M.J. Carter is the author of The Strangler Vine, a wonderfully enjoyable historical thriller, set in the 1830s, in India. The novel introduces Blake and Avery, an investigative pair with hints of Sherlock and Watson – solid, dependable Avery is the sidekick to brilliant, but troubled, Blake. They are both employees of The East India Company. When their employers ask them to track down a missing poet, Xavier Mountstuart, they are forced to confront the Thugs, who roam around strangling their victims…or do they? Perhaps Company man, Major William Sleeman, is exaggerating their depravity? Perhaps Thugs are little more than vagabonds, and pawns in The Company’s power games? It’s a great book, and I urge you to read it. In the meantime, M.J. Carter answers a few questions.
In the endnotes, you call yourself a neophyte when it comes to India and its history, but you also mention your mother-in-law lived for many years in Madras / Chennai. How important, if at all, was this family connection? How come you decided to write about colonial India?
It was very important. My mother-in-law was the reason I heard about the Thugs and William Sleeman in the first place. I’d never have thought about writing about India if it hadn’t been for her. She was rather an amazing woman and was a nun in Chennai running the teacher training college there in the 1950s before she decided to renounce her vows. In fact my husband wrote a memoir about her, Family Romance, by John Lanchester. Her stories about the Thugs were the starting point, but what really got me interested was the fact that there was a fierce debate about whether the Thugs had existed or whether they were a convenient British fabrication, or myth. That gave me my story.
You live in London. Had you ever been to India prior to writing the novel? Afterwards? Do you think it’s important for a novelist to visit the places where her novels are set? If so, why? If not, why not?
I hadn’t ever been to India before I decided to write to the novel. And I must say I felt pretty intimidated by the idea. So I went – taking my family with me for the full two weeks – I couldn’t afford to stay longer. I went to Madhya Pradesh, the present day name for Saugor and Nerbudda territory, and visited Jabbalpur and travelled up and down the road from just south of Mirzapur, and saw tigers, ending up in Mumbai. I felt afterwards there was no way I could have comfortably written the novel without going, though what I got out of it was more impressionistic than specific: a sense of what the roads looked like and the plants and trees, and the smells, and the bungalows and what it felt like to be travelling in October and November. I didn’t manage to get to Kolkata and the Grand Trunk road, so I just had to rely on research and my imagination for writing about that – though I felt my trip had still helped, not least through giving me the confidence to feel I could write about it.
So yes, I do think it’s important to see somewhere you’re writing about, but not vital. I was a writer of historical non-fiction before I wrote The Strangler Vine, and since you can’t go back in time, for that kind of writing you have to rely on research and use your imagination. The writer’s work is to create a world that the reader finds sufficiently plausible and engaging - how they manage it is up to them. But for me, just being in India was immeasurably useful.
Were you at all daunted by the necessary historical research? And how did you go about it?
As I said, I was a writer of non-fiction before I came to The Strangler Vine, and so the historical research was the bit I felt really comfortable with. I’m good at absorbing large amounts of information. I basically read a lot of books: about East India Company India; biographies of Sleeman and his own writings; memoirs of British travellers in India; histories of the time. The person I completely fell in love with was the English traveller Fanny Parkes whose memoirs I found so terrific I decided to put her in the book.
I could just read for months. So the research felt like the safety net. At least I’d be able to create the period I was interested in. What really worried me was whether I could do character and dialogue and - most frightening of all - plot.
The novel includes a lot of Indian and Anglo-Indian vocabulary. Did you enjoy researching it? How did you decide which “native” words to use, which to exclude, which to explain, and which to assume readers would get from the context, or the glossary?
I’ve had a copy of Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary - the classic dictionary of Indian words that have sidled into English, pyjama, bungalow etc. - in the house for about 20 years, flicking though it from time to time. I wanted the characters to sound as authentic as possible, so I just scavenged everything I could from my reading - especially from contemporary accounts that gave glossaries - and then I glossaried as many words as possible, except where the meaning was explained in the text, or where it was very obvious from the context and only mentioned once. I did also find someone with a knowledge of 19th century Hindoostani to do a bit of checking and translating for me.
Did you feel constrained by the historical facts? Or anyway what is known of them / versions of them? Or did you feel free to ignore inconvenient truths if they got in the way of the novel?
I definitely relied on the history to provide a background. I don’t think I actively went against what I knew was the spirit of the truth – although, of course, I invented all my main characters, including Mountstuart. But the fact that the existence of the Thugs and Sleeman’s reputation are still argued over meant that I could play around within that. And I did really enjoy making stuff up.
What did you end up thinking about whether or not the Thugs were more-or-less conjured by officers of the East India Company, for their own policy ends?
Well, initially I rather did feel they were a convenient invention, but I have since talked to an anthropologist who lived a few years ago with a group in India who described themselves as a thieves’ caste. She said that, having spent several months with them, she went to read Sleeman’s material on the Thugs and was struck by how similar the language and customs he wrote about were. She thought Sleeman thought like an anthropologist 100 years before the subject was properly invented. Her work is still very controversial with certain post-colonial historians, whom I guess she quietly thinks put ideology before fact. I guess my feeling is that the whole thing was more nuanced and complicated than either side was willing to admit. That there probably were groups of people who called themselves Thugs but that they were as much conmen as murderers. And that the British whipped themselves up into a frenzy about them, and embellished the stories, and did use them as a convenient myth.
Is The Strangler Vine available in India? If so, how has it been received? If not, are there any plans for an Indian edition? And how would you hope readers in India respond to it?
Penguin haven’t done an India edition. I would love it if they did, but I have to confess a slight anxiety that some Indians would find it too Anglocentric - English protagonists solving English crimes, which I’d quite understand, and maybe accuse it of orientalism. I suppose I came at the subject from a funny angle. I had a character, Blake, I knew I wanted to site eventually in England - and possible make travel - but I wanted to give him a back story that didn’t involve England, and I wanted to write about the Thugs. I did toy with having an Indian narrator describing Blake, but I just didn’t think I could carry it off, whereas having a clueless young Englishman telling the story meant that if I didn’t know something, it was perfectly plausible that he wouldn’t too.
You discuss colonialism within a rip-roaring mystery-thriller. What are your thoughts on the divide within publishing and bookshops between genre fiction, and “literary fiction”? Do you think it’s a useful distinction, or not?
I love genre fiction, and films - I always have. When I thought about writing a novel it was always a crime or thriller novel. I like the directedness of crime fiction. I knew exactly what I’d want to write; I liked the ways that good crime novels give you a world: Carl Hiassen’s Miami, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, etc., and I felt I could do that. And I liked having the constraints of the crime novel and then finding ways of pushing the sides of the envelope a bit. I also think that of all genre fiction, crime lends itself to really interesting worlds, ideas and good writing. So I never felt cross about the distinction and I’m married to a writer of “literary fiction”. But ask me that question in ten years. I may feel differently…
The book has Western characters confronting the exotic, dark, mysterious, dangerous and depraved East. Were you ever at all worried about romanticising the East for contemporary Western readers? Were you wary of orientalism?
I’m really interested in orientalism. And I think it starts in that period – with Thomas de Qincey writing about the terrifying eastern numberless hoards, the various novels that were written about the Thugs, and the First Opium war in 1839. As for worrying about the book, as I said, I was a little anxious that the book might be seen as re-treading those old tropes, but I intended it more as a reworking of the old adventure stories with a more modern and satirical take - so that the British aren’t necessarily the heroes and the romance that Avery imagines is largely a fantasy with a nasty core. On the other hand, while I do completely understand the offensiveness of the idea of orientalism, the fact is that Westerners were, and are still, fascinated and overwhelmed and drawn by the difference and the beauty and exoticism of the East - for good or ill, it’s a fact. My hunch is that with the burgeoning economies of India and the countries further East - China - this may well be a romanticisation but it is also less and less an instrument of oppression.
The book is dedicated to your boys. It’s easy to see men and boys would love its derring-do, adventure, Thugs, fighting and gore - and the relative lack of soppy romance. Did you consciously aim for male readers? Did you publish as M.J. Carter to disguise you are a woman, and thus inveigle men into reading you? Do you think most of your readers have in fact been men?
Actually I wrote it, then my agent sent it out to publishers and the three or four who wanted to buy it ALL said: “you’ll have to be gender neutral”. I.e., that the primary or initial audience would likely be men, and men apparently won’t pick up books of this sort if they are obviously written by women, so my full name – which I’d used on my two previous big non-fiction books - couldn’t be used. So there you go. In 2014. But hey, if it sells more copies…
I’ve had a really big response from women!
The Strangler Vine is the first in a trilogy. The second book, The Infidel Strain, is to be set in England. Will it also concern skulduggery in the East India Company?
No - no East India Company in the next one, though a few nods to Blake’s past. The second one involves newspapers, pornography, Chartists, and Evangelical Christians – sex politics and religion. More of my historical hobby horses! And I’m just starting the third one now.
The Strangler Vine is published by Penguin, in paperback, priced in local currencies. To buy it from Book Depository, click here.