Mary Finn, author of Anila’s Journey, won a Parent’s Choice Gold Award and the Eilís Dillon Award for a first book in her native Ireland. Her new novel, Belladonna, was inspired by George Stubbs’ “precise yet ghostly” anatomical studies of horses. In a starred review, Kirkus praised it for being "as carefully and beautifully rendered as the anatomical studies that inspired it." Here, Finn discusses the writing of Belladonna, which brings together Ling (Hélène), a circus performer, and Thomas, Stubbs’ fictional apprentice.
Find other books for teens about horses and the circus.
Could you explain how your love for George Stubbs’ studies of horses provided inspiration for this novel?
This will sound daft/pretentious—take your pick—but it really was love at first sight, a proper coup de foudre. About four years ago, when I was working part time as a library assistant in the veterinary science library at University College Dublin, my own alma mater, I checked in an enormous, red, ancient-looking book, as big as a desk. I had to peek, of course, and there they were: George Stubbs’ studies for his Anatomy of the Horse, still important enough for a student to take out instead of a DVD on horse anatomy…
I didn’t have even the ghost of a story hovering then, but the drawings had moved me. I read about Stubbs, I knew his paintings a little, and how he’d had to rusticate in a Lincolnshire village to make these anatomical studies. Later, in the inexplicable way these things happen, I had a vision of a girl hiding in a ditch, desperately seeking the return of her stolen horse. That was Ling. Thomas followed, and fortunately the love element grew to be more important than the actual anatomies.
You’ve set both of your novels in the past. Do you enjoy research?
I love doing research. I studied literature and history of art in college, not history proper, so this is my assault on that precinct. I liked that I was again in the 18th century, though poor rural Lincolnshire did not have the glories—or the many accounts—that the pre-Raj India of my first novel had. You can get lost in research, however, and the time must come—or it won’t work—when you stop reading and Googling and simply take flight.
What was it like to create authentic-sounding speech from another time, or to capture Ling’s French-accented way of talking?
I love this question! I really did pay attention to this matter, you see. I thought first of trying to write Lincolnshire dialect, do a Huck Finn, etc., but apart from the terrible hubris of all that, there was no way anyone would ever want to read what I might produce. It helps that Thomas was a lover of words, even though he obviously suffered with some form of dyslexia. He would definitely wish to produce a literate story. He loved Daniel Defoe being read out to him. So I decided I would keep his language as Anglo-Saxon as possible, rather than use Latinate words. In other words, the way ahead was to keep the language simple, which freed me somewhat from the dialect problem.
Also, and this is really nerdy, but I enjoyed it, I used to check words in the online Oxford English Dictionary to see if they were current in the 18th century. If not, or if they were American/Irish/Australian, they had to go. In addition, my mother, though Irish, all her life had strange ways of saying things. We think her ancestors may have been 17th-century Cromwellian settlers from England. So, every so often I would throw in an old adage of hers, and they sounded authentic enough. As for the French, well, only le bon Dieu knows! I love French, though I’m no way fluent. I had everything checked by a young French teacher. I just hope Ling doesn’t sound like someone from ’Allo, ’Allo [a British sit-com set among the French Resistance].
Do you miss your characters once the story’s over? Ling and Thomas became very real for me very quickly. I imagine that you might be quite attached to them?
Oh, they do become very real! I haven’t begun to miss these friends, because they have yet to go forth, so to speak. I’ll tell you something about Thomas, the narrator. He describes his own appearance early on, self-disparagingly, of course. I made that all up about his height and his blue eyes and his monobrow. But I was flicking through a book of Stubbs’ paintings, and I found Thomas! Just as I’d described him (or he himself). It’s called Lustre with a Groom, and it’s Thomas to a T. I swear this discovery post-dated the writing. Later I put Ling in, dressed as a little jockey person from a painting. That was deliberate. Thomas was a gift, a good omen, perhaps.