Jessica Cornwell’s first book – The Serpent Papers – is a thriller ... just like granddad’s.
Jessica Cornwell’s debut novel, The Serpent Papers, is a nail-biting page-turner with a vital female protagonist who stands out in a thriller market flooded with the male-centric books of writers such as Dan Brown.
With two sequels in the works, the 28-year-old is quietly carrying on a family legacy of writing books that are both marketable and literary. Her grandfather David Cornwell is better known as John le Carre, godfather of the Cold War spy thriller genre.
However, she has tried not to ride on this family connection, sending out query letters to literary agents with her manuscript rather than using her VIP access to the publishing world.
“It was important for me that I did it myself,” California-born Cornwell says in a telephone interview from London, where she lives with her boyfriend.
“It was to make sure I got an honest response and would work with people who wanted to work with the book.”
News, of course, eventually leaked and her grandfather’s name might have been one reason the manuscript handled by literary agent Curtis Brown sold in a six-figure, three-book deal to British publisher Quercus in the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair.
It is not the only one, however.
Cornwell is a striking writer in her own right, weaving a complex, non-linearly told narrative that haunts the mind long after the last page.
Released earlier this year, The Serpent Papers is the first in a trilogy featuring Anna Verco, a bibliophile and academic, on the trail of a rare book. Its whereabouts are connected to a gruesome serial killing in Barcelona, where three women were murdered, their tongues removed and skin defaced with mysterious symbols.
Anna is, in many ways, the female mirror and antithesis of fictional Harvard academic Robert Langdon, protagonist of thriller writer Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, which Cornwell cites as an inspiration.
While Langdon finds a new lady love on every adventure, Anna is consumed by the hunt with little time for romance, in spite of the pressure initially put on the author by her editors to whip it into “commercial shape”.
Cornwell laughs when the comparison is introduced into the conversation.
“I really wanted Anna to be allowed to focus on what she’s interested in and not have romantic distractions,” she says. “It was very important for her to maintain that strength, that she is detached from her lover and wouldn’t mind not having that relationship.
“I did want to write something feminist, in a subtle way.”
The Serpent Papers is Cornwell’s response to a long storytelling tradition of portraying women at the mercy of the men in their lives and as victims of violence, from the Greek myth of abused Philomela to Spider-Man’s murdered girlfriend Gwen Stacy.
The immediate inspiration was Lavinia, the daughter of Titus Andronicus. In Shakespeare’s play, she is raped, has her tongue cut out, and is later killed through no fault of her own.
At age 23, Cornwell was working with experimental theatre group La Fura dels Baus in Barcelona and found herself horrified by the staged violation of Lavinia and wanting to give her and similar characters a voice.
“I wanted to write a story that had writing on women’s bodies and a not typical investigator who would be unlocking a history of the feminine, a history where these types of events have been normalised,” says the author, who did her bachelor’s in English at California’s Stanford University and master’s in theatre via the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and the Institut del Teatre.
In 2010, she moved to London, worked in the film industry for two years, and then became a curator with interdisciplinary arts platform The Santozeum.
It took her four years to research and write The Serpent Papers, writing in the early morning before going to work, and reading books ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist treatise, A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman, to Ovid’s collection of Greek myths and legends, Metamorphoses.
Another stereotype confronted in The Serpent Papers is the idea of powerful women as fearsome or unnatural.
The Serpent Papers is haunted by tales of oracles or sibyls, as in the Greek legends of the Pythia, or priestess of Apollo, who foretold the future and was associated with the python. Cornwell’s protagonist Anna grapples with her share of neuroses, battling delusions that can either be read as symptoms of mental illness or as latent psychic powers.
“Bouts of paranoia and bouts of madness seem to go hand in hand with certain portrayals of the feminine,” Cornwell says. “What was considered divine intervention is now considered madness.”
As she began writing The Serpent Papers, the oldest of eight children heard her younger sister had multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease in which symptoms range from a loss of sensation to difficulties in thinking.
“Watching the girl I love battle this got rid of the insecurities I felt about the things I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “Writing became an escape, a powerful place to go to.”
As a child, she had decided not to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather or even her father, screenwriter Stephen Cornwell. While she feels her early decision has been “magnified by the media”, she says that “writing is a big part of the family dynamic and all the insecurities I felt can become very complicated” by that.
“But that’s not a good reason not to take the path you love,” she adds. “The idea of becoming an author came out of having spent a lot of time doing a lot of things. Coming back to writing was like falling into a familiar language.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network