Interview: Natasha Pulley

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Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Natasha Pulley is a writer and graduate of both Oxford University and the University of East Anglia. Her debut novel novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, has just been published, and she is already working on her second project. She lives with her family in Ely but has recently returned from a nineteen-month trip to Tokyo on a scholarship. She has also worked in bookshops and publishing houses, and enjoys reading ghost stories and historical fiction.

Natasha Pulley’s first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, is a historical fantasy set in Victorian London but with strong Japanese influences, which sees a young telegraphist at the Home Office seeking out the help of a Japanese watchmaker to help solve a mystery and avert a catastrophic future.

You can read my review here: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends the cultures of Victorian London and Japan brilliantly. You are, I think, learning Japanese at the moment, and reading a lot of Japanese fiction – did you draw inspiration from any Japanese forms of storytelling/writing for your novel?

No! The Japanese stuff I’ve read is very old school, in which nothing ever happens and then somebody floats sadly off into the distance, or drowns. It is good to realize you can have a novel with no plot, but I’m certainly not a good enough writer to pull it off.

Are there any Japanese authors you’d particularly recommend to the uninitiated reader?

Natsume Soseki did a great bit of autobiography called The Tower of London, which is about his trip to London in the early 1900s. There’s also Snow Country, by Kawabata, which has a very good translation in English.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends history with fantasy – that mix of researched authenticity and creativity must have been hard to pull off, how did you go about finding a balance between meticulous detail and free-flowing creativity?

I always find it’s best to write first and research second. Find the story you want to write, and then research the parts that you know are probably inaccurate.

You’ve written about the importance of world-building in fantasy fiction, and the space it takes to do that within a novel. In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street you’ve mixed fantasy with history, but I wonder if you were tempted to write a more expansive novel, to more fully explore the fantasy elements of the novel?

Absolutely not. Mori is an exhausting person to write about. I staggered up to a hundred thousand words and then collapsed wheezing on the floor. Even that was difficult. Earlier drafts were more like eighty thousand. If it were high fantasy, I think it would be far more tempting to spend more time world building, but the entire fantasy element of Watchmaker is Mori himself. There aren’t fantasy politics or social points to explore, or explain.

Despite ending up as a larger project, I know the novel started out as a short story. Do you feel short stories represent a good medium to explore fantasy worlds before committing to them in more detail?

Certainly. One of the marvellous things about short stories is that they lend themselves to experimentation, particularly with style but of course also with content. Some things that would be spectacularly annoying over a hundred thousand words are perfect over five




thousand. It’s also a way of focusing very tightly on one idea, rather than painting a great panorama.

The intricacy and inventiveness of Mori’s clockwork, which has a distinctly steam punk feel, is something that will stick with readers; where did the idea for the Japanese horologist with a Lincolnshire accent come from?

Tesco. No; he was built, not delivered. He’s a watchmaker because he makes time; he has a Lincolnshire accent because he learned his English from Thaniel, in the possible future.

In Mori, we have a small man, lonely and obsessed with the small rituals of life, who is somehow tied to a supernatural foresight. On the other hand, we have Grace – a sceptical, rational woman who goes for long periods of the novel without being driven by her emotions in any way. This is a fairly interesting flipping of the male-female roles that readers of Victorian fiction might be familiar with – how far did you want to look at gender roles as part of the novel?

Not at all. Humans are humans; you get lonely men, sceptical women, lonely women, sceptical men, and those traits in real life are always far more to do with character than gender.

I wonder also if Mori’s sticking to Confucian routine is a way for him to manage the burden of knowledge that he carries (routine being knowable, expected – i.e. something that both occupies the mind and means that potential futures cannot be altered particularly by such activity), almost like a form of OCD, in which one might make tea in the same, ritualistic way, for fear of the consequences if one does not. Both beautiful in its tradition and valued in the present.

He doesn’t fear the consequences if he doesn’t stick to a routine, but it means that he isn’t giving himself an unnecessary headache. There’s also no reason for him not to have routine. Being impulsive is a lot about seeing what will happen; he already knows what will happen.

You studied an MA in Creative Writing at UEA – in a period where Creative Writing as a subject is under fire (http://schoolsweek.co.uk/a-level-cull-prompts-teachers-petitions/), what was your experience of Creative Writing as an academic discipline?

Creative Writiting is vocational; it’s as much a craft as carpentry. Of course you spend a lot of time reading other books, but in the same way apprentices will spend a lot of time looking at other people’s masterpieces. There is a much more academic side to Creative Writing and that of course is English Literature. It’s very difficult to study one very fully without having a nodding acquaintance with the other. You can’t write well without reading, and you don’t read so well as you might unless you write.

Can you tell me about your own writing process?

I write like I watch television; for fun, and for escapism. I write all the time, though I tend to be better in the mornings and evenings. It’s a very quiet process and so most of the time I’m just sitting at a desk, but that’s usually punctuated with research. I tend to doodle-write a lot, with no clear aim, so a lot of words tend to be deleted the next day, but knowing why something isn’t going to happen is just as important as knowing what is.

What’s next – I think you’ve got two new novels in the pipeline, can you tell us anything about them?

The next one is about a gardener who goes to Peru as part of the 1859 expedition to collect quinine-bearing trees from the Amazon, to help treat the malaria outbreak in India. When he gets there, he’s much hampered by a Scottish missionary and the local fear of crossing into the forest, where people disappear. It’s another historical fantasy.

I’m hoping (hoping because it isn’t under contract yet!) that the third will be Thaniel and Mori again. It will be set completely in Japan, in 1889 and around the promulgation of the Constitution there. It’s about what happens when Mori disappears.

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