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Stephen Gallagher's The Kingdom of Bones

Set in the nineteenth century, Stephen Gallagher's The Kingdom of Bones is one of the more intelligent and suspenseful historical thrillers I've read recently. Pursued by Inspector Sebastien Becker, suspect and former boxing champion Tom Sayers must evade the law while trying to discover the truth behind a series of murders of possible supernatural origin. Not only does the novel manage to evoke a bygone era without overwhelming the reader with too many details, it includes Bram Stoker as a character in a way that isn't facile or gratuitous. Gallagher, a screenwriter and director in addition to the author of fourteen novels, kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for Amazon. (For more information on Gallagher, visit his website.)

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Amazon.com: Could you describe your surroundings as you answer these questions?
Stephen Gallagher: I'm in my study with a bare wood floor and a beamed ceiling that goes all the way up to the roofline. The lighting comes from a rack of spotlights on one of the beams. There are two desks back-to-back with a flatscreen monitor on each and a swivel chair so that I can spin from one to the other in your basic Evil Genius world domination setup. The house is a rural Victorian cottage about half an hour's drive from Lancaster, England, and until ten years ago this room was just space above the garage. Back then I rented an office in town, but it made more sense to spend the money creating a dedicated workspace while putting the house back to its period look.

Amazon.com: What provided the spark for The Kingdom of Bones?
Stephen Gallagher: Writing a short story called "Old, Red Shoes" for a Ripper-themed collection edited by Gardner Dozois. It was a contemporary tale but the work involved visiting all the Whitechapel locations and researching the period, and I came out hooked. Not so much on the Ripper stuff as on that whole rich and epic environment. I saw the prospect of attempting something utterly real and historically accurate, but with a genuine operatic sweep.

Amazon.com: I assume there was some research involved. Can you share a few interesting details that didn't make it into the novel?
Stephen Gallagher: It was fascinating to sort through Bram Stoker's working papers for Dracula in Philadelphia's Rosenbach museum and get a sense of another writer's process. The way he sketched out rough structures for each chapter and set a wordage target for each, striking each one out with a single pencil stroke when the chapter was done. Sudden flashes of insight scribbled on hotel stationery. None of this makes any direct appearance in The Kingdom of Bones, but it helped me get a real sense of Stoker's presence. As you probably know, he was Henry Irving's right-hand man and stood right at the heart of the theatrical and social scenes of the day. But no contemporary portrayal ever quite seems to nail him.

That visit was part of a bigger research trip following the progress of the Irving company's 1903 tour down the Eastern side of the US. I started in Philadelphia and made my way to New Orleans. So many old theaters, civic buildings, and sometimes just pieces of history that were rotting away. I stood in the very cellar of the house where Poe wrote "The Black Cat." I climbed a rickety curved roofspace ladder to the highest point of a paper-thin dome and looked down through a spyhole to see the stalls of a Richmond playhouse a hundred feet below. I got to walk through the ruins of plantation houses and spend the night in converted slave quarters.

But then there was stuff that was much closer to home, as well. Some of the British sections of the story take place in the industrial North, where my roots are. I found my grandfather's entry in the 1901 census; where he was living, the people he was sharing a house with, what their occupations were. He died when I was a child, and I never knew him well. He was eleven when the census was taken.

Amazon.com: Besides making sure the historical detail didn't overwhelm the story, what was the biggest writing challenge for you with this novel?
Stephen Gallagher: There were so many strands that it allowed me to pull together. The biggest challenge was in making them all work to a single end. I wanted to capture some of the energy of the old dime novels and story papers but also to be able to say something meaningful about love, death and obsession along the way. However you think I did, give me some credit for aiming high. There's no reason why popular fiction should be devoid of theme, and no reason why serious art shouldn't entertain.

Amazon.com: Do you have a favorite scene in The Kingdom of Bones?
Stephen Gallagher: That would have to be the scene where Tom Sayers climbs up into the ironwork of a railway bridge to take shelter and to hide from his pursuers on the day of his arrest. He's got nothing but the clothes he's wearing and the coat he just stole from a beerhouse, and no money for food other than some pennies he found in the coat's pocket. Steam trains are thundering over his head, and smoke and sparks are falling around him like fairy rain. It's the first time he's been able to stop and draw breath. He's been falsely accused, beaten by the police, and faces a hanging if they catch him. But all he can think about is the safety of the woman he loves. That's despite the fact that she doesn't love him back, and almost certainly never will. I suppose it's my favorite scene because it's one of those moments where we can see fate being determined by character.

Amazon.com: What has reader reaction been like to the book?
Stephen Gallagher: Unbelievable. I mean, genuinely. Complete strangers have been tracking me down just to tell me how they feel about it. It's only been out a few weeks and it's drawn the biggest reader reaction of anything I've ever done. People are doubling up copies to give them as Christmas presents. Which I'm entirely in favor of.

Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Stephen Gallagher: Another big period story. It's not a sequel, but a standalone novel of similar character. Some of the same people play a part, but you see them at a very different time and place in their lives. What I do next may depend on the progress of the WGA strike. The format rights of my last UK series have been picked up by Jerry Bruckheimer and that's opened some doors into American TV, but everything's on hold until the issues are resolved. But earlier this year I roughed out the key story points for a third book in The Kingdom of Bones vein, so there's no danger of me standing idle.

Comments

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I'll have to check this one out! Sounds excellent.

While we've all been familiar with the Victorian--though perhaps Gallagher's book is technically set in the Edwardian--era since childhood--through visiting old people's homes, if we are old enough ourselves!--and reading authors like Conan Doyle, I still remember my utter fascination at first being exposed to (something like) a "complete Victorian environment." This was at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria--it's a permanent exhibit which is still there and still fascinating.

I remember thinking, "Wow! These people had all these intricate, well-made, manufactured devices to do [almost] everything we do!" It wasn't so much like looking at The Past, as it was looking at an Alternate Present.

It sounds like Gallagher has successfully captured that same sensation.

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