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Q+A with Elizabeth Macneal (author of The Doll Factory)

David Bloomfield (DB) – I thought I’d start this interview off with the really hard hitting subjects; can we discuss the wombat that indulges in chocolate & cigar binges until it meets a sticky, smoky fate.

Elizabeth Macneal (EM)– Classic Pre-Raphaelite stuff! This element is based on a real life wombat, who was owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and which met an early end after an overindulgence in cigars. I consulted a vet friend of mine, who suggested that cigars alone wouldn’t have been enough to kill the wombat that quickly, so I took their advice and inserted gluttonous chocolate consumption as an additional fatal vice for Guinevere (the wombat).

DB – You seem to be singlehandedly reviving interest in pre-Raphaelite ideas! What do you find so interesting and relevant about the movement?

EM – The ambition and energy of this group of young and rebellious artists was impressive to me. They sought to overthrow the entire art establishment, and women were at the forefront of the group. I’ve further prioritised the ideas of women like Elizabeth Siddal in The Doll Factory. The entire movement’s radical use of colour and hyper realistic portrayals of reality confronted Victorian ideals, which I found fascinating.

DB – A bell jar is prominently displayed on the cover of The Doll Factory. Could you explain why this is such a crucial piece of iconography for you?

EM – I wish I’d thought of it! The team at Picador actually came to me with that idea, which I actually think is the perfect encapsulation of the themes in the book. The beauty of this intensely created and maintained object, the claustrophobic aspects of this contained space and a woman, Iris (the main character of the book), seemingly sealed within it, observed and objectified.

The Great Exhibition was, in Elizabeth’s words, “an irresistible symbol of London’s ambition and energy, and showcased collection and curation and display on a grand scale”.

DB – The Great Exhibition is part of the backdrop for your novel, during one of the peaks of British imperial power, yet your book is fascinated with some of the grimier elements of life at the time. What is it about these contradictory narratives (happening in the same place at the same time!) that intrigues you so much?

EM – The gulf between Victorian idealism and reality was quite vast and contradictory. As a Londoner at the time, you could walk through the dazzling upper class areas such as Fitzrovia and then swiftly be in the dreadful slums of St Giles, so that awareness of the contradiction was always there for ordinary people in society. I’m interested in how people from all walks of life had ambition and the struggles they had to undertake to realise that ambition.

The Doll Factory is out now and is available at Golden Hare Books!

DB – Elizabeth Day said that the Doll Factory has “a plot that rattles like a speeding carriage to its thrilling conclusion”. Which is one of my favourite train-themed bits of praise! How did you manage maintaining the verisimilitude of Victorian England while also keeping up such a rollicking pace?

EM – I love working out the plot in advance; I wanted to make sure every scene had a payoff. I created a spreadsheet that laid out the plot in its entirety and allowed me to link together all it’s threads when actually writing the novel. I enjoy turning a scene, so I actually wrote each chapter like a short story in and of itself. My trial novels didn’t do this, and I think they suffered for it, so I learnt from those experiences and made sure each chapter and the actions in it had clear consequences. That’s why Albi (a young orphan) was such a fun character to write, his forward momentum was so aggressive and consequential!

DB – What does the future hold for you, if you don’t mind going into spoiler territory?

EM – I can’t go into huge detail as I’m mostly working on themes and putting the basic structure together currently but I can say that it has some unusual elements, including fossils and the construction of graveyards. I’m fascinated by the creation of these artificial, beautiful spaces in the 1800s, so I’m looking forward to putting that into novel form in the near future!

The Doll Factory is out now and is available at Golden Hare Books in store and online (with a limited number of signed copies available too for the fleet of foot!).