The Backstreest of Purgatory sees the controversial artist Caravaggio wreak havoc on the streets of modern-day Glasgow. It’s surprising, dark and immersive with a host of characters who feel tangible and earthy. I spoke with the writer Helen Taylor about her book and the experience she had publishing it.
I didn’t know much about Caravaggio before reading this book (although it made me very curious). How closely did you model the narrative of the main character of Finn onto the life of Caravaggio and why did you choose that artist in particular?
Finn’s life isn’t exactly based on Caravaggio’s life although there are elements of the artist’s story that overlap with Finn’s, enough for Finn to interpret them as meaningful parallels — rejection by the establishment, fighting with his friends, the appearance of characters that could have come straight out of a Caravaggio painting, for example — and it is Finn’s interpretation of these events that trigger his reaction and his strange behaviour.
More important than the mirror of Caravaggio’s life, perhaps, is the presence of his art. His paintings are there in various forms throughout the book, either as chapter titles, or described in detail by Finn, but also hidden in tableaux. They appear to all the characters, not just to Finn, because I wanted Caravaggio to permeate the entire story.
I’ve been fascinated by Caravaggio’s art since I first came across it on a holiday to Italy years ago. I’m not religious but his paintings affected me in a way most of the others of the era did not. There was something about the combination of raw violence and extraordinary beauty. It wasn’t until later that I found out about his turbulent life and the murder that he committed. When I read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane, he came across as the ideal character to fictionalise — complex and full of contrasts and internal conflict.
The setting provides a gloriously dark contrast to the high art the main character would like to create. What was it about this place that you found suited your story and your characters?
Glasgow is the city that was home to me for many years. It is the city I know best and with which I have my own conflicting relationship. My happiest times and my darkest times were spent there. So, on a personal level, it echoes the contrasts in Caravaggio’s art. I think all big cities are places of extremes — poverty and wealth, culture and crime, education and exclusion — but Glasgow personifies it more than most. One the one hand, it has a reputation for drug and alcohol problems, for poverty, for violence. On the other, it is probably the friendliest, most welcoming place I have ever lived. It has a rich architectural and artistic heritage and is a renown seat of learning but much of this is built on a shameful past embroiled in slavery. It is a multicultural, multi-religious, modern society but it is still troubled by historic Catholic/Protestant sectarianism. And physically, the clouds are often thick and oppressive but when rare rays of sunshine slice between the tall tenement blocks, the light and shadows could be straight out of a Caravaggio painting.
The secondary characters are wonderful in your book. I found I had a deep connection with them and really engaged with their stories. How did you develop them and their stories in the planning and drafting stages?
Before I started writing, I did loads of planning, both for the intricate storyline and for all the characters. It surprised me though that as the book developed, I learned some unexpected things about them. For instance, I knew Tuesday had been a runner, and that she knew Rob through the school running club in the past, but I wasn’t sure why. Considering her backstory, it seemed a little unlikely. Then, in her first scene, she’s making an escape after nicking a library book and it all made sense. She has to be fast on her feet to survive.
The novel is told from the point of view of four characters which is quite a lot to handle for the writer and the reader, but earlier drafts were from seven different points of view (Rob, Mo and Midge had their chapters too). You really get to know a character when you are writing through their eyes, from inside their head. The structure didn’t work because it flitted between too many different people — there was a danger that I’d lose the engagement of the reader by expecting them to care so deeply about so many characters — so I had to rewrite the chapters to reduce the number of points of view. Even though it meant rewriting, I think it helped to have done it that way to begin with because it gave me a much more detailed insight into the secondary characters than I might have otherwise had.
Finn is quite a difficult character to like. Did you find it difficult to write him and find make him sympathetic when he does unpleasant things?
I didn’t find Finn difficult to write at all. Quite the opposite (maybe I shouldn’t admit that). He’s funny and sharp and there are lots of characters in the book who love him, so he must have (had) something going for him. His passion for his work is all-consuming which shouldn’t necessarily be a fault but, mixed with an aggravating combination of outrageous arrogance and paralysing self-doubt, it leads to all sorts of problems. One moment Finn considers himself a misunderstood genius, the next a talentless failure, and although he takes it to extremes, I’m sure there are many artists and writers who can identify with those feelings to a lesser extent. And yes, he behaves appallingly, but I would argue that most of the damage that he inflicts is accidental. Plus, he’s falling apart mentally and no one is recognising it. I feel sorry for him. He’s lost and he doesn’t know it and alienating everyone close to him. Having said that, there were times when he behaved in ways I didn’t expect and I felt utterly let down by him. I wanted him to be a better person. (It honestly felt as if his behaviour was outside my control.)
The ending is very powerful and left me to reevaluate a lot of the second part of the book. Without spoilers, did you always have the ending in mind when you were writing it or did it emerge from the writing of the book?
From the early planning stage, I knew where the story was heading but I don’t think I expected it to be quite so overwhelming. It was the most difficult section to write. It completely unsettled me.
From the process of writing and publishing your novel, what advice would you give to other writers?
Love what you are doing. Write to your limits and beyond. Make yourself laugh, cry or be shocked. If your pulse is racing, you are doing something right.
Work out what your own measure of success is. Don’t measure yourself against others (there will always be someone who has a higher daily word count, whose book is selling more, who is winning more prizes, who is getting better reviews). For me, getting published was brilliant. Seeing my novel in bookshops up and down the country was a dream come true. Sometimes, I have to go back and revisit the time when I was writing early drafts of the novel and I wasn’t sure if it would ever see the light of day and remind myself that I have achieved something that I thought might never happen. It puts a smile on my face.
Helen’s debut novel The Backstreets of Purgatory was published by Unbound in 2018. Before becoming a writer, she studied medicine in Glasgow and worked for a short time as a doctor in the city. Research took her to Oxford and London, but she later returned to Glasgow to take up a fellowship at the university. She currently lives in France where she is working on a second novel and memoir about her experiences of severe psychiatric illness and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
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