News room: Mary Hamer turns fact into fiction for her novel Kipling & Trix

Mary Hamer turns fact into fiction for her novel Kipling & Trix by Anna Lewis

Here at CompletelyNovel HQ we have just read Mary Hamer’s award-winning novel Kipling & Trix, published by Aurora Metro Books. It’s a fascinating read about the lives of Rudyard Kipling and his talented but little-known sister Trix. What particularly intrigued us was how she managed to write such a convincing fictionalised account of the lives of these two extraordinary historical characters.
We were therefore delighted that she agreed to be interviewed and share her experiences of writing her first work of fiction.

Why did you choose to write about Rudyard Kipling and his sister Trix?

To my shame, I have to admit that at first my focus was all on Rudyard: it took a while for me to realize that Trix’s experience was equally important. But Kipling had a special place in my heart ever since I first read the Mowgli stories as a child. Magic. Colour and risk and survival: in a way, though I didn’t know it, they promised that it would be possible to slide out from the grim world presented to me by my education as a Catholic girl. Yet I was a grandmother before I myself came to tell a story, the story of Ruddy and Trix. I’d written critical works as an academic but now I wanted to think about him as a whole person not just as a wonderful writer. By then I had just written a non-fiction study of childhood damage. That made me very interested to explore whether the misery of Kipling’s early life, which his sister, Trix, shared, played out in their lives as adults.

This is a fascinating study of how children can be damaged by their upbringing. The book vividly describes the trauma suffered by both siblings in their early years and how it affects their adult lives in different ways.
What experiences and/or knowledge did you draw on to make it so authentic?

Thank you so much! It’s wonderful to feel I got that across. Ok, how did I know about this stuff? Looking at their lives, reading up their biographies, I recognised a pattern that I’d met in my own life. What’s more, in my work as an academic I’d identified separation and the use of fear in order to rule as fundamental to the culture of patriarchy. Writing my own memoir gave me a wholly unexpected flashback to the moment of disorienting terror when I was told about Hell as a child of five. Even worse than the threat of endless punishment, it completely trumped my direct experience of the world. Talk about instilling confusion! And burying it. Making that the ground of future experience . . .As for separation, if you look at studies of children evacuated during WWII and refugee children, you read time and again of the way their physical health as well as their happiness was undermined by the absence of those who loved them. I only came to those studies and to relevant work in neuroscience after writing the book but they confirmed what I’d intuitively known.

In comparison to Rudyard, I wouldn’t imagine there is much evidence on what Trix was really like. How did you manage to fill in all the gaps to make such a rounded character?

I’m so happy you believed in her. But it wasn’t that difficult. The one biography, Lorna Lee’s Kipling’s Forgotten Sister gave me an outline of her life and included quite a bit of her unpublished writing. Trix’s two novels are in the British Library and the stories she published can be found in magazines of the time. They’re full of clues about her marriage and her inner life. Kipling’s letters speak of her too, especially in the years before they both married. The Kipling archive in Sussex had useful details about her illness, as well. I just had to join up the dots.

Writing about one historical character is hard but writing about two sounds like a nightmare! How did you bring the story of these two lives together so convincingly while still ensuring historically accuracy?

Golly I’m just purring by now! Thank God for Andrew Lycett and his scrupulously detailed biography of Rudyard. I went back to it, checking, several times some days, so I was confident of my timeline. But as I said, my initial focus was on Rud and it was his life I was following, with Trix making a rather sketchy appearance. Once I started to move her to stand centre stage with him, I had to cross-check at every point, to see what was happening in her life and write in the scenes that kept her alive in the story. It was hard but not in the least boring.

I love how the book takes us to many different and diverse parts of the world and contains such rich period detail. Can you share any hints and tips on how you managed to create such vivid scenes?

I once went on an Arvon course for travel-writing: use small highly specific details, they taught us. Which is fun and not difficult, especially as today you can so easily research odds and ends on the web: the names of Edwardian perfumes, for instance, like the Atkinson’s Aeonia I gave Trix. My writer friends constantly reminded me to keep in the bodies of my characters, not just in their heads. What can they smell? Touch? Hear?

The book is a complex tapestry of places, characters and world events. How did you address the challenge of structuring it and keeping track of everything? I can picture your walls covered with whiteboards, post-it notes and mind maps – like something you might see in a detective drama!

Oh the shame! If only! My procedure was chaotic but deliberate. I had two firm organising principles: chronology and intuition. That is, I didn’t play about with time sequence, I went from A to Z, birth to death. Aware that there was more to know than I could ever organise rationally, I spent a couple of years saturating myself in research, and undoing my own ignorance about world events. Then I would sit down every morning to write scenes at random, just as my imagination suggested. I did always assign them a specific date and setting, though. Once the writing group I joined read a few and encouraged me, I began to believe this could be a novel: putting the scenes in their proper order, filling in the many chronological gaps with more research and more imaginative writing followed. It took years.

With reference to the previous question, in retrospect, would you go about things differently?

Humph. I think I wouldn’t take on a project of that complexity again! But Kipling and Trix deserved all I could bring to them, their story was so powerful. I certainly did waste time, reduplicating my efforts, going back again and again to check the biographical facts, as though someone was going to sneer at me for getting them wrong. Still terrorised, you see. Maybe at some point I could have drawn up a useful timeline to put on the wall, instead of my sheaves of folders and scraps of paper. But for me as a writer, I think too much clarity too soon risks losing contact with deep imagination, making me pat.

Finally, do you have two pieces of any advice you can give to anyone who is considering writing a fictionalised life of an historical character?

Not sure I’m in a position to offer advice but here goes: ask yourself what you want your readers to understand about that life, what sense it is making to you, driving you on. Then you’ll be able to make readers (and publishers and agents!) want to know more about THIS person. Enjoy it, all the learning, the research!

Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Mary!

You can find out more information about Mary on her website.
Kipling and Trix was a well-deserved winner of The Virginia Prize for Fiction.

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Written by
Anna Lewis
Published on
22/02/2013
Tags
Biography, Mary hamer, and Prize