Miranda J. Carter Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Miranda J. Carter
Photo: Roderick Field

Miranda J. Carter

An interview with Miranda J. Carter

Miranda Carter shares her inspiration for her book, The Strangler Vine, the first in a series, and how travel to India shaped her outlook and writing.

You have written two award winning works of history/biography. What prompted the shift to fiction?

In 2010, I'd written two big fat non-fiction tomes and it had taken me fifteen years (and I'd had two kids). I realized I wasn't ready to go back into a hole and spend six or seven years patiently putting together a book in which I had to fact check every single phrase — it can be fascinating but also very draining. I wanted a new challenge, to write something faster and breezier, that used my appetite for history and research as a background but let me play around with the foreground, to see whether I could create characters and a plot. I love crime novels and for about ten years I had secretly harboured a longing to write a thriller about a detective from the early Victorian era, a brilliantly clever man from a really poor background who could see the whole Victorian world from top to bottom, and I had a whole bunch of settings I wanted to put him in. This just seemed the right moment to start.

What is the story you tell in The Strangler Vine?

I initially thought it was a conspiracy thriller but without me quite realizing it, it turned into a sort of road movie/adventure story. It's about two incredibly mismatched Englishmen, one a soldier, the other a former soldier, in 1830s India (which was then ruled by the British), who are sent to find a poet and adventurer who has gone missing while in search of the Thugs.

Many readers may not know that the word "thug" derives from the Indian word Thugee. Who were the Thugs and how do they figure in the plot of The Strangler Vine?

The Thugs were bandit gangs who roamed the isolated roads of India in the early 19th century, befriending unwary travelers (fellow Indians). Once they had won their trust they would strangle them with an orange scarf called a rumal, strip and bury their bodies, steal their possessions and scope out their next victims. It was said that the Thugs were devotees of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, and murdered as an act of worship of her. News of them arrived in Britain in the 1830s and 40s when the British suppressed them, and caused a great stir. The word was imported, gradually losing its original meaning and coming to signify instead someone who perpetrates mindless violence.

What sparked your interest in writing about nineteenth century India and the British East India Company?

My mother-in-law lived in India (as a nun!) in the 1950s. She never spoke a lot about it for obvious reasons, but she used to talk about the Thugs and the man who stopped them: Major William Sleeman, a British Imperial hero and Renaissance man whom no one now remembers. I became fascinated by Sleeman and then when I started reading about the subject I discovered that over the last thirty years a generation of Indian and British historians had become convinced that the Thugs had never really existed, they were in fact a useful British invention to demonstrate how degraded India had become, and how it needed to be rescued and ruled by the British. It's still a hotly debated subject. I felt I had my subject.

What does the title of the novel mean?

Strangler Vines are parasitic plants that attach themselves to trees in forests in Asia. They wind their way round the trunk and branches, often looking indistinguishable from the actual tree, sucking out the life of it, before moving onto the next tree. You see these forests in which every tree has been encircled by a strangler vine. When I first saw them in India and asked their name, I immediately realized I had title for the book. The question is, who is strangler vine— the Thugs, preying on their own people, or the East India Company, the organization which governed India for the British, gradually taking over India and exploiting its wealth and people?

Why did you choose to tell this story in the manner of one of the adventure yarns of, say, Kipling, Conan Doyle, or Wilkie Collins?

When I was writing it, I really wasn't conscious of doing so at all. The adventure story emerged because I found I had forced my poor characters into making this enormous journey from Calcutta to Jubbulpore and I had to fill it up with incident! While I was writing the book if anything I was thinking more about the relationship between the characters in Patrick O'Brian's naval novels, Aubrey and Maturin, and I also wanted it to have some modern resonances. But in hindsight I suppose all my reading of Kipling and Conan Doyle and particularly of Wilkie Collins and Joseph Conrad had been sloshing around in my subconscious for years just waiting to slide out in—for me—unexpected ways.

You traveled to India to research the novel. Where did you visit and how did it shape your narrative?

I'd never been to India, and I quickly realized when I started my research that I would feel a fraud if I didn't go and at least have a look. I went to the area where most of the book was set, which is now Madhya Pradesh, a landlocked region in northern India between Kolkata, (formerly Calcutta) and Mumbai (previously Bombay). In the time of William Sleeman it was a territory known as Saugor and Nerbudda after the Nerbudda river, which was said to be so pure and the Ganges came to wash itself in it. We started at Sleeman's headquarters, Jabalpur (formerly Jubbulpore) and travelled around. The area is still pretty undeveloped and has about 30% literacy. One thing it is famous for are its tiger reserves—I saw tigers in the wild and spoke to tiger experts. It gets few tourists, so much of the time we were the only westerners around, which was a bit scary to start with, but then we realized people were coming up to us not to beg, but to practice their English, to ask where we were from, and to compliment me on my two sons! What the trip really gave me was an invaluable sense of the landscape, the plants and animals and the distances, as well as local smells and sounds.

As a biographer, you are used to being steeped in research. Did you approach the research for this novel any differently than you might have for a work of nonfiction?

The historical research was like my comfort blanket, my security net. I felt utterly comfortable and knew exactly where I was with it. The scary stuff was creating characters, laying out the plot, and just getting people from one place to another, while not having any idea whether any of it felt plausible at all. It was a real steep learning curve. The first drafts were awful—lots of turgid historical description and little bits of plot, and then each draft, I whittled away at the historical detail and put in more plot. Then when I finished, it seemed amazing—and surprising and very satisfying—that it actually seemed to work as a novel!

Now that you've had a taste of fiction writing, do you think you would ever return to nonfiction?

Yes, I think I will eventually, but at the moment I'm really enjoying making stuff up and the pace of writing fiction. Non-fiction of the sort I wrote is a much slower business.

How long did it take you to research and write the novel? How does this time period compare with your experience writing the biographies?

I first started thinking seriously about writing a series of thrillers in the summer of 2010. I spent about six months reading and researching very intensely and building up the early Victorian world I wanted to write about – though somewhat ironically most of this I didn't need for the first book. Then I started working on the India research and travelled to Madhya Pradesh. I started writing in 2011, the book took about two years to write: I finished it at the end of 2012. The whole process took about three years and I'd set myself up for the sequels. It came out in the UK in early 2014. My first non-fiction book took about six/seven years, my second five. As you can see it's a very different process.

Tell us a little about the next book in the series.

The second book, The Infidel Stain, is set in 1841, in the grimiest bits of Dickens's London. The main characters from The Strangler Vine have returned to England. There they encounter a world of newspapermen, angry political activists, pornographers, evangelical Christians—and of course several very nasty murders.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Infidel Stain jacket The Strangler Vine jacket George, Nicholas and Wilhelm jacket
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Readalikes

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    Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Canterbury, New Zealand. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2007 and won the Adam Prize in Creative Writing for her first novel, The ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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