Meet the author: Carol Birch - Orphans of the Carnival

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This week we're meeting Carol Birch, author of award-winning, and often historical, novels.  We're giving away 50 copies of her latest book, Orphans of the Carnival, so apply for yours now.

This giveaway is sponsored by Canongate

About the book

This dazzling new novel, from the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Jamrach's Menagerie, evokes the strange and thrilling world of the Victorian carnival.

Julia Pastrana is a singing and dancing marvel from Mexico, heralded on tours across 19th century Europe as much for her talent as for her rather unusual appearance. Yet few can see past the thick hair that covers her: she is both the fascinating toast of a Governor's ball and a shunned, revolting, unnatural beast, to be hidden from children and pregnant women.

But what is Julia's connection to Rose, collector of lost treasures in an attic room in present-day south London? In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives intertwine in unforgettable ways.

Praise for Carol Birch

"Orphans of the Carnival is a rich and wonderful book. Carol Birch can see a world in a grain of sand - and then furnish it for you, vividly and unforgettably" – MR Carey, author of The Girl With All the Gifts

"Birch is masterful at evoking period and place... A teeming exhibition of the beautiful and the bizarre" – Sunday Times

About the author

Carol Birch is the author of 11 previous novels, including Scapegallows (2008), Turn Again Home (2003), which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Jamrach's Menagerie (2011), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the London Book Award. She has also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the David Higham Award for Best First Novel.

Meet Carol Birch

What are you reading now?

I usually have a few things on the go. At the moment I'm dipping in and out of The Power Of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, and The Great Fool - poems and writings by Taigu Ryokwan. And I'm just beginning Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

What is the last book you bought someone as a gift?

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I bought it for my husband Martin, who thinks I overestimate the dark side of social media. Great book.

Is research a big part of your writing process?

Yes - certainly with the books based on history. I like to really wallow in anything and everything about the times and places of the story. It's an ongoing thing that runs alongside the whole process of the writing, and it becomes a bit obsessive. But that's OK, so long as you don't use it all and sink the boat. I really enjoy getting sidetracked, so self-discipline is called for. 

Do you have any peculiar writing rituals or habits?

Not really. I like to work late at night and into the early hours, but apart from that it's quite haphazard.

What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?

It's hard work. Unless you're remarkably lucky you'll need a massive amount of determination and stamina. You'll need to develop a deep inner confidence in your ability to get the thing done, and you must learn to be your own most merciless critic. You'll need to value the criticism of others and not be a crybaby even when it hurts. Grow a thick skin. You just have to make the decision and go for it, have faith in your own vision, and always, always remember to look after your back.

Could you describe the room that you write in?

I have a small room at the back of our house, on the first floor. It's a bit of a mess. I really should do something with it. The walls are a dull lavender that needs repainting, and they're scattered with various pictures, things I've cut out, shelves of books and clutter. It's the kind of room where things get put when no-one knows where to put them. There's an exercise bike, a drum and some swimming aids. There's a spare bed with a black and white cat asleep on it. My desk is by the window, overlooking our yard, a cobbled alley and the backs of the houses and yards in the next street. It's quite pretty because the yards are full of flowers, and the back of the house across the alley is adorned with window boxes overflowing with colour.

Can you tell us about your book?

Orphans of the Carnival tells the story of two women, one branded a freak from birth, who became an international sensation in the mid 1800s, and the other a twentieth-century Londoner, a compulsive collector of objects lost, forgotten and discarded. The main story is based on the life of Julia Pastrana, a singer and dancer from Mexico who toured America and Europe as far as Russia. Born covered in hair, Julia was billed as the incredible ape woman, the 'ugliest woman in the world'. Alternately celebrated and vilified, she was intelligent and compassionate, a sensitive soul whose search for acceptance and real human connection led her from the freak show circuit to high society. A century later, Rose feels the weight of history and finds herself drawn to an unusual object, one that binds her inescapably to Julia. The book examines our attitudes to those perceived to be different, and looks at how we define ourselves and, ultimately, what it means to be human.   

Book giveaway

We've got 50 copies of Orphans of the Carnival to give away to lucky Mumsnetters. This giveaway ends on Monday 12 September.

We ask all winners to share their thoughts about the book on the discussion thread. However, you don't have to win a free copy to take part in the discussion  - anyone who has read Orphans of the Carnival can post their feedback (and you can buy a copy now). 

Everyone who posts on the thread before 25 October will be entered into a prize draw to win a £100 Love2shop voucher.

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