Sarah Perry’s third book (and second to be published in the U.S.), Melmoth, is the dark journey of a group of people haunted by a mysterious, legendary figure whose purpose is to act as the eternal witness of cowardice and complicit sin. We chatted with Perry about the book’s origins and themes, and what she’s working on next.
How did the concept of Melmoth come to you, and how long were you familiar with it before starting this book?
I read Maturin’s gothic horror novel Melmoth the Wanderer back in about 2009 when I was studying for my Ph.D. I almost immediately had the idea of writing my own tribute to it, but creating a different version of Melmoth, and very importantly, making Melmoth a woman. It took me a long time to actually come round to writing it, because I had to build my own Melmoth myth, and work out for myself who she is, how she came to be cursed and what her role is. As soon as I had the idea of her being Melmoth the Witness, I knew that I was ready to write it.
“There isn’t really a difference between good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things, but that rather everyone . . . can do, or be involved in, dreadful crimes.”
Like your previous book, The Essex Serpent, Melmoth deals with the presence of a legendary figure in daily human life. What draws you to stories like this?
I think it is probably partly because I had an upbringing that was very religious, so that I was always reading Bible stories and had a constant sense of reality being inflected by myth and legend, and by the possibility of there being something “out there” that cannot be explained by science or reason. And I am especially interested in how we respond to different legends and superstitions by building them up according to our own fears and desires. There is something very powerful, in fiction and in real life, about how something only half-glimpsed and probably (or possibly) not real can become a kind of repository of very real fears and anxieties.
What drew you to Prague as your primary setting for this story?
My first two novels were set in East Anglia in the U.K., where I am from, and I knew that I wanted to force myself to write a different kind of novel that didn’t rely—for atmosphere and even narrative—on the marshland and old English churches and countryside that I was used to, and that I had written about before. I know Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk so well that I could describe them in detail with my eyes closed; what I wanted was to immerse myself in a city that was unfamiliar to me, and see how that changed my writing. When an opportunity came to be the UNESCO writer in residence in Prague, it was a great chance to move away from the landscapes I had been drawing inspiration from and challenge myself to something new.
The book’s narrative style features a voice in the prose that invites, sometimes literally, the reader to creep into the lives of your characters. It’s a very effective tool. How early on did you know that was something important to carrying this narrative?
This was crucial right from the start. I wanted to write a book that was very pure in its gothic sensation, which is to say, forces the reader to take part in the novel just as much as the characters. That’s a really important part of the gothic, and something that is quite hard to pull off—that idea that the reader needs to be as thrilled, seduced, repulsed and frightened as any of the characters. So I decided that I wanted to address the reader directly and force them into a confrontation with Melmoth herself, in the hope that it would drive forward that sense of being immersed—not always comfortably, I suspect!—in the book.
Melmoth is obviously the title character, but Helen is in many ways just as fascinating. How did she arrive in the story? Did she come before Melmoth?
She came after Melmoth, and in some ways what I wanted to do was to focus on an apparently very drab and small and plain person (very different from Cora Seaborne in The Essex Serpent), to challenge the idea that only people who are very charismatic and attractive and charming can be the lead character in a novel, or be subject to the kind of enormous feelings of guilt and loneliness that Helen feels. I also wanted to posit the idea that there isn’t really a difference between good people who do good things and bad people who do bad things, but that rather everyone—even little, quiet people like Helen—can do, or be involved in, dreadful crimes.
Were there other characters besides the ones present in the book that you considered being touched by Melmoth?
I spent a lot of time thinking about possible storylines of people who were in desperate situations in their lives, where Melmoth might have been watching. I remember reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon while I was in Prague, and wanting a narrative that was to do with someone in solitary confinement in a prison cell and communicating with someone in the cell next door. But I could never quite locate the prisoner, or the country, and so he remains in my imagination somewhere.
Complicity in the sins of history—whether on a macro or micro scale—is a key theme in Melmoth, and a key theme of news and commentary right now. How much, if at all, did the state of current events filter into your writing and the lives of your characters with this book?
I started writing the book as a direct response to what I was seeing unfolding in the world. At the time when The Essex Serpent was first published in the U.K., there were many atrocities unfolding in the world—ISIS, in particular, was constantly in the headlines, and there were images every day of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe and drowning in the Mediterranean. I wanted to feel that I could continue writing fiction but that I could do so with a sense of real moral responsibility: that I could in some way not necessarily make a change, but live in the world in an active and morally engaged sense. So the book became about the act of bearing witness, not only to historical events but also by implication to what is unfolding around us now.
Now that Melmoth is out in the world, what are you working on now?
I think of Melmoth as being the last book in a kind of trilogy of gothic fiction, so I am moving away from that now, but it is very early, and the book hasn’t quite begun to take shape.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Melmoth.
Author photo by Jamie Drew