Interview: Mary Hooper, author of Velvet and Fallen Grace

maryhooper blog 300x187 Interview: Mary Hooper, author of Velvet and Fallen Grace

London, with all its grit and horror, has always been a favourite of those writing about grim topics and the seamier side of life,'and it looms large in Mary Hoopers work.

There is, it seems to me, everything you could ever want to write about in London, says Hooper, who was born on the outskirts of the city. Having always been fascinated by the citys history, she finds it a natural setting for her work, and in particular her historical fiction.

In Victorian times, and before, the chasm between rich and poor was huge. There was no Welfare State and people, especially children, were living on the very edge of lifeand often falling off.

In her research, Hooper often looks to London Labour and the London Poor, a work by Henry Mayhew, a Victorian journalist who documented the life of the poor through interviews and notations.

If I seek a character, a job or some inspiration, then I can find them in this book, she says. However, given the often harrowing nature of these accounts, she does soften the edges somewhat. I don't usually make my characters' lives quite as devastatingly grim and deprived as Mayhew records them. I am writing a novel, a work of entertainment, not a misery memoir!

Having said that, death plays a major role in Marys work: in her two most recent books, Velvet and Fallen Grace, its a constant presence, with her'characters only ever moments away from complete destitution and its tragic consequences.

I'm not a historian, says Hooper, but I think death was ever-present in Victorian times. Big families, a high infant mortality rate and the ever-present diseases like cholera meant that most people kept a few mourning garments just in case.

Death was not only an affliction of the poor, however: in Hoopers work we also see the'almost worshipful approach towards death and mourning taken by the wealthier classes.

High-end funerals were a way for the upper classes to show their superiority, says Hooper of her characters zeal for all things mourning-related. They had fashionable mourning garments that were worn for longer, more plumed horses to pull the funeral carriages, more mourning jewellery and gloveswhich were given to all funeral attendeesmore mutes, and better quality coffins.

Hooper says that people of these classes drove to have a good death and a showy funeralwhich contrasted greatly with pauper funerals. Several'people might have been buried in the same grave with nothing to mark the spot, she says of these.

A keen history buff, Hooper makes a concerted effort to show the truth of the times that she is depicting.

People often view past times in a sentimental way and not always how it really was, so I like throwing in the occasional surprise, she says, noting that few people know about things such as baby farming, which was common in London during Victorian times.

The mundane is also frequently overlooked:'No one stops'to think about mundane things like how people did their laundry, she says, referring to her most recent book, in which eponymous Velvet works at a laundry.

When I wrote Newes from the Dead, the true story of a girl in the 17th Century who was hanged for infanticide and lived to tell the tale, I made sure I researched every possible area of her life, checked the doctor's records, read the 'newes' pamphlets and went to the primary sources.

Hooper doesnt see her work as being stymied by historical fact, saying that doing such in-depth research allows her to feel like a real historian. I enjoy being restricted by historical fact. If I wasn't restricted, then I'd be writing fantasy, and I don't like fantasy!

In fact, the only thing close to fanciful about Marys work is her characters names, which play an important thematic role in her work, but it turns out that these, too, are drawn from historical record.

I chose both Velvet and Grace from a list of popular Victorian namesthough I must admit I'd never heard of Velvet as a name beforeand liked them both very much, she says.

She admits that a characters name may undergo a few changes throughout the writing process, as a name that may have initially seemed appropriate may not suit the character.

As I began to write Velvet I was thinking about this lovely, glamorous-sounding nameand realised immediately that it wasn't her real name, but one she'd assumed, she says. The name of Grace was chosen because she was a solemn graceful character, and the fact that she was fallen from grace came afterwardsthe title was chosen by Hoopers editor.

Name changes also occurred in'The Remarkable Life and Times of Eliza Rose, where the'main character was called Alice until Hooper got to the end and realised Alice wasn't the right name. It was too head-girlish, she says. Eliza had a naughtier ring to itand made a better rhythm for the title.

Her current work in progress features a protagonist called Susannah, but Hooper suggests that this too could change.

Whatever their eventual monikers, a common thread runs through Hoopers characters: that they can be easily led, and how difficult it can be to do the right thingwhich can lead to some confronting reading.

I think your character has to do the wrong thing, or the plot would just drop away, says Hooper. I recently read a review of Velvet that'criticised my main character for being naive and easily led. But if she hadn't been easily led there wouldn't have been a book!

Part of the issue is also that readers can be tempted judge characters in historical fiction based on the standards of the present day. Today girls'are much more able to speak up for themselves. Poor Velvet, a homeless and penniless orphan, did not have such a privilege.

Giveaway: Im giving away a copy of Velvet'to one lucky Aussie reader. To enter, just leave a comment on this post. Youll receive an extra entry for friending us on Facebook or subscribing to our updates (you know you want to!). Ill draw the winner in early January, when Im back from holidays.'

See our reviews of'Velvet'and'Fallen Grace

Visit Mary Hoopers website'or'Facebook page

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