In Norfolk in 1643, Thomas Treadwater has returned home from war to a chaotic new order on his family farm. All the sheep are dead, his father is sick and his sister is hysterical. She believes a witch called Chrissa Moore has cursed them, but Thomas believes in evidence and logic and sets out to find the truth of the matter. When he discovers his father’s handwritten account of an accident at sea years before he is forced to confront a dark and ancient power that will not be reasoned with.
You were born in Liverpool as one of 12 children. Tell us about your trajectory from there to publishing your debut novel.
I was the third of 12 children, 11 of them girls, so even in 1980s Liverpool we were regarded as an unusual family. I was 13 or 14 before I understood why people kept asking whether we had a TV in our house. We didn’t have the easiest life. My mum was on her own a lot of the time and things could – for lots of reasons – be disruptive at home, so eventually I moved out at 17 and got a job in the local McDonalds, as well as attending sixth form. I was encouraged by some brilliant teachers to go on what they called an access course at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and I remember the admissions tutor describing me as “a bit bolshy”, so that might have helped with their decision to offer me a place to study history. When I left university, like lots of graduates I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I ended up with a job in the City that wasn’t the best fit for me. After a few years I retrained as a teacher and was lucky enough to be able to teach English. This led me towards creative writing. I wrote one novel before The Leviathan and then, partly as a result of signing up to an informal novel writing course, finished a second one and decided it was time to try submitting it to agents. I sometimes think the writing process is a bit like raising a child – you have the idea, plan it, write it, get it all wrong and try to fix it, then, in the end, you have to let it go and see what the world has in store for it.
Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical book The Leviathan was published at the same time your book is set. Do you see overlaps between his concerns about power and the brutal nature of the period and Thomas Treadwater’s pride in being a rational, modern man?
In some respects. Hobbes wrote about the tension between the chaos of an embryonic society, without laws or governance, and the order provided by political society, at the cost of natural freedom. When the novel opens, Thomas Treadwater believes he can bring order to events by putting his faith in reason, evidence and logic. He will learn! The novel asks the question of whether we can ever entirely banish chaos, or whether it is something to which we, eventually, must reconcile ourselves. It is loosely inspired by Hobbes and his exploration of the price (he says) we must pay for peace.
Are women coming into their power still feared?
I think so. At the start of the novel we see this in the question of how people in the 17th century viewed female outsiders, and particularly in the case of Chrissa Moore. But as the story develops, the reader encounters female power in another, far more terrifying form. The fight to contain that power is at the core of the story. Although the novel is not explicitly allegorical, it perhaps raises the question of whether female power can or should be corralled in the ways the reader will encounter in the book.
Does your Leviathan adhere to the characteristics imbued in it by mythology and theology?
More a question for readers, probably. However, my research for the novel led me down several paths that suggested that there are, across religions, cultures and mythologies, certain persistent ideas that have survived in the legends of these creatures. Whether it’s the Norse Midgard Serpent, the Babylonian Tiamat, the Egyptian deity Apep or the Biblical leviathan, the figure of the beast (sometimes represented as a dragon, a serpent or a snake) is consistently associated with chaos, destruction, and both the beginning and the end of all things. So, without wanting to give away too much of the story – maybe.
Did you have specific modern-day concerns in mind that The Leviathan can act as an allegory for?
Where to start? The book is not an allegory, per se. But we live, as they say, in interesting times. I’m a child of the 1980s, so I grew up at a time when an enduring peace – at least in the Western world – appeared to have been realised in the aftermath of the costly wars of the 20th century. But perhaps this illusion deceived the people of the past as much as it deceived us. Before the First World War, for example, it was commonly believed that the upheavals of the long 19th century – the revolutions, civil strife and European wars – had finally been put to bed, and that turned out very much not to be the case. I was writing The Leviathan just after Britain left the EU and during lockdown, so it’s hard to believe there aren’t echoes of those events in the story.
Gothic resurgences, both in fiction and in belief in phenomena, occur in times of crisis. Are you anticipating one or has one already been awakened?
They really do. Not just crisis, but specifically times of falling living standards, scarcity, fears of upheaval or disruption to the “proper” order of things. We are in the middle of a great Gothic resurgence, and I think many people would look back on the history of the last, say, five years and say that we also lived in a time of crisis, with Brexit, Trump, riots and falling real wages. I am hopeful – though I can’t say I am particularly confident – that the dust has begun to settle. We will have to see.