Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a spellbinding and widely acclaimed tale of curiosities, desires, seduction and obsession, centring around the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels of late 18th-century London. She offers a peek inside her southeast London home on a typical writing day.

Where are you now?

On my sofa with a cup of tea, listening to Storm Diana rattling at the windows.

Where and when do you do most of your writing?

At our dining table. I have a study but I love being at the big table for some reason. I’ve spent so many years having no desk or workspace of my own, I think I’m more used to doing it in communal spaces like living rooms and libraries.

If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?

Make a cup of tea, light a nice candle. I can get quite faint-hearted about diving into a big document, so sometimes I’ll dash off a bit of flash fiction just to remind myself how to write.

Full-time or part-time?

I’m full-time right now, which is lovely.

Pen or keyboard?

Keyboard. I used to be the sort of person who was always scribbling away in a notebook, but smart phones have killed that a bit, I’m sorry to say. I write everything on the computer now.

How do you relax when you’re writing?

Writing is relaxing! Sometimes. When it isn’t, anything else is relaxing. I do a lot of laundry. I like to swim, have baths, and go for walks.

How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?

Superstition, spectacle, sensation and sex in Georgian London – with a side order of grief and unease.

Who do you write for?

Myself, I think. I try not to think about anyone else reading what I write; I just try to craft the story to the best of my abilities and sensibilities. If I feel I did it right, and can stand by it, that’s what matters.

Who do you share your work in progress with? 

My partner, although he reads very slowly and carefully, so by the time he’s ready to discuss it I’ve already redrafted. I don’t think I’ll show the novel I’m working on to anybody until I’m ready to pass it on to my agent.

Which literary character do you wish you created?

Grace Marks from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Her voice is so clear. That was the book that illuminated for me what historical fiction can be and do.

Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.

Hadrian’s address to his own soul, which starts “Animula, vagula, blandula”. It has a great array of translations, all quite different in tone, style and character, but somehow still capturing the flavour of the original.

Which book do you wish you’d written?

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge.

Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?

My last standout read was Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller. I’ve mentioned it a lot lately, but I’ve come across little to match it for pure reading pleasure.

What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?

Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson, The Golden Thread by Kassia St Clair, and some biographies of Queen Anne.

Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?

So many. So, so many. When I was younger I was always worried about running out of certain authors’ books, but now I’m more bothered by the fact that there are so many wonderful books in the world that I can never get to read them all.

Which book/s do you treasure the most?

The editions I first fell in love with. I still have the very mangled copy of Jane Eyre that I first read when I was eleven, decorated with Smash Hits stickers of Leonardo Di Caprio.

What is the last work you read in translation?

Scars on the Soul by Françoise Sagan.

Which story collections would you particularly recommend?

Picador brought out a great Best of Saki back in the 80s. Sleep It Off, Lady by Jean Rhys, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi.

What will you read next?

I just got a proof of The Wych Elm by Tana French which I feel very jammy about.

What are you working on next?

A novel quite different from The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock but probably also very similar because it’s still by me. It’s set in 1960s London.

Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?

I don’t think I’d be good at this. Imagine how much Samuel Johnson would loathe Oscar Wilde. I’d like to just go window-shopping with Aphra Behn or something.

If you weren’t writing you’d be…?

Sadder.

 

Author portrait © Ollie Grove

Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History at UEA before undertaking UEA’s MA in Creative Writing. She won the Curtis Brown Prize for her dissertation, which grew into the novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. An early draft was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition 2015, and it was also one of three entries shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award. On publication in January 2018 it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and she is shortlisted for The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, the winner of which is announced on Thursday 6 December.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Harvill Secker/Vintage Digital. The paperback edition (Vintage, £8.99, 24 January 2019) is also available for pre-order.
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The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with Warwick University, is awarded for a full-length published or self-published work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by an author aged 18–35. The winner receives £5,000, and there are three prizes of £500 each for runners-up. Inaugurated in 1991, past winners include Helen Simpson, Caryl Phillips, Patrick French, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Robert Macfarlane, Adam Foulds, Sarah Howe, Max Porter and Sally Rooney.
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