In Haunt

A Manchester-based writer of novels, poetry and essays who doesn’t shy from delving into hidden histories, whilst also lead singer in The March Violets and with her own vampiric alter ego (‘Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen’) – it’s the brilliant Rosie Garland. Since November 2018 she has been inaugural writer-in-residence at Manchester’s stunning neo-Gothic building The John Rylands Library – a position that she achieved through asking. It’s a location that is inspiring her new novel… and she is sharing a sneak preview with the public for the first time very soon.

On 17th October, The John Rylands Library is hosting ‘An Evening with Rosie Garland’. At this event Rosie will read excerpts from the new novel, sign previous novels, and answer questions about how the library has inspired her (read our previous HAUNT Manchester article here). She has been working on the new novel for many months, in her very own atmospheric alcove on the upper gallery of the Historic Reading Room.  So even though she is at the heart of the working building - a place attracting over 250,000 visitors per year - she is also intriguingly hidden away…

Rosie Garland By Gwen Riley-Jones

It’s perhaps no wonder that Rosie feels an affinity with The John Rylands Library: a building founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John and designed by Basil Champneys, first open to the public on the 1 January 1900 after 10 years of construction. To this day it is a stand-out feature on Deansgate – a Victorian neo-Gothic design incorporating plenty of Cumbrian Sandstone known as ‘shawk’; varying from grey to pink in colour. It also looks deceptively older than it is!

The library doesn’t just make an impression, it is an inspiration. It is home to more than 250,000 volumes and over a million manuscripts: the third largest academic library in the United Kingdom, which became part of The University of Manchester in 1972. It is the following decade – the 1980s – which is the setting for Rosie’s latest work, and it’s also the decade when she came to live in the city.

 No stranger to unlocking layers of history and Manchester’s heritage, Rosie’s role as the first writer-in-residence of the library has helped to shape her manuscript in-progress. Its characters live in Hulme, and work in the library during a decade which also experienced the rise of post-punk, Thatcher’s cuts and extensive strikes.

The 1980s also saw the face of the city changing at a rate perhaps faster than ever before. Buildings were developed and demolished and Manchester looked very different to the city Rosie explored in her previous novel The Night Brother (it even inspired a walking tour, as covered by HAUNT here); which was set in the 19th century ‘shock city’ of the Industrial Revolution.

A highly-acclaimed creative figure, Rosie is gratefully and affectionately quick to say ‘Manchester adopted me’ – having started out life in the South of England.  Her novels, although not all based in the city, have a strong historical underpinning and yet evocatively engage with the voices of people perhaps not always represented in Historical Fiction: workers, grafters, outcasts, single women, children. Her first novel The Palace of Curiosities delves into the Victorian circus world, whilst Vixen is set in North Devon of the 1340s, just before the Black Death takes hold. Her third novel, The Night Brother, follows the tale of two siblings in 19th century Manchester.

And now her fourth novel is taking The John Rylands Library as its inspiration. This is anticipated to be an exciting piece of work from a writer who already has been notably busy this year. As well as receiving acclaim for her flash fiction and poetry, she was commissioned to write for the Brontë 200 bicentenary celebration and has been selected by Val McDermid as one of the 10 most compelling LGBTQI+ writers working in the UK.

Here at HAUNT Manchester, we were excited to speak to Rosie about her latest work, the library, ghosts of the past, The Gothic and more. We met her - along with Jessica Smith, Creative Arts Archivist at The John Rylands Library - in the café of the beautiful building itself…

Hello Rosie! Can you tell us a little bit more about the new manuscript and how it has been inspired by The John Rylands Library?

“I’ve been writer-in-residence at the Library since November 2018. I love everything about it. I approached the Library with a proposal to be writer-in-residence. My idea is to create a novel in situ - working in the place I’m writing about. I’ve never done anything like this before, so it’s a challenge. Basically, I asked! (Rosie told us all about this in a previous HAUNT interview here). I am here for a year officially… though we may try and squeeze more out of it!

“I’ve always felt drawn to The Rylands – so I guess it’s no surprise that my new novel is set there. I gave a reading of The Night Brother here previously as part of The Gothic Manchester festival. Since spending more time in it, my story has grown in all kinds of unexpected directions. I find myself imagining tales that the library hasn’t told. In particular, there are stories about ghosts in the library. What are ghosts? What really haunts us as people? Such things fascinate me.

“In addition, I’m interested in landscapes that that don’t quite fit; that seem out of place in some way. The history of the construction of The John Rylands Library is fascinating. For example, Enriqueta Rylands chose to situate this stunningly beautiful building not in a wealthy suburb, but in what was then a rather poor and largely run-down area of the city. The Wood Street Mission was next door. It’s just as out of place now, in the modernistic landscape of Spinningfields. It’s a building that seems to exist almost out of space and time. I’m interested in places like this; Gothic buildings that don’t play by the rules.

“In terms of the novel itself – it is partly set in The John Rylands Library, partly in Hulme, another facinating Manchester landcape - if for different reasons. The Night Brother is also largely set in Hulme - though that is the Hulme of the 1900s.”

John Rylands Reading Room 1900

Why the decision to move your latest writing away from 19th century Manchester and to focus on the 1980s?

“The new novel is still historic, but I’m taking on the city’s more recent past. It’s not a big jump back in time, compared to my previous novels. However, it’s enough to feel different to the present. The 1980s was an era of no mobile phones, no internet, and very little in the way of the digital technology we take for granted. There’s an ‘otherness’ that intrigues me: a time which is in the living memory of many people still feels like another world. In some ways it’s as distant as the Victorian era in terms of tech. It resonates with something I read recently, that ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners was released closer to the end of WW2 than to today. It got me thinking… what does ‘recent’ mean?

“I’m interested in those unexpected disjunctures and dissonances in time. I’m less interested in the fake 80s nostalgia that seems to be fashionable at the moment. The 1980s wasn’t like a Duran Duran video, all shoulder pads and curly perms. The reality for most people was that it was shabby, poor and chaotic. This new novel is set during Thatcher’s second term: the time of the Miners’ Strike, mass unemployment, police corruption and the aftermath of the Yorkshire Ripper. It was an uneasy time socially and politically.”

How have you found out more about The John Rylands Library itself in the 1980s?

“It’s been brilliant coming here to work. I’ve been able to chat to people who were there at the time. People who worked here past and present have been so helpful. They remember what the library was like. It’s the little details that make it come alive: the squeaky wooden trolleys that carried the books, the aisles of books that stretch into the distance. I’ve done a lot of walking around the library. I listen to the echoes in the cellars, capture the fragrance of the old books. It gives a sense of authenticity. I want to convey an atmosphere that feels authentic, without it getting in the way of the story. In the words of Tom Clancy: tell the damn story!

“After all, I’m not telling the library’s story. I’m telling my story, the story of the characters. The library provides wonderful sensory detail. It is the setting, not the plot.  That’s why I wanted to actually write here. I come in once a week minimum, sometimes two days. The rest of the time I work from home.

“There are so many stories here. Where we are sitting now (the cafe) didn’t used to exist. Back in the 1980s it was large storage building, which was removed in the 1990s. So you could call it a ‘ghost building’. Hulme is full of ‘ghost buildings’ too. There are ghost streets threaded through Hulme. Some older buildings survive (such as Loreto), but I’m struck how quickly you forget what was there only a few decades ago.”

Jess added: “The library has become its own character in the story - that’s a really interesting thing. It certainly is a characterful place. The library was one of the first places in Manchester to have electricity, and from the start was a genuinely public library. It is a place of people’s history.”

Rosie continued: “I don’t think there are nearly enough novels set in Manchester. I’m proud to have been adopted by such a wonderful city. I love every single dirty brick of it.”

Can you tell us more about some of the upcoming great-sounding and Gothic events you are involved with?

“Here at The John Rylands Library on October 17th, I will be sharing sneak previews from the new novel for the first time! Is the new novel itself Gothic? It would say that it is. It’s about what really haunts us. And poses this question: if you refuse to remember your past, what do you put in its place?”

“I’m also involved in an event as part of the Gothic Manchester Festival 2019: ‘Writing Manchester Gothic: An Audience with Tania Hershman and Rosie Garland’ on the 15th October. The wonderful Tania Hershman and I will be in-conversation with Dale Townsend (of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies). Tania is a fantastic writer and is also writer-in-residence at Southern Cemetery. One of our many connections is that we both approached the venues and asked about the possibility of a residency, rather than applying for an advertised position. At The Gothic Manchester Festival event, we are going to be talking about how Manchester inspires us to write Gothic. Tania feels that she’s coming from a non-Gothic standpoint, so I’ve been showing her that her writing is a lot more Gothic than she thinks!"

Image By Jessica Smith

“That opens up a wider point about Gothic or Gothic-inspired writing and how it is perceived and received. If you haven’t grown up with idea of the Gothic being a possibility, you can sometimes miss it. All too often it’s been treated as marginal and tasteless. Wordsworth and Coleridge both dismissed Gothic literature as the ‘trash of the circulating library’. The Romans laughed at Alaric and the Goths – and look what happened to them. I don’t have a problem being called Gothic. I’ve been called worse!"

How has time as writer-in-residence at The John Rylands Library been so far?

“I had no idea what to expect. I’ve been blown away by the kindness of the staff. Writing here has been amazing. I’ve found this place so easy to work in. I sit down, shut everything out and get on with it. The ‘magic alcove’ as I call it, helps!

Jess added: “The library has never had a writer-in-residence until now. This means we can really experiment with ideas. Rosie has been amazing and involved in so much. There have been student seminars where she’s talked about The John Rylands Library and what it can offer; there have been walking tours. We took people behind the scenes, finishing in the cellars surrounded by fake candles! It’s been beneficial too trialling as an institution what it would be like to walk people around the building, rather than just having them sitting down. Rosie has also been involved in the Peterloo commemoration events: reading material from a person alive at the time, Jemima Bamford of Middleton – and there is also an exhibition in the library itself."

Rosie continued: “A mutually benefical exchange feels very important to me as writer-in-residence. I want to give something back. I also like to say yes to great opportunities. Why say no?! It’s a brilliant atmosphere here and the staff are just great, everyone is so welcoming. I’ve had so many brilliant conversations. No wonder it’s been inspiring. The archives here are incredible too; not just books but photos, maps, letters, manuscripts. Items in the archives have also jumped out and spoken to me… but you’ll have to wait for the book itself to find out more!”

Until then, get your ticket to hear Rosie read extracts of her work at The John Rylands Library on the 17 October and there is also ‘Writing Manchester Gothic: An Audience with Tania Hershman and Rosie Garland’ to enjoy on the 15 October, part of The Gothic Manchester Festival 2019.

Rosie is also online at http://www.rosiegarland.com/ and there is more information on The John Rylands Library available here.

By Emily Oldfield

Image 1: Rosie Garland by Gwen Riley-Jones

Image 2: The John Rylands Reading Room 1900, provided with thanks to The John Rylands Library

Image 3: Rosie Garland in the cellars of The John Rylands Library, taken by Jessica Smith

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