Natasha Pulley's first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, spins time—and the heart—upside down as a British civil servant realizes an anonymously gifted pocket watch has saved him from being killed in an explosion. Who was his benefactor, and did that person know about the explosion ahead of time?
Now Pulley returns with The Bedlam Stacks, one of our picks for the best science fiction and fantasy novels of August 2017. Set during 1859 in England and Peru, this complex, immersive story is about a broken man seeking purpose among the inexplicable mysteries that surround him as he searches for a new source of quinine. A marvelous mix of historical fiction and the fantastical, The Bedlam Stacks starts slowly, so be patient—much as you would be patient with the growth of a new, strange, and ultimately beautiful friendship.
We spoke with Natasha Pulley over coffee earlier this year about her novels, seeking new adventures, and what's next.
Natasha Pulley: Watchmaker is set about 25 years after Bedlam. It’s a period of huge change, but it’s the period of huge change before the one that we know—so it’s before the electrical revolution. But all kinds of things [during the books] are very, very different to how they would have been 50 years before. We’ve got the Underground system in England that opens in 1863, but it’s big by the 1880s. Steam trains are pumping sulfur in the air, and London is consumed by smog. Mechanisms are suddenly more complicated than they ever used to be. You can be confused by everyday objects, really for the first time in history.
Take the light bulb. You can’t just look at a light bulb and understand how it works. You can’t look at a pocket watch and understand how it works. Which is great from a fantasy point of view, because it means that you can make ordinary objects very mysterious. And perhaps they do things of their own accord and maybe they don’t.
But for me it was the pocket watches and the light bulbs and these new little mechanisms that you see everywhere.
I went backwards [in time] with Bedlam Stacks because after I’d written Watchmaker, I was so sick of machinery and engines that I said, “I’m going to do a book about plants. It’s just plants this time.” [Laughs] And then clockwork invades a little bit. But that was it. I wasn’t going to do any more. I don’t think there were even trains in Bedlam. So I went completely the other way.
Tell me more about the genesis of The Bedlam Stacks.
I got very interested in this particular decade, the 1850s-1860s, because it’s the rise and fall of the East India Company. In the early 1850s, the East India Company has the resources and power of a nation-state. And then, having caused terrible problems in China, they’re nationalized almost overnight and become the India Office. And rightly, they said, this was the greatest robbery in the history of the world. Billions of pounds’ worth of revenue. And I got really interested in that.
I’d written this chapter that was set in China at the very beginning of the Second Opium War, and I was like, “This doesn’t really link to anything but I went to China, so I think I want to get [my character] over there.” But then appallingly late in the process, I was like, “Do you know what? You should do some research and see if it does actually link to anything.” Then: “Oh! The Second Opium War was caused by the East India Company. Maybe Merrick should work for the East India Company.” So the whole process starts as whim, then very gradually gets linked up with facts.
Do you write the story and then fill in the facts later, or do you pull a whole bunch facts together and create a story out of that? Or is it a combination?
It’s definitely the first one. Character always comes first. Merrick and Raphael [of The Bedlam Stacks] came first. Mori and Thaniel [of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street] came first.
A lot of the time in the early drafts, setting is really a kind of placeholder, because I know I’m going to have to do some more research. So I never name coins or anything like that because I’m never sure about what coins they use. I’m like, “They handed over some money” rather than farthings or sovereigns or whatever. I need to see the shape of the story before I’m going to invest time in going over the details. For me it’s like sketching. You do the big shape first, and then you concentrate on the brocade on someone’s sleeve or something like that. And for me, the historical details are very much the brocade on someone’s sleeve in the oil painting. So that comes in very late. [Laughs] But hopefully it does go in properly. It’s not just an afterthought—it does go in.
One of the things I loved about The Watchmaker of Filigree Street was how important the interpersonal relationships were.
And that’s what I was interested in, definitely. I think I’d gotten to draft number two when my editor tapped me on the shoulder and went, “You realize this should have a plot somewhere along the line. It can’t just be a series of conversations between these two people where it never goes anywhere. Something needs to happen.” So [character] is definitely what comes first. And it was exactly the same process with The Bedlam Stacks.
When you look at the books you’ve written, do you see a theme that runs through them?
Oh, yes; I just write the same book again and again and again! [Laughs] The pattern is always: Relatively ordinary person becomes very unhappy with their ordinary dull, gray life, meets someone much more colorful and interesting, and adventures ensue. That’s everything that I write! Again and again. There’s no escape. I try to do something different, and then I’m like, “Oh, no, you just wrote the same novel again.”
That’s not to say that any of the characters are really just sides of me. I do tend to write from a male perspective. And largely that’s escapism. If you have to live being a 28-year-old woman, you don’t also want to write about it. I read for escapism: I love high fantasy; I love Game of Thrones. So in fiction I want to live something that’s not what I live normally. And I write for the same reason.
The Bedlam Stacks is your second novel that’s been published. Had you written books before Watchmaker?
I have the inevitable, awful high fantasies that lived in a drawer for a long time before I burned them happily. [Laughs] Bedlam is the second one to be published. But books three and four have been sold as well, and three is being written now but four was already written, because we decided to publish them in an odd order. And now I’m also trying to work on book five. I’m trying to get ahead of the curve here. It’s not working but I’m trying.
What have you read lately that you’ve been recommending to people?
I came to Daphne du Maurier really late. I don’t know how I managed to avoid her. But I did. And it was only this year that I read Rebecca. I was totally blown away by it. Really loved it. Wished to marry Max de Winter immediately. This is also because I really love Jane Eyre, and this is basically Jane Eyre but a century later. So Rebecca is thing one. Thing two: There’s a guy called Robert Harris who writes thrillers but they’re really good thrillers. And his most recent one is called Conclave. And it’s set a couple of years in the future and it’s about the process of electing a new pope. It’s all set inside Vatican City while conclave is going on—while the election is going on. The entire cast are these arch-conservative Catholic men, and it’s about what happens when you throw a spanner in that. Something really unexpected happens at the end. It was the best novel I’ve read all year, apart from Rebecca. And there’s another writer called Michelle Paver, whose most recent novel was called Thin Air, and it’s a ghost story. It’s set on a mountain and everyone’s gotten altitude sickness, and they start seeing things because they have altitude sickness. And it’s great.
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