An Interview with Carol Birch
Words By Dani Hedlund
Where did the inspiration for Orphans of the Carnival come from?
It sprung from Julia Pastrana—I saw her image once a long time ago and it stayed with me. Then I saw her again years later and she came back to me in a big way. I read about her and she started to stay in my mind. I was terribly moved by the baby—her baby—and this, I think, was an instigator for the book. It seemed such a terrible thing. You never knew what became of him. He was just an object, a nothing, you know? I had a fair amount of interest in Julia, but this poor baby—I just wanted to do something for him. That sounds a bit silly but I just wanted to give him a kind of fictional closure. It sounds really psychobabble-y and silly but that’s what sparked it. And I just kept thinking how he’s been neglected in more ways than one.
So the book was based on real life events. What was the research like?
The research was fascinating. There was a lot to do because, actually, Julia never left anything in her own words. It’s all people talking about Julia—people’s interpretations of Julia. So you’re not getting a direct link to her. Reading all of these people’s accounts, you see how much she was filtered through peoples’ expectations. You have to hope through it all that some reality comes to you from the ether. But also through the characters and how they react to her because the character of Theo Lent was really interesting—he is such an important part of it. Previously, he’d always been portrayed as a villain. The more I researched him, the more I realized there is very little available—it’s kind of all going around the edges. But a more nuanced picture was beginning to come through somehow.
For example, his second wife, Marie, who survived him—I read an account of her by people who knew her and they say that she always spoke of him with affection. That’s part of his image, as well. In fact, in his later life, he was tormented by the past. He was a very flawed and very disturbed character. But the fact that he was tormented by guilt—by feelings of regret and remorse and so on—spoke volumes. So to see him from that point of view was interesting. Love takes many, many forms and it’s incredibly complex. So this picture that started to emerge was more complicated than “exploited and exploiter.” I think what was going on was far more ambiguous.
Where did the research end and the fiction begin?
It’s very mixed. It’s a complete mishmash, but I can’t stress enough that it’s a fiction. A lot of it is my surmising, supposition, and so on. The reality is gone, past. We can only interpret. I did do a lot of research and a lot of it is true, but a lot of it isn’t. For example, she lived with the Sanchez family as a child. However, I made up the characters in the Sanchez family and made up Solana because I thought she needed some kind of foundation in her childhood that had given her a strength—she certainly did have a strength. That had to be there somewhere. So these characters were made up, but the facts were true.
The story of her coming down from the mountains and her mother giving her to the Vaqueros is one version, but there are several versions. Her managers were all real—but I don’t know what they were like. The people she travels with are made up. But the facts basically are there: she traveled, she had several managers, she moved around, she started out on the freak circuit, and then started performing more on concert stages. She was a talented musician and ended up with Theo Lent, who took her to England. The fact that she was vilified in Paris and didn’t go there because they ran horrible things about her before she arrived—all of that’s true. The fact that she ended up in St. Petersburg. The circumstances of her baby and the death. What happened to Theo is also true—that he married again and they ended up in St. Petersburg with the wax museum and so on. So a lot of it is true. But I also had the freedom to make it up. My version is a novel. I would never dream of saying it was the truth.
You’re incredibly renowned for writing books that get to the heart of that big question we ponder as artists: What makes us human? In this book, there is a physical manifestation of what separates your character from humanity. What was it like to address that issue through your character’s appearance, rather than through a more subtle approach?
It’s very head-on with somebody like Julia. What struck me is, nowadays, it would have been very different, but at the time, her conditions weren’t understood at all. She was living at a time when the top medical man in New York could say with all seriousness, she is “hybrid”—she is half human and part something else. People could take it seriously. Through the book, I did try to reflect how she felt about that. Did she actually doubt her own humanity? Other people certainly did, many of them. In a way, I think she asks herself in the book, what the hell does it matter? I am what I am—even if I’m not human. Of course, she is human and everybody knows she’s human. But just supposing she wasn’t—I just kind of wanted to explore if the doubt was somewhere in her mind. If so, what did that mean to her? She read a lot, so she was not stupid, and it would have been absolutely wonderful and fascinating if she had left any kind of account. As far as we know, she didn’t. We know reports of conversations with her and so on. And she certainly was a brave woman who made the best of what she had. From all accounts of people who met her, she was mostly interested in people and liked meeting people. She was good company, she was cheerful. She did pretty well, I think, given the time and the circumstances. People with this condition nowadays, well—it’s more understood. They would be more accepted. There is no way that what happened to her would happen to anyone else today.
Did the voice of the narrative come quite easily to you, or was it something you struggled to find?
I don’t know what the real Julia was like, but my Julia came through quite well. The structure of the book was harder. Her story is not just about her physical life—it’s bigger than that. So I wrote from a modern perspective, and I wanted to give the story this sense of completion. When I was writing it, it was still developing. She was still in Oslo. There was a campaign to bring her home. She was taken home to Mexico, repatriated, and so on. That all happened when I was writing the book. It was kind of nice to see these things happening—it was still going on. The baby, of course, is long gone. No one knows what became of the baby—so that’s all fiction.
Can you tell me what the process was like from the beginning all the way to seeing it in print?
It was long and back-breaking. I had all kinds of problems through the writing. I went through these various stages and then I got back pain. So a lot of the time I was lying on my back, typing. It was so bad, it was awful. In the end, I was just struggling through it. But once you get to a certain point, you just want to finish it. You can’t just leave it. So I was struggling through it and it was quite a long process. Through that process, I was going through a lot of stuff for the previous book, which meant I was traveling a lot. So it wasn’t just like I could sit up in my room and work. So, physically, it was difficult. I actually knew what I was going to write. But it also took me three or four times to really nail that structure, I think. Maybe I still haven’t got it right. And Canongate has a long publishing process. They were really nice, but they don’t rush. So it was a long, drawn out process altogether. It seemed very long after delivering it. Then it went through a couple of tweaks and they kind of played around a while with the format and the typescript. But finally it’s out!
How does this book compare to other books you’ve written, in regard to process?
They’ve all been quite different. This has probably been a hard one. It wasn’t straightforward. I struggled a lot with many things. It’s a very emotional investment, with a book like that. You do an awful lot of thinking about things that are quite dark. It feels like you dived into something quite deep and you stay there for a long time and you’re never going to get out—and then you do come back.
Some books I’ve been less involved with. I was involved with Jamrach’s Menagerie in the same kind of way that took me to some dark places, like Julia did. It got me thinking about mortality and objects and why we feel this sense of sacrilege when human remains are involved. Even if we think of ourselves as a secular society, we still cringe at the desecration of a graveyard. Then there is the scientific view. My ex-husband gave away my lifetime collection of books—he said, “It’s just stuff.” It’s not just stuff.
The actual physical process was harder because of my illness. But apart from that, it was probably a very similar process. I’d go through a chaos stage and then a sorting out. It just goes on and on until you’ve got something. And you just work and work until you think, “Oh God, I can’t do it anymore.”
Do you ever feel like you’ve already said everything that you need to? How do you keep coming up with all these unique ways to inspire your readership?
I don’t know. To some extent, it’s some sort of weird compulsion. I don’t know if it’s quite neurotic, but I go through the phase where, at the end of it, I’m not writing for a while and apparently I’m not very good to live with at that time. I go through two stages. Shall I bother going through all of that again? It is hard. It’s blood sweat and tears. Why am I putting myself through this? You think, “I’ve got to go sit at that desk with my backache and do this work.” I could just keep all of this in my head really, couldn’t I? You know, retire. But part of me wants to do it. A lot of writers say they feel absolute joy while they are writing and I think that’s fantastic, but I think a lot of them do kind of find it painful, actually. There are times of great happiness where suddenly you think, “Oh, I nailed that bit!” You get a lovely kind of rush. That’s great, but, it’s not like that all the time. It sometimes seems so slow that you’re climbing a mountain and you’re never going to reach the top. But you just have to keep going. You don’t hit the right one every time. I think it’s a bit masochistic perhaps, going back to it. But I do keep going back to it.
So if you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I’ve done lots of ordinary jobs. I wouldn’t want to be just sitting in an office all day or anything like that. I could have taught, actually. I did a lot of work teaching people with special needs. I could have worked with people like that—teenagers, young people, with various special needs from Down syndrome to kids who just had a rough background. I might have done something like that.
What was the one thing that you wanted to say, in one or two sentences, with Orphans of the Carnival?
I’m not sure I wanted to make a statement so much as ask questions. The question of what it is to be a human being, what it is to be different, and how people look at you when you’re different. It’s such a very complex thing. I think I did all I could with that, really. I’m actually satisfied. I wouldn’t want to do anything more.