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Sarah Perry: Melmoth – Birmingham Literature Festival

The final event we attended on the penultimate day of 2019’s Birmingham Literature Festival was Sarah Perry’s Melmoth. For the event, the author of The Essex Serpent was in conversation with writer and reader of Creative Studies at the University of Birmingham, Dan Vyleta, to talk about her latest novel, Melmoth, which was published last year and has just been released in paperback.

To open the event, Dan Vyleta gave a brief summary of Sarah Perry’s work and achievements so far before the author herself gave a reading from Melmoth from the book’s two openings, one of which is a letter and the other is what the author described as the ‘real’ opening.

Following this, the questions from Dan Vyleta to Sarah Perry began. Starting first with the book’s setting which Dan connected with because the narrative takes you to Prague, his parents’ city, so he was raised on the location’s myths and when he read it he felt like Melmoth was written for him. Perry explained that this setting came in part from “casting about for a setting that would drive the gothic” as well as the fact that she wanted to move away from East Anglia, which was the setting of The Essex Serpent. Prague itself came about merely from a nudge of fate which saw her apply for the UNESCO writer in residence based in the city, and although she failed to get the position she was lucky because they decided to fund an extra place, thus resulting in Melmoth’s gothic, Prague setting.

Sarah Perry began writing Melmoth in 2016, a year in which the UK was politically turbulent. Perry stated that we are “all individuals but all part of a collective,” adding, “we are all equally capable of contributing to the trash fire or putting it out.” Her latest novel, Melmoth has been likened to a candle in these dark times. Perry told the audience that authors may not always write about their beliefs but you should be able to discern them from reading their work.

Dan Vyleta and Sarah Perry also discussed the book’s plot which is based loosely on the 1820 book, Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin in which a man sells his soul to the devil for 150 extra years on Earth and soon learns to regret it. Sarah Perry took this story and dragged it into the modern era with a female Melmoth at the centre of her novel who sees all the grave crimes and sins around her. Sarah Perry told the audience that she wanted her novel to show that people are not monsters but they are influenced to make monstrous decisions by malice, a lack of learning or other aspects of life. Using the example of the concentration camps at the American border, Perry suggested that the people working there probably aren’t monsters at home. She added that people like to create monsters because it means we can say we’re good if they’re bad and therefore we don’t need to examine ourselves. But, “if there are no Monsters, no one is beyond redemption,” which is what Sarah Perry tackles in her novel. 

The pair then talked about how Melmoth plays with time. Perry explained that while she was writing the novel she was ill and in a lot of pain and therefore was often high on codeine, tramadol and a cocktail of painkillers. During this period, she realised that time isn’t as linear as we believe it to be and she enjoyed playing with the concept in her novel.

As Dan Vyleta and Sarah Perry’s discussion came to an end, there was just time for some audience questions. One member of the crowd asked Perry what she is working on now or next. In reply, Sarah Perry explained that she is currently working on a book which draws on herself and her unique, sheltered and religious upbringing. She also added that she spent several years working at the Inns of Court and has read plenty of crime fiction so she has also considered writing a book that pulls from this experience as it would be a shame to waste it.

While Perry writes these new books, why not pick up her published novels; After Me Comes the Flood, The Essex Serpent, and Melmoth which are all available to buy from all good bookshops and online retailers.

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