BackStory: Five Questions with Cathy Lennon
Author of A Note on the Understanding of Fossils
What inspired you to write ‘A Note on the Understanding of Fossils’?
I felt great sympathy for Mary Buckland who clearly enjoyed learning about things and had by all accounts a happy marriage and busy home life. Before marriage, she had been a scientific draughtswoman with a keen interest in fossils. Once married to William, a somewhat eccentric and passionate geologist and palaeontologist, she supported his work to an enormous degree as well as giving birth to nine children, five of whom survived and whose education she concerned herself with. She illustrated, edited and had a hand in writing her husband’s papers (His prose was much admired. I think we can guess how much of a hand she might have had!) In addition, she promoted education for the village children and taught school in later years. I have nowhere near this many children nor as much energy and technical ability, but I can guess at some of the accommodations and frustrations that she might have endured in trying to balance a domestic agenda with the longing to study and create.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
I had to smile at this. My first introduction to historical fiction was via the Jean Plaidy shelf in my local library. I devoured those books. I don’t even remember that much about them now, other than some episode of an insane Spanish royal who ate his dinner off the floor like a dog, but they really fired my enthusiasm. I did the obligatory Tudors for O level (which dates me historically) and then some mediaeval European and nineteenth century British for A level so these periods retain a lot of interest to me. I always enjoy the C J Sansom Shardlake series and of course Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books. This year, nineteenth century London gothic(ish) has done well on my shelf: Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh. And for early twentieth, the voices in Lissa Evans’ books are the business. I’ve also lately got into the 1920s India-set crime novels of Abir Mukherjee.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
William Buckland and later his son Frank Buckland became well known proponents of zoophagy: the eating of animals. By which I don’t mean the usual fare of the human omnivore but basically any and every kind of animal. Apparently mole and bluebottle were particularly disgusting but they also tried boiled elephant trunk, rhinoceros pie and porpoise heads. I considered, for sensory embellishment, mentioning the rank odour of skinned squirrels from the larder while Mary worked at the table, but decided against adding too much detail to such a short piece.
What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
I would rather be reading, writing or thinking than doing housework!
What do you like most about writing flash?
I find it easier to work at flash than longer form pieces, especially when available time is restricted. Flash fiction often comes to me virtually fully-formed whereas short stories…don’t. I also relish the challenge of painting a portrait on a grain of rice. It’s satisfying to try to convey an essence in a few well-chosen images and words. Poetry achieves the same, of course, but I have no talent for it.