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I was first to read The Handmaid’s Tale, that’s my claim to fame: Valerie Martin on friendship with Margaret Atwood

American novelist’s latest book, Mrs Gulliver, reimagines Juliet as a cunning blind brothel worker

“Novels come from all over the place,” says the American author Valerie Martin. We’re talking about her new novel, her 12th, Mrs Gulliver, a wry examination of sex, love, marriage and the role money plays in the equation.

It is set on an imaginary island called Verona in 1954 and tells the story of Caritá, a destitute, beautiful blind woman who appeals to the eponymous brothel-keeper Mrs Gulliver for employment. Caritá proves popular with customers but when she starts a relationship with the son of one of the richest, most-respected families on the island, Mrs Gulliver is concerned. But Caritá has a plan of her own.

The character is based loosely on Juliet, although the idea came from Baz Luhrmann’s version rather than Shakespeare’s. “I really enjoyed the Romeo and Juliet film. In the scene where Juliet comes out on the balcony and Romeo is hiding out in the bushes, I thought, she knows he’s right there. So I got this notion of Juliet as really cunning. I started looking at the whole play. She’s a very impulsive and powerful character but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her played the way I wanted to see her played. I was thinking of her as a forceful personality.”

It’s not the first time Martin has been inspired by another character from literature. Her 1990 novel Mary Reilly was a retelling of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde through the eyes of the maid, Mary Reilly, and was later made into a film starring Julia Roberts. Why is she drawn to rewrite certain characters from literature or history?


“Part of the pleasure of reading a novel is imagining yourself in it and also allowing yourself to care about the characters. I loved the book Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I taught it for years. It’s just beautifully written and it’s a wonderful conception and I always noticed that maid who is weeping when the doctor comes in at the end and so I began to think of her as a character. What would she have known? It was sort of like the Juliet thing.” Researching such novels however can be “killing”, she says. “It’s one of the reasons why this book is set on an island that is nowhere in this world and has no history that I can offend people by not talking about.”

As Caritá's power increases, it’s especially enjoyable to watch her cut a swathe through the novel. “Some reviewers have accused her of being cold and manipulative,” says Martin.

Male reviewers? I ask. “You bet,” she says with a pursed smile. “One said my feminism gets in the way.”

The female characters in Mrs Gulliver are not victims. Martin does them the service of making them intelligent, quick-witted, curious, with different personalities, back stories and ambitions. They have kitchen-table conversations about economics and some are studying for college qualifications. Why did she choose to write the women and the brothel in this way?

“It’s me wrestling with the moral question of what is exploitation? Lila, the owner of the brothel has to ask herself what she is doing. In giving these young women work that no one should have to do, is that exploitation or is she helping them? It’s impossible to justify, but at the same time we have the example of Caritá, who uses the system that’s rigged against her to get her liberty and I think women have done that for centuries.”

In Mrs Gulliver, Martin casts a cold eye on the institution of marriage. “I had two divorces so I’ve given marriage a try,” she says. “[Marriage] is an agreement that two people enter and originally it was to consolidate property. I grew up in New Orleans and in Louisiana the Napoleonic code which Tennessee Williams was so amused by, if a wife brings property to a marriage it belongs to her husband, was the rule of the land. So women had to be very careful about getting married. It’s what comes up in my book Property [her 2003 novel for which she won the Women’s Prize]. That’s really my take on marriage. In this book that is what Caritá realises. It’s why some marriages stay together to this day because of property disputes. It’s easier to stay together than to divide the property.”

Martin had lived with her partner, the translator John Cullen, for 30 years when he died suddenly during the writing of Mrs Gulliver. In the acknowledgments, she writes that his enthusiasm for the project kept her writing and that she wrote the book for him.

“He was just such a brilliant person, a very interesting and unusual personality, and he usually read my books first,” she says. “I don’t punctuate very well and it would drive him absolutely crazy. I’d have to get the lecture about, ‘I don’t know where you were in fourth grade when we were taught the difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause ...” but I just sucked it up and he would fix all the punctuation. So he was really involved in all the books. Now my daughter, who fortunately is really good at punctuation, read and proofed this one.”

Martin still bears the genteel southern accent of her childhood spent in New Orleans. How important is place to her writing? “Place has had everything to do with my writing,” she says. She left New Orleans for an MFA in Massachusetts, and then lived in Rome with Cullen for three years. “That brought the Italian stuff into my work, Italian Fever, and I Give It to You, the story of how a wealthy Italian woman loses her house.” When they returned to the US they lived in New York state for 15 years before moving to Connecticut just a few years ago. “I think I’ll probably just stay here. There may be one more move. I’d like to be closer to my daughter but I’m not crazy about California.”

I was the first person to read The Handmaid’s Tale, so that’s my claim to fame

—  Martin on her friendship with Margaret Atwood

What’s her opinion on the current American political situation? “It’s a mess,” she says, “but it’s divided so evenly. What people never talk about is there’s not going to be any landslide elections. It’s all going to be close. It’s a fascinating political moment but it’s also scary.”

Why does she think people are so polarised in their views? “I’m not sure why it is. My sister is politically completely on the opposite pole than I’m on. We’re friends, we talk and laugh and some of the things she believes in are appalling to me and vice versa. If we can get through this election without some civil disorder, it will be fine.”

Like her good friend Margaret Atwood, Martin has a fine appreciation of deadpan humour. “We don’t talk about our work very much,” she says of her friendship with Atwood, “although she has three times – this time again – come to my rescue when I was having trouble finding a publisher, but for the most part we don’t talk about our writing life. But I was the first person to read The Handmaid’s Tale,” she says, ‘so that’s my claim to fame. She brought it to me and said, ‘Read this’, so I read it. She says that I said ‘I think there’s something in it’ but I think I said ‘You’re going to be rich’.”

Now 75, Martin continues to publish regularly, including short story collections and children’s fiction. “Writing books is a discipline and a practice and that’s something I’ve always just persisted in doing. I find it pleasurable.”

Has the publishing industry changed a lot since she began writing? “The big change is just wonderful in some ways. When computers were invented, everybody started talking about the death of the book but I went into my town bookstore the other day and I couldn’t get in the door it was so full of people buying hardback books. Independent bookstores have resurged after being almost wiped out by the big Barnes & Nobles, and interestingly they’re the ones who have folded. So there’s a big reading public. In some ways it’s good but what stuns me is just the number of books that is being published. It’s astonishing. You go and look at your number on Amazon and it’s 1,000,680, and you think, there’s 1,000,680 books out there?!”

As for Mrs Gulliver, Martin says she is just hoping her latest novel will find a good audience. “And I don’t think my feminism gets in the way.”

Mrs Gulliver is out now, published by Profile Books