I was lucky enough to have a proof copy of this book sent my way. I immediately devoured it and was so thrilled to have the opportunity to ask author, Julia Golding, some questions! Her answers are so amazing and there is a bookish surprise at the end so do read through!
Tell us about Sahira and her story.
Do you like to imagine what it would be like to live in the past? I do – it’s why I write historical fiction. So I’m inviting you to come with me and imagine you are living in 1830, a few years before the industrial revolution gets going with its railways and huge factories. The Thames is still full of sailing ships and a horse and carriage is the fastest way to travel.
India at this time is governed by a British firm called the East India Company – that’s how the British empire began. Sahira is the child of an unusual marriage, one between an East India Company officer and an Indian noblewoman. This makes her a daughter of both worlds, east and west. Her father is an animal collector and takes his wife and daughter with him on his expeditions in the jungle. Sahira has spent her life learning about the wonderful creatures of her country; she knows how to set up camp, capture creatures and look after them; but she is about to be roughly transplanted to a new territory where everything is strange to her. Just before the book begins, they set out for London, accompanying a shipment of exotic creatures for the menagerie (an old word for zoo) in the Tower of London. On the voyage, Sahira’s parents die of a fever, leaving Sahira alone with the tigers as her last link to her past. On arrival, nothing goes to plan: her tigers are taken from her, her family in England doesn’t claim her as they are prejudiced against a mixed race child, and she ends up in an orphanage ruled by bullies. Next she hears that the tigers are sickening and she might be the only one in the whole of London who knows how to save them…
And now if you want to find out more, you’ll have to read on in the book!
Orphans, notoriously, had it bad in London! Did you need to do much research into their realities or was some of it imagined?
I love history and have studied it all through my life. I also have a doctorate in literature of the period in which the book is set so I’ve read lots about that time. I drew on my knowledge of the Georgian and Victorian world gained from my university studies, but also from reading Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and other novelists of the era. But, of course, a writer also adds in her own imagination. It’s not enough just to know the dates of the Poor Law, you have to imagine what it was like to be a child living in that system that gave you very few chances and treated you appallingly. Sahira is lucky in a way because she had years of happy life with her parents so she knows what it is like to be loved. On the other hand, it makes fitting in at a cruel orphanage even harder as she knows what she is missing.
The Menagerie at Tower of London is famous for its fantastical beasts donated and gifted to Monarchs. What facts did you discover while writing about this setting?
It seems wild, doesn’t it, that Londoners, from the time of the medieval kings, could walk along the Thames to drop in on lions, zebras and elephants? In all my imaginings of the past, I’d never included that and I’ve written about London often. Maybe Shakespeare visited, or at least heard the roar of the lions as he rowed over to the Globe on the other side of the river? Not that there was a constant population of animals in residence. Which creatures were in the menagerie depended at the beginning on who had given what to the king. If it was Norway, you’d get a polar bear; if it was France, you might get a lion or a camel. Unfortunately, lack of understanding of diets on the part of the keepers and cold winters meant that many of the exotic animals didn’t enjoy a long life. Conditions weren’t like a modern zoo where enclosures are made to be as stimulating as possible. These cages were very small and there was hardly any room for exercise. The last keeper, who appears in the book, was a wonderfully enlightened man who understood animals. He made many improvements, but he was fighting a losing battle as the area he had been given was so limited.
Many of my favourite stories about the menagerie appear in the book as tales Sahira tells her friends. Look out for the three lions that might’ve been leopards who still appear on the royal standard today. Oh yes and the polar bear who fished in the Thames. Not to mention to drunken elephant. I was helped by the very readable history of the menagerie by Daniel Hahn so if you want to find out the whole story, do have a look at that.
Sahira’s search for family and home never ends though she faces heartache around every opportunity. Were there alternate endings to her story that you considered?
The search for a home is one of the very basic plots and one that goes right to our own heart because we can all sympathise with it. I did aim for a sense of rightness and completion in this one but some of the alternatives I thought up and discarded are mentioned in the story itself. Go back to India and release the tigers there? If the money could be found, that might work for the tigers but where would that leave Sahira? Send them to a better zoo? That’s not possible in 1830. Forget about the tigers, conform and beg to live with a relative? But that’s not Sahira. Rescue the menagerie and pretend all will be fine? History tells another story. I hope the ending I chose satisfies the reader as the best of what was possible.
The injustices and prejudices faced by Sahira are momentous and anger fuelling, were they difficult to write?
I find strong emotion easy to write because the emotion sweeps me away and my fingers fly over the keyboard. I disappear and it is just my character in my head. If I can make myself cry when I read it over then I know I’ve done the best I can. But there’s another level to the question in that I’ve not faced these specific injustices and prejudices in real life. On the ‘write what you know’ advice given out, how can I then write about it? The job of the writer has always been to imagine and use what you can of your own experience and what you’ve learned from others to make the fictional world you are creating as real and as true to life as you can. If you want to produce stories with any range, from sci-fi alien planets to stories about gladiators in Ancient Rome, you have to be permitted to imagine yourself into other shoes. Hopefully we’re still allowed to be anything we can imagine, from a pirate, to a princess to a person from the past. I hope the reader will find Sahira’s story authentic as it is founded on our shared experience as humans seeking a home and someone to love.
Both The Curious Crime and The Tigers in the Tower have strong female leads. What characteristics did you want them to have and why?
My first thought when I read this question was why would anyone want to write a book these days with weak female leads? I thought we were well past that – but maybe we aren’t in some books? Scary thought!
Any lead character, regardless of gender, surely needs to have some dynamism or the story will flop along, shedding readers with every page turn. I look to my characters for energy – it could be wicked energy, of course, or it could be used for good. I look for courage and the ability to dare, even if you feel timid inside. I want a story arc where the character seems to grow from her experience. Shedding what happens like water off a duck’s back is more the territory for action heroes who don’t change over time. I like my characters to be clever and imaginative, because that makes it more fun to spend time with them. They move in with me at my computer for months so I have to enjoy being with them!
What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Tigers in the Tower?
Hmm, good question – and one I hadn’t asked myself. When you shut the book, I hope you think ‘hey, I enjoyed that and really felt as if I was going through the adventure with Sahira. Boy, weren’t those Newtons bad guys! I’d hate to meet them.’ A few weeks later, I hope you’ll still remember the book and start telling friends and family all the little snippets of great historical fact that are woven into the book. ‘Did you know there were African elephants in London back in Medieval times?’ ‘Do you know why the Queen has three lions-who-might-be leopards on her flag?’ ‘Which keeper of his majesty’s lions almost got eaten by a boa constrictor?’ And finally, I hope you also take away a passion for keeping tigers in the best conditions possible. In our times, this means a desire to protect the small population of 4,000 left in the wild by protecting habitats and stopping poaching.
Are you currently writing anything similar to these historical adventures?
Yes! I’m having a wonderful time writing a series about an imagined life for the young Jane Austen as a detective. Not much is known about the day-to-day life of Jane while she was living with her family in the vicarage at Steventon so I am exploiting the historical gaps to write a series that imagines her having some adventures that set up the later novels. The first of these, due out next spring, is called Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Adventure. It is a riff on her first novel, Northanger Abbey, which has great fun with the gothic genre with its spectres and villains. I hope my series will appeal to Austen fans (or readers who will grow up to be fans), as well as those who love detective stories and historical adventures. I was drawn to this plotline because the real Jane Austen had a razor-sharp wit and a skill at unravelling a plot. I thought she would be a natural as a sleuth in her youth. So rather than courtship dramas in stately homes and ballrooms familiar from famous novels she wrote, you get haunted houses, jewel thieves and horse rustlers! I’ve planted lots of what in the film world are called ‘Easter eggs’ in the sense that there are things for the alert reader to spot and oodles of literary jokes that Austen (I hope) would approve.
Such a fantastic set of answers and I cannot wait to see more from the lovely and talented, Julia Golding!