08 March 2015

The Intel: Jessica Cornwell

Jessica Cornwell Photo Credit: Diana Patient.

Jessica Cornwell’s mystical Anna Verco thriller The Serpent Papers has been described as a literary Da Vinci Code. It follows her academic book thief’s investigation into three ritual murders in Barcelona. Teaming up with a Spanish Inspector, the trail leads to a mysterious book, a medieval revelation written in the language of witches and alchemists, called The Serpent Papers.

Jessica was raised in Southern California. After graduating from the University of Barcelona, she participated in research and grant projects in Oxford, India and Spain. In 2010 she moved to London to work in film. She’s now writing full-time on the next in the Anna Verco trilogy. And Jessica’s got a hell of a literary pedigree - her grandfather is John Le Carre.

The Serpent Papers is available right now in hardcover, paperback or you can download it to your device. To wet your appetite, we’ve got an absolutely terrific interview with Jessica. She gives us the intel on Anna Verco, medieval torture devices, the dark magic of Barcelona, conspiracies—and, of course, her writing regime…

Tell us about Anna Verco…

Anna is a twenty-seven year old, American researcher determined to find a palimpsest called The Serpent Papers. She works for Picatrix, an academic body funded by a wealthy individual shrouded in mystery. Anna is an unreliable narrator, obsessive and single-minded in her focus. Her quest for the missing pages of a magical book suddenly becomes a hunt for a serial killer, taking her deep into the dangerous world of Barcelona’s gothic quarter.

Anna arrived three years ago, when I took refuge in a monastery on Majorca, pulling over in the pouring rain. The monastery was closed, but when I knocked on the door a stranger welcomed me inside. The stranger took me into an exquisite library and showed me a medieval manuscript in the monastery’s archive. Anna was born out of my first encounter these ancient books – I saw a young, psychic woman who reflected the vulnerability and strength of the material she handled, who kept her own history secret and spoke a magical, hallucinatory language.

How did you get the inspiration for The Serpent Papers?

The primary source of inspiration emerged from the year I spent living in Barcelona when I was a MA student. During that time I worked as a director’s assistant for the experimental Catalan Theatre company La Fura dels Baus on a production of Titus Andronicus. Lavinia’s fate captivated me, a young, beautiful woman who loses her sovereignty, her hands and her tongue (and finally her life). I invented a killer who took the tongues of his victims and ritualistically carved women’s bodies with the letters of a medieval truth machine. Why? I began building the story out. What did it mean?

I discovered the scold’s bridle, a torture device used to punish talkative women, a metal mask with a blunt spike that pushed down into the tongue of its victim, and began reading about the history of European witchcraft alongside references to Ovid’s gory tale of Philomela the Nightingale. I created a mystical woman, Philomela, who lost her tongue and was rescued by an alchemist in the hills of Majorca in the thirteenth century. The ancient secret she carried became the key to the murders of four women in 2003 in Barcelona.

But there are many other sources of inspiration for The Serpent Papers… before writing the novel I also spent two years living with Rosemary, a 95 year old costume designer whose home was filled with treasures. Rosemary had a long and extraordinary career, working with the English National Opera, Glyndebourne, and the National theatre. She lined the drawers of her wardrobe with scraps of old designs, and was an exceptional engraver. There were two small portraits on the wall – the first of a young, waist-coated Victorian Englishman, the second a beautiful woman in a broad skirt, their countenances framed in gold. These two became Llewellyn Sitwell and Katherine Markham.

I realized I wanted to play with time and found documents, in an unconventional structure. Rosemary had twins, one of whom had died tragically when he was twenty-eight in a motorcycle accident. His memories filled the house, a sadness that infiltrated the story of the Catalan twins Núria and Adrià who become embroiled in the fate of the murdered actress Natalia Hernández. I wanted to write something escapist, rambunctious and darkly entertaining.

The Serpent PapersWhat is it about Spain that makes it such an evocative location for a thriller?

Spain is an evocative location for any story! Barcelona in winter has an ominous quality, a dark magic hangs in bare trees and winding streets and gothic alleyways. The history of the city is remarkably rich, and gives itself naturally to invention.

You’ve been described as a literary Dan Brown – what is it that draws us to historical conspiracies?

Fascination with secrets is a universal human phenomenon. What is behind the closed door? I want to know, don’t you? Historical conspiracies expose hidden truths that break open dominant social traditions. There’s something delicious about that kind of discovery, something compulsive and rewarding, and Dan Brown deals with that phenomenally. I actually think our work is very different. I’m not concerned with historical conspiracies, but I am concerned with secrets, and the legacy of violence and myth. I view history as a palimpsest, one erased text lying beneath another and I desperately want to peel back the layers and look inside. Some people might call my interests arcane, but I believe these arcane details unlock a secret language – a language that sleeps inside fairy tales and fuels strange dreams.

As a feminist and a writer, I felt compelled to explore the history of European witchcraft, alchemy, the Divine Feminine and violence against women. I think of Bluebeard’s wife standing alone with a key, in front of a terrible door.

You come from a family steeped in literature and movies – have you always felt compelled to write?

When I was very young I wanted to write. But I did not have the confidence to take that seriously until a close member of my family was diagnosed with rapid, unremitting Multiple Sclerosis and I found myself writing to cope with the sadness that entered my life.

You’re writing full time now—take us through a typical writing day for you?

When I’m writing, my world is very quiet. Early on I got into the habit of writing before work – up before sunrise to seize an hour before my commute. That habit continues to define my working day. On a typical day, I wake up at 6, stretch before settling into my desk with a double shot of espresso. I write between 6.30 in the morning and noon, breaking once around ten o’clock for a breather and a second coffee.

After lunch I go for a walk, check e-mails and respond to anything urgent. I eat the same meals, fashioned identically and try never to read e-mails or make any phone calls before writing in the morning, as I find it disrupts my creative process. In the late afternoons I edit and exercise for at least an hour. I like running, as it helps me get into a meditative, physical state where ideas often flow in unexpected and exciting directions.

In the evening I make dinner, and read nonfiction – generally thick academic books around the character or environment I’m developing. I’m very method, and immerse myself in my fictional reality. I lucidly dream about the book in the night, and wake up with fresh ideas. At specific points in the process, I try to shake myself up a bit by travelling to the physical location I’m writing about – recently this has meant Barcelona and Mallorca. I make copious notes as I go, and draw pictures of the things I encounter.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That it is alive and can’t be forced. I’m confronted with my own weaknesses every day.

How do you deal with feedback?

Constructively. I’m extremely interested to know how people respond to my writing and always take criticism seriously. I’d rather know about what’s not working in the text than what is – and I want to be challenged. I want to be asked: Why? Why have you done this? How can it be pushed further? What isn’t working?

I like to frame issues in optimistic terms: how can a literary device or shift in plot add to the world I’m building, or fix an energy drop in the story? I want to build a dynamic experience for the reader – like a director bringing a performance to life – and that requires an active consideration of the audience’s perspective, even if I disagree.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I admire so many authors…each for individual reasons. Currently I’m deeply inspired by the work of Jenny Erpenbeck, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. This winter I have been returning to Federico García Lorca and Rubén Darío, and the short fictions of Borges and Carlos Fuentes. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls has exerted the greatest influence of any novel that I have had the pleasure of reading, while George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (a book I devoured when I was thirteen) lead me to Spain. Yesterday I started Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, and I have already fallen completely in love … This weekend I also read The Prose Eddas by Snorri Sturluson – an icy Norse mythology that contrasted beautifully with Pamuk’s Istanbul.

Give me some advice about writing…

Every writer has her own patterns, her own sensibility. This makes offering advice complicated. My own sense is that once you find a daily rhythm, stick to this monastic routine with absolute certainty. Listen to how your body moves through thoughts during the day and to try to cultivate a pattern of work that is unique to you… Go to the place you like to write at the same time every day and a habit will form. It doesn’t sound particularly romantic, but I’ve found that the most important thing has been to build consistent rituals of creativity.

What’s next for Anna Verco?

Many mystical things. I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep her destiny hidden for now.