It’s not every day your novel gets compared to Booker Prize winners and critically acclaimed plays, but this is the reality for Aislinn Hunter. The World Before Us, Hunter’s new book, attests to the author, poet and professor’s overwhelming competence in each of her professions. Her novel follows Jane Standen, whose archival work in a London museum brings back painful memories of losing the five-year-old child she was babysitting during a walk in the woods 20 years earlier. Jane’s research uncovers another missing person case in the same woods 100 years ago, linking characters across time in a historical mystery. The prose is lyrical, the plot is enthralling and its historical diversions speak to Hunter’s dedication to extensive research.
Paste caught up with Hunter to chat about writing a novel with multiple perspectives, the prevalence of memory in her work and what it’s like to be compared to literary greats.
Paste: There are multiple plot lines and sets of characters throughout the novel. Did one plot line occur to you first?
Hunter: I had the near-contemporary plot line first: the idea of Jane, at 15, walking in the woods with a five-year-old girl who goes missing on the walk. I also knew from the start that the trail they’d be walking on was one that had been planted a hundred years before by a Victorian plant hunter who’d lived on a nearby estate. The asylum storyline came a year into the first draft—and quite suddenly—when I happened upon a letter written by the real-life Lord Tennyson about a visit that two asylum patients paid to his estate house in 1877. I read the letter and saw the whole first chapter unfold like a film. Things grew from there—though I pared a few storylines back toward the end of the writing process. At the edges of the book, for example, is a back-story that took place in 19th century India involving Farrington’s porter. I cut that in the end but still sometimes feel its shadowy presence.
I remember hearing an interview with Michael Ondaatje once where he was discussing a scene from one of his novels, I think it was In the Skin of a Lion. At one point, he confounded the interviewer by talking about a particular event in the book, and then he realized, through her confusion, that he’d actually cut the whole storyline he was talking about out—and that that particular story only existed in the world of his book for him. I have a few plotlines that are like that for me.
Paste: You eventually tie all of the storylines together. What’s that process like? Do you improvise or is there a good deal of outlining before you’ve started writing the actual prose?
Hunter: In the beginning, I just follow those aspects of the story that interest me. I don’t know why—maybe because I’m also a poet—but I seem to have a very hard time leaving a page that reads like a first draft and moving on to the next page. This means I’m revising for language from the get-go. I tend not to know how a book will end until I get there, and usually by the time I get there the preceding pages have already been revised upwards of 500 times. This makes the kinds of cuts I described above a bit wrenching.
For a good part of the revision process for this book, I sat under a wall covered in sticky notes—different colors for different timelines; tiered notes for various plots to keep the momentum going in each story. With a structure as complicated as mine (three timelines and a large cast of characters), I really had to be organized about what was happening and when. So improvisation went out the window.
Paste: Jane is a strong yet shaken protagonist. Did you draw any inspiration from any other literary characters when creating her?
Hunter: At the same time as I was writing The World Before Us I was working on a PhD on Victorian writers’ houses and museums, so I was reading a lot of the Brontës when I was working on the book—Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and also Charlotte’s letters. The juxtaposition was useful, because I was interested in the way the sisters handled their genre—that crafty supernaturalism they write so wonderfully. So, there is probably an ounce or two of Charlotte’s governess Jane (from Jane Eyre) in my Jane. Both of them have come through difficult events in their childhood. Both are, I think, a bit untrusting but still hopeful.
Paste: How about historical mysteries like the one Jane sets out to solve? What events throughout history intrigue you most?
Hunter: I didn’t do well in history in high school, so I had a lot to make up for in later years. I found my way ‘in’ to the past through art—my undergraduate degree is in art history (my university actually called it History in Art)—and art is still one of the major lenses through which I engage with the past. This metamorphosed, when I moved to Ireland at 18, into an interest in the material traces of those who have gone before us: personal belongings, handwriting, architectural structures, the way a chair is positioned in a room. So I guess what intrigues me about history is what’s left behind, the ephemera, small proofs. For example, I absolutely love looking at old photos in antique stores and wondering about the lives lived by the strangers in the images. I love walking through museums. I tend to feel inspired by small things rather than the larger narratives. Which is to say that, for me, things are portals; they give us access to the larger story. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard expressed this idea wonderfully when he wrote, “At any rate, nothing just vanishes, of everything that disappears there remains traces.”
Paste: Quite a few people have retroactively written about the Victorian era, but you hone in on museums, asylums, etc. How do you think those sorts of institutions have evolved over the centuries? Do you believe that evolution has been largely positive or negative?
Hunter: Ha! Great question, though I’m afraid I’m not really [qualified] to answer it, especially in relation to asylum culture. My own sense from having thought a lot about museums in relation to my PhD work and from spending a lot of time in museums is that one of the most fascinating aspects of museum culture is how museums often appear to be static—still steeped in traditional models of curation and exhibition—when, in actuality, significant changes in both conceptual approaches to material history and to visitor engagement have occurred. One small example of this is hands-on interaction with museum collections (at UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum you can hold a wolf skull) which has really come to the fore in tandem with new forms of digital representation and enhancement (how, for example, at The British Library you can see a Blake manuscript onscreen better than you could in life while ‘virtually’ flipping through its pages). This interests me, because both those changes are about enhancing the visitor’s engagement with a ‘thing’ in an affective and sensory way. The collecting and keeping of everyday objects interests me, too, whether it’s Depression-era farming equipment, costume jewelry or diaries (Britain has a fascinating project called The Great Diary Project, which recognizes the value of every individual story). All of which is to say that I think there are some incredible minds working in museums and on museum-style collections; people doing amazing work in an age when funding museums is rarely on the top of a country’s to-do list and where, in some parts of the world, cultural heritage is coming under threat.
Paste: Memory is a very poignant theme throughout your novel. Are there any memories of your own you’d like to share that indelibly stamped you?
Hunter: When I was working on the last few revisions of The World Before Us at Banff in Alberta (at an arts centre in the mountains where I could hole-up without interruptions), I made a list of pleasures and affections that I thought might find a place in the book—you know, felt moments when you feel in your body and life. This is one of the themes of the book: the sustaining power of affection whether for a being or a thing or for the work one does or for the weather—how wonderful it can be to feel oneself alive in the world. Anyway, I still have this list scrawled on a piece of lined paper, and because I have no idea where to file it, I’ve basically just been shuffling it around my study for months—moving it from desk to table to mantle. In amongst those scribbles are memories drawn from my own life but also from the lives of the other artists working at Banff that summer: the sound of scissors moving through cloth, the warm press of one’s feet sinking in the sand, the music of crickets, the sting of a cut, the muzzle of a calf’s mouth nuzzling one’s hand, the wind lifting your hair, the sound of someone who loves you calling your name. These are my favorite kinds of memories: quick, electric, but lasting.
Paste: People are comparing your novel to A.S. Byatt’s Possession. How does that make you feel?
Hunter: That’s amazing—she’s brilliant! And I guess it makes sense in that the books have shared themes and that both books use dual time-lines. I actually haven’t read Possession (partly because I was afraid I’d be influenced), but I loved The Children’s Book—she was in perfect form there; I highly recommend it. One reviewer also referenced Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia alongside Byatt’s Possession, and that was equally brilliant because he is one of my favorite writers and I admire his work very much. I see both of them as serious thinkers—there’s a philosophical chewiness to their work; I couldn’t be put alongside better company.
Paste: What’s next in store for you?
Hunter: I’m about to defend my PhD thesis at The University of Edinburgh (fingers crossed), and then I have eight months for writing before I go back to teaching. I’ve been making notes towards a new novel, but I haven’t been able to let myself really think about it because I’ve been teaching for the past few months and can’t really untether myself in terms of time the way a novel requires me to. I have a few Festivals coming up which is great—hearing other writers, meeting readers. And I’m thinking I’m due for a brief vacation: husband, long walks, good food and a few museums.