Lady into Fox by Christine Poulson
‘How’s the novel going?’ asked my husband.
‘Hard going,’ I said.
‘You know how when you’re writing something scholarly you have to decide what to put in and what you think about it?’
‘Well, imagine if you had to make it all up as well.’
‘Lady into Fox’ by David Garnett is a strange little fable that tells the story of a young wife who turns into a fox. I have undergone a similar transformation: academic into crime-writer. I used to be a lecturer in art history at a college in Cambridge. I had a Ph.D. and articles and books on nineteenth century art and literature to my credit. I had a regular salary, I had colleagues, I had students. In short I had a respectable career.
I’ve still got the Ph.D. and the books. But the rest has gone, and with it many of the attitudes to writing that go with being an academic. Writing fiction involves a whole new way of thinking.
Early on in the drafting of my first novel – so early that I wasn’t sure that I was going to write a novel – I showed the first pages to Elspeth Barker at an Arvon Foundation course. She took a pencil and crossed out ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ and every other qualifier. Another early reader more bluntly told me that my treatment was very dry. He was right. For a scholar a judicious caution is necessary, but for a novelist it is fatal. It may be true – as post-modernist theory has it – that it is impossible to reconstruct the past. It is still the job of the historian to try. You can’t write ‘on a fine spring morning in 1879 William Morris stepped out of his door in Hammersmith . . . ‘ unless you know that it was a fine spring day.
It dawned me that I would have to decide whether it was fine or pouring with rain. I had to do something that is anathema to the historian: I had to make things up. Apart from the city of Cambridge, which was the background to my first three novels, there was no reality out there. It was all in my head: like the lady in David Garnett’s novel throwing away her corset, I had to shed the restriction of historical reality and let my imagination run free. It was scary, but exhilarating.
So was there nothing that could be carried over from academic life into crime-writing? One thing remains the same: the sheer hard graft and persistence required to sit down and write every day until there are 80,000 words on the page. In this way I managed to produce a first draft. It wasn’t a novel: it was merely a series of events strung together. But I knew from experience that it can take many drafts to produce something readable, so I wasn’t as downcast as a complete beginner might have been.
Let’s draw a veil over just how many drafts it did take. Suffice it to say that my first novel was eventually finished and published. And to my surprise, I realised that non-writers see crime writing as a glamorous and raffish activity, rather foxy in fact.
A glimpse of my daily life – the school run, overflowing laundry basket, sick cat, and royalty statements for risibly small amounts – would soon dispel this notion. And yet in another sense there is some foxy about the crime writer. As we set about plundering the world around us for characters and ideas and plots we have a certain affinity with the urban fox, trotting across suburban gardens in the dawn, overturning dustbins and rooting among the contents.
When, metaphorically speaking, I began to rummage in the dustbins of Cambridge, I found lots of juicy titbits. Universities and colleges are closed communities, hotbeds of neurotic over-achievement, back-biting, elitism, and intellectual snobbery. They are stuffed to the gunwales with highly intelligent, highly competitive, highly devious, highly sexed people. It’s money from home for the crime-writer, especially when you consider the parlous state of higher education these days. There are plenty of disaffected academics around. I know: I was one. As a colleague remarked: ‘many crimes go unrecorded here.’ Yes, indeed, and I knew where the bodies were buried.
So has the metamorphosis from lady into fox been complete? After I’d written three Cassandra novels, I took a break to write a stand-alone suspense novel. But the novel I’ve just finished writing is set in a university research laboratory, and features a female scientist. Academic life is too far too good a source of material to be completely abandoned. The novel involved a lot of research – but that’s fine. I still love research.
But these days, if I’m honest, I’m not so much a bone fide academic, more the fox in the hen house.
Before Christine Poulson turned to crime, she was a respectable academic with a PhD in History of Art and had written widely on nineteenth-century art and literature. Her book, The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art 1840-1920 (Manchester University Press, 1999) was short-listed for a Mythopoeic Award for non-fiction. During her career as an art historian, she worked at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House, London. Later she was a lecturer in Art History at a college in Cambridge.
The city of Cambridge and the surrounding Fens, with their unique and sinister atmosphere, provided the setting for her first novel, Dead Letters, published in 2002, which featured literary historian and accidental sleuth, Cassandra James. Stage Fright, the second in the series, came out in 2003, and Footfall in 2006. Her short stories have appeared in CWA anthologies, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere. One of them,‘A Tour of the Tower,’ was nominated for a Short Mystery Fiction Derrringer Award in 2011.
Christine’s new book, Invisible, a stand-alone suspense novel, will be published by Accent Press in 2014.