Perry’s Melmoth (Custom House, Oct.) weaves an intricate web of narratives around a terrifying gothic specter.
What inspired you to use Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, as a starting point?
When my PhD advisor suggested I read it, I was poleaxed by the complexity of its many embedded stories and its gleeful violence. I was appalled by what I was reading, and that something could still be so horrifying all these years later was stunning. But it is also a politically important book: an angry satire on the English occupation of Ireland and the poverty of the Irish people, and most obviously a bitter satire on organized religion.
For a long time I resisted the possibility of writing a book inspired by it—I think I wanted to claim total originality, which is of course rather a fool’s errand. But in time, I came to appreciate how many great works of literature—including Dracula and Frankenstein—draw heavily on myth or on earlier works. I know what I most wanted to take from the novel was the complexity of the storytelling, which I didn’t even attempt to match; the seductive but terrifying anti-hero; and the notion that one may write a hugely entertaining book that is also morally and politically profound. I also knew that I wanted my Melmoth to be a woman, having been annoyed ever since I was a child that the majority of the great titular villains were always men.
Why choose Prague as the book’s central setting?
As a child of East Anglia I am very inspired by the marshes and flatlands here, and I was very keen that influence wouldn’t grow stultifying. My first two novels relied on the atmosphere that is possible in North Essex and Norfolk—mists, eerie lights, and liminal coastal spaces. I wanted to see what a different kind of gothic might do to the tone, structure, and narrative of the book. Maturin’s novel draws heavily on the legend of the Wandering Jew, so using Eastern Europe seemed appealing. When I was invited to be the Unesco Writer in Residence in Prague in winter 2016, that city became an obvious choice.
Your themes of complicity and accountability speak so powerfully to our times; is that deliberate?
It was absolutely conscious to ensure that the book is a direct and unapologetic comment on our times. There was a brief period when events like the massacre at the nightclub in Orlando and the emerging refugee crisis made me wonder if I should give up writing for something more useful. But the writings that have been most precious to me share a feeling that art can be beautiful and enlarging but can (and possibly should) also have moral virtue. I suppose I needed to use my Melmoth to be the witness of these times, as much as of those recorded in the book, and to force the reader to interrogate how they may be culpable in what they see unfolding around them. I hope that nobody can finish the book without some pricking of the conscience.