There’s something very special about a book that can bring a place to life. In The Exhibition, an historical novel by Cara Viola, she manages it not just with an ornate building in Glasgow but also a marsh in Great Yarmouth.
The book follows Madeleine, an insecure daughter of immigrants to the UK who has an uncommonly rare skill at carving. Spotted by a collector of rare items, she travels to Glasgow to make beautiful things for the International Exhibition of 1901. I loved the seductive way she described the process of carving, and how strange it would be to live in a building that was being built purely for the purposes of an exhibition.
This is how Kelvingrove looks today. Certainly inspires a tale or two!
It’s a haunting, mesmerising book that balances intrigue and gorgeous prose in equal measure. Well worth a read. I wanted to find out why Viola chose the settings and times for her novel, and where the inspiration for a shy carver came from. Read on to find out more.
One thing I loved about the book was the time and the setting. There’s something so unusual about a building built purely for the sake of the grand exhibitions that happened in the early 20th century. Why did you choose Kelvingrove in Glasgow as a setting for your book?
Thank you, that is wonderful to hear. The setting of a story is always super important to me. It’s often the first aspect of a piece that I think about, and I tend to write about those places that I have an emotional connection to – whether positive or negative. I actually used to live near Kelvingrove on Argyle Street and would regularly pop into the gallery and wander around the place. Its vastness took me out of myself. When I found out that it was built specifically to coincide with the opening of the International Exhibition in 1901, I thought what an amazing setting for a novel that would be.
This gorgeous mirror was very special to Madeleine in the book
Another element I enjoyed in the book was the detail and evocative writing in the settings. One in particular is the marsh in Great Yarmouth. Did the writing naturally evolve around that setting and why did you choose such a damp place as an emotional location for your main character?
Oh, great question! The marsh is another place I have a personal connection to, in that my grandmother used to live in Norfolk, near the Broads. But I had no idea when I started the novel how important that place would become. It was definitely the case that the marsh inserted itself much more forcefully into the narrative than I expected and with much greater importance for the plot.
The International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901
The aspect I love about a place like the marsh is that objects preserve well there for centuries, hidden in the depths – and that also plays a role in The Exhibition, without wanting to give away too much of the story. I also didn’t want all the settings to be just clinically beautiful, you know? The bog is a dirty, wet, smelly place and still of emotional importance to the protagonist – because it makes her feel alive.
I felt huge empathy with the main character. Why did you decide to choose carving as her profession and how much research did you do into the topic to make her work seem so authentic?
Madeleine was a hard character to write. It took me a long time to figure her out, and I think there was a lot of worry on my side that I would make her too much like myself. (I wonder if that’s common for debut novelists). But as soon as I let go of that worry, she was much easier to write. And, in the end, she is not like me at all.
This cover really captures the textured, lyrical style of the book.
There’s this image Glasgow has had of a super rough city with a history of knife crime. Thinking about that, an image popped into my head of a woman with a knife in her hand but she’s actually using it to create amazing objects. It was just a picture at first. That’s how Madeleine became a woodworker. Of course, she uses all kinds of tools in her profession, but that is how it started. I did quite a lot of research into the topic, especially on the historical side. It was not something I knew a lot about at all, so I wanted to make sure it worked.
How did you go about publishing your book?
The process of getting published certainly did not happen overnight for me. I really do believe that not giving up is one of the key ingredients to getting your book published. I submitted to agents at first, and while I got interest, I didn’t get representation. But that interest meant that I kept going. I actually learned all about smaller presses through Twitter and I liked how engaged that community is. I realised quickly that I really liked the idea of being published with an indie press because you seemed to be more involved in the whole process as the author. And that’s exactly how it was. Greenteeth Press were super approachable and supportive from the beginning.
Exhibitions like this inspired many works of art
What writing habits do you have and what advice would you give to to other writers?
I’m not sure I have specific writing habits. There was a time when I’d write early in the morning before starting work but lately I’ve tried to fit it in around daily life. I find writing a novel goes through various stages, sometimes you write a lot, sometimes nothing. Maybe that’s also useful for new writers to know, it’s totally fine if you don’t write for a bit. In fact, my advice would be: whatever works for you is good! Whether that’s doing a course or not, reading up about how to write or not. Forget all about any lofty ideas of what a writer should be doing!
Cara Viola is a ghostwriter, editor, and novelist. She currently lives in a small, top-floor flat with a resident heron in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. Both British and German, she carries an umbrella with her everywhere.
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