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Edward Carey on his novel 'Edith Holler'


It's 1901 - Queen Victoria newly dead, Norwich and the rest of England in mourning. But 12-year-old Edith Holler is still alive, despite frail health and a curse. The curse was inflicted when she was an infant. An old actress declares that Edith never leave her father's theater, lest she and the theater meet their ends. As Edith grows, her imagination frees her and traps her. She regularly performs in a window for curious passersby. She also becomes the most astute student of horrifying history in her hometown, and she will seek to tell that story in the way she knows best. "Edith Holler" is the creation of Edward Carey, who calls himself a writer who draws. His own imaginative sketches punctuate the novel. He joins us now from Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

EDWARD CAREY: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Is that an authentic Austin, Texas, accent?

CAREY: This is a very clearly authentic Texas accent, and it's the best Texas accent I can do. No, I'm from England, as you can...

SIMON: Yeah.

CAREY: ...As you can tell. And I teach here at UT, and having an English accent is - can sometimes be an advantage.

SIMON: With the curse laid on her at birth, does Edith grow up feeling responsible for the fate of her town?

CAREY: I think she does. And I think she can't go out. And her father seems to be playing her. She's allowed to walk in the auditorium when the audience arrives, but she's not allowed to talk. And so she seems like a walking piece of folklore. She seems quite dangerous and interesting. And she has very gray skin. She's never been outside. And so she becomes a sort of symbol of Norwich. And she discovers something terrible. But she can't talk to the people of Norwich, so she decides that she must put on a play that will actually tell the people this terrible history of murder that has been going on for centuries.

SIMON: I believe I said Nor-witch (ph). Did I mispronounce it?

CAREY: (Laughter) Well, that's - I think that's how Americans pronounce it. But we say Norwich, so it sort of rhymes with porridge.

SIMON: Why is the novel set in Norwich as opposed to, say, Ipswich?

CAREY: (Laughter) Well, Norwich is my home city. And I was obsessed by its history as a child as well. It has this extraordinary castle under which there is supposed to be a king who's there with an army to save the city if it should come into any danger. And it has this wonderful folklore. There's this ghost called the Gray Lady that's supposed to haunt a part of the city called Tombland. And so I wanted to steep itself in all that history. The city is fantastic, and I love it. And the first time I ever went to the theater was in the Theatre Royal of Norwich, and it ignited in me such a love of theater that I yearned to somehow report that in this novel.

SIMON: There is what I'll carefully call a condiment...

CAREY: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...That figures prominently into the story called Beetle Spread. Let me put it this way - not exactly Nutella, is it?

CAREY: No. So Beetle Spread is a very important part of the novel. Norwich was primarily timber in medieval times, and so it was prey to beetles and deathwatch beetles, and buildings would actually crumble. And in the novel, there's this extraordinary folkloric character called Mawther Meg - which mawther is the Norfolk word for mother - who, in desperation, as she's starving, bangs her head against her fireplace. And it's like the mating call of a beetle. And all the beetles rush to her. And she cooks them in an enormous pot. Then she starts to sell this jam, and people start to eat it. And it becomes, over time, a very famous symbol of Norwich. And the stepmother in the novel, who's a principal character, is a direct descendant of the folklore character, Mawther Meg. And so there's a kind of slight terror connected to her because children have gone missing over centuries, and perhaps there's a connection between...


CAREY: ...The condiment that everybody eats.

SIMON: Ah. As we mentioned, the book is illustrated by you. What makes you, as a novelist, decide, we need or want an illustration here?

CAREY: I always need to see the characters that I'm writing about. If I can't see them, I feel I don't know them. And so for this book, Edith is seen as a cutout from a card theater - from a toy theater - these theaters that Victorian children had. And I thought as I went through - she plays with toy theaters all the time - that I could actually have a toy theater inside the novel so that you could actually cut out the novel and put together and construct a Victorian toy theater with all the characters from the novel inside. And then you could have, you know, backdrops. And I thought, yes, this is the way to do it. So you could, if you wanted to, cut up the novel and construct the theater. Or you could go to my website and just download it for free.

SIMON: Or you could buy multiple copies of the book.

CAREY: (Laughter) Right.

SIMON: Make a few theaters and read a few. Edith, in a sense, discovers other lives below the theater. Does she see a chance for her play to give her life - a new life?

CAREY: Yeah, I think so. And I think this is her actually seizing it. Putting on this play is a way of speaking. And I think it's very serious and earnest - her communication. She has to write herself out of the position that she's put into. She's trapped inside the theater...

SIMON: Yeah.

CAREY: ...But she discovers that there's more to the theater than she thought there was. And during that, she discovers the true history of what's happened to children in Norwich. And she chooses to be incredibly brave with it. She feels like this is the only way is to tell people the actual truth, and so she would write herself into her future.

SIMON: And - which introduces the line that just hasn't left me - to be frightened by the only place you can be. There must be many people, Edith says, I suppose, like that. Do we all have a version of being frightened by the place we are, do you think?

CAREY: Yes, I think so. I grew up in a really old house in the U.K., which was a Tudor house. And it was the tiniest crumb of the divorce settlement between Henry the VIII and Anne of Cleves. That makes it sound very grand. It wasn't very grand, but it was a very old house. And it had a feeling of age, of past and of fear and of death about it, while still feeling alive. And in fact, underneath, it was supposed to have - a Saxon hall was supposed to be the foundations of those Tudor buildings. So it would go back centuries. And I remember as a kid going up to the attic in the summer to sleep. You would go up the stairs (imitating creaking sound), and it would creak, as good old buildings do. But then, five minutes later, the steps would creak back into shape.

SIMON: Oh, having borne your weight, no matter how small...

CAREY: Right.

SIMON: Yeah.

CAREY: Exactly. So every time, you still felt something - you know, something was there. So I felt haunted and loved that place. But I think, you know, I think you're - of course, you're haunted with wherever you are. We all carry our ghosts with us one way or another. And I think when you sit on your own, I think there can be a feeling of letting your ghosts appear.

SIMON: "Edith Holler" is written and illustrated by Edward Carey. Thank you so much for being with us. And, if I may, Happy Halloween.

CAREY: Thank you (laughter). Happy Halloween to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.