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8 May 2024

Sarah Perry Q&A: “When was I happiest? When I left the church I was raised in”

The novelist on Rachmaninoff, the short stories of Tessa Hadley, and her lost legal career.

By New Statesman

Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. An internationally bestselling author, her second novel, The Essex Serpent, won a British Book Award in 2017. She is chancellor at the University of Essex.

What’s your earliest memory?

Standing on tiptoe in the kitchen, aged about three, writing “GOD” in capital letters on my mum’s shopping list, and realising with a thrill that it read “DOG” backwards.

What’s your theme tune?

When I was very young, I heard my dad play Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto so loudly on the stereo downstairs that the whole house shook. I was so overcome I had to sit down and succumb to the music, which has been echoing around in my head ever since.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Gladys Aylward, the working-class girl who travelled to China to be a Christian missionary and helped end the cruel practice of foot-binding. I’m too old for heroes now.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Sherlock Holmes, Calvinism or dressmaking.

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What book last changed your thinking?

I’m a maximalist in life and in writing, and so I’ve always made a point of declaring how those neat, polite little short stories are simply not for me. Then I picked up a collection of Tessa Hadley short stories, and quickly realised that I’d been a towering fool: they contain the world.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’ve endured quite enough pain to know I wouldn’t have liked to have lived before effective anaesthesia – which means anything from the late-Victorian age onward. But I’m of peasant stock and would probably have died young in a cotton mill with half my fingers missing; so I’d better go no further back than the welfare state. Let’s say the Fifties, then, when the clothes were good.

Who would paint your portrait?

Renoir, unfortunately.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My mother told me that if you have a bad cold, you should always take a flask of hot drink up to bed with you, so that when you inevitably wake with a bout of coughing, you barely need to do more than move an arm out from under the covers for help. No other piece of advice has had such a materially beneficial impact on my life.

What’s currently bugging you?

The British government, and most of the opposition.

When were you happiest?

When I was 28, I left the church that had governed almost every aspect of my life since I was born. The following Sunday, I woke to a world when I could do anything I wanted, and there’d be no scrutiny or censure over my behaviour, or clothes, or speech. Instead of going to chapel, I sat outside a café in Hackney watching ducks skimming over a pond, and there was
a physical sensation of a lifetime’s weight lifting from my shoulders. I’ve never known happiness like it before or since.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I am convinced I would have made a terrific criminal barrister. What a relief I’ll never have to find out.

Are we all doomed?

Well, we are all going to die. Perhaps in the end we’ll take our home planet with us. But that we were ever here at all, lifting our faces to the light of the sun and each other – that was always so remote a chance as to be more or less a miracle. Perhaps it’s all right if a miracle is brief.

Sarah Perry’s new novel “Enlightenment” is published by Jonathan Cape

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll