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Jessica Cornwell on The Serpent Papers

On February 9, 2015

Jessica Cornwell is an academic, playwright and classicist. Now 28, she grew up in a family of writers in a community in California. As well as winning numerous prestigious grants during her degree at Stanford and MA in Barcelona, she has trained with a Catalan theatre company, studied at Oxford, researched in India, founded a museum in Greece and worked in the West End and at Working Title. The Serpent Papers is her first book.

Your grandfather is John le Carré; your uncle the novelist Nick Harkaway; and your father the screenwriter Stephen Cornwell. Have you always wanted to be writer?

When I was very little, writing was all I wanted to do. I had many examples of authors in the family, whom I loved and respected deeply, and was actively encouraged to take writing seriously by my parents. I grew up in a big family (I’m now the eldest of eight children) and I loved secrets and listening to adult conversations. I would stay up late into the night trying to over hear what my parents were discussing. Reading was another realm of secrets, a delicious, solitary, experience that introduced me to the scope of adventure and possibility. But as a teenager, I became nervous of pursuing the thing I loved most of all. I felt that the pen didn’t belong to me. Me? I was an interloper – an upstart. When I was thirteen years old, I decided I would never be a writer. It simply wasn’t an option.
A decade later I graduated from a masters program in Drama at the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona, only to start quietly writing a novel in the early morning hours before work. I thought I wanted to direct – but no – I wanted to write, to craft a narrative, and cast the players and dress the set. I wanted to build a whole universe in which my story could unfold.

Who is Lavinia? Did she inspire The Serpent Papers?

When I was studying drama as a grad student in Barcelona, I had the opportunity to work as a director’s assistant for the Catalan experimental theatre company La Fura dels Baus. I was assigned to the director Pep Gatell (a founding member of La Fura) and his 2010 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Titus Andronicus. It was an enormous, modern production – Pep called it ‘macroteatral.’ We had moving platforms, a full induction kitchen, (the audience was fed by Mugaritz chefs throughout the show – strange dishes like candied pears and seaweed), four 20mx4m screens and a retro German score. We rehearsed in renovated factories and aerospace domes outside of Barcelona. In the spring, I toured with the show to San Sebastian, and eventually wrote the English translation for Pep’s modern Spanish interpretation of Shakespeare’s language.

Lavinia is the beautiful daughter of Shakespeare’s invented Roman general Titus Andronicus. When Titus returns to Rome after defeating the Goths, he takes Tamora, Queen of the Goths, prisoner and sacrifices her son Alarbus. Swearing revenge, Tamora and her lover Aaron goad her surviving sons, Chiron and Demetrius, into murdering the Emperor’s brother Bassianus and assaulting his betrothed, Titus’s daughter Lavinia. Things only get worse from here. Chiron and Demetrius rape Lavinia in the woods, before ripping out her tongue and cutting off her hands to silence her.

When Marcus finds Lavinia streaming with blood, he laments ‘Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp’d / Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.’ I felt my own heart burn each time I helped the actress playing Lavinia wipe the gore from her mouth backstage. The first time we worked the rape scene I threw up in a bathroom of the old factory we rehearsed in. A wave of anger consumed me, followed by an unsettling curiosity. What was it about Lavinia’s forced silence, her very muteness that so deeply disturbed me? Affected me so physically?

I began to dig deeper. In the play, Lavinia reveals the truth of her assault using the pages of a book, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which recounts the story of Philomela (who becomes the Nightingale), a young woman raped by the Thracian King Tereus. I found myself drawn to this myth, as a moth to a flame. I traced Philomela’s shadow in my evenings after work, and began forming a thriller.

First I had the crime. A mysterious killer in Barcelona ritualistically slaughters four women, removing the tongues from their mouths. But what did it mean? I saw a night of revelry in Barcelona, a night of witches, midsummers eve, a tongueless actress carried to the steps of a church in the arms of a stranger. I wanted to know more.

Was The Serpent Papers always going to be a trilogy?

Yes. In my earliest notes I describe the book as the first in a triptych. I envisioned the series as three carved panels hooked together, inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and The Haywain Triptych, (both housed in the Museo del Prado). At first I called this series the Llullian Triptych, but the name hasn’t stuck.

How would you describe The Serpent Papers?

The Serpent Papers is a thriller that follows the story of Anna Verco, a young woman whose quest for a medieval manuscript becomes a hunt for a serial killer. Her journey takes her from the monasteries of Mallorca into the dark heart of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, a world of belfries and gargoyles, murdered actresses and alchemical secrets.

Tell us about Anna Verco?

A little over two years ago, I took a break from work and travelled alone to Majorca for four days. In that time I visited monasteries in the Serra de Tramuntana. I was writing the beginning of my novel, and had set my sights on a medieval Mallorcan mystic called Ramon Llull. In the process of looking for Llull, I came to the Monastery of La Real, just outside of Palma, where I was invited into the Library of the Balearics. A stranger put a book into my hands – a medieval manuscript that was inexpressibly beautiful.

In a flash, I had Anna, born of the parchment I handled that day. Enigmatic, powerful, at times indecipherable, she would give very little of herself away. I saw a searingly intelligent, twenty-seven year old woman, unwilling to share her past, who was independent, bull-headed, unreliable, vulnerable…And yet incredibly strong. She would be a survivor, idiosyncratic, magical. She could hear things hidden inside the page, understand what I could not understand, battle for her own sanity. Her obsession with unravelling a mystery would place her in grave danger. I heard her voice pour through me, and started writing. Fascinatingly, Anna Verco forced me to learn about parchment manuscripts. Before I had Anna, I knew nothing of the subject.

What is next for you?

I’m currently writing the second instalment of my series –The Nightingale’s Garden – a book that will take Anna out of Spain and into London. This spring I’m hoping to trek through the Sibillini Mountains in Italy, keeping an eye out for wolves. I went there briefly last summer, when I was researching for The Nightingale’s Garden, and became enchanted with the eerie, magical history of these mountains. I can’t wait to go back, pen in hand.

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