How did you decide to write a book about coal mining and feminism in 19th-century England?
I’d always been a great fan of George Orwell. I read “The Road to Wigan Pier” back in high school. Then years back, when I moved to California, I happened to see a book about fashions of 19th-century Victorian England, only four pages of which was devoted to the dress of the working class. And half of that was about the pit girls of Wigan, who were the social scandal of Victorian England. For me it really connected to “The Road to Wigan Pier” — Orwell’s blighted post-industrial town, this very vigorous place with these highly independent and unusual and obstinate women. Then there was the whole concept of coal mining, which is a culture unto itself, the most dangerous occupation in the world, and which draws and develops a certain kind of man. And women, in fact, had been working in the pits until the 1840s when they were “reformed” out, but they still had considerably dangerous jobs on the surface and, in Wigan, chose not to make things more dangerous by wearing skirts, though they were the only pit girls in England who made that stand. I never thought I would write about them, but I knew it was gold when I saw it.
Why did you write about them now?
I couldn’t forget about them. My mind kept returning to what a picture of England it was, so much more interesting than the upstairs/downstairs parlor dramas. What I enjoyed absorbing while I was making my own book was the Brontks, because they were part of that mentality, the mindset of the educated Victorian woman. Part of the research I did was to go visit their home in Haworth, which like Wigan is in Lancashire, and simply walk around. It was very grim when they lived there, grim enough to take their lives; they died of things like consumption and their health being undermined by the bad drinking water and the constant diseases of the period which were almost all related to issues of sanitation. Part of their well water came from the graveyard. Infant mortality was unbelievably high, especially in places like Wigan. And the reason people drank tea and beer was that you wouldn’t die from it. Of course it is all very quaint now, and if you go to Wigan there are no coal mines functioning so you are no longer surrounded by that smoky veil, but if you have any imagination at all you can see how awful it was.
Your depiction of the world of the mines is so vivid, so very detailed. How did you do your research?
I was very lucky. The first or second night I was there I attended a lecture on mine explosions of Victorian England at the Wigan Library, and when I talked to the lecturer afterward he said, “You’re a Yank, aren’t you? What on earth are you doing in Wigan going to a lecture on mine explosions?” And when I explained, he offered himself up for the next week and when I returned he did it again, so he gave me weeks of his time. He is an amateur historian of coal mining and found mines I could get into, so I didn’t have to rely entirely on written accounts or my imagination.
Was it frightening?
I expected it to be, but it was not that frightening because you have a sense of the miners being extraordinarily competent. I went into two — one a museum and the other a working mine which has since been sealed. The government is shutting down the coal industry, they say it’s cheaper to draw nuclear power off the French grid and cheaper to buy coal from Colombia. The miners say there are some questions out there about nuclear energy and that the reason coal from Colombia is cheaper is that it’s mined with child labor. They feel they’ve been targeted by the Conservative government to be destroyed as a union, and one way to destroy a union which is so powerful that it has shut down the country on at least two occasions during this century is to destroy the industry that employs them. There is a huge antipathy in England between the north and the south, the working class and the owning class. If you take the contempt some Americans have for yuppies and multiply it by 10 you might come close to understanding their attitude towards the City, as they call it — London, the people of the south. And I have heard from some very well-educated admirable citizens of London that once you get as far north as Manchester you will encounter nothing but barbarians.
Tell me about the miners you met.
Mining is the most dangerous occupation in the world and I guess always has been. They are enormously vigorous, strong men quite at ease with one another in somewhat the same way as men who work on a fishing trawler are. They have to rely on one another totally. You are not working in an office cubicle, you are working hand in hand with the man next to you, and there is always a degree of physical danger, a degree of necessary alertness. So of course what that fosters is enormous pride and comradeliness.
So they are set apart, in a way.
It is an entirely different world and they know they are the only ones who know it. I’ve met miners who hate talking about mining because it is so dangerous and hard and they don’t want their wives to know. Terrible things happen down there. But at the same time I went down into the mines with working miners who are still young men, younger than I am, who are aware that their working life is coming to an end and they feel suddenly cut off. There is a heroic aspect to the work and now they’re being terminated, and terminated by the kind of people they hold most in contempt.
Were they suspicious of you?
I’ve always been struck by how unsuspicious people are in general, if you tell them what you’re about. Most people — and particularly people whose lives have nothing to do with books at all — are intrigued by the idea that somebody wants to listen to them and get it right. And they also treat a stranger down in the pit with a great deal of gentleness because they know how scary it can be, so there are no games played down there.
I love the scene in which the miners and their families make your detective, Blair, tell them stories about his life, the way they seem so menacing at first, but are in the end rather enchanted.
I was delighted to come upon that idea, to have him talk about himself to some degree, to explain himself. It was an opportunity to establish that delight people take in stories, the wonder of telling a tale, and this was a period when people still told tales, and he finds himself — to his own surprise — delighted to be the teller.
The writing in this book is very fluid and seems to me your best so far. Did you feel that way about it while you were writing it?
I think that each book, each country, has its own rhythm and this particular rhythm worked very well for me, it felt very comfortable. I think I was wise to use an American as the point of view, and I guess all that time I wasted as a kid reading Orwell and Waugh and Huxley set up some patterns, some little trails here and there to that rhythm. The fact is that I loved being in England. We all love the rhythm of English speech, probably for the same reason we love the King James version of the Bible, the up and downness of it. I’m very aware when I’m speaking to the English of how flat my Mid-Atlantic American voice is. I think the book has a very nice shape to it, a certain connectedness, and I think the fact that women play such a strong role in it makes a huge difference in the quality of the story.
Charlotte, the woman who was to have married the missing cleric, is from a very privileged background, very different from that of the pit girls, but her situation seems almost more restrictive in some ways.
She was very much a prisoner of that situation and time. She had the education and attitude toward the world almost of a governess, but a governess would probably have been very desperate to marry and she was desperately avoiding marriage. She was a prisoner of men and their expectations.
Was it difficult to assume a woman’s point of view?
It wasn’t a problem in this book because, for me, Rose and Charlotte were such intelligent and sympathetic creations. Those two women had a lot to say. I didn’t have to create stuff for them; I just had to get out of their way. And at the same time I had to allow them to play, so that they didn’t just hit one note all the time. I have to rewrite an awful lot to get things right, but I never got tired. I always looked forward to coming back to them.
So you didn’t miss Arkady?
I didn’t miss him while I was doing this. I never thought I would just be doing Arkady books. I never intended to do any after “Gorky Park,” so I was pretty amazed when people asked me a few years ago what I was going to do now that the Cold War was over, as if I had been manufacturing missiles. I hate to be categorized. The great thing about being a writer is that you are always recreating yourself.
What other projects do you hope to do?
I’d love to do something set in Japan. I have the period already picked out. I have a French book with the period picked out, and I am working on something right now that I don’t want to talk about at all. So I’ve got three things and none of them are easy. They all involve taking in a huge amount of material, but that’s what seems to keep me from becoming stereotyped. I have another Russian idea, too, with a place and a period, so I guess I have enough to keep me busy for quite some time, especially considering that I’m such a slow writer.
How long did it take you to do this book?
Well, “Red Square” came out in 1992 and this could have come out last fall, but I didn’t want to rush it. I wanted to make sure that this would be a book that was as finished as I could make it and that all of the people who would have an effect on it — the editors and the sales reps and a whole lot of other people — would have a chance to actually read it. So it took about four years, but the actual writing was probably about three, because it involved so much research. I feel very bad about getting things wrong. I’ve taken a few liberties, but I wanted them to be liberties I’d taken deliberately. You have to get all the rules of genealogy correct, the rules by which a title and property are handed down, and then all the mining has to be done right. The worst thing in the world would be for some miner you don’t know to say, “He’s balled it all up. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Because this book is about him and you can feel that small buzz of contempt on the periphery of your subconscious, no matter how far away you are, the diminishing of your own enjoyment and their esteem — their trust really — because there is a relationship of trust between writer and reader, I think. You are walking a curious tightrope in which you maintain your consciousness of reality, of what is actually possible, which you can then manipulate. But if you get that universe wrong, you are just manipulating stupidity.
What are you reading these days?
I’m reading “The Monkey House” and Pinsky’s translation of the “Inferno” and Ron Hansen’s “Atticus.” I’m reading Jane Austen, two or three of hers, and getting very exasperated. It’s like watching somebody knit and noticing there’s no yarn at all. I’ve got a book of poetry by the bed, one of these big collections that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. What’s wonderful is to read the different translations — some done in 1600 and some in 1900 — of the same passage. It’s fascinating to watch the same tale repeated in such a different way by two different centuries.
Do you think you will ever write again about Rose and Blair?
I don’t mind the idea that people would want to see Blair again. That, to me, is the right reaction. I liked the characters in this book a great deal and I felt more than usual that I was working from the inside out. I really had a ball working with Rose and Charlotte and knowing what I knew about them and knowing that I was taking my hero and jerking him left and jerking him right. At the moment, I am writing about Arkady, and then I have a pretty good idea for another book, and then we’ll see. I liked the way this one ended, which was them sort of disappearing into the night towards this dark horizon, this other place. It’s funny. When I told people I was going off to do research on this book they would say, “So what romantic place are you going off to this time? And I’d say “Wigan.” But you never do know where the gold lies.