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.
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.
Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood (Serpent’s Tail, 2014), 240 pages.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)