By Leslie Lindsay
Richly imagined novel of the woman who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud is charming as it is eccentric.
And I was mesmerized.
Edward Carey is here chatting about how the cast of characters was ‘exhausting and worrying,’ how LITTLE is like a ‘very dark fairytale,’ how Louis XVI was really a ‘pretty bad king, but a great locksmith…and would often go to the top of Versailles to shoot feral cats,’ and so much more.
Narrated by Marie Grosholtz, the ‘tiny,’ bright and ambitious orphan, apprenticed to a wax sculptor, readers fall easily into her charm, her wonderful, strange, and fascinating world of wax modeling.
I so loved LITTLE (Riverhead, 2018), which is tumbling with drama, from the challenging early years of Marie’s life (her father died from the Seven Years War) and her mother’s suicide, through her apprenticeship at to Doctor Curtius (who was a physician but also a wax sculptor), the streets of Paris, Versailles, and through the French Revolution. Seriously, LITTLE has so much going for it–love and loss, sharp eccentricities, morbidity, but also hope and art.
I was completely taken and wrapped in this wholly original and immersive narrative. In fact, I found myself reading more slowly than usual because I wanted to savor the spirit of persistence and enchanted rendering of such a special soul.
Scattered throughout the text are pencil drawings by the author as if he were channeling Marie. This really enhances the storytelling and brings such life to the words.
In short, I loved LITTLE.
But I’m not the only one.
Margaret Atwood says this about LITTLE:
“Don’t miss this eccentric charmer! LITTLE, by Edward Carey, narrated by Madame Tussaud of waxworks fame [on] her strange life and times, including the almost fatal French Revolution, a prime season for heads.” ~via Twitter.
And LITTLE receives a starred review from Kirkus:
“Carey channels the ghosts of Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, and the Brothers Grimm, to tell Marie’s tale, populating it with grotesques and horrors worthy of Madame Tussaud’s celebrated wax museum…A quirky, compelling story that deepens into a meditation on mortality and art.”
Library Journal selects LITTLE as a Fall Editors’ Pick and says this about it:
“Lavishly illustrated with Marie’s strange and compelling drawings, Edward Carey’s Little is a boldly original reimagining of the life of the woman who would become the legendary Madame Tussaud.”
Please join me in welcoming Edward Carey to the author the author interview series.
Edward, it’s such a pleasure. I loved this book. I know you say LITTLE took ‘a really long time’ to finish. Fifteen years, in fact. But you’ve published other things in the interim. Can you talk about the original spark for LITTLE, and then a bit about why this one was slow to formulate?
In my early twenties I had a wonderful very bad job as a guard at Madame Tussaud’s in London. The job was basically: look after the wax people, protect them from the flesh people that came to visit. The public came in and pointed and prodded and were not especially courteous to the wax populace, but it was fascinating watching people reacting to these full size dolls. It was while I was working there that I learnt about the real life of Marie Tussaud, that she had been in Paris before after and during the French Revolution and that she had cast Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from life and then, later, their heads after they had been guillotined. She seemed to know everyone, Marat, Franklin, Robespierre, Rousseau, Napoleon. The most fascinating figure in the waxworks was a self portrait she made of herself when she was an old woman. She put this waxwork at the till and would sit down beside it. She had such a wise, winning face. I knew then I would love to write about her someday, her story seemed like a very dark fairy tale…and slowly it seemed to me that I should try to write a novel about her. So this was the original spark. And then, later, when I started to work on it I became a little nervous about how to approach her, about how to properly shape the story. Getting her voice right was probably the hardest part, giving her enough emotion, making her love. To begin with she was too uncanny, something like a doll herself and that didn’t work. So the novel changed size over the years, sometimes it was enormous, at others it was much, much smaller. I had to leave it alone for many months at a time before I could finally see it properly.
In publishing, there’s this notion of, ‘write book at the right time,’ and so I’m curious—what pieces had to be orchestrated for LITTLE?
There was no time factor involved really – except the fact that the book took me fifteen years to finish, which is obviously an alarmingly long time. It was under no contract as I wrote it and so I had only myself to spur me on. I think her story is good for all times. She’s a mirror to what human beings are capable of, both the best of humanity and the cruelest.
Your research is evident. I mean, wow. Can you talk a bit about that, please? What advice might you give to writers so they don’t become too bogged down in the minutia and just write?
I spent many months doing research in the British Library in London and I spent two six month sessions living in Paris, researching and writing there. This was all at the beginning. My other novels are mostly set in cities that don’t exist so I could make up whatever I wanted to. But here I was writing about Paris and one of the most famous pieces of European history. That often intimidated me. I was so eager that my Louis XVI was credible, likewise Marie Antoinette and Napoleon…[Benjamin] Franklin and Voltaire and Rousseau and Jacques Louis David…all of them! And, at times, I found the fame of the cast of my book exhausting and worrying. So I read a great deal and visited archives. To be honest, living in Paris and London intimidated me even more when writing the book. Moving to Austin, Texas, was incredibly useful! Suddenly Paris and the eighteenth century seemed so far away. I began to relax. And at last began to feel freer with the material. But chiefly what helped me was the writing of Louis Sebastien Mercier, he lived in and wrote about Paris in 1700s but what was so exciting about his writing was that he only wrote about ordinary life, not about the famous people but about the average bloke on the street and how it was to live in Paris then. This was a liberation for me, I adored his writing so much I made him an important character in the book – and the person who guides Marie around Paris (telling her about it, when she’s forced to stay in one house and never leave it).
I love the art interspersed throughout the narrative. You’re also a visual artist and these drawings are ultimately your creation, but channeled by Marie. How did this piece come into the story? It really enriches the reading experience.
For LITTLE very early on I carved from wood a mannequin of Marie (which features in the book), I wanted to know her size exactly, and this wooden mannequin is her exact size. I also painted a portrait of her in oils that I pretended was painted by the great artist Jacques Louis David, I wanted to have David – who was Robespierre’s chief propagandist – in the book right from the start. I also wanted to know how to make a waxwork so I could describe the process properly, so I made a wax death mask of Marie’s teacher Doctor Curtius. But mostly the artwork involved drawing. I tried to see the world through Marie’s eyes not just with words but with her pencil – I had her sketching fish heads in the kitchen, Mercier’s shoes, Curtius’ tools, extinct monkeys, and also the two people she loved. I tried to litter the book with her observations. Slowly these drawings mounted up. I tried also, when she couldn’t face drawing the actual awful event before her, for Marie to make substitute: for example when Marie’s mother commits suicide she sketches a wood pigeon from the butcher’s; when she sees a dead woman on a Parisian street she draws a deceased rat; when Louis XVI is guillotined she draws the mold she makes of the dead king – so that you see the dead king’s head in negative not the actual head, a sort of ghost of it. I also thought that Marie would never draw herself, so you never see her actual face in the book, you see everyone else, and you have her voice narrating the story, but Marie’s own features are kept a little aloof.
I loved Marie. Her spunk, her voice, her brilliance. But there are so many other characters presented in LITTLE. Doctor Curtius, Edmond, the widow Picot, Princess Elisabeth. Aside from Marie, did you feel a particular affinity for anyone?
I do love Mercier, and I owe him a lot, his prose is simply stunning and I tried to write something in his voice – and I tried to make him the conscience of the novel. As I went about my research I discovered that Louis XVI was rather a shy fellow and that he was much happier tinkering around with locks on his own – he was actually a very accomplished locksmith – I also discovered that he used to go up on the roofs of Versailles to shoot at all the feral cats that lived around the palace (this seemed so extraordinary to me I had to put it in the novel). Louis XVI was not a good king and was often paralyzed with indecision, but also he never expected to be king, his father and brother died before him and so he, unhappily I think, found himself on the throne. Some characters in the book are made up. Jacques Beauvisage (christened by cruel nuns) is a street urchin, an orphan, a frequenter of public executions, and he acts as the human guard dog to the waxworks house in the novel – I tried to make him represent all the bloodiest aspects of Paris at the time. To have the Revolution appear even closer to Marie, I had Jacques be one of the principal actors in the September Massacres where priests and monks were murdered by the hundreds. Suddenly, the Revolution had come home to Marie at the waxworks, formerly they were merely observers but now one of their number was taking part.
There’s no getting around the macabre. And it is Halloween after all, so let’s talk about the guillotine for a moment. And those murders and severed heads in Marie’s lap. Of course, this scene is quite visceral. What two or three scenes stand out in your mind as some of the most memorable?
The first (in chronological order) would be the bloody head of the Comte de Launay, Governor of the Bastille. When the prison was stormed de Launay was killed by the mob and his head severed from his body. This was no neatly sliced neck delivered by the guillotine but rather one that was hacked about and then thrust on a pike. I thought of the shock of that, a human head so misplaced, and Marie being forced by the mob to cast it. The second would be the king’s head after his execution, now Marie had in her lap the head of someone she actually knew, and so she must have been both tender with it but also revolted. The third is Jean Paul Marat murdered in his bath. Marat, who was one of the most fanatical and vile of the personalities of the French Revolution, suffered from a bad skin complaint and to soothe this he sat in a slipper bath and worked as he bathed. Charlotte Corday, a beautiful woman from Cannes, pretended to give him information on enemies of the state, instead she thrust a knife into his chest. It was an unusually hot summer at the time and Marat’s body began to decompose with alarming rapidity. Jacques Louis David, great painter and Robespierre’s chief propagandist, wanted to eternalize this ‘martyr’ in oil paint but the body was disintegrating too fast. And so Marie was ordered to cast the body so that it might be preserved and so that he could paint it after Marie had cast it in wax. She did as she was told (which can’t have been pleasant) and the two Marat portraits were in the end strikingly different. Marie’s shows a pock-marked man with sallow skin and mouth and eyes open, the body twisted in agony. David’s shows a beautiful Christ-like figure at peace.
I could probably ask questions all day, but we both have other things to do. What might I have asked, but may have forgotten?
I just want to add, if I may, that this is a fictional account of Marie Tussaud’s life. She took liberties with her own autobiography and embellished her story, this gave me the freedom to invent also. The novel is a dark fairytale about history and being dragged into it, but also it’s two love stories (Marie had two enormous loves in her life) and, most of all, it’s a survivor’s tale. About how a small foreign girl managed, despite everything, to walk through a bloodbath and to come out on top in a very masculine world. To me Tussaud is an almost fantastical person, a kind of small, beautiful sprite, a mythical figure: the little woman who collected history.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of LITTLE, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edward Carey is a writer and illustrator whose books include The Iremonger Trilogy: Heap House, Foulsham, and Lungdon; Observatory Mansions; and Alva & Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City. His artwork has been exhibited in Florence, Collodi, Kilkenny, Milan, London and Austin; his essays and reviews have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Corriere della Serra, La Repubblica, and other places. In addition to his own work, he illustrates other writers, including Bill Wittliff and Jessica Frances Kane. His new novel, Little, is published by Riverhead.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
LOVE IT? SHARE IT!
#historicalfiction #MadamTussaud #waxmuseum #France #England #Switzerland #amreading #FrenchRevolution
[Cover and author image courtesy of the author and used with permission. Color illustration retrieved from Edward Carey’s Twitter account and is his original art. Artistic photo of book cover from L.Lindsay’s personal archives and can be viewed via Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]