Born in Norfolk, England, Edward Carey is the author of the acclaimed Iremonger Trilogy, Observatory Mansions, Alva & Irva and now Little, a charmingly macabre novel of the girl who would become Madame Tussaud. In addition to being a novelist, Carey is a playwright and an illustrator. He teaches at University of Texas in Austin and is married to author Elizabeth McCracken. We spoke with Carey about the 15-year process of writing Little and what it might be like to be a person made of wax.
What was it like to work at Madame Tussaud’s in London all those years ago? How exactly did it spark your inspiration for this book?
It was certainly a different job. I was employed, alongside 20 or so others, to stop flesh people from disturbing wax people. We were there to protect the wax ones. And that was it as I recall. “Please do not touch.” But the flesh humans really wanted to touch those wax ones. We were generally alone with the waxworks at the beginning and ends of the days, and we inevitably thought about the waxworks and how it was to be waxwork. You expected them to move; you suspected that they could, only that they were incredibly stubborn, that you were playing a game with them. There was a certain melancholy to the wax figures; it seemed rather cruel that they’d come so far to look like humans and yet never achieved actual humanity. After being there a few weeks, it was inevitable that any guard would become so attached to his wax wards that he would pretend to be one. We stood very still, and the public would come up to us and say how lifelike we were; we’d tell them, “Do not touch,” and they’d scream.
The most impressive waxworks, the oldest and so the most experienced at being a waxwork, were the models made by Tussaud herself. It is an incredible list: Voltaire, Franklin, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette—both full length and severed heads—Napoleon, Marat murdered in his bath, the guillotined tops of Robespierre, Fouquier-Tinville, Herbert. These figures, it always seemed to me, had a greater dignity than the others. They also had a certain advantage: The other, newer figures would, in time, be melted down, but Tussaud’s own works, crop of the original founder, were part of the permanent collection. They represented a certain vital, bloody strand of history. They were also stations of the biography of Tussaud herself. She knew them, she cast them from life.
By far the most impressive was Tussaud’s self-portrait, a tiny, wizened old woman with a little smile—this figure is the boss, there’s no doubt about it. As I worked there, standing beside the waxwork of Tussaud and visiting all the other people of her life, I became deeply fascinated. Here was her life in three dimensions, and what a life. It seems she left a kind of trail of dead behind her, and what dead, she collected them up. She knew everyone. She was even imprisoned alongside Josephine, Napoleon’s future empress. (It’s not entirely clear what is 100 percent true about her life, and what is somewhat embellished—but I love her all the more for that.) It is an incredible survivor’s tale. What a journey this small Swiss woman made, and what an extraordinary body of work to have left behind. When I worked there I made sure to visit the self-portrait every day. I desperately wanted to write about her, but it took me a while to build up to it.
How does it feel to write a novel over 15 years? Is it maddening or rewarding to see the story and characters keep evolving with time?
I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. This novel has been almost every size a novel can be. It hit almost 700 pages at one point, and it also slimmed down to about 250. One of the most helpful ways of knowing what a novel is actually like is reaching a draft and leaving it alone for a very long time and coming back to it with fresh eyes. I’ve done this several times with this book. Once or twice I thought I’d abandoned it forever. But I always came back. Some books behave, and some don’t—this one didn’t especially. I’ve had a different relationship with it than any other book I’ve written. It took me a long time to relax around the fact that some of the characters in the book are very famous, but what took me the most time was getting Marie Tussaud’s character right in my mind. Her spirit, not the history around her, needed to steer the book, and I only truly understood that after many drafts. In a way I suppose I was searching for her all these years.
Marie welcomes her prominent chin and nose as gifts and remembrances from her parents. But it’s clear from others’ points of view that she is very ugly. Why is it that Marie never gives into this view of herself?
I think not only does she not give in, she’s would never think of herself in those terms. She has no self-pity inside her, and an incredible sense of fairness. She sees all bodies as equally fascinating. She is simply captivated by everything she witnesses. Every human life, every object has its own particular worth. Being very small and very vulnerable, she finds nothing to be worthless. This can be something of a problem, too, because she has such hunger for knowledge and such interest in everything that when she is casting severed heads from the guillotine—or even worse, mutilated heads brought in by a Parisian mob—she is as engaged and as enthusiastic as if she were casting healthy, living-and-breathing royalty.
Marie is also an orphan—her nose and her chin are all the inheritance she has, and she is very proud of them. They are proof that she has a past. If she gave in to doubts, even for a moment, she’d drown.
Doctor Curtius at once feels like Marie’s savior and destroyer. How do you see him in the novel?
Curtius teaches her everything: her craft; how the human body works; how to work; how to observe; and even, in a fashion, how to love. But he is a weak man, physically frail and also a coward. I see him as a child and Marie, initially the child, as the grown-up. He is a father to her, but a neglectful one. In the end, because she must, she fights back. But once Curtius has set her on the path of knowledge and learning, she never stops. Unlike Marie, Curtius can be toppled by the personalities of his waxworks; at one point in the novel he is so obsessed by murderers that he’s almost overtaken by their character.
I suppose he’s brilliantly flawed, a genius at wax modeling, but knows about as much as a waxwork on how to be an actual human being. From the outside he’s fairly convincing, but from the inside there’s a lot missing.
Marie lives in a cupboard for all the years she is a tutor to Princess Elizabeth at the palace of Versailles. This is so intriguing and puzzling. Is this a historic detail common at the time, or something created to resonate with the reader that Marie is truly a small and inconsequential person?
Servants were often little more than useful objects, and treated with as much as affection. I wanted to highlight this. Marie becomes a beloved object to Princess Elisabeth, but Elisabeth can never get over the fact that Marie is a commoner, a plaything rather than a true person. I’m not certain that servants were put in drawers and left to live on cupboard shelves—though surely there must have been some that were in the long history of servitude—but it seemed right to me.
You are known for drawing your characters as part of the writing process. Tell us a bit more about the beautiful illustrations in this novel. Was the intent always to include them?
Absolutely. For me, drawing the characters in a book is a way of getting to know them better. I’ve always illustrated my books, whether for children or adults. I try to do something different each time. For Little, very early on I made a wooden mannequin of Marie, four foot and a bit—her height. My wife very kindly had her hair cut so the wooden woman could have some hair. I found clothes for her in a Parisian flea market. This wooden mannequin, like the waxwork self-portrait, takes up the exact amount of space that Tussaud did. The wooden woman lives at home with us; she’s always there in the sitting room. I found it incredibly useful to have this doll around. I also made, quite early on, a death mask in wax of Doctor Curtius. I did this in part so I felt certain of what Curtius looked like (there’s a wax bust that’s perhaps of him in the Musee Carnavalet in Paris, but they’re not sure), but also so that I had a true understanding of how it was working with wax. Also fairly early on, I painted a portrait of Marie in oil paint. I signed it DAVID and state in the book that Jaques Louis David painted Marie whilst he was imprisoned after the fall of Robespierre. (He didn’t, of course. I lied.)
I wanted to have Marie’s own drawings (or what I say are her own drawings) in the book, so that she’s revealing her personality with them. This is the first time I’ve put the illustrations in the book that are (purportedly) by the person writing the book. I hoped it would be another way for the reader to feel closer to Marie, to know her a little better. This had always been my intention and I drew as I wrote.
If Marie were given the choice to pick between Edmond and Princess Elizabeth, who would she pick, and why?
I think, above everything else, she has a great capacity for love. She pours herself into other people; she finds connections. I don’t know that she could make a choice between them—could she ever have such a luxury? I think the act of choosing might make her physically rip in half like Rumplestiltskin.
Does Marie have any regrets?
None! (I wonder if regret is perhaps the luxury of the privileged. Her life is so much about surviving. I’m not sure if she’d understand the concept of regret. Things are to her, and there’s nothing to be done about it.)
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Little.
Author photo by Tom Langdon