A Conversation with Sheri Holman
New York novelists Sheri Holman and David Liss met each other at a literary roundtable breakfast in Toronto while both were out on lengthy book tours. Sick of room service and eating dinner alone too often, they went out that evening—staying up far too late, over far too many bottles of wine, a great friendship was born. Among the many common bonds Holman and Liss share are a love of baseball, spouses in academia, and gourmet cooking. Ballantine Reader’s Circle thought it might be fun to have these two friends interview each other about their mutual passion for history and how they put it to work in their novels.
David Liss is the author of A Conspiracy of Paper. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the department of English at Columbia University, where he is completing his dissertation on how the mid-eighteenth-century novel reflects and shapes the emergence of the modern idea of personal finance. You can read Sheri Holman’s interview of David Liss in back of the BRC edition of A Conspiracy of Paper, due out in Spring 2001.
David Liss: The Dress Lodger engages with so many issues, I could not help but wonder how the novel took shape for you. What were your original ideas, and how did they change or take shape as you worked on the book?
Sheri Holman: I first read about a dress lodger when I was twenty-three and working as a temp at Viking Penguin in New York. One of the perks of working in publishing is that you get free books—and I’d just found a copy of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Mayhew was a contemporary of Dickens and he wrote a three volume treatise on the underclasses: Those Who Will Work; Those Who Cannot Work; and Those Who Will Not Work. In the final volume, he devotes an inordinate amount of space to prostitutes. Among the myriad varieties of prostitutes he mentions, there is a short paragraph about a dress lodger, described very much in the terms I used in the book, as a young girl in an expensive dress, followed by an old woman. This image of a girl followed through the streets, as if by her own old age, her own mortality, stuck with me, and when I’d finished my first novel, A Stolen Tongue, it came back. At the time I was reading London Labour and the London Poor, I was also reading Ruth Richardson’s Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, about body snatching and the Anatomy Act of 1832. I thought—okay, I’ll have a doctor and a prostitute. But what else was happening in 1832? I began to read about the cholera epidemic which hit England then, and I realized I had the third point on the triangle. I went to Sunderland not long after, and the plot began to take shape there.
DL: Can you describe what sort of research you did to write this novel? Do you have a research philosophy?
SH: I believe that you can never know too much about what you are writing. The more you know about your period, the more you can forget. Ultimately, you should be as comfortable writing about whatever time and place chosen, as you would be writing about your own hometown. I did a tremendous amount of research for this book—but luckily, I love doing it. I’d rather dig in the library than face a blank computer screen any day. Once I decided to set the book in Sunderland, I went to the New York Public Library and looked up everything I could find about the place. At the New York Academy of Medicine, I found the real Dr. Clanny’s book Hyperanthraxis, which helped me identify the streets of town most severely hit by cholera (9 Mill Street being the epicenter). I walked those streets in Sunderland, though, sadly, very little is left of the old East End. I spent a great deal of time in Sunderland’s local history library, xeroxing old maps to bring home, and pouring over census reports. For Henry’s character I read period medical and anatomy texts, books on how to properly bleed a patient and perform a wax corrosion. For Gustine’s pottery, I read an entire tome on 1832 Porcelain Manufacturing (thrilling, I assure you). Perhaps the most fun I had was with the play Cholera Morbus. Going through the London Times of 1831, I found a letter to the editor complaining about the play’s bad taste, and I desperately tried to track it down. I found the cast list and the theatre in London where it played for a week (The Royal Coburg) but no sign of the play in any of the trans-Atlantic libraries I called. The Royal Coburg has since become the Old Vic, and I phoned them, hoping they’d have a copy in their archives. No luck. Months later, with all leads cold, I was convinced it no longer existed. So based on the cast of characters I’d found in the Times, I made up a play. I checked out two books on pre-Victorian melodrama and gas lighting for that little six-page scene!
DL: Which of the characters and events of the novel did you take from the historical record, and which did you construct yourself? How do you weave fictional characters into the fabric of history?
SH: The historical characters in Dress Lodger are: Dr. Clanny, Burke and Hare, Dr. Knox (in absentia), all the local politicians at the Board of Health meeting, and Jack Crawford. I got into hot water with the people of Sunderland before the book came out there, because I implied their favorite son, Crawford, was a reluctant hero and a drunk. Even the mayor said a few unkind things about me to the press. I was very confused and upset because I had based my portrait of Jack on books I’d bought in Sunderland! Once they’d read the novel though, I got a very different response. Many old-time Sunderlanders who remembered the East End, said that I’d gotten it exactly right, and the Jack Crawford Sea Cadets even presented me with a painting of Jack, and a hat with his name on it! All the other characters: Gustine, Henry, the Eye, Whilky, etc., are made up. Though there really was a pawnbroker Margaret Scurr on the Low Quay, and a pub called the Labour in Vain, owned by one John Robinson. I took them (along with most of the other businesses in the book) from the census report of 1828 and created characters based on the names.
DL: Resisting the idea of making a sacrifice for the greater good, Gustine suggests that “Good and Evil are opposite points on a circle. . . .Greater Good is just halfway back to Bad.” Does this statement reflect the moral machinery of the world of The Dress Lodger?
SH: I think most good novels resist the ideas of heroes and villains. Every hero or heroine must have a flaw (Gustine is too proud, she trusts the wrong person, she sells herself for money), just as every villain needs redeeming traits (Henry really does want to help. He does believe the study of anatomy is the only way science will advance). All throughout this novel, characters are trying to do good, often with tragic results: Gustine snatches her baby from the Eye only to take him to Henry, the greater monster; Audrey spearheads a petition to save the poor only to find herself a victim of those she sought to help. As for the idea of points on a circle, I wanted there to be a moment in the book where opinions shifted. In the beginning, I wanted the reader to identify with Henry, the man of science, and fear the more primordial Eye. But as the book moves along, their roles reverse, and you realize Henry is the hollow man and Eye the unlikely hero. There is no either-or. It is all a continuum.
DL: Any novel that takes place in nineteenth-century Britain must invariably engage in some way with the tradition of the nineteenthcentury British novel. In what ways did you want to invoke that tradition, and in what ways were you consciously working against it?
SH: I love the long, leisurely novels of the nineteenth century. Vanity Fair, by William Thackery. Middlemarch, by George Elliott. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is one of my very favorite books and I read it several times while writing The Dress Lodger. Because my novel is set so long ago, I wanted to give the flavor of the period without writing a pastiche—thus the “Dear Reader” (after Dickens) and the use of the plural mystery narrator. Some readers have hated this device, and have let me know it. I think they would have preferred a more straightforward narration. But it gave me something to play with. I loved writing in the voice of the collective dead—they are a little bit arrogant, a little untrustworthy, they have an axe or two to grind. Dickens is a good deal more sentimental, especially in his portrayal of women. But we know better now. I didn’t want to romanticize prostitution or the bone-crushing poverty Gustine lived through.
DL: Your prose is so rich and evocative that it is almost impossible to imagine it as anything but fully formed. How fully formed are your descriptions, metaphors, narrative twists, etc., before you sit down to
SH: I write with a pretty complete outline. I like to know what is going to happen, so that I am freed up to concentrate on things like character and voice. But I’m never wed to my outline—it’s always a work in progress. For example, I knew I wanted Pink to watch Gustine’s baby, but I didn’t know she wanted to be a ferret, until she first said “eek.” And who knows where Fos came from? I started this book at least fifteen times—from Gustine’s point of view, from Henry’s, even from Cadaver Liss’ at one point—then I hit on the collective narrators, and suddenly they were addressing this matchstick painter. So I went with it. Weirdly enough, the Fos sections were the easiest to write. The ending of the book was originally cast as a last chapter and epilogue. When I was writing, however, it suddenly became the Eye’s legacy to Gustine. It’s good to know where you are going, but it’s even better to be surprised by detours.
DL: Animals seem to play an interesting role in this novel. The Eye sees people as rats; Pink (who Audrey Price says has a dog’s name) idealizes Mike the ferret (who has a person’s name); and while the town faces the plague of cholera it also faces the seemingly biblical plague of frogs. Are you interested in juxtaposing nature and industrialization?
SH: What’s funny is that in my original outline Pink was named Vera and Mike was Pink! So the lines were even more blurred. I think there is a tendency in our society (as there was in theirs) to speak of the teeming masses of poor, as if they were vermin. I play off that in the ratting scene. The poor taking their revenge on the only creatures weaker and more hated. The Eye seeing people as rats was a happy accident. I had her childhood tragedy set up in the outline, but when I was writing the first chapter out it came: wet rat; blue rat. It seemed to fit thematically and I liked it for her character, so I kept it. Believe it or not, the plague of frogs really happened. Dr. Clanny’s Hyperanthraxis notes “flocks of frogs” coming up from the river bed. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m juxtaposing nature and industrialization so much as innocence and a sort of corrupt human knowledge. We project all sorts of anxieties and hopes onto animals. They are tabula rasa for us. (And I’m doing it again in my new book—but this time with cows and hunting dogs. . . .)
DL: The Dress Lodger, with its interest in exposing the inequity between rich and poor, seems to me, at its core, a political novel. Do you think of yourself as a political person or a political novelist?
SH: I don’t think I set out with an overt political agenda, but it’s hard to escape it when you are writing about class. Having grown up in a rural community without much money and then moving to New York where I’ve become comfortable, I can see both sides. And I am endlessly fascinated by the mistrust with which the upper and lower classes view one another. I do think though, that the best historical novels find themes in the past which still reverberate today. Whilky’s belief that the cholera was a government conspiracy echos what many inner-city residents believe about the AIDS epidemic. And even some of the most enlightened people living continue to resist donating their bodies to science after death. I think it speaks to a very primal fear in each of us. As for my personal politics—I don’t think there’s much doubt about where my sympathies lie in this book.
DL: I found the novel’s climactic scene both grotesque and shocking, in part because, as a modern reader, Henry’s faults seem more forgivable than Whilky’s. Was it your goal to shock the reader into seeing the anatomizing of bodies from the perspective of the paranoid poor?
SH: I wanted that scene to feel inevitable. Henry’s callus behavior, Whilky’s paranoia, and Audrey’s well-intentioned meddling come together to show Henry that the bodies he cuts up once belonged to people with lives and histories. He can no longer remain impersonal. He took something of Gustine’s and now he must be made to pay in kind. And I wanted Henry’s final moments to be sympathetic for a modern audience. We identify with his belief in science and his attention to the greater good. But in the end, he is selfish and obsessed and must be made to suffer the consequences. I also wanted the reader to have a sense of where the medicine, which we take so much for granted today, came from. We are all implicated.
DL: Do you think you will continue to write historical novels, or are you interested in writing something set in the present day?
SH: I am very interested in history and how we put it to use. The book I’m working on now, The Mammoth Cheese, is a bit of a departure for me. It’s set in present-day America, but it is based on an episode from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. When he was elected, some of his Baptist supporters in Massachusetts were so excited they got together and made him a thirteen hundred-pound wheel of cheese (from the milk of nine hundred Republican cows—no Federalists allowed!) It took them months to make, and months to haul it to Washington, where they presented
it to Jefferson on New Year’s Day 1802. Along the way, it became a huge tourist attraction: people bought tickets to see it, they wrote ballads in its honor. Of course by the time it arrived in our nation’s capitol, it was beyond ripe, and a good half had to be cut away and dumped into the Potomac. The premise of my novel is that a struggling dairy farmer in Virginia unites her small town to re-create the making and journey of the Mammoth Cheese, only to have it go bad in a very modern way. It will be a big book about American idealism and yet at the same time, a cautionary
tale about the dangers of hiding behind too much history. The best part is I get to eat a lot of cheese. All in the name of research, of course. . . . Remember, you can never know too much.