Salley Vickers, the best-selling author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, and her latest novel The Cleaner of Chartres is an absolutely fascinating person. We were lucky enough to have her visit Abingdon yesterday evening where she talked about her books in interview with Mark Thornton from Mostly Books
Salley, (named we found out from the WB Yeats poem Down by the Salley Gardens, salley being Irish for willow), had an unconventional upbringing being the child of strict atheists who were members of the British Communist party. She won a scholarship to St Paul’s school – and came top in RE! She has done many things before becoming a novelist, most notably being a Jungian psychoanalyst which flavours much of her writing.
Mark started off by asking about her relationship with bookshops as an author. Salley said she felt it was a privilege to have her books in shops, and especially independent bookshops – who helped her on her way. She couldn’t get her first novel Miss Garnet’s Angel into any chains, but indie bookshops did take it, and helped to spread how good it was by word of mouth. She said she loves readers’ responses to her novels, and how books can bring people together – book groups are a sort of democracy at work – well sometimes.
Salley told an anecdote of how books can occasionally physically change lives: the real café in Venice that featured in Miss G was going to close, but suddenly people started coming to it after reading the book, and it was able to stay open. She was delighted to hear from the owner.
… which led on nicely to talk about places and character. Salley told us how she had been sniffy about going to Venice the first time, but as she walked through from the station towards San Marco, she felt ‘all my adolescent prejudices melting away.‘ She found the church that inspired her by getting lost. It took getting lost on another visit to find it again.
Although from a strict atheist family they did visit cathedrals, and Salley had visited Chartres when younger. Later, she took her own family there, telling her sons that the labyrinth was the path to heaven. But it was on another visit, when she snuck into the cathedral early one morning before it was officially open, and saw a cleaner working on the labyrinth that The Cleaner of Chartres was inspired.
For Salley, place has to ‘coincide with something happening in the present’ which leads to the dual timelines present in all her novels. Mark admitted that he was more than a little smitten with Agnès in The Cleaner of Chartres, and terribly worried when past collided with the present. Salley explained how some people may say that Agnès was a little passive, but that she didn’t see her that way. Instead, she sees her as a catalyst, who brings out the latent qualities in other people – often beneficial, but not always.
Salley also told us that she always has one character in her novels through whom she expresses her own views and opinions – the Monsignor in Miss G, and Dr Demas in Chartres for instance – both characters that are interesting and, from the nods of acknowledgement, were well-liked in the room.
Mark and Salley then talked about her being a psychoanalyst and how this influences her writing. Salley had wanted to be one, Jungian, from a fairly young age after reading a book by Jung about dreams and consciousness. She uses this directly, by writing fast in her nightclothes when she gets up – preserving the vestigial traces of her unconscious dream state. She also confessed ‘I don’t plot‘, like a psychoanalyst going with the flow in a session, she lets the characters guide the plot – however, she said ‘I like plot, and I like story.’ which is just as well, as her novels are known for a strong storyline.
She was fascinating company, obviously enjoying the interview style of the evening, and signed books for all with a violet pen.
I enjoyed The Cleaner of Chartres very much – review to follow.