First Person

Rebecca Stott, author of THE CORAL THIEF explains how the novel ambushed her.

August 18, 2009

In my other life as a historian, I was deep in the research for a history book - a fascinating and utterly absorbing history of evolutionary ideas before Darwin. But it had turned out to be largely a story about men. I began to wonder, staring out of the library window, about what it would have taken for a female evolutionist to emerge in, say, the late eighteenth century. It occurred to me that to be taken seriously and to be able to get papers published, such a woman would probably have to cross-dress in order to pass as a man. And that wasn't so unusual - I knew of cross-dressing women in Paris in the late eighteenth century.
Suddenly my cross-dressing philosopher-thief, Lucienne Bernard, was up and about, making her presence felt in the library. From my long, oak table in the Rare Books Room, I began to hear her talking through a hot night on the back of a stage coach heading towards Paris. So I guess that scene with which The Coral Thief opens - Daniel's night ambush on the road to Paris and his passionate desire to know how this woman who steals from him had come to be was also my ambush and my desire. I sitll had so much to find out - about her scientific convictions, about how she'd survived the French Revolution, and how she'd become a thief.
In Paris in 1815, when the city was full of spoils of war, what did it mean to steal something that had already been stolen? I wrote to the curator of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, housed in the building Lucienne Bernard needed to break into, and explained that I needed to know how someone might have broken into the building in 1815. She was delighted. She invited me to Paris and gave over an entire day to help me work all of that out. She produced old maps and charts and prints which showed me where doors and trap doors would have been in the older building. Soon the curator and I could have done the job ourselves.
Then I had to find Paris - a little bit of time-travelling was needed for that. And for time travel I always go to the Rare Books Room of the university library where I work. To describe Paris in 1815 - its smells, sounds, senses - I assembled journals, diaries, old prints, books, guidebooks, letters - hundreds of them. I found a guidebook to Paris for 1815 that tells you where to get hats mended, where to buy the best cut flowers or get your hair cut or a shave, how to hire a valet or a carriage, as well as a review of all the theatres and marionette theatres and wax museums. It made it all so immediate and vivid. At one point I had memorized so much that I felt I could walk down the Rue Vivienne, for instance, and point out all the shops on either side. I still dream about it.
In Paris in 1815 everyone was spying on everyone else, and the intellectuals in Paris were particularly closely watched. It heightened the sense of danger and eroticized it too. Paris was an enormous web of intrigues and surveillance in 1815, and my dangerously corrupt police chief, Jagot (based on a real police chief in Paris in 1815), was the spider sitting at the centre of that web. I got to be very fond of Jagot. He seemed to infiltrate himself into so many scenes. I like that about writing - you think you control the characters, but some of them just misbehave and throw their weight around. Fin, Daniel's sidekick and fellow student, was the same. Ungovernable. As an author you have to learn to be tolerant.
My hero, Daniel Connor, was based on parts of many people but probably most of all on my own young self. Like most young people away from home for the first time, I was terribly drawn to intimacy and danger and new knowledge but I was also rather scared to take risks. Daniel's story is a story of sexual and intellectual transformation. It is a coming-of-age story. When the book begins he is ambitious, proper and a little bit self-regarding. He is utterly transformed by his encounter with Lucienne and the thieves. He will never be the same again. But then, no-one will. Nothing stays the same. Everything and everybody is casting off its skin in this book, metamorphosing into something new, even Paris itself. My job as author, once the characters were up and moving, was to keep up with them. Daniel says in the book that when he finally realised he had fallen amongst thieves, it hadn't felt like a falling, but a flight. I watched him learn to fly.