We were honoured to interview Kiran Millwood Hargrave, the author of The Mercies, our July NB Recommends!
The Mercies has been an enormous success – congratulations! What was your initial inspiration for the book?
It’s rare I can pinpoint the start of an idea, but The Mercies was an exception in this, and other ways. I was scrolling through the BBC website when I saw an arresting image: a metal chair with a flame erupting from the seat, surrounded by burnished mirrors. The headline only excited me more: Louise Bourgeois’ final installation. She is one of my favourite artists, and I was already planning my trip to London or Paris or Madrid – wherever it was – to see it in person.
But when I clicked on the link, I discovered the work was located on a tiny Arctic Circle island off the coast off northeastern Norway, called Vardø. The piece, called The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved, formed part of a memorial to ninety-one men and women who were murdered as witches on the spot where the installation sits. I had never heard of Vardø, or the witch trials there, and fell down a Wikipedia hole.
When I read about the storm that killed forty of the island’s men three years previous to the trials starting, I got chills. All my books begin with strong images, and with this storm, I’d found a start point for a story.
Your novels all have wonderful settings and your portrayal of life in seventeenth-century Norway is remarkably vivid. Is a sense of place within your writing important to you?
Place is central to my writing, with landscape acting as a character itself. There’s a line in my debut, The Girl of Ink & Stars, which says ‘each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow’, and I’m constantly exploring how the cartography of where people are born and live impacts on their personality and actions. Home, the idea of it, the implication and need and desire for it, echoes through all my work, and The Mercies is no exception.
How much time did you spend on research before you began to write the book? Did you visit Vardø and learn any Norwegian, for example?
I wrote the first draft purely from a place of character and plot, and I wrote it fast – in six weeks – which meant research came later. I got a lot of things wrong: what people ate and drank, even how they gave birth (sitting up, not lying down). But it was key to me to capture some of the urgency I felt to write the story in the act of actually writing it.
Of course, historical accuracy is key, especially when you are basing a book on real people’s lives. There’s a weight and respect due to them. I put in the time in the following drafts to correct issues, and my understanding and drive behind the story was definitely strengthened by visiting Vardø. The smell of heather in the summer, under the endless sun. The actual bite of the cold in the constant dark of winter. But I tried to keep the breathlessness and immediacy I felt writing that first draft in the final one. Like islands formed by underwater volcanoes: that flung out, rugged quality, where you can read the violence of creation in the final form.
Do you have a favourite character in The Mercies? Do you identify with any of them?
I feel strongly for all the characters, real as they become when you write a book. But Ursa was a breath of fresh air when she walked into the first draft, and she remains that to me on the page. I also adore Kirsten, a woman out of her time. Kristen, the Lensmann’s wife was great fun to write too. I identify with elements of all my characters: with Toril’s fear, Maren’s self-protectiveness, Ursa’s generosity, Mamma’s depression, Kristen’s love of gossip. But none of them are all me. They are themselves.
Do you think – at least before the Commissioner arrives – there are positive aspects to the women’s life on Vardø?
Absolutely I do, but that may be my twenty-first century feminist ideas about self-sufficiency speaking. For the women, even the ones who cope well with the changes, like Kirsten, it is a calamity to lose their men. Grief overwhelms them, even as they thrive. I think it’s important to acknowledge that however much we want it to be a feminist utopia, these are grieving women ill-equipped to survive without their men. They do it, and that’s a triumph, but I don’t think they would call it a positive experience!
Absalom Cornet, the witch-finding commissioner, does terrible things but can occasionally seem vulnerable and almost likeable. How much do you think Absalom’s actions are the result of his upbringing and schooling? Is he innately cruel?
My favourite reader reactions to Absalom are those that recognize him as a man, not a monster. He is so much a product of his time: a poor sheep farmer’s son, who finds sanctuary in the Church, and is used by those richer and more powerful than him as an instrument of torture. But he isn’t a sadist. He is a believer, who does what he does in the name of God. He is a very possible person – we’ve all met an Absalom.
The later chapters of the book are quite violent and tragic. How did you find the experience writing those chapters?
I write very much from the body. I step into my character’s bodies and experience a scene through them. So writing those chapter, I was a mess. Tears, anger, total body breakdown. Writing The Mercies was incredibly intense, and heralded a mental breakdown the following year. I will never put myself through it again – I make sure to take breaks and eat well and walk now. I learnt my lesson!
A major theme of the book is men’s fear of independent women – how serious a problem do you consider this to be in today’s society?
Hugely serious. So many men, who are feminists, are loving husbands and sons and fathers, are still conditioned to see women as weaker, only suited to certain roles, or to earning smaller wages. That’s a big pressure on them, too. I think we don’t only have a problem with independent women, but with dependent men. There needs to be more space in accepted gender norms, to account for all kinds of people. Damage is done to everyone while we hold only one idea in our heads of what a man or woman can and should be.
You’ve previously written for children and young adults. Was writing an adult novel very different?
Yes and no! Yes because of the themes, the freedom in writing sex and violence, in staying with a small moment and lingering there. I don’t think I’d ever written a scene all situated in one room before – in my children’s books you’re constantly moving. The characters show you who they are through action. In The Mercies they show through action and thought. You can slow down, stretch your writing wings. But also no, because it was every bit as difficult, as involving, and as joyful as writing for children. Both are difficult, and rewarding.
This year you are bringing out a children’s book (Julia and the Shark) illustrated by your husband Tom de Freston. Was this your first collaboration, and what was it like to work together?
We had worked together on ekphrastic projects around his painting and my poetry, but this is our first novel together, and the first time when the weighting around storytelling was 50/50. We are good collaborators – we admire and respect each other’s work, and shared a common vision of what we wanted Julia and the Shark to look and be like. It is my favourite project so far, and I’m very proud of it.
You’ve produced a book every year since The Girl of Ink and Stars was published in 2016 – how do you keep up this prodigious schedule?
If I go too long without writing, my brain turns to mush. I feel lackadaisical and sad. So as long as the book deals and ideas keep coming, I’m going to keep writing. That said, the burnout I experienced in 2018, after writing The Mercies, The Deathless Girls, and A Secret of Birds and Bone in ten months, taught me that there is a limit. Creativity is actively draining – you need to fill the tank back up. So I do take extended breaks between projects to read and rest.
Do you have plans to write further adult fiction? And are you allowed to tell us if you’re working on anything new?
I hope to write stories of all kinds for the rest of my life. I’m currently on the fifth draft of my next adult novel, which is forthcoming from Picador in May 2022. It’s been a struggle so far, but I’m in love with what it could be. I can’t say too much, but it again focuses on women caught in a historical event of mass hysteria. The setting is very different from The Mercies though – it takes place in the hottest summer Europe ever knew.
And finally, which novelists do you particularly admire and have any books helped you through the lockdowns?
It’s an ever-expanding list. My go-to novelists are Margaret Atwood, Rose Tremain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Shirley Jackson, Helen Oyeyemi, Sarah Moss, Catherynne M Valente, Jon McGregor, and Catherine Johnson. The books I’ve especially loved in lockdown are Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, and re-reading two of my favourites: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington. The best books I’ve read in this mad year are Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore – both debuts, both divine.