||Michael Cox is the author of a widely praised biography of the scholar and ghost-story writer M. R. James, and is the editor of The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories and The Oxford Book of Victorian Detective Stories. He lives in rural Northamptonshire. Here, Michael talks to Chris High about his debut crime novel, The Meaning Of Night, published by John Murray.
The Meaning Of Night is a very much a labour of love. From where did the desire to see the work in print come? Have you always wanted to write a fiction novel having been an acclaimed biographer of ghost-story writer, M.R. James?
I’ve always wanted to write the kind of fiction that I loved to read – e.g. Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Rafael Sabatini. Whatever else they achieved as novelists, these were all people who knew how to tell a story, and keep readers locked into the narrative by strong plot lines. I also love detective and mystery fiction; so when I eventually began to think about the novel, it was inevitable that it would be set in the nineteenth century – what I call my “default period of history” – and that it would contain crime/mystery elements.
I began my biography of M.R. James because, being a fan of his ghost stories, I wanted to know more about him and there wasn’t, at the time, a full-length biography. Then I began to assemble short-story anthologies for OUP – English Ghost Stories, Victorian Ghost Stories, Victorian Detective Stories, etc – and although I continued to assemble elements of what was to become The Meaning of Night, I was never able to really give the time and concentration to it that it required.
Glyver is a very complex character. Is he based on any one individual or is he a conglomeration?
Glyver’s ‘voice’ – articulate, highly educated, confident, but also cynical and worldly-wise – was one of the first things that came to me, over thirty years ago. He’s not based on any fictional character, or indeed on any living person. Indeed I’m not sure you’ll find anyone quite like him in ‘real’ Victorian fiction. I didn’t want an out-and-out Victorian villain, nor a whiter-than-white hero. Glyver, in fact, is a rather modern, or even post-modern, figure in his psychological complexity, and in his ability to analyse himself and his motives, which is not something mid-Victorian males tended to do. His ambiguous and often contradictory character also gives him a modern edge. So he’s not really a villain – indeed, he’s as much a victim as anything else; but then again, though he has many admirable qualities, he’s no hero either. In the end he’s a human being – though an extraordinary and complex one.
The opening of the novel sees Glyver commit a random act of murder as a means of testing his metal. Did you feel this was a risk with regards to gaining reader sympathy?
Technically, the opening chapter was a risk, but one I felt reasonably confident of taking. The key to making it work was to pull readers into the story as quickly as possible, and keep them there. Once they began to know Glyver, I hoped they’d see that this apparently random act of murder had a kind of ghastly logic to it. Chronologically, of course, the story begins at the end, in December 1854. When the same incident is described at the end of book, the reader has been with Glyver through his betrayal and the loss of everything he had been labouring so long and hard to achieve. We then realize that, when he kills Lucas Trendle, that he is almost on the brink of madness. The first chapter also hints at those higher qualities in Glyver’s character, which balance his streak of obsessional violence – when he walks down to the river and sees a young girl with her illegitimate baby about to throw herself off the bridge, his first instinct is to step forward and save her.
Essentially, what I wanted to do was create a narrator towards whom readers would feel sympathetic, to some degree, almost despite themselves. You shouldn’t admire Glyver (except for his passionate dedication to learning and knowledge for their own sakes), but I hope you understand why he’s been compelled to do what he does, largely as a result of the actions of others.
The Meaning of Night is a very dark novel with a tangible Dickensian atmosphere. Was writing in the Victorian style difficult to maintain and what do you feel are the benefits of writing in the first person?
Actually, I find writing in a broadly Victorian manner comes quite easily, almost reflexively. I think this is partly because I’ve read a lot of Victorian fiction and have absorbed its general tone and linguistic ambience. I also work quite hard at trying to get the language right – I keep lists of words and phrases, and constantly consult the OED to check that a word was current at the time. I also have a contemporary dictionary on hand. I don’t seek 100 per cent accuracy, because that would only produce a sterile pastiche; but I do try to create a convincing period feel through the language, rather than relying on laboured physical descriptions.
Writing in the first person is far more challenging than assuming the role of omniscient narrator, because of course you only have a single viewpoint through which to work, and the narrator cannot possibly know everything that’s going on. This is why I had to bring in other views and voices, through quotations from letters and the Deposition of Mr Carteret. On the other hand, first-person narrations have an immediacy and intimacy that you just can’t replicate. I’ve only recently realized that I fell naturally into writing The Meaning of Night in the first person, as a confession, because of the first two novels of Dickens that I read: David Copperfield and Great Expectations – not that Glyver is remotely like either David or Pip!
You had to overcome some serious health issues when writing The Meaning Of Night, which resulted in you gradually losing your sight. How did these concerns affect your writing routine and how do they impact on your promotion of the book?
In April 2004, I began to lose my sight as a result of cancer. In preparation for surgery I was prescribed a steroidal drug, one of the effects of which was to initiate a temporary burst of mental and physical energy, which, combined with the realization that the blindness might return if the treatment was not successful, spurred me on finally to begin writing in earnest the novel that I’d been working on sporadically, and to no real purpose, for over thirty years.
The immediate benefit was that I lost my inhibitions, creatively speaking. Whereas before I used to agonize constantly, over all sorts of things, now I just wrote, not really caring whether what I was writing was good or bad. And I was now writing regularly, day after day, and well into the night, so that very soon I was amassing a substantial amount of sequential text, instead of endless bits and pieces. The interesting thing was that, when I came off the medication, the words continued to flow: in fact I wrote most of The Meaning of Night without any artificial stimulants whatsoever.
The operation I had in 2004 was successful for a time, but I have now permanently lost the sight in my left eye, and my right eye is under threat until I have further treatment. This certainly makes life difficult; plus I’m back on a low dose of steroids, to keep pressure off the right optic nerve, and so have temporarily put on a good deal of weight. All this has had an impact on what I have to do with regard to promoting the book, but it hasn’t and won’t, stop me doing whatever’s necessary – including a 10-city tour to promote the US edition, published by W.W. Norton on 25 September.
John Murray marketed the book by asking for reader opinions prior to its publication. It must have been very gratifying to get such a positive feedback?
The John Murray Reader Survey was a revelation. At first I thought they were taking a huge risk - what if no one liked it? But they were confident from the first that the response would be positive and it was. Overwhelmingly. And yes, it was extremely gratifying – and of course useful – to know what ordinary readers, hundreds of them, as opposed to professional critics and reviewers, thought of the novel even before it was published. My favourite quote? From a lady in Devon: ‘Pass me the laudanum – I need to calm down.’
Why do you think historical crime fiction is so popular?
Historical fiction is essentially escapist fiction – and for me that is very far from being a pejorative term. I mostly think of myself as writing literary entertainment; but I’d also be very happy to be thought of as writing escapist fiction. It’s a bad, bad world out there, and it’s imperative that we have the means to shut ourselves off from it, from time to time, and transport ourselves into other worlds and times, real or imagined – whether it’s Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Baker Street, Narnia, or some historical period that holds a particular fascination for us.
Many readers have likened your style to that of the Sarah Waters novel, The Fingersmith, and I have likened The Meaning Of Night to the An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Ian Pears with regards to its pace and ability to engage. Which authors “inspire” you? What are you currently reading?
Wilkie Collins is the presiding spirit of The Meaning of Night along with Scheherazade, the narrator of The Arabian Nights. Like Dickens, he was a professional to his fingertips. He knew his market, and wrote his novels accordingly. When writing The Meaning of Night I was always mindful of his dictum, ‘Make ’em laugh, make ’cry, make ’em wait’, and of presenting the reader with ‘curtain lines’ – conclusions to chapters or sections that would make them want to know what happened next, deriving from the monthly serialization of many of Collins’s novels.
As well as Wilkie Collins, the other influence (besides Dickens, of course) on The Meaning of Night is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret – which, with The Woman in White, was one of the most successful ‘Sensation’ novels of the 1860s.
Because of my eye problems, reading is now difficult, though audio books have come to the rescue to some extent. I read very little contemporary fiction, except when I feel I have to – Sarah Waters, for example. At the moment I’m reading Julian Barnes, Arthur and George, which is completely marvellous. In general, though, I tend to retreat to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where there are good books to read to last several lifetimes, and to my first loves – Dickens, above all, and Great Expectations, a book I can never tire of, in particular.
If you could give three pieces of advice to aspiring authors, what would they be?
As The Meaning of Night is my first novel, I don’t really feel qualified to give advice to aspiring authors, as I feel I’m still learning my new trade. However, here goes:
1. Write for yourself, and don’t be afraid to discard material.
2. Write regularly – every day if possible. It doesn’t matter whether the words are good or bad. Just keep writing and try to finish each day knowing what you’re going to write the next morning, by finishing halfway through a paragraph. This will immediately get you going, and help avoid the terror of the blank page.
3. Try to get an agent. This is not always easy, but good agents are worth their weight in gold and it’s worth persevering.
What’s next for Michael Cox?
I’m now working on a sequel to The Meaning of Night, set twenty years after the murder of Phoebus Daunt by Glyver, and featuring some of the characters (I’m not yet prepared to say which ones) from the first novel. I’m now about halfway through, and hope to finish the first draft in the spring of 2007. I’d then like to do a third and final novel about the Duport succession, taking the story up to the First World War, when the big country estates like Evenwood were collapsing under the weight of death duties, and the death of male heirs on the Western Front. I think the historical context would offer some interesting plot possibilities. The mystery element, however, would still be there.