Francis Spufford has spent more than 20 years as a successful non-fiction author, covering subjects as diverse as the Soviet economy and polar exploration. Now he’s written a novel, On Golden Hill (Faber & Faber, £16.99) set a generation before the American Revolution in New York, and is planning three more.
What inspired you to write a novel now, in your fifties?
I’ve been working my way slowly towards fiction all this time. All of my non-fiction books have had novelistic parts to them; but it’s only recently that I’ve had the nerve to cut loose and tell a story I completely made up. It helps that I’ve been teaching writing, including fiction, for nearly a decade now, and when you hear yourself dispensing advice for the umpteenth time about characterisation and point of view and so on, you eventually think: come on, time to practice what you preach.
Golden Hill is set in 18th century New York, 30 years before the American Revolution. What interests you about that period and location?
It seemed like a good vantage point from which to bring alive the surprise of what was going to happen next. When the American colonists soured on the British Empire, it happened really fast, over only 20 years or so. Back in 1746, when Golden Hill is set, you could see the faultlines where the cracks were going to open up, but people weren’t expecting the future they actually got. On the contrary: back then, in an awkward, bloody-minded, hard-to-handle kind of way, most of the colonists were ragingly proud of being British, and made a huge thing of their loyalty to the King. I like this kind of irony. I like these tsunami moments in history, where some gigantic change is looming up in the background of the picture, and all the people in the foreground are looking in the wrong direction.
Protagonist Richard Smith is something of a man of mystery. Where did you find the inspiration for this character?
Like all writers, I’m a skilled liar, and so is Mr Smith. I liked the idea of someone who was a stranger and could make up their identity as they went along, and who was also in a situation where they pretty much had to do that (I’m not going to explain why). People have always been able to invent themselves afresh when they arrive in a big city, and Mr Smith is a big city boy who expects to be able to do that in New York too. But instead he finds a small town of only a few thousand people, where everyone knows everyone, and the things you say catch up with you – and, most of all, where he’s not the only liar around.
The plot manages to balance rich historical detail with genuine readability. How difficult was this to pull off?
The trick is to turn your research into something that your characters experience directly and immediately, through their senses. The look of things, the sound of things, the feel of things, the smell of things – that’s what your 18th century street map, and your list of food prices, and your scholarly article about the rules for murder trials, all have to be translated into. It’s also important to remember that the past wasn’t abstract. No one in the 18th century ever experienced “the 18th century”. They were busy having a wet Tuesday morning in November when they were really glad to reach the coffee-house and have their first cup of the day while they looked at the paper. Okay, the newspaper then had small ads in it about escaped slaves: but you build out the unfamiliar elements of the scene from the familiar ones.
How did working on Golden Hill differ from your approach towards your previous writing projects?
If writing non-fiction is like architecture, writing novels is more like gardening, I’ve found. You can’t push things along, or make them happen in your story, exactly. It’s more indirect. You plant them and hope they grow, and watch them when they do, and then prune them and trim them and tidy them and sometimes dig them carefully up and move them to other places. You seem to be much more in the business of discovering a structure than of imposing one on the material. You do decide some things in advance, of course, but then they change on you, if it’s going right.
How did your interest in storytelling develop?
Mad, continuous, compulsive reading as a child, and then ever after as an adult a story-shaped imagination, looking for the faint traces, even in the most unpromising-looking things, that you can pick out and tweak a bit – I said I was a liar – and organise, so that people need to know what comes next.
Do you plan any other novels?
Oh yes. I’m not going to abandon non-fiction, but put it this way: I’ve got four new ideas buzzing round my head at the moment, and only one of them isn’t a novel.