It is always curious to see how writers will interpret their illness for the page. Doctors confine descriptors of pain and suffering to numbers: the four stages of cancer; the pain scale of one to 10. But what of our great communicators?
For Hilary Mantel, "Illness strips you back to an authentic self, but not one you need to meet." Joan Didion wrote of the "usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga, the concentration on the pain".
Sarah Perry is a novelist with two critically acclaimed novels to her name, but she more recently wrote an essay about her slowly unfurling experience with Graves' disease for the Guardian.
Originally thinking her physical weakness was owed to the anxiety of her writerly ambition, she wrote, “I was raised on a diet of original sin, and readily accepted that in this, as in all things, I was at fault.” And then later, “What I’ve learned is this: how little I understood the daily privations of chronic illness, and how often I’ve failed to be kind.”
Perry answers my early morning phone call with a trill "Sarah Perry!" that belies any illness. "I've had a whole pot of coffee," she admits. She's in Ireland in July for the West Cork Literary Festival. "I want to be completely left alone for a few days, and then I want to meet people, so the writer's life suits my temperament."
Perry's most recent book, The Essex Serpent, is a work of historical fiction. Stylistically similar to a 19th-century novel, it is the tale of Cora, a naturalist who blossoms after the death of her abusive husband, and leaves London for Essex where people are aflutter with talk of a terrifying mythical river creature.
It is about religion and science, and the breathless way the natural world can be beheld by people from either inclination. It is also a novel of ideas, about medicine and slum housing, feminism and superstition.
Historical fiction was a change in tone from Perry's first book, the taut Kafka-esque novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Perry is "constantly excited by the possibilities of the novel, so I wanted a change. But also I'm really interested in how the past is not always as different as everybody thinks."
However, she finds the label “historical novelist” can be burdensome. “It’s a way of side-lining a certain kind of women’s fiction which I find very frustrating because the best historical fiction is urgent, and politically astute and has a lot to say about the contemporary world.”
I wrote it before we had any idea that Trump and Brexit would happen and now people say this is very prescient
Perry is particularly fine in writing about collective fear of the unknown; the townspeople choose terror over understanding. There are also entire passages that resonate after the Grenfell fire. “We are punishing poverty,” one of the characters fumes about social housing. “It’s this kind of equivalence of morality and poverty, and the worthy and the unworthy,” Perry says now. “We haven’t come very far.
“I wrote it before we had any idea that Trump and Brexit would happen and now people say this is very prescient, because its about a community that is afraid of difference.”
Perry’s work tends to be labelled as gothic, a quality she attributes to her strict religious upbringing. “From a very young age I was reading the King James Bible, which is full of transgression and sin and anxiety and madness. I think it just formed my sensibility.”
Having now left the “fundamentalist sect”, where she attended church in a long skirt with a covered head, and a life that left her mocked at school and sheltered from any knowledge of contemporary culture, Perry’s writing now exists in that aftermath.
Faith and religion
“It’s my great preoccupation, this feeling of where do I belong. I describe myself as being post-religious, which is not quite the same thing as post-faith. I still have a faith but I don’t worship regularly. At one point in my life, I felt that I had arrived, I knew exactly what I believed in. I’m not there now.”
Did her writing life only truly begin when she moved away from religion? She says she had never made the connection before, “but yes it did. You know how lots of women have known all their lives in a kind of visceral way that they will be a mother? For me, that was writing. It was this absolutely existential need that this was why I was on this earth – but I never wrote.”
I remember saying that I sold my soul in order to be a writer
Aside from an occasional short story, she wrote nothing until commencing a creative writing MA at 26. There was a fear of failure, but also, “if you are absolutely in thrall to fundamentalist religion, you are silent and you are bound by what is unsayable and about what you must not do.
“So if you are a member of a church where everything that you do is scrutinised: can you imagine writing a novel where a character may sin, or someone may blaspheme? You simply can’t do it.
“I remember saying that I sold my soul in order to be a writer. It was necessary for me to leave behind the faith that has been the main driving force of my life if I was to write.”
So is there a sense of loss? She takes a deep breath. “Absolutely. If you’ve had a framework which provides you with your consolation, with your identity, with your family, and that has gone, that is a great loss. Occasionally I will go to church and they will sing the hymns that I still know by heart and I find it almost intolerably moving.”
Wisdom and misery
On her experience with chronic illness, Perry tells me that once she began to manage her Graves’ disease diagnosis, she became very ill again and had to have spinal surgery. Her previous experience with pain paled in comparison to what lay ahead.
“Definitely as a writer, I find myself altered by illness and suffering, I think it’s changed me in some fairly fundamental ways. It comes to everybody eventually, and the trick is to use it in a wise and compassionate way rather than be miserable.”
As with the upbringing which left her an outsider, she harbours no resentment. “What good does it do to bemoan things? I’m always more inclined to see the benefits. I think in some ways I would rather have been strange than ordinary. Of course, gradually everyone becomes normal, don’t they?
“I’ve been married for a very long time and my husband has been diligently introducing me to pop culture for the last number of years. But it was hugely formative in my youth, this feeling of having been born in 1895 and dropped down in the contemporary world, blinking and bewildered.”
Critics' comparisons between her writing and Dickens and Bram Stoker were inevitable when "the culture and ideas that I was surrounded by when I was growing up [were] fundamentally fairly Victorian."
What I really resent is the idea that I am a 'woman writer' because I don't go around thinking of myself as a woman
I ask Perry about another essay she wrote of her outraged response to a famous novelist who asked her why her first novel’s protagonist was a man, and was she not interested in the female experience?
“I am very aware of structural inequality and the necessity of feminism, but I think what I really resent is the idea that I am a ‘woman writer’ because I don’t go around thinking of myself as a woman. Biologically, it is fairly obvious that I am female but where it extends beyond that I don’t know.
Self vs gender
“People talk a lot about the female experience, and largely speaking it’s not really something I can identify with. I am not a mother. I’ve been fortunate enough to escape a lot of the negative stuff that comes with being female. I’ve never been sexually assaulted. I married very young so I haven’t had lots of relationships with men that might have formed my sense of myself. I don’t sit down and write as a woman, I sit down and write as Sarah Perry.”
Perry is still in recovery. “For a long time, I couldn’t even read never mind write because of heavy medication. But when I look back over the last year and think about how ill I’ve been, I think I’ve managed to write a couple of short stories, a novel. It’s not bad going.”
It sounds melodramatic but the woman that wrote The Essex Serpent is dead
She can reveal little about her new book except that it’s set in contemporary Prague, and is a horror novel – the last of her “gothic trilogy”. And her state of mind through illness is evident in the writing.
"It sounds melodramatic but the woman that wrote The Essex Serpent is dead. I feel like I wrote that in the last years of my youth when I'd never really been ill and I'd never really suffered and I was very bonny. I think I've sharply grown up, sharply aged. And so this book is a reflection of that. People might be slightly taken aback by it."
- Sarah Perry is at the West Cork Literary Festival on July 21. See westcorkmusic.ie