INTERVIEW: Anna Vaught on neurodiversity, Joycean poetics and ‘Saving Lucia’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Anna Vaught on the research process behind her novel Saving Lucia (Bluemoose Books, 2020).

I’m sure you’ll understand why Saving Lucia, for a project like Writers on Research, feels like a goldmine. The scope of history and the agility of prose with which it is explored seem to point – often directly – to the processes of research that must lie underneath the novel. To begin with, I hoped you could tell me how you first came into contact with the story of Lady Violet Gibson. What was it about her story that you knew would be so central to a novel not just about her but about many disparate neglected histories?

I came across her quite by chance. I saw a mysterious-looking photograph online when I was doing some research. It was this one: an elderly-looking lady in an old-fashioned looking coat, in a garden and feeding the birds. Or rather, allowing the birds to alight on her. And I loved her pose – devotion; like a pieta. Who was she?

Tracing the photograph, I found that this was Lady Violet Gibson, would-be assassin of Mussolini, and that she was in the garden of St Andrew’s Hospital, to which she was committed for life. So, it was the mystery of her and the juxtaposition: so gentle, but she tried to murder someone. I read about her and was hooked: her grief, humour, purpose, delicate nature, illness, the robust brilliance of her, too. That she loved art, books, was a woman of faith, converted to Catholicism, came from great privilege and yet and yet. Lucia Joyce has been written about a great deal, but I appear to have been the first person to explore a potential meeting between the two women, who were co-patients at St Andrew’s hospital. I thought that would have been fascinating! Of Blanche (Marie) we know little, but what really struck me when I read Per Olov Enquist’s Blanche and Marie was that a number of reviewers – including those from the broadsheets – assumed that he was presenting facts about Blanche when he described books that she kept and about her being reduced to a torso by radium, working alongside Marie Curie. I have to admit, it made me think – I am sure unfairly; please forgive me here – that our stories as patients are perhaps not listened to, or that we are traduced because our testimony is doubted. Did this play into the reception of Blanche here? I wanted (although, of course, I worried that I was stealing a story and traducing things!) to make her whole, have adventures – with Violet – to be free and not an exhibit. So I sent her off with the 8,000 women for a jamboree across Paris and a steal into the setting for a banquet at Monsieur Charcot’s home! As for Bertha. Ah. She was a bit different. She was Anna O in Breuer and Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, but in ‘real’ life, Bertha Pappenheim, a prominent social worker in Jewish communities; looking after women, young girls, unmarried mothers and their babies. It seems that Bertha had periods of illness in her life, and I wanted to explore that, even broken, we are majestic, productive, touch many lives, as well as to imagine that while she was this ‘Anna O’ (her identity as Bertha was not revealed until some years after her death), she was someone else. She had, of course, many dimensions. We all do.

Of course, and I’m tempted to say it’s that multi-dimensional characterisation which gives the novel a feeling of authenticity – a kind of verisimilitude that comes through even the stylistic ambition of the novel. I wonder to what extent this authenticity is rooted in your research process, particularly in your correspondence with sources close to the history, as well as in your visits to relevant locations such as the graves of Violet and Lucia. What influence did these interactions with real people and places have on the design of the novel? Did you feel that stepping physically into dialogue with the history altered your approach to translating these stories from biography to fiction?

Yes. For me, the moment of change was when I heard from the family of nursing sisters to whom the book is dedicated. In terms of structure and design – well, it was more that I felt a great sense of responsibility. I also heard from the family who thanked me for giving her more voice. I was worried about that, you see, because she was a real person and one thing I find awful is the notion of stealing someone’s narrative. So dialogue with history made me feel even greater care for her and towards her. It also meant I was more sensitive to comments on the book. I was not presenting madness and mental illness, but questioning those supposed mad, aiming to show what resilience and imagination is required – and I knew this from my own life, from what it took. Did you know that the nurses sewed pouches into her dress and coat so that these could be filled with birdseed? I found this out in my interview with Aunt Nancy, the last surviving nurse (now in her mid-nineties and living in Massachusetts) and so, of course, I added it to the book and put in a little account of this at the back of the novel. Aunt Nancy had it read out at her 95th birthday party and when I was told about this, I had to go under a duvet and cry for some time because it was all too much. In a good way. But still too much.

You touched there on one of the most powerful thematic aspects of the novel – that is, the ambiguities between diagnoses of ‘madness’ and the psychological effects of repression on the individual self (particularly, in my reading, from the systems of patriarchy that have governed our society). You also touched there on your own proximity to the subject. If you’d be happy to share, I wanted to know where – as a writer – the strength of feeling in this theme comes from. Did you find a personal sense of anger, despair, historical injustice feeding into the prose as you wrote? Did your readings of the histories of these injustices feed into you?

I know a lot about the history of psychology, psychiatry and about the way that people have been looked after and treated. I know a lot, in particular, about what this meant for women. There was that. I already knew of the injustice of it all – women committed by the say-so of a man; a husband, for example. The history of hysteria (which is tackled in the book) – how can you not rage? All these lives. What they might have been! However, a key thing to know is that my own history is threaded through the book. I have a history of mental health problems – OCD, depression, generalised anxiety; I can manage these more or less, but I still have dissociative episodes and do not consider that I will ever be fixed. Perhaps if I had been looked after appropriately earlier? It is thought that these things stem from early complex and extended trauma. I navigate the results of this side by side with neurodivergence and it is a challenge. So there is the strength of feeling, too. I know something of how it is to be dismissed as a weirdo, a nutter, to have your story and accounts of what happened to you dismissed, and I also know what it is to find appropriate sympathetic care. When you have suffered intense cruelty in a domestic setting, as happened to me, and no one believes you ­(in the wider family, in school: this is what happened to me) you really do know the power of a story. Not only because it is testimony, but also because when there are no routes out, the imagination is a key resource. I have written elsewhere that reading, and the imaginary worlds that flowed from it, kept me afloat and saved my life. Do you see how close that is to a central tenet of the novel? It is a feat of the imagination by an extraordinary woman who has nowhere else to go. She petitioned repeatedly to leave. This was denied, even when she was elderly and frail.

That theme of the imagination as a resource that fills the space testimony leaves behind is something that’s come up repeatedly during this interview series. It seems particularly pertinent to Saving Lucia, as the histories of Lady Violet Gibbon, Lucia Joyce, Bertha Pappenheim and Blanche Wittmann are ultimately ones which require a proactive engagement of the imagination. As part of that, the novel leans into that void that historically-male narratives of women’s experiences (particularly those of ‘madness’) leave behind. I’d like to ask why you feel the novel as a form might be suited to the exploration and dissemination of these types of histories. What is it, as an exercise of the imagination, that the novel is able to achieve that other genres aren’t?

I think Saving Lucia would suit a play, too! I suppose that a novel, being a piece of long narrative in literary prose, gives us more space for voice and experimentation, and that is what I wanted to show for Violet. I needed that extent of text to show a reader her experimentation with language and rehearsal of her adventure; I needed an extended narrative to move back and forth between the lives of the women, the passerines, before I put them all together. Also, I wanted the conceit of the book being a prose record: Lucia is, fictionally, saved because Violet finds a way for her to go back into the world. It is a fact that Lucia had a sponsor and could have at least attempted life beyond the hospital. New medications of the time should also, from what I have been able to find out, have made that possible. But she remained in hospital, like Violet, until she died. However, she is also saved by Violet in the book – as are the other women – because her story is kept, recorded. ‘Don’t let me be remembered only as a case.’ I think, here, the novel offers possibilities for imaginative freewheeling. For the energy and intellectual thrust of Violet. I thought she was fascinating and was so glad to have her here for a while. I thought I would draw attention to this, a variation of which was originally in the back of the novel (read here). These are biographical accounts of the four women with some thoughts on my own history and on telling a story.

To close, I’d like to touch briefly on the structure of Saving Lucia, as in many ways I feel this a key to understanding the process behind the novel. Saving Lucia moves fluidly between disparate physical and temporal locations, as well as between a complex structure of narrative voices, something that I feel helps lend the novel that sense of imaginative agility. In the face of these multiplicities, and in its open dialogue with James Joyce and other writers, how did you approach designing the overall narrative voice of the novel? How did this range of imagined voices and intertextual references coalesce into what I think is ultimately a consistent style?

This will sound odd to some. I heard it all in my head; the voices of women – I imagined them, let them play, had them at my table. I heard it as a journey, too, and felt it as a series of imagined gifts to all the women. I also, because of Lucia and because of what I imagined as a dynamic energy, heard the rhythm and cadence of poetry and prose, and that is where, in addition to the biographical Joyce links, Finnegans Wake and, to a certain extent, Ulysses came in. I heard the energy of Joyce’s prose, its fizz and sparkle, mixed in with the words of the women, particularly Violet and Lucia. I have also said that the book is what the inside of my head looks like, a kind of busy interplay between voices and texts, snatches of poetry, prose and song. Also, Joe, thank you so much for commenting on the open dialogue with Joyce and other writers. This is not something – other than in Andrew Gallix’s superb review (I mean I thought his review was superb as a piece of writing!) in The Irish Times (read here) which has really been discussed. I’ve seen people write that Joyce fans won’t like the book because of what it shows of Lucia, but that history is quite well known and, in fact, the book is full of Joyce pastiches and references. Homage to Joyce, too! You will also find R.S. and Dylan Thomas, Auden, Synge and various classical references because we know a little of Violet’s reading interests so I worked things in. Almost as if I were speaking to her, thinking: What might you like here, Lady Gibson?

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of three. 2020 saw the publication of Anna’s third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose) and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. She is currently editing a new novel, writing a novella and has a first non-fiction book and a second short story collection in the pipeline. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agents, in New York City.

2020 most recent publications:

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