Hodgson, the editor-in-chief of Little, Brown U.K., makes her fiction debut with The Devil in the Marshalsea, a historical mystery.
What led you to write a novel?
I love making up stories. When I was about four years old, I started inventing characters and stories and I’ve never stopped. It’s a great trick for long car journeys—I seemed to spend most of my childhood in the back of a car. Of course, there’s a big difference between idly dreaming and writing a novel—but the spark of imagination is the same. I can’t quite put my finger on when I started thinking of The Devil in the Marshalsea, but it began with my main character and spun out from there. I’m used to having characters wandering about my head. I had spent years writing a gothic novel. Yes, there were vampires. It had far too many characters, far too many plot threads. The prologue was 60,000 words! Terrifying. But I learned a lot in the process.
I understand that 18th-century English porn was a valuable source for your book.
My main character, Tom Hawkins, is a young, disreputable fellow. He hangs out in gaming rooms, brothels, and shady coffeehouses. London was pretty wild—the biggest city in the world with no police force. It’s been estimated that one in five women was involved in the sex trade at the time. So for the sake of authenticity, my primary sources needed to include criminal biographies and “libertine literature.” I appreciate that this all sounds like a massive excuse to read filth all day.
Why set the book in 1727?
A decade earlier, George I was on the throne. He was extremely unpopular, partly because he didn’t like England very much and didn’t speak the language. I chose 1727 because this was the year his son, George II, became king. People believed things would change, the same way people feel now when there’s a new government or president. I liked the idea of setting the novel on that hinge between hope and disillusionment.
How did your work as an editor influence your writing of fiction?
Very little, perhaps surprisingly. As an editor, it’s my job to be supportive but objective. Objectivity is impossible and unwelcome when you’re immersed in writing. Once I’ve written my first draft I can stand back a little, but no more than any other author. I still need an editor—very much so. I didn’t expect how vulnerable writing it made me feel, handing it over. I wrote in secret, and felt very exposed when I sent out the manuscript.