Joe Phelan (JP): I’d like to begin by asking how much time did you spend researching in The Fatal Tree? How did you begin the process?
Jake Arnott (JA): It’s always hard to determine how much time I spend on research because I never really stop. I always feel that the facts have to prove the story and the story has to prove the facts so it’s a symbiotic process for me. Sometimes you just go fishing, not knowing whether you’re going to catch something or not. Of course it’s what’s missing from the records that’s crucial, because it’s the novelist’s job to imagine the rest. With The Fatal Tree I got lucky, I found this real, fascinating woman called Edgworth Bess and her all too brief testimony in the court reports of the time. I wanted to know more about her and everything sprang from that.
JA: It was Jack’s rather cruel comment of Bess that ‘a more wicked, deceitful and lascivious wretch there is not known in England’ that intrigued me. I already knew something of the story of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild but finding a woman’s point of view opened up all sorts of possibilities.
JP: At times the novel sounds very contemporary. Without giving the plot away, at one point you say politicians, bankers etc are screened from justice while lesser thieves go to the tree. Do you think social conditions in London in the 18th century mirror those of the present day?
JA: There is always a danger in forcing historical parallels but I was astonished by some of the resonances from this period to our own. Especially the South Sea Bubble –the first collapse of global capitalism. And how London went on to expand at such a rate back then, with so many lavish properties for the rich and a growing underclass. It was a time of spectacle as well, with great changes in social media like the pamphlet culture in the coffee houses that were something like an internet.
JP: How did you find the process of interleaving historical and fictional characters such as John Gay and Billy Archer? As in your previous novels you handle this very well, without falling into the Forrest Gump trap of sentimentality and namedropping.
JA: I think all fiction is some sort of combination of reality and the imagination. Having real characters mixed with invented ones is something I’ve almost always done in my work so I suppose it comes naturally to me. It forces you to be bold and audacious which I take to be a good thing. I’ve always been after verisimilitude (now there’s a word to conjure with) – the appearance of the real thing. It gives you the strong background needed to tell a truly imaginative story.
JP: You told the story of Edgworth Bess partially in the form of an epistolary novel. What advantage do you think telling the story in this manner brings?
JA: Billy’s letters link the chapters of narrative that he is sending to the publisher and they also allow him to start telling his own story. The epistolary novel was very much a feature of 18th century literature and I’m always keen on finding ways of framing first person narratives. They are so immediate – what you lack in scope you make up for in directness. I always slightly distrust an omniscient narrator…
JA: I think The Fatal Tree would make a fantastic TV drama. There’s so much depth in the world of ‘Romeville’ (the flash slang name for London of the time) with all sorts of levels operating at once. It’s something of a romp with a dark love story at its heart and a complex but strong central woman character.
JP: Finally, are you working on anything else at the moment?
JA: I’m writing a stage play and working on a contemporary gothic novel set on the South Coast.