INTERVIEW: Glen James Brown on revenge, research methodology and ‘Mother Naked’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Glen James Brown on the research process behind his novel Mother Naked (Peninsula Press, 2024).

It’s my understanding that the initial concept for Mother Naked came from an entry in the Durham Cathedral archives, referencing a public performance by someone named ‘Modyr Nakett’, is that right? I’m curious as to how you came across this record, and how it inspired you to create a piece of novel-length fiction.

That’s right. I grew up in a town some seven miles outside the City of Durham, and all my life the Cathedral has had this magnetic pull. In 2021, I was clicking around on the internet, reading about the place, when I stumbled across the Records of Early English Drama North-East (REED-NE). This is a research project in conjunction with Durham University, part of an international organisation based at the University of Toronto, which aims to document medieval and early-modern English performance. That’s where I came across the reference to the ledgers of the Bursar of Durham Cathedral. At the time, the church was Durham’s most powerful landowner, and the Bursar recorded all monies going into and out of the cathedral, including that spent on entertainment. The 1433-1434 ledger said one Modyr Nakett (Mother Naked) had performed there, earning for his troubles a single groat, or four pence—about a tenner in today’s money. This was the lowest sum in over 200 years of surviving records. Mother was likely a gleeman—basically a minstrel—and REED-NE speculated the low sum was because Mother’s performance was lewd or disagreeable in some way. We’ll never know because after that one line in the ledger, Mother Naked vanishes forever.

I mean, how can you pass up something like that? The name alone is incredible, the circumstances even better. The whole book suggested itself almost instantly—a monologue set over the night Mother tells his story to his audience, a tale which does indeed become disagreeable. I love Ottessa Moshfegh, whose first novella is called McGlue. She said its genesis came from chancing across a New England newspaper article from 1851, written in ‘one long run-on sentence’ whereby a sailor called McGlue was acquitted of stabbing a man to death in the port of Zanzibar on account of being blackout drunk and insane after hitting his head falling from a moving train several months earlier. There was the whole book right there, Moshfegh said, the character, the plot, the deformed language. I felt like I’d struck gold. (Ottessa Moshfegh, BOMB Magazine). For me, finding that reference to Mother Naked was the same, and the first draft poured out fast. I’ve always been sceptical when a writer says their character ‘comes alive’ and starts dictating the story. This wasn’t that. More, I’d learned about Mother at the exact moment I was most receptive to learning, and things instantly became very simple. If I figure out how to replicate this experience, I’ll let you know.

In terms of historical research, I was most intrigued by how you capture a sense of the class divides within fifteenth century Durham, and how those divides are drawn out with references to everyday life and routine (such as the ploughing of a field), rather than (or adjacent to) larger ‘society-defining’ incidents. Is it fair to say that the most notable historical events of the time feature largely in the background (ala Austen, for example), and if so, was it a conscious choice to foreground the everyday?

The short answer is because the aftermath is often more interesting than the event itself, and the daily reality of peasant life was far more complex than how it is usually portrayed—as the toil of toothless simpletons covered in shite.

The story Mother tells his rich audience is about peasants, a class subdivided roughly into three: villeins, freemen, cottars. Villeins were bonded serfs, unable to leave their manor. They could own land, but also had to work up to 150 days—sometimes more—on their lord’s land for no payment, which seriously limited how much of their own holdings they could turn to profit. Then you had freemen who, as you might guess, did not belong to the lord and owed no work. Freemen could roam wherever they pleased, could buy and sell land and property, however it didn’t guarantee wealth—savvy villeins could be wealthier than freemen. Cottars were also free, but owned nothing and lived day-to-day in rented cottages that left them most exposed to the whims of landlords and market forces. Now, let’s imagine them out in the fields—a bonded villein working land for his lord, his freeman neighbour working his own land, and his cottar tenant working for a meagre day’s wage. All three of them sweating shoulder to shoulder, doing the same graft for very different payment and purpose. How would they feel about this? To me, that’s a very interesting question, especially in the aftermath of those society-defining—or reshaping—events you mention.

Two events reshaped Mother Naked’s society: the Great Pestilence of 1348 (renamed the Black Death by the Victorians), and Wat Tyler’s 1381 Peasant Revolt. The two are linked in that the Pestilence killed off most of the workers local lords and landowners needed to work their land. Population numbers took generations to recover, which put labour at a premium and gave workers the upper hand. Rulers didn’t like this, so laws were enacted to keep wages at pre-Pestilence levels, meaning those who survived—and their offspring—had to work harder for the same pay, even as inflation spiralled in the decades following. There were also other factors at play, but the result was a royally fucked-off peasantry. What followed is a fascinating period of tension between the poor agitating for more rights and rulers trying to maintain the status quo. Mother Naked takes place during this time, and explores how individual identity was a key tool in the battle for progress. The church’s narrative was that God ordained what station of life you were born into. He made you a bonded villein, meaning to complain—to agitate for something better—was not just disagreeing with one’s neighbours or lord, but tantamount to defying one’s very Maker. In that sense, the metaphysics, politics and socioeconomic forces unleashed by the cataclysm of the Plague are Russian-dolled into the most minor daily events. Each swing of the scythe, every seed sown, contains an almost Tolstoyan battle of opposing forces.

To get all this across, I had to get specific with the reality of fieldwork and rural peasant domesticity. I researched the cycle of the seasons, what work is done in which months, the names of the tools and how they were used. How ale was brewed and foodstuffs traded. How, when your cow as sick, you paid a priest to write the opening of Saint John’s Gospel—Verbum caro factum est—on a piece of parchment then tied to an udder. Rural peasant life is an endlessly fascinating but under-represented in contemporary literature about the middle-ages, which often focuses on court intrigue, royalty, the grand sweep of warring nations. The poor are usually background characters—servants, fieldworkers—in stories about the machinations of their rulers. Yet the poor were by far the largest demographic, and their potential for human intrigue is as compelling as any highborn narrative.

Connected with that, I’m interested to know how you developed the narrative voice for Mother Naked. How did you approach the challenges of composing or replicating fifteenth century cadence and vocabulary, and more broadly, how did you handle the possible tension between providing ‘authenticity’ and/or readability?

The book takes the form of a monologue—Mother telling a story to his audience, so his voice has to suck you in from the start. He’s speaking in the year 1434, not long after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Initially, I thought I’d see if I could approximate that language, but soon realised I’d need to (a) get a PhD in Chaucerian language, and (b) write something else because I’m not getting a PhD in Chaucerian language. Once I had given up on literary fidelity, I was free to read an array of 15th Century texts, and, well, piece Mother’s voice together from whatever sounded cool.

I did magpie from Chaucer—how can you not?—but also The Book of Margery Kempe, and surviving bard tales such as the chivalric romance Sir Cleges. I tried to match the rhythms and cadence of the sentences, which I know also reflect the translator and the period of their translation. As I read, I squirrelled words and phrases (don’t complain about something—grutch; don’t run out of money—wax scant). I even raided bits from medieval cookbooks (don’t chop that turnip—smite it to gobbets!). I’m a grammar nerd, so I went deep on the archaic auxiliary verbs and second-person singular possessive pronouns. In all cases, I went with my gut; with what felt and looked and sounded readable. So didst was out, hast was in. I leaned into Durham dialect and slang, and reflected Mother Naked’s oral format with the phonetic alveolar plosive /t/ at the end of regular past-tense verbs (kissed becomes kiss’t). All told, it’s quite a lot, so I allow the reader to settle in via gentle repetition and careful contextualisation.

Pronouns and conjugations were tricky due to what they evoke. For example, thou art makes you think Shakespeare, right? Because even though thou art was in use in the 1400s, Shakespeare came along 200 years later and made it indivisible from himself. So I was careful to stay away from grammar that conjures the Elizabethan era. I was also careful with etymology, but did pepper the book’s language with some words and phrases that nuzzle into Mother’s future. I did this for the reading experience, but also because I see Mother Naked as a contemporary novel. I’ll get into that a little further down.

What does this all mean for readability vs authenticity? I think the best course of action is to write a book where the reader is so absorbed that the question simply never occurs to them.

When it comes to voice and language, I’m inspired by writers who swing for the fences: Russell Holban, Fernanda Melchor, Anthony Burgess. There are some incredible contemporary novels set in the medieval / middle-ages, all of which deploy language in various ways. To Calais in Ordinary Time by James Meek, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, Victoria MacKenzie’s For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Each of them chooses their language to reflect that time. Some are more ‘accurate’ than others, but all excel precisely because they are constructs in service to their creators’ singular vision. Mother Naked is my contribution. Life for travelling gleemen like Mother was precarious, a sustained balancing act. Getting his voice right in the book—maintaining it throughout—was a similarly fraught performance. One I hope never even occurs to the reader.

Regarding plot, I feel as though Mother Naked functions in many ways as a historical crime novel, particularly in the unfolding mystery that underpins the narrative. I wonder how the choice to use mystery as a story engine came about, and whether any traditional or contemporary texts fed into that. (For various reasons, I thought of Chinatown, especially in the way its twists lead the reader in and out of the corridors of abusive power.)

I never imagined a book set in 1400s Durham would evoke Chinatown! But I see what you’re saying—that film is about the power structures which enable the elite’s unfettered greed, to the detriment of the poor, and Mother Naked is also very much about that. There are two main types of text which inspired the book’s structure, the first of which is indeed contemporary crime. Mother unravelling the mystery of a local legend to his audience—the destruction of a rural village some 40 years earlier, some say by a ‘walking ghost’ with broken arms—provides a throughline with a tight, satisfying ending. All the moving parts snapping shut like a trap. But in order to stop things feeling mechanistic, I wanted to pay homage to the shaggy-dog nature of early modern storytelling. In weaving this way and that, Mother’s tale feeds into the reader’s sense of dramatic irony—this palpable sense there’s a method to his madness, and an even bigger mystery is at work, culminating in a final oh shit moment that alters your perspective of everything that came before. At least, I hope!

The second textual inspiration—and I know I was just distancing myself from the era—are the Revenge Tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, The Dutchess of Malfi by John Webster, and The Revenger’s Tragedy by what scholars think is Thomas Middleton. Shakespeare, too, of course, especially Hamlet. No prizes for guessing these plays are about people taking revenge on those who have wronged them, but what interests me is there’s often a meta-aspect of a play-within-a-play which functions as the delivery mechanism of the revenge itself. Sometimes there’s a supernatural element, the vengeful ghost narrating the play. Mother Naked very much carries on the tradition.

From Mother’s 1434 perspective, Revenge Tragedy theatre and contemporary crime both lie in the future, but as with my use of language, taking inspiration from them was a conscious choice to enable Mother to speak out from the past, and so comment upon the present.

Finally, perhaps the biggest influence on the book’s structure and content was how I approached the research itself. Before Mother Naked, I spent four years writing a novel that didn’t sell. It was set in the present day, but was incredibly research heavy and in hindsight I realise how I approached it wrong. I had a story I wanted to tell, so was researching to support my preconceived ideas. To anyone reading: DO NOT DO THIS. It meant I was often looking for historical facts / precedents that didn’t exist; I was reading whole books only to learn I didn’t need to have read them. Or I’d chance across something that invalidated a chunk of the novel I’d spent six months writing. And as I wasn’t sure of the boundaries of the story, the research sprawled endlessly. I’m not saying the book failed for this reason, but nor am I getting any younger, so with Mother Naked I took a different approach to research. Above, I mentioned my initial lightning bolt after learning about the existence of Mother Naked. This gave me the character, core premise, and a hard-to-put-a-finger-on emotional resonance. What I didn’t have was enough knowledge of the 1400s to write with confidence. I needed to research but didn’t want a repeat of last time. So, I went about it in the following way:

I selected key research texts, each one about a different facet of late-medieval life: entertainment, medicine, life in a rural village, agricultural-cycles, the pre-Reformation church, the feudal class-system and its slow transition into the land-lease model, folklore, rural justice systems, the Plague, orphan guardianship, medieval slander and defamation (which was incredible btw). Later, I deep-dived additional texts on these subjects if I needed to, but I strictly ring-fenced the parameters of research so even if something was fascinating, I would ignore it if it didn’t serve the core premise.

Once selected, I read these texts with ZERO AGENDA, making notes on whatever I found interesting. For example, I learned that when someone was going to die—say from serious illness—a priest would give them final rites. However, if they were given rites but somehow survived…they couldn’t have sex again for the rest of their lives! When I came across this, I just knew I was going to have a character afflicted in this way. Late-medieval life was just so weird like that, and stuff was jumping out at me from almost every page. By the time I was finished, my notebook was full and the world, characters, and skeleton of the novel had already suggested themselves.

This really let me plot organically. I’ve never plotted scene-for scene before, but I’d just come off the back of four years of floundering. Because the world and characters were so vivid and organic and emotionally alive in my mind, the plot beats came very easily. My plot-outline document was about 8,000 words, really detailed, but left wiggle-room for the Eureka moments which could come at any time and change the direction of things. Crucially, though, because I’d approached the research and plotting in the right way, those Eurekas only changed things within the framework of the plot I’d already built.

Only once all this was done did I start writing. As I say, the first draft came fast. I mentioned earlier that I’d let you know if I ever figured out how to replicate the experience. Well, I still don’t believe characters take over and write a book, but, to a great extent, I let the research write Mother Naked for me.

That is a fascinating breakdown of research as a process. To close, I’d like to tie that back to voice and plot with a look at a quote I was drawn to from page 175: ‘We tell tales of what lurks out in the dark so that we need not acknowledge the truth lurking within’. In my interpretation, the character of Mother Naked acts as a kind of ‘holy fool’, by which I mean someone who is able to speak truth to power by virtue of their ‘foolish’ performativity, someone who holds up a crazed or comic mirror to power. Do you feel there is an extent to which contemporary society also relies on the fantastical, whimsical or ‘mad’ to reflect stories otherwise too dark for us to assimilate? And might Mother Naked itself feed into that tradition?

It’s my feeling we’ve always used stories to make sense of ourselves, and that nothing is too dark for our species. I don’t mean to be edgy—there is, of course, still much good in the world. A major point I wanted to make in Mother Naked was that life was not unrelenting misery for the poor; they didn’t all spend their brief spans hating their lives, and each other. I wanted to convey the powerful sense of community in rural life, of shared burden but also joy. They worked together—albeit at different purpose—but also celebrated feasts, births, marriages. They played games with insane names like quoit and mumblety-peg. And this collective spirit extended into the next life, as the community would join together in pray for their dead in order to speed them through the torment of purgatory and into heaven. I find that very moving.

This love and kindness still exist. But our wider political and economic systems are increasingly geared towards a zero-sum game of acquisition that is putting incredible pressure on those bonds. This isn’t new. While researching Mother Naked’s economic, social, and political power structures, it was quickly apparent that Mother’s world was not so alien. Then, as now, the rich owned the land, rivers, forests. Labour was exploited. Prices were controlled and inflation kept artificially high, with the poorest bearing the brunt, just as they—like Wat Tyler and his Peasant Rebels—were punished most harshly for protesting against it. The rich dodged taxes, took advantage of loopholes. In my novel, it is the resultant privation and poverty from all of this which turns the poor against each other, something the ruling classes were—still are—only too happy to encourage. The Body Politic was one of the middle-ages principal concepts, which envisioned society as a metaphorical body with the monarch as the head and the poor as the feet—unable to be anywhere other than in and of the muck. Who benefits most from that narrative? In the book, Mother is a storyteller, and one thing the novel addresses is how stories—narratives—are wielded, by who, and to what purpose. That line you mention, We tell tales of what lurks out in the dark so that we need not acknowledge the truth lurking within, is said in relation to the central mystery of the plot. Who is to blame for the destruction of that village, those peasant deaths? Is it those external forces and narratives…or is everyone—rich and poor alike—complicit?

In Mother Naked, the poor were told society cannot change because that was how God made the world. Now we’re told our political and economic system is synonymous with our nation’s ‘values’—whatever they are. But each fresh injustice reveals this for the lie it is. One thing that became clear to me while researching and writing this book is that we have always been struggling for a way to take back what has been stolen.

Glen James Brown was born in County Durham. His first novel, Ironopolis, was shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize and the 2020 Portico Prize. His second novel, Mother Naked, is out now. He lives in Manchester.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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