As someone who loves fiction with historical elements and which explores identity it gives me very great pleasure to have the opportunity to interview Jan Fortune all about A Remedy For All Things today.
A Remedy For All Things
In the dream she is not herself.
Belief is Catherine’s gift, or it was once, growing up in the shadow of an extraordinary friendship amongst a cacophony of voices trying to tell her who to be.
Now, in her thirties, Catherine knows what she has lost and what she has survived. Her professional life is on course and she has a new relationship with Simon, a writer who shares her imaginative and creative worlds. But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993 to begin researching a novel based on the poet, Attila József, she starts dreaming the life of a young woman imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising. More disconcertingly, by day this woman, Selene Virág, is with her, dreaming Catherine’s life just as she dreams Selene’s.
Obsessed with uncovering the facts, Catherine discovers that Selene was a real person who lived through the persecution of Jews in Hungary during WW2, but what is most disorienting is that Selene believed Attila József to be the father of her daughter, Miriam, despite the fact that József committed suicide in December 1937, eighteen years before Miriam was born.
How do the three lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?
Densely layered, constantly challenging the boundaries between fact and fiction, A Remedy for All Things is a disquieting and compelling exploration of what we mean by identity and of how the personal and the political collide. Spare, subtle prose and an innovative, original narrative combine with an accessible, moving story; an extraordinary follow-up to This is the End of the Story that will lead to the final book in the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born.
An Interview with Jan Fortune
Thanks so much for agreeing to answer my questions and welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Jan.
A Remedy For All Things has a complex premise Jan. How did the concept for the book arise?
The premise is that Catherine, a writer is in Hungary in 1993 researching a book on Attila József, an extraordinary Hungarian poet who committed suicide in his early 30s in 1937. She is someone coping with losses of various sorts from the previous novel, This is the End of the Story, but her life seems to be on course until she arrives in Budapest and begins dreaming the life of another woman from a different time period. The idea was partly suggested by the fact that a lot of my material for writing comes to me in dreams. In this case it was the new character, Selene Virág, who I dreamt.
Up to that point I hadn’t realised that I would write a sequel to This is the End of the Story, let alone a trilogy, but once I’d dreamt this young woman, she wouldn’t let me go. In the dream she was imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising at the end of 1950s and I knew she had a strong connection to Catherine.
How extraordinary! I love hearing how authors get their inspiration and this is so interesting.
At the same time, I was reading the poetry of Attila József, so that might have fed into the dream, and I had a strong sense that Selene was connected with Attila as well as with Catherine, even though she would have been a very young child when Attila died.
The book is an exploration of the connections between these three people over these three time periods and also beyond the book, but although the premise is complex the narrative is structured so that we see the lives of the two women in alternate chapters, as they dream each others’ lives and work out their own issues of identity, conflicts and loves.
That’s fascinating. As A Remedy For All Things is the second book in your trilogy, how do you manage the plotting of a story over three books?
I write drafts on computer but I keep endless hand written notes and timelines to keep everything consistent. The timelines in the trilogy are fairly intricate as the action of A Remedy for All Things actually fits into a month that isn’t filled in during the first book, but is chronologically before the last chapter of This is the End of the Story. So the first book ends in June 1994 and the second takes place in the thirty days from November 6 1993 to December 3 1993 (and the same dates in 1959 and 1937 for Selene and Attila).
I was almost finished the first book when I realised it would be a trilogy so right at the end I spent an intense period going over This is the End of the Story to make sure the continuity would work with the next two novels. I had endless charts of dates and colour-coded pages of notebooks. A key element was also planting particular objects that appear across the books, the third of which ends in June 2020, which is when the third will be published.
It sounds complex to keep abreast of it all.
So there’s a sketchbook given to Catherine in Paris that once belonged to Selene’s father. It becomes not only a symbol of a life that Selene has lost, but also a motif for the future and will re-appear in For Hope is Always Born. Another object that assumes even greater importance in communicating themes through the three novels is a small silver hand of Miriam pendant. It comes to Catherine when she is in Toledo searching for traces of the 11th century Muslim princess-cum-saint, Casilda, whose story is entwined in the plots of the first and third novels and it’s a tiny pendant on which a great deal hangs.
There’s also a book shown to Catherine by my fictionalised version of Szuzsanna Makai, Attila József’s niece. On this object the plot might turn, but you’d have to read the book to learn more about that object and how it is used to manage the plotting …
I will indeed. I love the sound of all three!
Hungary features strongly. How did you research the geographical elements of the book?
I read everything I could find – online and in books. I read books about the uprising and about the history and politics of Hungary and the background years before the 1956 Uprising. I read Hungarian novels and poetry to get the texture of the place and books about Attila József.
The reading was vital. Unlike 1970s Teesside where I grew up and where much of the first novel is set, Budapest was completely new to me. But I was also incredibly privileged to get an arts council grant to travel to Budapest to research and write there. This made a huge difference and it was made even more effective through key conversations with people there.
How brilliant. I love Budapest.
The staffs of the Hungarian House of Photography and at the Attila József Museum were incredibly helpful. I was lucky to be put in touch with Lászlo Kunos, Director of Corvina Press, who gave me a much more nuanced perspective on life in both 1950s and 1990s Budapest and also helped me make key decisions about how my character, Catherine, thinks about Attila József’s final days.
Similarly, a meeting with the Hungarian novelist and poet, Gábor Schein, gave me much more insight into the remarkable city of Budapest. It’s place that has been through so much, and yet it’s a young city, with Pest in particular becoming populace only at the end of the nineteenth century.
There are many books set in the recent past and WW2. What sets A Remedy For All Things apart from the others do you think?
The book has three time periods that intersect in an unusual way through the lives of the characters – the 30s, the 50s and the 90s. At its core the book, and the whole trilogy, are asking questions about identity and the human issues of how individuals survive in tumultuous times so whilst each character is very much of his or her time and the particular events of those times matter, there are also wider questions at stake.
The first book is set in the 70s, with some forward passages in the 80s and 90s and the last is contemporary so this also emphasises that it is what unites the characters across time and place that is vital. And underpinning all three novels is the story of Casilda, who was a real Moorish princess in 11th century Spain who became a saint. Her extraordinary story is weaves through the three novels.
So while in some senses the book is ‘historical’ fiction and I take the historical research very seriously, they are also books about relationships and identity and there’s an element that is on the edge of magic realism.
The more you tell me Jan, the more I want to get your books to the top of my TBR.
To what extent do you feel we are all political creatures as this seems to be a theme you explore?
I think the personal and the political are inseparable. Across 3 novels that span almost a millennium every character is both an individual trying to work out life, love and identity but always within a particular context. Casilda lives at a time when the intersection of cultures in Moorish Spain enables her to make a huge change in her life that is as political as it is spiritual. Selene survives the Jewish ghetto in Budapest in WW2 only to be caught up in the political events of young Hungarians trying to overthrow the constraints of oppressive Soviet rule in the 50s. Catherine is formed by the politics of industrial decline in late 70s Teesside.
Yet all of them are also individuals who react and respond to these contexts with imagination. Running through the novel are various quotes from Don Quixote and most importantly:
When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. … — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be.
So there is a constant idea that political events might trample our daily lives, and that the ‘unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ and yet so often, even in the most dire circumstances, the human spirit persists.
I love that optimism of the human spirit.
All of your writing seems to have a keen interest in identity. What would you say to that assessment?
That’s absolutely right. The question that began the trilogy for me was about how one person supports and even lives out the fantasy life of another. Sancho does this for Quixote and Catherine does it in the first novel for her friend Miriam. She is someone who for a long time lets others define her; they even change the form of her name so Miriam calls her Cassie and later she’s called Kitty. Reclaiming her name, Catherine, is an important step, but her sense of identity is challenged again when she begins dreaming Selene’s life and becomes obsessed with finding out more about her.
Identity is a wonderfully fluid concept and this fascinates me. Who each of us is, is much less monolithic than we often imagine, and a novel is a great way of exploring the human condition.
Is there anything you feel it is essential for a reader to know about A Remedy For All Things?
Only that if all this sounds complicated, the response I’ve had from readers is that all the plotting and research, all the timelines and thinking about politics and identity are very much secondary to the story. Essentially I wanted to end up with a story that begins with a coming of age and moves on to how people live in immensely challenging times with amazing dignity; how people grow and love whatever the conditions around them.
It sounds to me as if you have done so wonderfully, Jan. Congratulations.
About Jan Fortune
Poet and novelist Jan Fortune is the founder of Cinnamon Press. Following her poetry collections, Stale Bread and Miracles, Slate Voices: Cwmorthin and Turn/Return, her fifth novel This Is The End Of The Story was released in 2017.
A respected editor and passionate writing mentor, Jan lives in the wild wet foothills of the Moelwyns in North Wales, beneath the abandoned slate village of Cwmorthin.