(c) Gabriella Heald
Claire Mulligan, author of The Dark, answered our five questions.
IFOA: How did you become interested in the Fox Sisters?
Mulligan: I came across the Fox Sisters’ story while researching a scene involving a medium for my first novel, The Reckoning of Boston Jim. I was immediately intrigued by how Maggie and Katie’s childish prank could snowball into such a massive movement, as well as by how, in an age that marginalized women, they carved out a glittering, if tragedy-laced, career and did so, ironically, by using the belief of the weak and passive female to their advantage. I was further intrigued by the mysteries at the heart of the Fox Sisters’ story: the body in the cellar, John Fox’s disappearing act and how the sisters managed to fool so many for so long. Mystery and character. Theme and irony. True but fantastic events. The perfect ingredients for an epic historical novel.
IFOA: The Reckoning of Boston Jim as well as The Dark are both set in the 19th century. What draws you to this era?
Mulligan: Historical fiction offers a banquet of creative opportunities to a writer. The words for one. I love the resonance of old words and phrases. I love polishing them off and using them in new ways. I love, too, recreating the forgotten landscapes and world views, the Victorian cult of mourning, say, or the lost life of the canals or the way the social world was once an arena where reputation and status ruled. All this offers unique conflicts and dilemmas.
Now, the 19th century is particularly intriguing because it has that sense of being nearly modern, but not quite. It was a time of rapid technological change, a time when new ideas were being tested and debated, Spiritualism among them. And, yet with its photographs and gramophones, its copious extant letters, its world still held in memory by some very few, the 19th century is a historical era that we can know and own in a way we do not with other eras, as if it is almost within tangible reach.
IFOA: When does the line between fiction and history get blurred?
Mulligan: A story like that of the Fox Sisters can be challenging, exhausting and exhilarating to write, in part because the sisters’ public lives were well documented by them and by others, giving me difficult choices in what to include of their epic lives and what to set aside. I did think it important to hew as closely as possible to historical fact when the facts were available; however, the details of how the sisters perpetuated the hoax, the truth of their relationships, their motives, thoughts and most importantly, how much they believed in ghosts themselves, have all been fictionalized to greater or lesser degree. This is what makes The Dark a work of fiction rather than, say, creative non-fiction. And there can be a blurry line between the two indeed.
I must add that as a reader, I particularly enjoy novels that leave me feeling enriched and, well, smarter, even wiser than before, and I hope to give that similar sense of enrichment to the readers of The Dark.
IFOA: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Spiritualism?
Mulligan: One of the many surprising things I learned while researching The Dark was just how powerful a movement Spiritualism was. Spiritualism had, in its heyday, millions of followers. It was taken very seriously by many (though others, granted, saw it as the entertainment of the moment.) The language used to explain Spiritualism—energy, vortexes, conduits, etc.—was adapted from scientific parlance, to give it credibility, yes, but also because people were rejecting the more dogmatic religions and trying to find a way to reconcile the advances in science and natural history with the desire for faith and meaning—a dilemma that is still with us today, as evidenced by our modern New-Age philosophy, which is, of course, the clear descendant of Spiritualism.
IFOA: Do you believe in ghosts?
Mulligan: No. Well, yes. Maybe. I’ve never seen a ghost, nor experienced any paranormal event, though I had the usual terrifying Ouija board experience as a kid. However, I have talked to many people who have seen ghosts of some kind, and I certainly believe they saw and experienced what they did. Spirits capable of visiting from another world? Or a mind capable of creating spirits? These are, to me, equally astonishing possibilities. And, yet, I do love a ghost story, a haunted house, a place where the past seems imprinted. I suppose like many people I can keep two contradictory ideas aloft. My rational side might not believe in the supernatural, but my romantic side is all for it.