Read Gothic Victorian Novelist Essie Fox's Interview & Enter to Win "The Last Days of Leda Grey"
I'm so excited to have as a guest today Victorian Gothic novelist Essie Fox, author of delectably, bleak titles The Somnambulist, Elijah's Mermaid, The Goddess and the Thief and now her new book inspired by Gilded Age silent films The Last Days of Leda Grey, which is being released in mass paperback today. It will also be the prize in today's giveaway!!!
Sign up today to become one of Stephanie's VIPs!
Follow Essie Fox's blog The Virtual Victorian!
Choosing the Winner
The Winner is @Shelley_Motz_Writer
Essie Fox has written three Victorian novels. Now, The Last Days of Leda Grey moves into the Edwardian era, and also the 1970’s, as it tells the haunting story of an enigmatic silent film actress ~ before an obsessive love affair leaves her abandoned and alone for more than half a century.
“The Last Days of Leda Grey takes as its backdrop the early days of film, and peoples it with charismatic, enigmatic characters in a world that hovers between history and illusion. Meticulously researched and vividly told, it’s a richly evocative story, brimming with intrigue and suspense.”
M L Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans
View The Last Days of Leda Grey on
“Luminous … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling.” The Times
“Deliciously unsettling.” The Independent
“The glee with which Fox approaches her material is infectious.” The Guardian
“A deliciously eerie affair.” Sunday Express
“A truly enchanting and magical book.” Brighton and Hove Independent
“Wonderfully atmospheric.” Red Magazine
“Magnificently conjured. A Hitchcockian atmosphere of ‘encroaching dread’ and menace.”
And now, introducing Essie Fox!
Essie Fox was born and raised in Herefordshire. At Sheffield University she studied English Literature. She then went to live in London to work in newspaper and book publishing ~ after which she spent more than twenty years as a freelance commercial artist.Since 2011, Essie has been writing novels which are published by Orion Books. The first three books are ‘Victorian’, and her debut, The Somnambulist, was shortlisted for the UK National Book Awards, was featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club, and has also been optioned for TV/Film by Hat Trick Productions. Her fourth and latest novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, moves on to the Edwardian era, and also the 1970’s.
Learn more on her website!
Questions About Essie & Her Work
How long have you been writing and how long did it take to break into traditional publishing?
I started writing about nine years ago, after I’d worked as a commercial artist and illustrator for more than twenty years. But, I’d always had a desire to write and suddenly I realised that I needed to get on with it. So ... I took a deep breath and decided to take three years off work, as if I was going back to university to study for another degree. I told myself that if I didn’t manage to write a novel, get an agent, and a publisher during that period of time then I would return to my artwork - though as it turned out I’ve never returned because, luckily, I achieved my goals. Who knows what the future years may hold, but for now I’ve discovered my passion in life ... which is painting with words instead of a brush.
As for the past... my first novel, The Somnambulist, was published in hardback by Orion Books in 2011. Since then, Orion have published three more of my historical novels, and it really has been wonderful to see the worlds of my own creation coming to life on the published page.
What category of Gothic Victorian fiction do you write—mystery, romance, paranormal, magical realism, literary, etc.?
I actually think my novels contain elements of all those categories.
How do you keep a genre that’s been around since Victorian times fresh and new while also fitting the genre? Do any of the classics influence your work?
The previous question has some bearing here because although I adhere to many of the tropes of Victorian literature I also tend to seed in elements of the paranormal - with events that may be real, or else may be in the mind of the characters. I also try to include something pertinent to my present life - something to keep the writing alive for me. For example, in The Somnambulist, and also Elijah’s Mermaid, I used place settings of East London and also rural Herefordshire, both of them having been my homes at various times in my life. In The Goddess and the Thief, the novel was set in my current home town of Windsor, which means that as I walked the streets, the parks and forests all around (which haven’t really changed that much since the way they looked in Victorian times) I could almost think myself into the mind of my protagonist.
With my latest novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, which moves on to the Edwardian era, and also the 1970s, I was profoundly influenced by old black-and-white silent films I’d once seen, by the streets and vintage shop fronts in the seaside town of Brighton, and also by childhood memories of the heat wave of 1976 when England enjoyed a summer so long it resulted in a water draught. The hallucinatory nature of that heat - day, after day, after day - was a vivid inspiration for the almost hypnotic effect I hoped to recreate in the mindset of my young male journalist, who visits the aging Leda Grey in her secluded cliff top house where many ghostly things occur.
As far as the classics are concerned, I studied Victorian literature while at university and since then I’ve continued to enjoy and also to be influenced by the work of the Bronte sisters, by Wilkie Collins, and Bram Stoker. Charles Dickens is not so much of a favourite, but he does have such wonderful characters, often with the eccentric mannerisms that I also strive for in minor characters. In addition to this, I’m influenced by the poetry of the era; increasingly by Emily Dickinson whose language is utterly compelling, and really very modern in tone.
What is your favorite modern book from your own genre or a book you know readers who like your work will enjoy? Favorite classic Victorian Gothic?
Oh, there are so many. Here is a small selection...
Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister. This is a claustrophobic and mesmerizing modern gothic that I cannot praise enough. When I read it recently, I loved the fact that it had some similarities to themes in my own The Last Days of Leda Grey. An old woman in an abandoned and crumbling house. A mysterious past, with links to Ancient Egypt.
Affinity by Sarah Waters is an intensely eerie novel with a fabulous twist in the tail.
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox is a brilliant high-brow thriller. Great characters and plot. And, there is an equally good follow-up in The Glass of Time.
The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam by Charles Palliser - which almost out-Dickens Dickens, and does so with a knowing nod because the main character’s names of John Huffam are the middle names of Dickens. And then, as the novel (it’s very long) gradually unfolds, we see so many references to Dickens’ own storylines too. An addictively entertaining and engrossing read.
The Observations by Jane Harris. Set in Scotland, this novel sees the uniquely wonderful character of Bessie Buckley taking on the job of a maid to Arabella, who lives in a fine country house. The traditional Victorian themes are told with wit and originality. Often very eerie. Often wry.
For those who enjoy a Victorian crime mystery, the Hatton and Roumande novels by D E Meredith are a rare treat. Intelligent, rich in period detail, and drenched in sinister intrigue.
The novels of Wendy Wallace, The Painted Bridge and The Sacred River, are works of subtle brooding menace, highlighting the strengths and also the limitations of women in an era when they had far less freedoms and rights than those in existence for many of us today.
Do you have any writing quirks like habits/rituals or certain music or something else that gets you ready to write?
When I’m writing a first draft I tend to do exactly the same thing each morning. I get up, go down to the kitchen and make a strong coffee with freshly ground beans, which I then take back to bed again where I work until the early afternoon - or whenever it suddenly feels ‘wrong’ to still be in my nightclothes.
Questions About The Last Days of Leda Grey
How much of The Last Days of Leda Grey is based on historical events?
Quite a lot! I have entirely fictionalized my main characters, but many early films of silent cinema were made in the English seaside town of Brighton during the Edwardian era, where photographers-turned pioneer film makers lived and worked successfully due to the remarkable quality of light - which helped a lot when they didn’t have the big studio spotlights used today.
My film director is French, with his creative passion and expertise reflecting the fantastic and magical films once made by the genius Georges Méliès. But the films of Leda Grey are darker, and also increasingly ominous, reflecting not only my heroine’s life when she was young and starred in them, but also the disturbing events that happen in the present day - when my 1970s journalist discovers the elderly Leda Grey and interviews her for an article, with consequences more sinister than he could begin to imagine.
What was your research process like: Any unique or interesting sources? What did you look into in order to build this historical setting and world?
I read all that I could on the early film-makers and their work in the Brighton area. As so often happens when researching a certain place and time, some surprising facts did spring to light. Related specifically to the book I discovered the town of Shoreham (very near to Brighton) was used for making many open-air films, with the large stone fortress port it has (once built as protection against the French) being used as a studio, or ‘stage’. Once again, that sparkling ocean light! But Shoreham was also to become a thriving theatrical community, with many actors and music hall characters buying up disused railway carriages which were then converted as dwellings and placed along the shore. Those dwellings are known as Bungalow Town today, and I ended up being inspired to feature one in the story of Leda Grey - both in the past and the present day.
I also discovered that, in Brighton, there had been a taxidermist’s shop - and this is something else that I then wove into the story’s narrative. It provided a wonderful gothic theme for some of the darker elements.
Finally, the house I imagined Leda and her family living in in Brighton is almost identical to the Brighton Regency Town House; a living museum open to the public today ... although I had not idea of this when I was writing the novel. It was therefore a wonderful surprise when the first event I spoke at for the novel’s publication happened to be in that very venue. It felt like coming home!
What was the development of The Last Days of Leda Grey like? How did you flesh out the initial idea into a full blown story? Did you brainstorm, use plotting techniques like arranging note cards, or did it develop through the research and writing of it, or through some other way?
The first seed from which the novel grew was when I visited Brighton one day and stood outside a junk shop window staring at the black-and-white photograph of an alluring star of the silent screen. This star was the American Theda Bara, in her role as Cleopatra - a film released in 1917 which is all but lost to us today. But, that look, and that exotic theme soon formed the centre of Leda Grey, with Leda’s final film also being very strongly related to the story of She by H Rider Haggard, with its themes of beauty, power ... and also of eternity.
From that point of initial inspiration I began to look at old images of silent films. I’m a very ‘visual’ writer, in that pictures often strike a chord that lead to an entire book. I don’t plan ahead, but I usually know where the book will start and where it will end - after which I begin to write and follow wherever the story leads me: which is sometimes down blind alleys from where I must then retrace my steps, unravel the threads and re-embark on the journey all over again. But once I’m a few chapters in - by which time I know more of the characters - I’m usually well away.
A lot of authors’ and artists’ work “says something.” Would you say your books say something and if so what is The Last Days of Leda Grey saying?
Leda Grey is about aging and dying - about the loss of youth and beauty, and also the dreams we might once have had. It’s about losing those we love, and how our memories can distort the truth of events that occurred in the distant past.
This novel made me think a lot about reality and illusion; how we tend to believe the things we ‘see’, whether or not they hold the truth. So, a withered weak old woman who had once been lovely and desired sits in a dark and crumbling house where she’s been a recluse for fifty years and shows a young male stranger the films in which she starred when young. As the images captured on celluloid flicker through the shadows, she gains a sort of ‘eternity’, forever young and glamorous, whatever her present state may be. And, while she reminisces and pines for all that has been lost, how does her visitor react - sitting beside a decrepit old woman, but seeing her as she was when young, finding himself to be entranced by her luminous beauty on the screen?
Did you have a muse, something you focused on, like an image or idea, while writing The Last Days of Leda Grey?
Yes, definitely the picture of Theda Bara that I mentioned above - and all the stills from the film Cleopatra. So exotic and alluring. I also had a picture of Theda as my computer screen saver during the time I spent writing the novel.
Questions About Authorship & Publishing
Your first book came out in 2011 and this will be the fourth. That’s about one book a year. How do you produce new work so quickly?
Well, I started quite late in life, but I’ve always been an avid reader, and even worked in publishing when I first left university. Since then, I’ve had a long career in graphic design and illustration - and I also had a family. But the need to write was always there, my mind constantly filled with stories - until the day I simply woke and knew I’d better get on with it before - like much character Leda Grey - I was old and it was all too late.
Perhaps that’s why I wrote my first four novels rather quickly. However, I must confess that I’ll probably be taking longer over whatever I decide to work on next. A little more time with my friends and family, and for reading other people’s books. I firmly believe that reading good books is the best thing to inspire and feed the mind of any writer; at whatever stage in their career.
Since 2011, your career as an author has skyrocketed, starting with your debut novel The Somnambulist, which was shortlisted for the UK National Book Awards and optioned for TV/Film by Hat Trick Productions. What do you think you have done (in addition to writing amazing books) that has helped your career blast off?
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve done anything but write ... and then hope!
I think I had a sprinkling of luck, mixed with a shedload of hard work. But the main thing about writing is to keep on, to be true to yourself and your story, and not to be dispirited by seeing other people’s success when you feel yourself a failure. You’re not. But this can be a long, long game, a process during which you must be true to yourself and not try and write for ‘the market’. What is successful this year will probably have worn itself out by the time you’ve written and published your own book. Write from the heart and with integrity. An editor can always pick up on that sense of authentic originality.
How do you craft beautiful prose? Which writers would say have inspired your style and voice?
I love the work of so many authors. I think I’ve been most influenced by Sarah Waters, Angela Carter, and Wilkie Collins for my Victorian novels. But I also absolutely adore the work of Kate Atkinson, Helen Dunmore, and Maggie O’Farrell. Beautiful prose. Wonderful books. Stories told from the heart.
How much of your marketing comes from you and how much comes from your publisher?
This is a tricky one. It varies from book to book. However, I will say that that in general things have changed quite a lot in the UK market of late where debuts seem to be the books generating most interest and excitement in the world of publishing. If you are a brand new author you have more chance of being selected as a lead title, with the benefit of a marketing plan and budget to promote your work. If not, the whole thing may well be left to the more random ‘word of mouth’ - which means an increasing onus on writers to promote themselves and their work as much as they spend time writing. It’s not an easy balancing act. I do know several people who’ve given up.
How do you balance your writing life with the marketing, blogging and business aspects of writing? And how do you balance all of that with the rest of your life?
I try to do what I enjoy, and then it doesn’t feel like work. I love blogging and hope to connect the readers of my blogs with my books, even though the features are often on quite different historical subjects. But that feeds my need to learn as well - and often leads to a whole new book!