Jess Faraday’s debut novel, The Affair of the Porcelain Dog, is a Lambda Literary Award finalist for gay mystery. Writer Jeffrey Ricker talked with her recently about her debut, her upcoming novel, and how historical fiction can be relevant to and address contemporary issues.
Jeffrey Ricker: Congratulations on being a Lambda award finalist! I loved The Affair of the Porcelain Dog. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down; I frequently overshot my lunch hour because I wanted to read one more page. How did the idea for that book come about?
Jess Faraday: Thanks! The book actually evolved from an exercise I did with my writing group. The exercise was to take a character from something we were working on and put that character in a completely different time and place. I took a sorcerer’s assistant from a swords-and-sorcery piece and put him in a Sherlock Holmes story. The more I worked on it, the more I realized that there was just so much more to be said.
JR: You’ve trained as a linguist and translator. Tell me a little about what that entailed. How would you say that’s influenced your writing, if at all?
JF: I’ve always been fascinated by language and words—not just nuances in meaning, but the rhythm, color, and music of it. I’ve always loved these things, and I try to incorporate them into my writing, hopefully without going overboard. I love translation because one has to really think about the shades of meaning of key words, and the greater picture created when all the words come together. It’s the same when writing a story: the rhythm, color, and music created by the language gives the story a certain feel that affects setting, plot, and character, but registers on a completely different level.
JR: What is the most challenging thing about writing?
JF: Getting through the first draft, which will always be completely crappy. Subsequent drafts are easy. Fun, even. Because it means turning garbage into something nice. But getting through that first draft can be a nightmare.
JR: What made you decide to write a novel from the point of view of a gay man in Victorian London? Did you ever have any concerns about creating an authentic voice for that character?
JF: I think every writer wants to create believable, sympathetic characters. I do, and I hope that if my characters lack authenticity as either gay men or as Victorians, that they’re at least believable as people.
I did a lot of sociological research about London in the late Victorian era—not just specifically about the lives of gay men, but about relationships between men and women, different races and social strata, and how these things fit together (and also lighting, personal hygiene, battlefield medicine, pollution of the Thames, and the history of envelope sealants).
The idea to make the main character the crime lord’s lover, rather than just his assistant, sparked when I came across the Labouchere Amendment, which aimed to protect women and girls from exploitation by criminalizing “indecency” between men (huh?)—not only actual sexual acts, but attempted acts, with no evidence required. It sounded so much like today’s hysterical “think of the children!” rhetoric that I had to include it somehow. Also, it made the resolution of the plot that much more pressing!
JR: Part of the writer’s function is to engage with and comment on contemporary culture. You wouldn’t think that historical fiction could do that, but Porcelain Dog was a very accessible novel, and seemed to resonate and not be so far removed from modern culture, while at the same time being grounded in Victoriana.
JF: We like to think that human societies are continuously evolving forward, becoming better, smarter, more enlightened, etc., with every passing generation. But it simply isn’t true. We keep dealing with the same conflicts over and over. Money. Sex. Power. Love. How we think about them may be different in different times and places, but the conflicts are always the same. They’re never solved forever, and they never go away. I think addressing the universal conflicts that have always been with humanity, and always will be, is what makes historical writing interesting and accessible to others.
JR: What are you working on now? How is it similar or different from Porcelain Dog? Do you think you’ll ever revisit the character of Ira Adler in a future book?
JF: Right now I’m finishing another mystery, this time set in early 19th-century Paris. The protagonist is the last remaining female Sûreté agent after the resignation of Sûreté founder Eugène Vidocq. Unlike Porcelain Dog, this book has a significant supernatural element. I’d say it’s closer to speculative fiction than to pure historical fiction.
The next book on the docket is the sequel to Porcelain Dog. =)