[An] exuberant revivification of grave robbers and gamblers, hucksters and whores in 18th-century London: like Hogarth sprung to life.
– Hilary Mantel, Books of the Year 2013, Observer
This is my second interview with Maria McCann – I first interviewed her back in 2010 about her previous novel, The Wilding, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize. That novel was set during the Restoration in 1672. For her new book, Ace, King, Knave, Maria has moved forward almost a century to the Georgian England of the mid-1760s. The novel is the tale of two young women: Sophia, born into the Somerset aristocracy, and Betsy-Ann, the daughter of travelling fair people, and their relationship with the same man, though they each know him under a different name. To Sophia, he is Mr Zedland, heir to an estate in Essex with an elegant townhouse in London. The man Betsy-Ann knows as Ned, however, comes from a much more disreputable background.
The Georgian capital is a world where everyone, whether highborn or low, is looking for the Great Chance – ‘London’, as Sophia is to discover, ‘is not like the countryside, where a lady travelling within her own district can expect to be recognized and looked up to. Life here is teeming and anonymous. The most infamous women go lavishly caparisoned and keep carriages, so that even the practised eye can scarcely distinguish virtue from vice’. That problem of telling virtue from vice, the fraud and the trickster from the genuine and trustworthy runs through the whole book. Every human interaction – from a game of cards to a marriage – is fraught with the danger of things turning out to be not what they seem. The high-born can take pleasure dabbling in the mud, and the low-born can pass themselves off as their betters. Social interaction becomes a complex game of trying to read the manners, clothes, and language of other people, while trying not to let too much of your own hand show – highly appealing terrain for a novelist, and indeed for the reader.
Early on in his book The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson writes:
I’d never really thought much about psychopaths before that moment and I wondered if I should try and meet some. It seemed extraordinary that there were people out there whose neurological condition, according to James’s story, made them so terrifying, like a wholly malevolent space creature from a sci-fi movie. I vaguely remembered hearing psychologists say there was a preponderance of psychopaths at the top, in the corporate and political worlds – a clinical absence of empathy being a benefit in those environments. Could that really be true? And I decided, no, it would be a mistake to start meddling in the world of psychopaths, an especially big mistake for someone like me who suffers from a massive surfeit of anxiety.
Having explored the world of extremists in Them, and the wilder shores of the US military’s psychic operations in The Men who Stare at Goats, Jon decided to turn his attention to psychopaths. In this entertaining interview, he explains why. To listen, click here.
And to read the first chapter of the book, click here.
We recorded the first Faber Academy podcast last autumn. The aim is very simple: to bring together two writers (or a writer and editor) and get them to discuss a theme or a skill likely to be of interest to other writers. The guests on each programme select a text to focus the discussion and to give listeners something read (or reread) afterwards. My guests on this first podcast were novelist Louise Doughty (above left), author most recently of Apple Tree Yard, and her editor at Faber, Sarah Savitt. The text they chose was Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, and the theme Unreliable Narrators. The podcasts are free, not tied to any particular course, and not intended to sell you something. While they are principally aimed at new writers, my hope is that hearing authors talk about what they have worked out about their craft will also be of interest to readers. In this first podcast, among the things we touch on are: keeping a writer’s notebook, reading with a novelist’s eye, self-delusion, John Le Carré, first-person narrators (pros and cons), and Kazuo Ishiguro.