Lucy Ribchester’s first novel, The Hourglass Factory, is a thriller set during the turmoil of the suffragette movement in Edwardian London. In 2013 she won the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award and this year her short story, “The Glassblower’s Daughter”, was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award. Find links to more of her work at lucyribchester.com and connect with her on Twitter.
Here Lucy answers some of my questions on her latest book and her writing process.
What was your original inspiration for The Hourglass Factory?
There were a number of things that all came together at the same time. I’d been interested in music halls for a while, ever since I saw my first trapeze artist at the Edinburgh Fringe, and then read Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter shortly afterwards. I wanted to do something with feminism and it occurred to me that the era the suffragettes (Women’s Social and Political Union, one of the main groups in the UK campaigning for women’s suffrage) were at the height of their militancy was about the same time music halls were experiencing their heyday.
The corset thing came from a particular trapeze artist I saw at the Fringe one year – an amazing woman who sported a fabulous corset and a moustache. It just got me thinking about gender and fashion and the freedom of self-expression, and after that the title came along and I started researching corsetry in different contexts, and I guess the plot began from there.
I first read your work in the literary magazine Vintage Script a few years ago and you have published a number of short stories since then. What was it like making the jump from writing short stories to writing a novel?
It was the other way round! I started writing the novel in 2009 and bashed the first draft out very quickly. It was while I was waiting for agent responses, and between agents, and between drafts with my eventual agent that I began writing stories to keep myself out of mischief. I didn’t want to start another novel while still in limbo with Hourglass so short stories seemed like an enjoyable outlet. It also gave me the chance to use some of my research that wouldn’t fit into the book. It was a slog though, trying to learn how to do it, and still I feel like I’m stabbing in the dark when I start trying to write anything at all!
I think because I grew up reading novels – particularly genre fiction novels – but only began reading short stories as an adult (aside from fairy tales which I never remember reading as a child, just miraculously becoming aware of at some point) it seemed more natural to try writing a novel first. I’m not saying writing a novel is easy – far from it. But trying to structure a short story with zero breathing room to establish characters, and having to bring out the kernel or climax of the story in such a short space of time, is murderous. That’s what I love about reading short stories but it’s also what makes them so bloody difficult to write. There have been (and continue to be) a lot of false starts. But luckily if you write a duff story that really isn’t salvageable, in the end you haven’t invested as much time in it as a novel. There has been a lot of trial and error though. And A LOT of reading other people’s stories, online, in anthologies and in single author collections. My favourite short story writers are Angela Carter, Ian Rankin, Anais Nin, Linda Cracknell and Sarah Hall, all for different reasons.
Did you have a general interest in the Edwardian era before Ebony Diamond arrived with a story to tell? Generally, what comes first when you write, a historical period you want to explore or an intriguing character?
I had a general interest in music halls. To be honest when I first developed that as an interest, I really wanted to focus on the Victorian era. I love bustles and gothic lace, and top hats and sexual repression and melodrama and I really wanted to go down that route. But that wasn’t going to work with the suffragette thing. (The WSPU wasn’t founded until 1903 and the word ‘suffragette’ wasn’t used until 1906). Now I understand a little more about the Edwardian era I find it equally if not more fascinating. There was so much shifting in the social landscape: the very beginnings of a kind of national welfare system (pensions and national insurance) and the destabilisation of the aristocracy. Also Edwardian fashion is awesome. Orientalism meets blouse-and-skirt tailoring meets gemstone-dripping tea gowns. So I guess it started from the idea of an era rather than the era itself – what Edwardiana conjured up to me. And really I think the music hall angle spilled out a bit into the silliness that goes on in the rest of the world of the book. But that was the starting point. And then came the idea of a corseted warrior-woman, and then she needed a counterpoint so along came Frankie, and then….
Your stories are excellent examples of that writing advice “Don’t let your research show.” It is always tricky to weave in the detail without making the story feel like a history lesson. Do you have any tricks for accomplishing this? Do you do the bulk of your research before you begin writing the story or do you research as you go along?
Thank you! That’s very kind. I think I did try to stuff a lot of it in when writing the early drafts. And I really got my knickers in a twist worrying about how I was going to cram every fact in, get everything spot on and explain the political backdrop and describe all the buildings etc etc etc. But the general feedback from agents was that there was too much history going on, which was getting in the way of the storytelling. I started to reconsider my own love of historical fiction, and realised that while I do like descriptive passages (Jed Rubenfeld is unbeatable on New York architecture) really you can convey a lot just by dropping in a detail here and there. Sarah Waters is the absolute master of that, just tiny things like the dog-patch coat or the gin spoon in Fingersmith, or the rabbit sandwiches in The Night Watch convey so much about their respective eras. I tried not to think too hard about what I had learned but just let bits and pieces come to the fore as and when they popped up in my imagination. The part where the suffragettes buy hammers and get mistaken for schoolmistresses was an example of that. I’d read about it ages ago in a 1912 copy of The Times but forgot about it until it came time to write. Similarly the dog-whip on Mrs Pankhurst’s desk in the scene where Primrose interviews her just popped up in a late draft from research I’d done years before and thought I’d forgotten.
To answer the second part of the question I do research as I go along, in layers. I try to get a base level of understanding about an era by reading a certain number of books, then also read novels written during the time to try to pick up on the language. But then before I begin redrafting I’ll do a little more research – maybe some newspapers (adverts are great for spotting brand names) and ephemera. With The Hourglass Factory I was researching bits and pieces right up until the final set of edits.
Suffragette history does not seem to be as well-known as it should be, at least here in Canada. What do you think will surprise readers the most about militant suffragettes?
I don’t think it’s very well known in the UK either to be honest. There seems to be a movement gathering momentum at the moment to fill in the gaps in popular awareness. Just this evening I saw a fantastic TV show with the historian Amanda Vickery – the first in a three part series – about the women’s movement from the 18th century onwards. But when I was growing up I knew very little about suffragettes. I do want to stress that I have taken a lot of liberties with what is real and what’s not – but usually the embellishments are based on some form of truth. What surprised and delighted me was the creativity of some of the stunts – breaking into a building via a skylight (which became Ebony’s trapeze leap at the start) or the Trojan horse furniture van they used to break into the Houses of Parliament (touched on very briefly). What shocked me was the brutality of the force-feeding in response to hunger-striking suffragettes. It was and still is plain and simple torture. How governments continue to get away with it, such as in Guantanamo Bay, is something that terrifies and saddens me. I think that is a very important part of the suffragette story that needs to be shared. The horrors that women (and men) went through to secure female suffrage is something that we should never grow complacent about.
What other writers inspire you, in terms of genre, craft, or both?
Writers who aren’t afraid to create bold and beautiful worlds and let dangerous, extraordinary things happen in them. Angela Carter and Agatha Christie are my favourites. They both eschew realism for something flashier and more exciting (like distillations of the real world). On the other hand I love the way Sarah Waters articulates something very deep about everyday emotion. She’s known for her beautifully drawn settings but I think the sense of disappointment and personal injustice in her later books is extremely moving. I love Anais Nin’s fearless taboo-busting. I mentioned Jed Rubenfeld – his thrillers are both page-turning and classy in their research. And two of my favourite historical novels are The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin, and Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michaelangelo, both exquisitely written, even in their saddest moments. I also love a good Dan Brown, just because…
Thank you, Lucy, not least for some reading recommendations. Best of luck with your future projects. I can’t wait to see what you write next!