It’s almost eight o’clock on a Friday night and, at The Collection museum in Lincoln, Natasha Pulley and Laura Purcell are having a barney over Ann Radcliffe.
Pulley and Purcell are novelists, both inspired by gothic stories to write books that have topped the bestseller lists. Purcell’s The Silent Companions won the WH Smith Thumping Good Read Award on its release in 2017 and she is now promoting her latest book, The Corset. Pulley’s debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street was shortlisted for the 2016 Betty Trask Award and became an international bestseller. Her second novel The Bedlam Stacks has garnered similar levels of acclaim.
They both like fantasy, they both like history: blend the genres to pleasing effect in their novels. They have a lot in common, see eye-to-eye on many subjects.
But not when it comes to Ann Radcliffe.
‘She’s awful,’ says Pulley to the crowd. ‘She’s just terrible, I can’t stand her.’
There are around forty people assembled in the dark auditorium of the museum, eyeballs flicking backwards and forwards between Pulley and Purcell. The writers are sitting in chairs close to each other on the stage so there isn’t far to flick, but they’re both charismatic and engaging, big personalities in slight, female frames.
‘When I’m researching a period of history,’ Purcell says. ‘I need to read everything I can. I want to read exactly the same literature as the people I’m writing about. Radcliffe isn’t the best writer, perhaps, but she’s interesting. Her books show what people cared about.’
Pulley seems pacified by this but argues that Maria Edgeworth is a better writer. ‘She writes about everything you wish Jane Austen wrote about,’ she says. ‘In Austen the juicy stuff is always happening at the side lines. Edgeworth is much grittier.’
Both Purcell and Pulley seem to like the gritty stuff. Purcell’s The Silent Companions and The Corset are gothic ghost stories but they both depict the grim situations often faced by women in the nineteenth century. Towards the end of the talk, when the discussion is opened up to include the audience, someone asks if Purcell has ever considered returning to certain characters in order to write a sequel.
‘I quite like killing my characters off,’ Purcell says, laughing. ‘I’m not sure there’s anyone left to return to.’
Pulley’s books pull in a slightly different direction. While Purcell draws on a very British sense of gothic drama, Pulley has written about Japan and Peru – she visited both locations in order to conduct ‘Method Research’. Recently, she spent what she describes as ‘the best and worst week of her life’ being alternately seasick and exhilarated on the deck of a tall ship.
‘There was a moment as I was hanging off the yard when I realised I could easily die,’ she says. ‘It was great but also terrifying.’
Her books seem to teeter on the brink of the Steampunk genre – cogs and mechanical devices are integral to the plot of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, infused with the ghostly smog of Victorian London. There’s a clockwork octopus that makes an appearance in the story and is promised to return in its sequel. It is no wonder, then, that the books are so popular in Lincoln, the home of the largest and longest-running Steampunk festival in the world.
The festival is a big deal for local businesses and Lindum Books, the independent bookshop that has organised the evening with Pulley and Purcell, is no exception. During the signing after the talk, bookseller Gill Hart carries a tower of Pulley’s novels over to the table, sets them down in front of her to sign.
‘These are for the Steampunkers,’ she says. It’s a big tower.
Once the writers have met members of the audience and signed their books, I sit with them in the museum’s staff room. I’ve met Natasha Pulley once before, at the 2017 Newark Book Festival. It’s come full-circle; back then I was just about to start my MA in Writing at Warwick and now I’ve just finished. Pulley also did an MA in Writing, though she studied at UEA, and when she graduated she’d already been signed by her agent.
‘The more agents you can meet and talk to, the better,’ she says. ‘They’re much more likely to take you on if they’ve met you. I’d encourage people to get down to the London conventions if they really want to get signed.’
But Laura Purcell has a very different perspective on the publishing industry.
‘I didn’t go to university, I don’t have an MA,’ she says. ‘I didn’t study creative writing, I worked around a full-time job. I would get up at 5am and write before work because that was the only time I could fit it in. I don’t think you can necessarily come out of university expecting to be employed in writing full-time because it’s very rare. You also want to get some life experience so you can write better stuff. It’s an ongoing thing. It takes a long time to get published. I went through the slush piles. I did it around other things, other jobs that were probably feeding into my writing as well.’
One of those jobs was selling books.
‘Bookselling really helped me see the book as a product,’ says Purcell. ‘I know a lot of people are very pretentious about their books but the publisher sees it as an investment so you have to make it something they can sell.’
In spite of their different routes into writing, this is a sentiment Pulley and Purcell seem to share. The beautiful covers of their books are often in bookshop windows, on tables of bestsellers.
‘I used to write straight historical fiction but it didn’t sell,’ Purcell says, ‘so I put some ghosts in it.’
It’s refreshing to hear this perspective on the writing process. There is, after all, great power in pleasure. In order for a ‘message’ to be received by a reader, they first have to read it and, in order to read it, a bookshop has to sell it.
‘I don’t have huge literary pretentions,’ says Purcell. ‘I’m not writing about the past to ‘say something’. I think people that really are trying to speak to today through the past maybe do that – they use the past as a vehicle for their own concerns.’
‘Yes,’ chips in Pulley. ‘And when people do that, the novels ultimately don’t work – I don’t want to read them.’
Ann Radcliffe aside, the pair seem to have similar reading tastes. Daphne Du Maurier, Susan Hill and Shirley Jackson have inspired them both, set them on this path. But it’s their readers, the mysterious connection between the words they write on the page and the images they create in the heads of strangers, that keep them going.
‘It’s really exciting and mind-blowing when people say ‘this is my favourite book,’’ says Purcell. ‘I feel like saying, ‘What? I’ve written your favourite book? My ratty word document that I’ve been editing and sweating over in my cramped study?’ I think that’s the magic for me.’
But, of course, you can’t always control what readers think. Pulley says people have suggested fundamental changes to her, in a less-than-tactful fashion, saying she shouldn’t have made characters gay, or that she should have set the book in locations other than the ones she’s chosen and researched.
‘You can’t get angry about it,’ she says. ‘By the time a book is published, it’s only a quarter yours. You can say what you were thinking about when you wrote it but, like any communication, it has to mean something to the person that’s receiving it, otherwise you’re just talking into an echo chamber. You have to recognise that that has validity. If someone has a strong opinion about something, be delighted! You’ve provoked them – that’s great!’
But the instances of discontent must be few and far between. Judging by their ratings on Amazon and Goodreads, their prime position in bookshop windows and the long queue of Lincolnshire readers waiting to get their book signed, a lot of people really like them. It’s cheering, to hear from two writers that obviously care a great deal about the quality of their work but are also able to make money from it. The Society of Authors funded Pulley’s various research excursions – she urges all writers to take a look at their website to stay up to date with opportunities they offer. There are people not only willing to invest in art but actively seeking stories to invest in, either financially or with their time, turning the pages of books. And Purcell is right – that really is magic.
With thanks to Lindum Books and The Collection Museum.