For today’s Fiction Reboot, I have the privilege of hosting Tessa Harris, author of The Anatomist’s Apprentice. Considered an exciting and “densely plotted yarn” by the New York Times, this tale of mystery and intrigue follows the exploits of an 18th century anatomist, Dr. Silkstone. Including detailed descriptions of the interior of bodies as well as minds, this novel appeals to the medical humanist in us all. Additionally, this is Tessa’s debut novel; today she will share a little bit about the process of getting genre-crossing works to a waiting public.
After studying History at Oxford University, Tessa Harris began a journalistic career in Lincolnshire. She progressed to a London newspaper, and later a feature writer on Best magazine. After two years, she was made editor of a regional arts and listings publication, and later deputy editor on Heritage magazine. In 2005 I was made editor of Berkshire Life magazine. Tessa always had literature aspirations, and in 2000 won a European-wide screenplay writing competition for a work later optioned by a film company. The script was set in 18th century London and subsequent research led Tessa to the invention of Dr Thomas Silkstone, an American anatomist and the world’s first forensic scientist.
THE ANATOMIST’S APPRENTICE
The unexplained death of young Lord Crick has unleashed a torrent of gossip through the seedy taverns and elegant ballrooms of 18th century Oxfordshire. Few mourn the dissolute young man – apart from his sister, the beautiful Lady Lydia Farrell. When her husband comes under suspicion of murder, she seeks expert help from Dr Thomas Silkstone, a young anatomist from the wayward colony of Philadelphia.
Thomas arrived in England to study under its foremost surgeon, but his unconventional methods only add to his outsider status. Against his better judgment he agrees to examine the young lord’s corpse. But it is not only the dead, but also the living, to whom he must apply the keen blade of his intellect. And the deeper the doctor’s investigations go, the greater the risk that he will be consigned to the ranks of the corpses he studies….
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Could you say a bit about your early experiences?
Even before I could write I used to ‘draw’ stories, so I guess I was born with an innate desire to tell tales and spin yarns. My first rejection from a publisher came when I was just eight. I sent a manuscript with illustrations to Collins. It was called The Adventures of Aunty Mary. Writing is simply my way of expression, my therapy if you like. I have a need to share stories with others. When I was coming up to my 50th birthday I thought: ‘If I died tomorrow, I would die unfulfilled.’ So, I decided to make that extra push to get my fiction published. And it worked!
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give this work the time and energy it so deserves?
My Oxford tutor told me my history essays were ‘too journalistic.’ I took that as a great compliment. I always knew I would write for a living. I wanted it to be fiction, rather than fact, but I was happy with either. When I left university I was offered a job as a croupier in a big London casino. My goal was to work at night and write during the day. (I’m not sure when I intended to sleep!) As luck would have it, I’d also applied for a job on my local newspaper as a reporter. I got it the same week and decided that being a journalist was probably the safer career move. But I never gave up on my fiction and wrote after work and at weekends.
I was freelancing when I won a screenplay competition. The script, based in the 18th century and featuring a young American anatomist, was optioned by an Irish film company and backed by a US producer. Everything looked good, but then it all fell apart, so I decided to use the screenplay as a basis for a series of novels and so the Dr Thomas Silkstone series was born. I had just finished it when I went back to work full time as a magazine editor, but I still sent it off to agents. Then, one evening in November 2009, I had an email from an agent agreeing to take me on. I knew it would be the start of an amazing journey and I was right!
3. As a medical humanist, I am of course deeply interested and inspired by the connections you have made between history, science, medicine and mystery. Can you speak to that intersection?
They say good historical fiction should hold up a mirror to contemporary society. I love the Age of Enlightenment in particular because there are so many parallels that can be drawn between then and now. Each age, of course, faces its own challenges, each as apparently insurmountable at the time as the previous one. I take great comfort from that fact. Man’s basic nature seems to change very little. It is how he solves problems and adapts for survival that alters with the centuries. To help him do that it is vital to have a well-rounded education that allows him to question and challenge as well as learn. Science teaches you to constantly challenge. Stop challenging and you stop progressing. History teaches you to learn from past experiences. The two are a perfect combination.
I love the fact that before the 19th century, great men of letters were polymaths. People like Franklin were scientists, musicians, writers, socialites. So the idea of melding medical history with prose really appealed to me. The period is so rich in anecdotes that illustrate the clash between superstition and science that it lends itself to wonderfully tense tales that are fraught with suspense.
4. You also work in the field of journalism. How do you navigate between genres, and do you think this helps to shape your fiction in particular ways?
When I go and write I tell my husband/friend/children that I’m going through my ‘portal’ into the 18th century. In my mind I picture an old, ivy-clad wall and a gate, where the blue paint is flaking off. That’s where I go to write my Silkstone series. Being a journalist does, however, mean that I like to get my facts right. (I’m horrified if a reader points out an historical mistake.) I much prefer fact-based novels to complete fantasy. There are so many utterly amazing stories out there, why do you need to alter the basic facts? In that respect my journalism has certainly helped. Researching is much easier as well, knowing where to go for information etc. As far as writing ordinary articles go, I still enjoy writing features, but my heart really lies in fiction.
5. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
Now that I’m lucky enough to be a more or less full-time writer, the discipline of my former working life is a great help. I like to start work by 9am and break at 1pm; back at work for 2pm until 4pm when I fetch my daughter from school. I tend to see to Facebook/Twitter etc. in the evenings, otherwise I could spend all day getting very little done.
When I get stuck on the page, I go for a walk. I nearly always come back with the problem sorted. I enjoy doing the research most of all and I tend to do this in one block, so that I can sit down and feel that I could write the novel without referring to any textbooks. I like to absorb knowledge so that the prose flows more freely onto the page. It takes me about four months to actually write the novel, then another month or so to revise.
6. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?
Just before I was published, I said to a friend of mine, now on her 15th novel, that I felt as though I was running out into a stadium with no clothes on! She said “Yes, and then the crowd make notes on your body!” Before I was published, I never actually really considered that readers would be posting reviews about my work. It’s been wonderful getting such positive feedback. When it’s not so positive, I’m grateful for constructive criticism, but I’ve also been surprized by how downright rude a few people can be, dismissing work in a damning sentence. Even as a professional critic, I am never totally negative when I’m asked to review a book, film or play.
7. Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or upon the need/value of agents?
Agents are a must. Don’t even think of trying to get published without one – unless you are self-publishing of course. Do your homework and see which agents are taking on what sort of work. Always check out their websites. Some of them even tell you what they’re looking for at the moment. The best site is http://www.agentquery.com I found my agent, Melissa Jeglinski of the Knight Agency, through the Historical Novel Society’s magazine, but it was more than a year before she finally took me on, so you need to be patient as well as persistent .
8. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
The novel that changed my writing and got me hooked on historical fiction was Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. I was completely spell-bound and just wanted to write like him. I’ve recently discovered Andrew Miller, who is also brilliant.
9. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
Many serious writers have their work appraised by professional editors these days before they send it to an agent. It’s expensive, but very often worth it My appraisal confirmed to me that it was worth persevering with my novel. i went to www.literaryconsultancy.co.uk. For writers of historical fiction, go to http://historicalnovelsociety.org. www.goodreads.com is the site for readers and reviews.
*NOTE from Bschillace: Another good resource for YA authors is the society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or SCBWI. They have two conferences a year (in NY and CA) and publish a newsletter/journal. For a fee (under 50$ for regional conferences, closer to $150 at national conferences), you can submit your work to be appraised by an agent or editor. I have found the SCBWI not only an excellent place to network, but also a great venue for getting honest opinions about your work’s viability.
Thank you, Tessa, for being with us today!
You can find Tessa on twitter and FaceBook!