The Genesis of ‘After Me Comes The Flood’ – Sarah Perry

Written by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry has lived in Cambridge, Manila and London. A winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial prize and a Royal Holloway doctoral studentship, she was Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library in January 2013. She has written for a number of magazines including the Spectator and Aeon. After Me Comes The Flood is her debut novel.

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry

When I began writing my novel, and was younger and tactless and not very skilled at examining myself, I had a habit of being scathing about writers unable to write anything but autobiography, however thinly veiled. I’d declare that nothing in my book had anything to do with me: that I’d led a very dull life (which is true), and was more interested in others than in myself (which is not), and that I relied solely on my imagination.

If you’re thinking what a pompous and irritating creature this must’ve made me, you’d be right. And if you’re thinking how very mistaken I was – that whatever I wrote, there I’d be – you’d also be right.

I realise now – blushingly, and with apologies – that things I’ve seen and things I’ve done are in every line of After Me Comes the Flood (“Um, well: of course!” you’re thinking).

When I defended the novel as part of my PhD, my examiners asked how I’d come to write it. It seems odd now to realise that no-one had ever asked me this before. “Where d’you get your ideas?” may be the bane of authors’ lives, but it was a question that had never come my way. I was so used to thinking of it as having been a product of nothing but imagination – moreover, an imagination I’d somehow cultivated out of thin air– that I stammered over my reply.

The truth, as I now see it, is that the book was born of two parents – a sermon, and a house.

Mine was a profoundly religious youth, in which parties and music and films and fashion were replaced with ancient hymns, recitations of the King James Bible, and long sermons delivered from high above the hard pews where I sat. These sermons – and the cool, high-vaulted chapel where I heard them – had a more lasting effect on the development of my imagination than almost any other aspect of my childhood.

The ones I remember most were on the subject of love. I often heard how in the Koine Greek of the New Testament there were several words for love, where our impoverished English had only one.  There was agape, the benevolent, spiritual love; eros, the love of desire or intimacy; philia, the bonds of love between friends; and storge, for natural affection.

I became alert to the ways in which ‘love’ has become used: the anxiety of saying it, or hearing it said, as if it were part of a transaction, and the yardstick against which it’s measured (“Oh that’s not love! Not if she did that…”). I wondered how we’d think and feel if many more kinds of love were given legitimacy: if saying “I desire you” or “you are my friend” was as beautiful and valid as “I love you”.

With After Me Comes the Flood, I thought (perhaps cruelly) what fun it would be to take a man who’d never loved – not really, not satisfactorily – and throw him into a place boiling with every kind of love going. Damaged and damaging, pure and illicit, carnal and friendly, intimate and estranged: the whole lot. And I know I wouldn’t have done so without first having heard those sermons by gravely-bearded men (who could’ve had no idea that twenty years later a version of them would surface, sadly singing, in After Me Comes the Flood).

There are eight characters in this book, and one of them is bricks and mortar. The house where John Cole finds himself is invested with as much power as any of its residents. Its rooms and its dying garden and its glasshouse all exert an influence: it’s the first stranger John sees and has a pull on him as strong as any of the men and women in its walls.

I wrote about the power of place in my PhD thesis, particularly the importance of buildings in the Gothic (a genre which I find myself inhabiting without ever having meant to). Fiction in the Gothic inheritance makes much of the potent importance of the interior, from the castle where Jonathan Harker finds himself holed up to Thornfield, and from the suburban homes in Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black to the ghastly crypts in The Monk.

Most of us, I daresay, find ourselves deeply affected by our surroundings – in my case, absurdly so. When I was a child, the journey home from school took us over a badly-stained concrete flyover from which you could see nothing but a grim industrial estate. However high my spirits at one end of the flyover they’d be in the gutter by the other end, so that I took to closing my eyes as we approached and asking my Mum to tell me when it was safe to open them again.

I’ve never much liked to be seen, much preferring to be curled on the floor in a dark corner somewhere, and so when I think of my youth, it is almost always surrounded by four walls. There was the grammar school with its parquet floors and its curiosity cabinet that I always paused to open on the way to assembly, and the chapel with its gallery where the pipe organ made the oak floor shiver and there were little box pews where you could lock yourself away. And (as I realised only recently, with a shock of recognition) there was Hylands House, a grand white home fallen into disrepair where as a little girl I climbed its stone lion statue and as a young bride I walked under the oaks.

Sitting in my study years later writing my story, I never once thought of those sermons, or that house: not really. When I said that my writing had nothing to do with me, I never meant to lie. I simply never realised that it’s all absorbed into me, firing away in my neurons or hurtling through my blood, forming my imagination without my ever being aware. And I’m glad of it.
SNB logo smallSarah Perry’s novel, After Me Comes The Flood will be published by Serpent’s Tail in June 2014.

 

4 thoughts on “The Genesis of ‘After Me Comes The Flood’ – Sarah Perry”

  1. Only just read this fab piece – and now very keen to explore the novel at some point!

  2. just read this wonderful piece – can’t wait for the book. all those memories about chelmsford brought a tear to my eye!!!

  3. David Spanswick says:

    Have just read and reviewed this extraordinary book, can this review find its way to the author please:

    When I was a young school boy I learned that opening a new book was like the start of an adventure and a journey. At that time I was studying a French novel “Le Grand Meaulnes” by Alain-Fournier, a book to which this novel has already been compared. It deals with a magical, timeless place that is enchanted ~ the metaphor is one of the unattainability of childhood once passed.

    In this superb allegorical and, to use big categorical language, existential, book Sarah Perry has tapped into something quite extraordinary as she not only has achieved something in writing that is rare indeed, a way to interact with her reader in a way that is both involving and disturbing ( I almost expected to see my self appear at the edge of the reservoir peering down into the drowned village) but also written a new kind of mystery that is uncategorisable

    The central Everyman character, John, fleeing from a pointless unrewarding life is drawn magnetically towards the ramshackle estate that has become an asylum for so many dispossessed folk. The fact that he is welcomed, not as a stranger but as an expected guest and appears to be already “known” by the inhabitants delivers us helpless readers into a surreal (or rather hyper real as the sun is so bright and the green is so green) narrative that is so compelling I, for one, had to ration myself since I seemed to have a struggle getting out of the story and back to the normality of life.

    Sarah Perry has a magical gift and can pack a seemingly simple story with enough esoteric mythology to fill an encyclopedia that leaves you wanting more and yet also with that child like fear of discovery without explanation.

    To say that this is an extraordinary novel does not do it justice and comparisons would be churlish ( any reader will find the ones they want to help them cope with the disturbing elements found here). Rarely do books stay with the reader so long after the last page has turned. But I longed to set out and find the “haunted” house and meet up with the “mad” characters. I wanted to explore the house whose geography both baffles and intrigues.

    I doubt I will read another such book this year.

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