Q&A with Varley O’Connor, author of “The Welsh Fasting Girl”

Local author and professor Varley O’Connor sat down to talk with us in anticipation of her appearance at the Coventry Village branch on Wednesday, May 8 at 7 p.m.

O’Connor’s newest novel, The Welsh Fasting Girl, was initially inspired by historical records documenting Victorian-Era girls who became internationally recognized for their uncanny ability to fast for extended periods. O’Connor’s interest fixated on the story of a young girl named Sarah Jacob, whose story continues to fascinate historians, writers, and Welsh residents alike. The Welsh Fasting Girl follows a fictional 19th century woman journalist as she investigates the events surrounding the tragic death of the real-life Sarah Jacob by starvation. The book artfully combines in-depth historical and cultural research with O’Connor’s compelling imagining of the events that may have unfolded behind the scenes and between the lines of the documentation which has survived the tragedy.

Q.     What inspired you to write your newest book, The Welsh Fasting Girl?

A.     I was researching an article about eating disorders in women, and I read a book called Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. It’s sort of a social-cultural history of the issue. I learned about young women and girls during the Victorian Era who were the celebrities of their day. I thought, “What? What is that?” It seemed that there were these young female people who cropped up without even knowing each other all over the world, who were fasting. They hadn’t named anorexia, they didn’t know anything about it yet. These girls were assumed by some to be miracles. They were carrying on the tradition of the medieval fasting maidens, like some of the saints you’ve probably heard about. But it was different in that most of these young women and girls were from poor communities, and they made their communities quite successful and famous.

This was all sort of brought about by trains. People could travel and go see them. Trains had just come in during the Victorian era. It was also brought about by the wider reading of newspapers. You read about these amazing girls who could go for years without eating and you could get on the train and actually go see them! People went, massively, to visit these girls. It was also at the time where we had Darwin and there was the battle of science and religion going on, and people wanted to still believe that we were not just animals – of course we’re not really just animals – but it was a very shocking declaration, all of that stuff from Darwin. And at the same time the medical community was rising and trying to gain more power, so it was sort of battle between the church and science. And these girls became sort of flash points at the time, of this battle. Later we learned that Sarah Jacob, the girl that I decided to write about – she was the most famous one of all – we later learned that she probably had anorexia. It was named about ten years after she died, but we didn’t know that then.

Q.     Given that this is the story of a true, historical event, why did you choose the form of the novel to tell this particular story?

A.     Well, when I began to look more deeply into this story, I learned that Sarah Jacob’s family – she had a lot of siblings – the ones who lived all the way into the 1950s were always silent about what really happened within the household. So there was so much that was unknown. It was very big publicly, she was very famous in London, really all over the world. And we know what happened to her. She basically died while a watch was being conducted by local and English doctors to try to prove that it’s not possible. They watched her starve to death before their eyes. That was the most shocking thing that I learned.

But what really happened? How did she get away with it for two years, seeming like she was eating nothing? Was there collusion going on in the family dynamic? We don’t know. So, I felt like there were already several non-fiction books that were quite good, but the things that I really wanted to know I believed I would have to investigate, and look at more. And then use my novelist imagination, to try to figure out what probably happened – that’s what novelists do, that’s what I spend my time thinking about – and what did it feel like from the inside for the girl? I had to write it as a novel because being a novelist, I was fascinated by the true aspects, but I couldn’t stop there.

And I think that the book I finally came up with does present a pretty compelling portrait of what it may have been like. History, of course, we can never really know. All we can do is interpret, using our own knowledge and the understanding that human beings were always human beings. Just because they lived at a different time, doesn’t mean they didn’t share enormous similarities to us.

Q.     The Welsh Fasting Girl follows a young woman journalist as she investigates the true and tragic story of a twelve-year-old girl’s life and death by starvation. How did you go about researching for and writing this book? 

A.     I love doing the research. I teach at Kent State University, and I was fortunate enough to get a research grant so that I was able to go to London and Wales. I not only went to archives, but I went to museums so that I could better understand the culture of the day and the place. Wales is a fascinating place. I knew nothing about it, and now I’m in love with it. I’m in love with the people. They’re really, really very interesting. And to actually walk in the place where it happened, to go to the church that still exists, where Sarah Jacob’s family actually went, to go to the grave, to see her grave, to see the place where the autopsy was conducted, to talk to contemporary Welsh people who still talk about this case…

In fact, one woman at the church – where one of my dark characters, the pastor, proclaimed this case to the world and brought pilgrims travelling to this small village in Wales – actually had a copy of a book written by Dr. Robert Fowler. He was one of the English doctors who went and examined the girl at the time. He wrote a book about the case that came out five years after it happened. She had a copy of it, and she wanted to show me! I mean, this is just a normal person, she’s not like you, you know, a librarian, who reads constantly, no! So that was really interesting, and I actually used that book. I was able to obtain a copy by this Dr. Fowler that has transcripts of the trial that happened after the girl died.

It was tremendous the amount of information I got by being there. And then when I got sabbatical a couple years later from Kent State, I went back. And a Welsh legal historian who teaches at a local university there and has written about the case was also very helpful in explaining to me why the trial went the way it did, and the legalities of the case. There were political implications, medical implications, legal implications. There are many rings to this story. So it took a long time to do and a lot of research, but it was fascinating. The more I did, the more interesting new corners would suddenly light up!

Q.     Was there anything that really surprised you in the research process?

One thing that really surprised me…you know what? Let me go back to something that I learned very early on, when I was reading the book by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. When the little girl was dying, Sarah Jacob, the parents took her younger sister, picked her up, and put her into the bed to keep her elder sister warm. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. The little girl’s name was Margaret. Sarah and Margaret were very close – the 12-year old and the 9-year old. Even though I had no reason to think so, I started to feel that Margaret should be a big character in the book, and she might have had a hand in maybe secretly feeding Sarah, gathering food at night. And that’s how that whole aspect of the story began to open up, just from reading how strange it was to put this child in bed with a dying child.

Q.     The Welsh Fasting Girl is described as a historic novel that illuminates “the socioeconomic, religious, scientific, philosophic, and political cultures and conflicts of [the] time. What are some parallels between the world you bring to life in the novel and our own community’s contemporary issues?

A.     Of course, we still have a huge struggle between science and faith. I mean, it hasn’t ended! So I think that that’s very timely. There are still troubles between countries. A huge thing that fed this story was the oppression of the Welsh by the English throughout history. And we’re still struggling with these things – Brexit, oh gosh – and in our own country – fundamentalist values as opposed to scientific values. And then personally for me, as a woman, I really feel that the central story of what happened to the girl – the most personal issue – is so tied in with the patriarchy. And for my young woman American reporter, when she started to penetrate this aspect of the issue – the story that she was investigating – she learned more about the oppressions of women. And with the MeToo movement, the double lives that we lead, and the things that we keep quiet about, the secrets are being exploded, and yet at the same time, not. These things are still going on. It’s extremely parallel, you know. We think we’ve progressed so much, and yet we have a long way to go.

Q.     What effect do you hope this story will have on your readers?

A.     I think this is a story that we can learn from. There are no truly evil people in this story, in my view. They all had reasons for the things they were doing. But I think all of us, to survive as human beings, and to take care of the world in an appropriate way, we need to make some changes. And it’s very hard to see ourselves and to make changes. But I think that looking at the blindnesses and the difficulties of other cultures can help us to see how we may be doing the same thing. Instead of just saying “well that was them and we are much better”, we know we’re not now! Maybe this is a good time for us, in this moment of true insecurity, to really start questioning things in a deeper way, and perhaps this book can help that – I hope! I hope it’s just a good read, too. It’s very interesting, very intriguing, or at least that’s how it felt to me.

Q.     Talk a bit about your creative process. As a prolific and critically acclaimed novelist and creative writing professor, do you have any advice for beginning and aspiring writers? Do you believe it’s important to stick to a regular writing habit?

A.     Yeah, that’s the other thing I do: work with beginning and aspiring writers. I have such wonderful students at Kent. The main thing, first, I have to say, is read. I’ve been sort of shocked at how many people who want to write don’t read very much. And I think to be a writer who’s going to really do it, if that’s what you want, you’ve got to read all the time. When I was young, I wrote as much as I could during the day and I read every single night – everything, everything always – so that’s one thing I always tell my students.

And a regular schedule is good! To the best of our abilities – we all have to have job jobs, or almost all of us, these days. But even sitting down for one hour a day, you can accomplish a lot. I used to put little numbers on my calendar, of how many hours I worked a day. And this is something I actually got from Ernest Hemingway. He did it so he’d know he wasn’t kidding himself! And at the end of the month you look and you see 2…0…0… It somehow gets you to sit down more if you do that. For a long time I kept all my calendars and I don’t anymore because there were too many!

Q.     What is your writing process, and does your writing method differ for different projects?

A.     Hugely. When I’m writing historical novels, and I’ve done a couple now, based on true stories, sometimes I have to stop and go back to research, because you don’t know until you’re into it what more you’re going to need. So that will be a back-and-forth between the writing process and researching again. Whereas when it’s not as much research-based, then I pretty much stay on a schedule. In the beginning, I don’t work that many hours a day because I don’t know enough. Toward the end, I’ll be working four to six hours a day, and sometimes even more. Of course that depends on my teaching schedule. I’ve always written the most in the summer – wonder why?

Q.     Who are some of your favorite writers? What are you reading right now? 

A.     Right now I’m reading all student work because we’re in thesis time, but I’ve got older writers that I love, and younger writers that I really love. One of the younger or young-ish writers that I really like is Rachel Kushner. Just over the Christmas holidays I read The Mars Room and I was blown away by that book about women in prison. I think I liked it too because it’s a multi-voiced novel and it’s based on a lot of documentary, factual material. She really went and lived among those women in a prison in California. I also like a very, very different writer from her, Ottessa Moshfegh, a lot. She wrote a book that I just read a couple months ago called My Year of Rest and Relaxation which is very strange – in fact, all of her work is very strange – but there is something really compelling about it. She’s really interesting.

And then I have my absolute heroes, which would be Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman. There are so many that have affected me at different periods…the Russians, I always go back to the Russians, and Proust.

Q.     You have an event coming up at our Coventry branch on May 8th. Can you tell me what you have planned for that?

A.     I will talk about the book, giving a really good overview of the history before I read. Then we’ll do questions. I’ve found that because so many people in these audiences are writers, discussion is probably the best part!

Q.     Anything else you’d like to add?

A.     Just one thing. I wanted to say that Bellevue Literary Press, who’s doing this particular book (they did one of my others as well) are a wonderful, smaller independent press that primarily publishes books at the intersection between the arts and the sciences. And I think that is such a hot intersection and they are doing some fantastic things, so I just want people to know. Spreading the word!

Varley O’Connor will be sharing a visual history of Sarah Jacob’s story along with excerpts from her new book, The Welsh Fasting Girl as part of the Cedar-Coventry Author Series at Heights Libraries’ Coventry Village branch on Wednesday, May 8th at 7 p.m.

For more information on O’Connor’s event, click here.

To check out The Welsh Fasting Girl from our catalog, click here.

Finally, excerpts of this discussion were recently aired on Biblio Radio — click here to listen to the segment.

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