From a watchmaker who can “remember” the future during the time of the Japanese civil war, to a man who is turning into stone in historically accurate 1800s Peru, British author and Betty Trask Award-winner Natasha Pulley’s stories are far from your typical historical fiction.
Having historical and fantasy worlds collide is a regular occurrence in her novels. In an interview organised by the British Council at the Hong Kong Book Fair, she tells Young Post how she does it.
“The way I think about history is the same way I see archaeological digs,” Pulley tells us.
“You dig out what you can, and … someone will try and reconstruct [the original structure]”.
She says that historical fiction writers approach the past through known facts and ruins, but their knowledge is still limited. Sometimes all you have to rely on is what other people have written about the past, she says.
Instead of reconstructing history as a typical historical fiction author would, Pulley likes to use a different approach to explore the past.
“You can say, ‘I know that really, this amazing church would have had wooden doors, but wouldn’t it be cool if it had glass doors?’,” she says. Though glass doors may not have existed in the period she was writing about, she uses her artistic licence to add colour to her story. “If you open up a space like that, you show it off in a different way” Mixing in a little bit of fantasy, Pulley says, allows you to show things in a different light and highlight bits that people wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
We wondered how Pulley so vividly describes places and people of bygone eras without a time machine. She explains that it’s a matter of focusing on the universal human reactions people share.
“Whoever they are, wherever they’ve been brought up, people are still people,” says Pulley. She adds that if you’re interested in writing about characters who are not you, you have to explore the experiences that you have in common.
She believes that there’s no time like the present to practise focusing on similarities rather than differences. “It’s really important to make sure that we’re empathising with everyone and not just the people who look like us and have been brought up in the same place as us.”
Her next book will take her across the globe to Egypt, in a novel that will explore the season of dust storms in the 1950s, just after the second world war. “For 50 days from the start of April, this incredibly hot wind starts to blow up through Egypt from the Sahara, and what it brings is all the dust … from the desert [which] engulfs everything in this incredible orange smog,” she explains. “As soon as I saw that, I was like ‘But what if the dust was to bring something with it? What if there were things in the dust?’ … That’s what I’m enthusiastic about [writing] at the moment.”
Pulley’s advice to young people who are interested in writing is to pay attention to how the story is being told in the books that you read. “Ask yourself how has the writer made you feel [tension] like that?” she says. Then underline the moment you first started to feel uneasy and apply that same technique in your own writing.
She also advocates reading the books that you hate. “If you look at a book and go ‘That shouldn’t have happened. I could do that much better’, great! Rewrite it how you wanted it to happen.”