Marveling over the Macabre

The Monkey is feeling the author-love today…

…first of all, through the recent shout-outs on newly-published novelist Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian blog and published authors Wendy Robertson, Avril Joy, and Gillian Wales’s Room to Write website (they’re hosting another Durham conference in November!).

…second of all, as I sit cradling my copies of Her Fearful Symmetry and Falling Angels freshly signed by their respective authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier!!  Imagine my delight during a dull workday afternoon when I received the phone call that my wait-listed arse had scored a last-minute opening for last night’s lecture.  Located in the 19th-century chapel of London’s Highgate Cemetery, the event began with a cocktail-half-hour of wine and milling about the gateway to Highgate’s West Cemetery (where poet Christina Rossetti and her brother, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti are buried, among other notable deceased–Karl Marx is buried in the East counterpart).  Filing into the intimate confines of the chapel, we were treated to readings from each author’s novel as well as explanations as to how they came to chance upon Highgate Cemetery and become inspired to build their literary projects around its historic, overgrown, and elegantly morose splendor.

Both American women had merely visited as tourists that first time, but the impression upon both was immediate, and they subsequently became volunteer tour guides as a means of interacting with this enchanting garden of flora and headstones as well as unearthing more of its history than any texts could reveal (Niffenegger continues to conduct tours here, and Chevalier lives just down the hill from the site).  Following their brief “lectures” (which were structured as interviews between the two authors themselves), the floor was opened to a Q&A session with the audience.

Chevalier had originally written a manuscript divided between modern-day and a period backdrop, yet ultimately felt the graveyard and its history lent itself best to historical fiction, so her novel, Falling Angels, takes place during Edwardian England.  She was most interested in how this once pristinely trimmed and pruned site came to fall into such decay and neglect following the Victorian Era, yet wanted to capture the local culture prior to the changes wrought by World War I, when many had lost their faith in God.  The tale depicts two feuding families that ironically share neighboring burial plots in Highgate Cemetery.

Niffenegger had likewise begun her novel along a different path than the one ultimately taken, centering on a different character and a different graveyard (Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery—woo-hoo to my sweet home, Chicago!).  She had realized that if a cemetery was to play such an integral role in her book, she would need to ensure that it was one of the ultimate ones.  Just like Chevalier had visited the cemetery several years before actually writing about it, Niffenegger cited memories of a 1990s visit to Highgate Cemetery during which she spent half the time looking at it through a camera lens and fiddling with said contraption (her words to the wise are to visit the cemetery without your camera on your first visit, which I gratefully did just two weeks ago…I wrestle with the ethics of graveyard photo-opping anyway).  She, however, essentially said her mind does not wrap around historical fiction naturally, so she maintained her novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, during the present day and incorporates an American element, given that her two main characters are American twins who come to inherit their aunt’s London flat that overlooks the cemetery.

I was captivated by everything each woman said in its entirety, yet my pea-brain is unable to reproduce an accurate transcript of everything wonderful and insightful about it.  A couple other comments that do linger in my mind, though, were their reflections on after a novel is written.  Chevalier said that she continues to “collect” ideas from the places that inspire her, whereas Audrey felt that her characters and their story lines eventually go “quiet” in her mind, and thus she moves on.

I wonder which will ultimately happen to me…Ironically, I found great inspiration to write at another Victorian cemetery just a block from my flat and which I’ve been visiting ever since the day after I moved here two years ago, so I had more affinity for this particular lecture than merely the fact that I did love reading the authors’ other books, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Girl With a Pearl Earring.  And, like Niffenegger, I do sense my protagonist’s voice and immediacy fading from my consciousness lately, which signals to me that it’s time to bring her story to rest.  May it requiescat in pace for her, then, yet stay alive in my imagination and those who will humor me and read it some day 🙂

*** For more coverage of this event, please do also see author/illustrator Sarah McIntyre‘s blog post, audrey niffenegger & tracy chevalier at highgate cemetery” —this is a comprehensive trove of observations, sketches, photos, and video! ***

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

13 responses to “Marveling over the Macabre

  • Eva

    Aw, how I loved the Time Travellers Wife. Really like your post, dear monkey. If you are into graveyards I can only recommend you Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, a fascinating example of a real culture of the dead: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zentralfriedhof

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ah! Vienna is on my list, so I’m so glad you recommended that–will definitely have to check it out! Such a morbid fancy of mine, but it’s something that certainly inspires appreciation for life, and I’d like to think my resting place could bring the living the same sort of peace 🙂

  • Sarah McIntyre

    Hi, there! Just worked my way over here from your comment on my blog, so glad you were able to give it a write-up, too! What a fabulous evening! Hope to spend a bit more time poking around your blog, it looks fascinating.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Hey, thanks for popping by! Talk about fascinated–your books look like such great fun. I have nephews who would be very keen to read about the Mankiest Monster…You’re so talented, and I look forward to following your blog!

  • nothingprofound

    Cemeteries seem to be a great catalyst for the creative spirit as well as pensive mind. “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting,” as old Ecclesiastes said. Personally, this is a philosophy I’ve never been able to warm up to, but it does seem to have a broad appeal. So, are you working on a novel right now? If not, you should. You’re a gifted writer.

    • thefallenmonkey

      You never cease to impress me with your repertoire of quotations–I love that one right now when that’s where I really am drawing so much inspiration. I am indeed working on a novel right now–oh so close to finishing it…can almost taste that ending–and am BEYOND FLATTERED by your words. Thank you an immense amount for that encouragement; it boosts me more than you can know!

  • Lua

    You got signed copies of those books? How amazing is that?! 🙂
    I LOVE Tracy Chevalier- she is amazing! I was also quiet fascinated by Time Traveler’s Wife but haven’t read any of her other books- something I’ll definitely fix as soon as I can!
    It’s very interesting how different the process is for the two writers after a novel is written, I too wonder what it’s going to be like for me 🙂

    • thefallenmonkey

      I need to read more Tracy Chevalier…was impressed with what she had to say and will obviously need to read the book she signed for me! As for Niffenegger’s second novel, I’m having to wait because, based on the summary, some of our elements seem a little too similar for me to read until I’ve finished my project–otherwise, I’ll go nutty with comparing/contrasting my stuff with it. That’s just creative suicide 😉

  • Milo James Fowler

    Time Traveller’s Wife — let me guess . . . The book is WAY BETTER than the movie, right? =]

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ha! Well, actually, now that you mention it…I always like the book better (sole exception so far: American Psycho). HOWEVER, having seen the film years after reading the book, I was able to enjoy it very much on its own. Interesting trivia learned at the lecture: Audrey Niffenegger still hasn’t seen the movie!

  • agatha82

    I walk by Highgate Cemetery almost every day and it’s one of those places that features in my current novel, still being edited. I find it fascinating to see how many writers have been inspired by it. It is rumoured that even Bram Stoker used it in Dracula, though he is rather vague about its location and other cemeteries also claim to be the ‘one’. Me thinks it’s most likely Highgate, it’s just too much of an atmospheric place. One of my fave authors, Douglas Adams is in the East section sadly….wish he wasn’t though 😦

    P.S
    Speaking of amazing cemeteries, the ones in New Orleans are also rather impressive. God, I sound like some kind of cemetery ghoul…*gets back in coffin* 🙂

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ha! Well, whenever you emerge from your confined coffin quarters to read this (unless you get WiFi in there), fear not that it sounds ghoulish–you’re not alone in your cemetery fascination. I live by Brompton Cemetery and walk through it constantly for peace and inspiration; have actually been emailing back and forth with a writer who also attended the Chevalier/Niffenegger lecture about coordinating a cemetery walk there–he’s been researching some major ones in London as well as the States and India for his book–you should join us 🙂 I’ve yet to visit New Orleans (it’s funny how living abroad in the UK is making me realize how much of the U.S. I still have to see! Am developing my bucket list for when I eventually move back), so will seek that one out…am also curious to visit the one in Savannah, Georgia that features in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Thanks so much for visiting my cyber abode here!

      • agatha82

        Ah! A cemetery walk sounds good to me. You should definitely see the ones in New Orleans. The ones in Paris are quite spectacular as well. All this cemetery talk reminds me of a weird German hotel where all the rooms are different and quirky, and one of them has two coffins…I’ve often wondered who would choose that room (other than vampires of course) I don’t think I could honestly sleep in one of those things, then again, maybe vampires know something we don’t…hmmm

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