Imogen Hermes Gowar has been shortlisted for the 2018 Young Writer of the Year Award for her debut novel, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society.
At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost. Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess? We ask Imogen some questions about her writing.
You’ve just been shortlisted for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award. How does it feel? What does being shortlisted mean to you?
It’s wonderful to feel that the Mermaid speaks to people. That’s all any author could hope for really: to be read, ‘got’, and recommended to others. I’ve been on some really diverse lists, and it’s a joy to be placed alongside authors who all have their distinct style, vision and motivation – each one brings something different to the table. There is so much to admire in publishing right now, so it’s lovely be
to part of that.
When did you first start writing? What drew you into it?
I can’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t writing. As a child I was emulating the authors I enjoyed, like Jill Murphy and Joan Aiken, trying to recapture the pleasure of being a reader. Then I realised I didn’t need to copy what was already there: I could achieve the same feeling right from scratch. It fell by the wayside when I went to university and started a career, but there came a point in my life where I needed something that was just for me: my confidence had plummeted and I wanted a project to immerse myself in and perhaps feel proud of. I started writing every day – flash fiction, short stories and eventually a novel or two. It felt very much that I was building up muscles and skills, like a dancer or a musician would by practising every day. I wasn’t that good at first, but I got better and started figuring out what it was I really wanted to say.
How did you come to write The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock?
It was a short story at first, inspired by a real (fake) mermaid in the British Museum where I worked. It’s such a grotesque little creature, nothing like the sexy, beautiful mermaids of folklore: the cognitive dissonance involved in believing that one proved the existence of the other seemed absurd to me. I already knew a lot about the 1780s, and the mermaid seemed to be a rather good emblem of the era, where the middle-classes were on the make, and women were held to brutal and hypocritical standards. I didn’t write it as a novel for years. I was too afraid of the research, and it seemed too much fun to be heavyweight. Eventually I started writing it as an escape from my ‘proper’ novel – it was my illicit bit on the side, really.
Tell us a bit more about the writing process: How long did it take you, what did it involve?
After I had about 20,000 words and knew I wanted to seriously commit myself, I stopped writing altogether and set about researching for a year. In that time I didn’t write a word; I wanted to immerse myself in the period so that when it came time to make my characters move around it, they did so naturally. I wanted them to be products of their time, and I couldn’t do that without getting stuck in myself. Mostly I was in the British Library, but I did a lot of walking and cooking and museum-visiting too. After that it took about a year to write the book, so quite quick, although it didn’t feel that way at the time.
Which writers (of fiction/non-fiction) do you look up to? What do you like in them?
I’m a big Beryl Bainbridge fan, for her extraordinary way of seeing the world, at once direct and oblique; dispassionate and heartfelt. I also love that she treats historical and contemporary fiction just the same: they are simply about people in other times and places. There are no genre implications. The same for Hilary Mantel and George Saunders. On the other hand, I’m reading a lot of Maggie Nelson lately and she consistently blows my mind with her take on the here and now. What an elegant writer.
What are you planning to do next?
I’m working on my second novel, which is in some ways quite different from the first, but I think shares particular sympathies. Writing is a kind of enquiry process for me – it’s about exploring personalities, eras and issues – so I’m not much interested in retreading the same ground.
Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History before going on to work in museums. She began to write fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition, shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018 and HWA Debut Crown 2018.