Sarah Perry | 'I genuinely think that the best art and the best literature has moral virtue'

Sarah Perry | 'I genuinely think that the best art and the best literature has moral virtue'

Nearly a year to the day after her second novel, The Essex Serpent, was published, Sarah Perry found herself on stage at the British Book Awards collecting the Fiction Book of the Year trophy. Barely had she returned to her table - where the staff of her jubuliant publisher Serpent’s Tail were on their feet, cheering - than her name was called again, this time to collect the overall prize: Book of the Year 2017.

It marked the end of an extraordinary year for the author, one in which The Essex Serpent was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and won the Waterstones Book of the Year. It was a huge change in fortune for a writer who struggled to find a home for her début novel, 2015’s After Me Comes the Flood, which was turned down by 19 different publishers. Only when Hannah Westland, who was then Perry’s agent, moved to Serpent’s Tail was the book acquired for publication. After Me Comes the Flood, an eerie, unsettling tale, was published to critical acclaim - “rarely do début novels come as assured and impressive as this,” praised Sarah Waters - but there was little indication that Perry would go on to write a literary historical fiction bestseller which would sell more than 200,000 copies in hardback alone.

It was a car journey through Essex that inspired the novel that would become The Essex Serpent. On spotting a sign for the village of Henham, Perry’s husband told her about the local legend of a winged serpent emerging from the marshes and feasting on livestock and humans. By the end of the journey Perry had plotted the entire story, knew her characters and had “the idea of setting up a conflict between myth and superstition and faith and reason and science, all clashing over this one potential beast”.

Essex and the city

The Essex Serpent is set in the 1890s. Wealthy London widow and keen amateur naturalist Cora Seabourne moves to rural Essex just as rumours start to swirl among the locals that the mythical Essex Serpent, believed to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned.

As soon as Perry delivered the manuscript to her publisher, “it was read by all, and we knew we had something remarkable”. What followed was a concerted effort to publish the novel with as much verve and ambition as the publisher could muster.

When I speak to Perry after her double win at the British Book Awards, she feels strongly that the success of The Essex Serpent is shared by everyone who worked on the book. “I think it’s so important for people to see and to acknowledge and to understand how much of this [success] is driven by passion,” she says, recalling that “it wasn’t a very promising start in lots of ways. I’ve been ill for quite a long time; it’s not a huge publishing house with an unlimited budget; there was no massive advance. It was people like Anna-Marie [Fitzgerald, Perry’s award-winning publicist], with a budget in three figures, buying hot-cross buns from Tesco - she and I walking around local bookshops with them. It began with that.”

It may have begun with a small tour of local bookshops to hand-deliver pre-publication copies to booksellers, but the word of mouth about The Essex Serpent soon spread via social media. Perry, who is an avid Twitter user, noticed that “people
that weren’t followers of mine and people that aren’t friends of mine were talking about this thing that I wrote, and in the most extravagant ways”. The buzz was building well ahead of publication.

The Essex Serpent was a huge word-of-mouth book, which in the end is what generates big sales. I wonder if Perry has any theories about why it was such a big success? “It’s just one of those things where, for some reason, a story or a feeling or a style just captures some need in the readership that happens to be there,” she says. “I do try very, very hard to write without cynicism and to write in as benevloent and as wise a way as possible. I’ve been accused of being sentimental before, but I’d rather be accused of sentiment a thousand times over than be accused of being cynical once.” The Essex Serpent is, she observes, “a book that insists on friendship, it insists on the possibility of redemption, it insists on finding hope and beauty in very difficult circumstances, and I wonder whether that was a comfort to people in some way.”

Perry is hard at work on her next novel which, she reveals, is set in contemporary Prague, but deals with real historical atrocity. It’s about atrocity itself, and how we remember it or disavow it. As with The Essex Serpent, it will be a tale “in the gothic tradition”, she says, which presents some challenges.

“It is in the nature of gothic to be entertaining and to arouse sensations in the reader. The big question for me is how can I simultaneously give pleasure to my readers, which is a huge preoccupation of mine, while also writing about some very challenging and very distressing and very morally difficult things.

“I sound like a terrible prig, and this is a really 19th-century, old-fashioned idea, but I genuinely think that the best art and the best literature has moral virtue,” she says. “I don’t mean that it is preachy, I don’t mean that it has to not depict unpleasant things. But I do think that if you’re going to inflict your imagination on other people, there has to be some virtue in it.

“That virtue can be an unflinching willingness to look at human behaviour at its worst. It doesn’t mean that you only write about nice stuff... But it means doing it in a way that is essentially moral, and essentially benevolent and compassionate.”