Interview: Sarah Perry, Author Of 'The Essex Serpent' The clash between science and religious belief lies at the heart of Sarah Perry's new novel, set in a marshy, windswept English town menaced by a serpentine monster that may or may not truly exist.

Confronting The Possibility Of Monsters In 'The Essex Serpent'

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In books and movies, a monster is often more than just a monster. Maybe it represents anxiety or corruption or the id. Those themes slither under the surface of Sarah Perry's new book, "The Essex Serpent." Her novel is set in England at the end of the 19th century.

SARAH PERRY: And it's about the return of a mythical beast that's menacing the local villagers. An atheist, Darwinist, progressive widow comes down to the Blackwater Estuary determined to find out what this monster is. And while she's there, she meets a man of the cloth who is determined to protect his flock from the hysteria and the terror that has begun to surround them.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask about something that comes at the very end of the book. And this is not a spoiler. But in the author's note, you say there really were pamphlets warning villagers of an Essex serpent.

PERRY: Yes. My husband and I are both from Essex, and one thing that American listeners may not know about Essex is that it's the butt of jokes in the U.K. So it is considered to be the most unglamorous, foolish, vulgar of places. And Essex actually has a lot of history and a lot of ancient myth and legend in it.

And my husband told me as we were driving through the Essex countryside that a serpent, a great beast had been seen in 1669 near the village of Henham on the Mount. And that immediately struck off the idea for the book. It was like someone lighting a match in a dark room, and then suddenly you can see all these pictures on the walls. My imagination went into overdrive.

SHAPIRO: In the book, this serpent that was believed to have been sighted in 1669 is brought back, people believe, by an earthquake in the 1890s...


SHAPIRO: ...Which is when you're novel is set.

PERRY: That's right, yep, yep. So I said, what if it came back when ideas around the fossil record and paleontology and the debate between science and religion and superstition and rationality were really kind of the common currency and it was something that people talked about a lot?

SHAPIRO: In this period in the late 19th century, there was a lot of Gothic horror. "Dracula" was published in 1897. But the big difference between those books and yours is that for most of your book "The Essex Serpent," we the readers don't know whether or not the monster is real. Why did you decide to structure the book that way?

PERRY: So I'm really interested in what I think of as being the Gothic sensation. And by that, I don't mean sensationalism as in a great, horrifying spectacle but actually the feelings that are aroused in the reader. And I really feel quite strongly that when you watch horror movies or you read gothic novels, the bit that's really effective is when it's left to your own imagination, for you to kind of encode this monster with your own transgression and your own desires and your own fears.

As soon as it becomes solid, then you have the writer imposing on you their idea of what a monster is. So I wanted to keep that tension through as much of the book as possible and allow the reader to kind of create a monster of their own imagination and to experience it the way the villagers do, which is to not know what's there or if there's anything there at all.

SHAPIRO: Will you read from a section of the book that captures some of what you're describing here?

PERRY: Certainly. (Reading) There is nothing to be afraid of, said Cora, except ignorance. What seems frightening is just waiting for you to shine a light on it. Think how a pile of clothes on the floor of your bedroom can seem to creep up on you until you open the curtains and see it's just the things you took off the night before. I don't know if there's anything else in the Blackwater, but what I do know is this. If it came up on the banks and let us see it, we wouldn't see a monster but an animal as solid and real as you and me. The girl in the yellow dress, plainly preferring to be afraid than to be instructed, yawned delicately into the palm of her hand.

SHAPIRO: I love that idea of preferring to be afraid rather than be instructed.


SHAPIRO: I feel like that could be applied to so many aspects of the present day.

PERRY: (Laughter) I agree. And I think it's a really innate human failing that we nourish and nurture our fears and our prejudices. And we don't really want people to turn up with their facts and their statistics and show us that we're wrong because our fears are ours, and we can construct them to suit our own ends. And obviously increasingly since the book was published, that has seemed more and more relevant I think.

SHAPIRO: There's a common theme in horror books and movies that the things humans do to one another can be worse than any supernatural creature. And that seems true in your book as well.

PERRY: Yes. And I think I wanted to invite people to think about that and to think about, you know, what is the serpent here? You know, Cora Seaborne, the lead character, is a very admirable woman, but she's a bit of a snake in the grass (laughter) in some senses because she wounds people without meaning to. And...

SHAPIRO: She's a widow who is in a way relieved to be widowed because her husband was abusive. And there's a wonderful line in a letter that a friend writes to her. The friend says, to live at all is to be bruised.

PERRY: Yes. I think that sums up some of the feeling about the book, that actually, we go blundering about often very meaningfully and in a very well-meaning fashion. But we can't guard ourselves against bruising, and we can't guard ourselves against the kind of terror that comes upon these people. The trick is not to never be bruised, but it's how you deal with it and to avoid doing what so many of these characters do, which is to visit more pain and distress on each other than the monster ever does.

SHAPIRO: As we watch these characters do harm to one another, even as the village is terrified of a monster that may or may not be in the water, it raises the question, are there monsters that you are afraid of? Are there monsters that you think we in 2017 ought to be afraid of instead of maybe the monsters that we're preoccupied with?

PERRY: Oh, my God, yes. I mean I find myself now a different writer from the one who wrote "The Essex Serpent." I'm more afraid now than I've ever been because, you know, the state of politics recently - you know, what's happened in the U.K., what's happened elsewhere - has shown me that my tendency to be a benevolent humanist and think the best of my fellow men has perhaps been misplaced and actually that there has been a fermenting of ill will and a fermenting of willful ignorance that was maybe going on the whole time, and I didn't notice. So I had my eye fixed on other monsters. And the whole time, there was something waiting in the water. And it sort of burst out.

And it's been quite chastening actually, you know, to be the person that wrote "The Essex Serpent," which ultimately I think is a relatively hopeful book and to have been confronted with the possibility that there are monsters that can't be vanquished, not by the power of friendship, not by the power of grace, that maybe they have to be lived with for a while before we know what to do about them, which sounds really pessimistic. But you know, we live in a different world now from the one 18 months ago, and it's going to require a change of approach I think in some ways.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's a very dark note to end on.

PERRY: Yes, I'm sorry. That was rather hopeless of me, but...


SHAPIRO: Sarah Perry, thank you very much. It's been wonderful talking with you.

PERRY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Her new novel is called "The Essex Serpent."


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