant, Mr Hancock, is waiting for his ship to return. What he doesn’t know is that it’s not coming back; his captain has traded it in for a hideous little mermaid, which he’ll have to put on display to recoup his costs. Meanwhile, in Soho, the courtesan Angelica Neal is contemplating her next step now that her old keeper has died.
3. What attracted you to setting your book in the 1780s?
I’ve enjoyed the period as a reader for years, partly because of its liveliness and humour, but also because it’s a time of extreme social change and revision.
People had been shocked by the revolution in America, and the same philosophies that informed that were stirring up unrest in France and guiding the emancipation movement. The dawning industrial revolution was making new fortunes and challenging ideas of class and inheritance – a lot of people must have felt that the world as they knew it was vanishing. It’s such an energetic era, I think I’ll be interested in it forever.
4. What were your feelings when you started writing it? Did the characters find a ‘voice’ quickly?
As soon as I had the initial idea, Angelica and Mr Hancock were there in my head. I didn’t have to do any searching for them; Angelica in particular had a very strong, insistent voice from the word go.
What was strongest, though, was the narratorial voice. I wanted to get lots of singular period language in there. As for my feelings, I didn’t take it seriously for a long time: I actually wrote it as a fun distraction from the very dour novel I was working on at the time. It had so much fun and levity in it I couldn’t believe it was worth doing. I know now that you have to write to please yourself before trying to please anybody else.
5. What is your writing routine?
I usually start the day with reading or research over breakfast, and move on to writing with the second cup of tea.
I used to sit down and write until I’d hit my word count – when I was writing The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock it was at least a thousand a day – but that can lead to a lot of self-flagellation on bad days. Now I find writing for a set period with great concentration, and then allowing myself to go and do other things, to be much healthier.
Everyone’s different, but I think the key is to avoid beating yourself up at all costs. This is meant to be enjoyable, not another chore.
6. Is there anything you can share about your latest ‘work in progress’?
It’s also set in London, but in a very different time period. It’ll be quite different from The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, but I hope it will appeal to the same readers.
7. Do you have a message for your readers in Suffolk Libraries?
Libraries are marvellous; celebrate yours every chance you get.
8. Can you tell us one thing that your readers may not know about you?
My landladies are nuns! I live on the top floor of an old convent, with the kitchen under the bell tower.