A Weaver's Web
by Chris Pearce
Author Chris Pearce joins me for an interview about his debut novel, A Weaver's Web, set during the Industrial Revolution in Manchester, UK. You can also enjoy an excerpt from the book.
Handloom weaver Henry Wakefield, his wife Sarah, and their five children live in abject poverty in the Manchester area of the UK in the early 19th century at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Henry hates the new factories and won’t let his family work in them. He clashes with Sarah, a factory agent, a local priest and reformers, and son Albert runs away. The family are evicted and move to Manchester but are even worse off, living in a cellar in a terrace and have another little mouth to feed.
Henry’s love of money overrides his hatred of factories and he starts one of his own, but it is beset with problems. The Wakefields eventually become quite wealthy, but Henry holds the purse strings and this has a devastating effect on the family. Albert is caught stealing and is transported to New South Wales. Her baby’s death, Albert’s unknown fate and society parties become too much for Sarah, who hears voices and is taken to the lunatic asylum. Son Benjamin faces eviction from the family home for having a baby with an orphan girl too soon after their marriage.
Family members, including Sarah who has got out of the asylum and Albert who has returned to England unbeknown to Henry, have had enough and seek revenge.
As they rode off, Sarah felt her heart pumping. She would see [her son] Albert for the first time in a year and a half. Her grip on Henry’s waist and rib cage was so tight he had to take her hands and ease the pressure so he could breathe properly. The road was better than yesterday and in an hour they were at the docks searching for Albert’s ship. Vessels of different sizes were moored on the still, grey waters of the Mersey. Gangs of men, some of them convicts in their chains, were on the wharves loading and unloading goods. In another spot, men were constructing and mending ships. Further along, several ships were anchored away from the bank and Henry tried to read their names through the fog.
‘Look,’ he said suddenly, ‘there it is, the Argot.’
Sarah nearly fell off their horse, trying to see where Henry was looking. ‘Where? Which one?’ she said. She could hardly read, despite his occasional efforts to teach her, and names on sides of ships were meaningless to her.
‘Over there, the one with crates and bags piled up near the stern.’ He pointed to a large ship a little way on. ‘It must still be waiting to dock.’
She put her hand over her heart which felt as if it was about to leap out of her body. ‘There’s someone on the deck,’ she said.
‘That’s Captain Hardwick. I hope he remembers me.’
‘I don’t see anyone else,’ Sarah said.
‘Albert’s sure to be there if produce is still to be unloaded.’
‘Won’t the convicts unload it?’
‘They only work on the government ships.’
‘Let’s go closer,’ she said, geeing the horse with her feet.
‘Captain Hardwick,’ Henry bellowed as they drew level with the ship.
A man of about fifty, his skin bronzed from the sun, glanced up. ‘Hello there,’ he said.
‘Do you recall who I am?’
He looked hard at Henry. ‘Ah, indeed I do.’
‘Do you have my son, Albert?’
Sarah gripped Henry’s arm. Surely he was there, and the captain was just hard of hearing.
‘Albert Wakefield, for ten pounds,’ Henry said. ‘Remember?’
She tightened her grip and bobbed up and down with excitement.
‘Where is he?’ Henry called out.
‘I’m afraid I have bad news, Sir.’
Sarah raised her hands to her face and shook.
‘You mean you haven’t got him?’ Henry said. ‘Have we come all this way and he’s not here?’
He jumped off his horse and hurried down to the water’s edge, followed by Sarah and the driver. But after a few steps, Sarah slumped to the ground.
‘Where is he?’ he yelled across the murky water.
‘He’s committed another crime. They put him in a chain gang, making roads, out Parramatta way.’
‘What? Where?’ Henry shouted.
‘It’s a couple of hours up the river from Sydney.’
‘You were supposed to bring him back.’
‘I tried to. I even went to Parramatta, and saw him in a long line of men chained one to the other.’
‘Surely you could have done something.’
‘Heaven knows, for ten pounds, given half a chance I would have, you know that.’
‘You bumbling idiot, you ...’
‘They had three guards.’
‘That’s not many.’
‘... with guns, against my bare hands and those of my drunken crew.’
‘I bet you were drunk too.’
At that moment, Jacob tapped Henry on the shoulder. ‘We’d better go, Sir,’ he said, and went to gently take his arm.
‘Let me go,’ Henry said, shoving the driver hard. ‘I’m going to find myself a rowboat, Captain, and come aboard to make sure he’s not there. You might be keeping him as a slave.’
Hardwick laughed. ‘I’d be better off with ten pounds, Sir.’
‘Mr Wakefield,’ the driver said, again trying to take Henry’s arm. This time there was slightly less resistance.
‘I knew I couldn’t trust him,’ Henry said to the driver as they walked back.
Sarah was sitting in mud, near the road, where she had fallen. She had heard the conversation. ‘In a chain gang,’ she said tearfully, her quavering voice barely audible.
Henry took her hand and helped her up. ‘We’ll find another ship to bring him back.’
He cast his eye along the river at the dozens of vessels, many unloading goods from Europe, the New World, the East and New South Wales. Others were preparing to take goods, including cloth and apparel from Manchester and quite possibly from his own mill, to these distant places.
‘There must be a ship going to Sydney before long,’ he said.
‘I’d save your money, Sir,’ the driver said. ‘Another captain will have the same problem.’
‘Miserable fools,’ Henry said, struggling not to let Sarah fall over again. ‘I’ll buy a buggy instead and we’ll have some degree of comfort on the return journey.’
‘It wouldn’t get through the mud for days, Sir.’
He sighed and shook his head. ‘Come on, then. We must get as far as we can towards home by tonight. I can’t afford any more time away from the mill.’
They got on their horses and rode off. Sarah flopped up and down, distraught, glimpsing at the river once or twice before she quickly had to look away. When they passed a wharf, she couldn’t help but notice a convict gang at work. One of the convicts had been unchained from the others and was being punished. Henry and the driver didn’t take much notice. They had seen similar a number of times in Manchester. Sarah hadn’t. What she saw horrified her. A slip of a lad, no older than her Albert, had been tied to a post and was being whipped by a guard twice his size. She shuddered each time she heard the whip crack against the victim’s bare back and the consequent scream, and wondered what he had done wrong – if he tried to escape or swore at his overseer or slackened off. The cracks of the whip and the screams bounced off nearby buildings and ships. This seemed to prolong the agony. His back was bloody, but still the flogging went on. She saw the boy as Albert, under a hot sun in Sydney, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, being beaten because he couldn’t work hard enough, then collapsing on the barren ground, at the mercy of snakes and savages. How long he could survive this, she didn’t know. Perhaps he was dead already. She had no way of finding out.
She tried to control her tears as she sat behind Henry in silence, not wanting him or Jacob to see her in this state, for fear they would think she wasn’t strong and shouldn’t have come with them, not that the trip had achieved anything. She was cross with herself for believing Henry’s scheme would work.
For quite some time they rode through the rain and mud at walking pace. Later the rain eased and they passed several villages, local townspeople going about their business. Farmers walked their produce in wheelbarrows and handcarts. A young man was trying to get a horse and cart through the mud. And there were a few travellers on horseback. Unlike Henry and Jacob, Sarah didn’t acknowledge them. Her mind was consumed with thoughts of Albert and images of him at the hands of some brutal flagellator. She felt so helpless. Each step the horse took bounced her about and she ached all over and was cold and wet.
To call this novel anything less than an epic would be an understatement. It is beautifully written and crafted into an immediate classic. The historical setting is impeccable and believable, as though the author had personally lived in that time, suffered through similar destitution, and had witnessed the rise and fall of a family just like the Wakefields. It was almost impossible to put this novel down, simply because it never stopped being interesting. Historical novels are often complicated and require extensive exposition, but this story never got boring. In fact, watching the drama of this fascinating family unfold could be likened to the writing of Fitzgerald or John Dos Passos, compelling and brutally sincere. Henry is one of the least likeable characters I have ever read, and yet as a reader, we want him to succeed for the good of his family, but fail because of his internal monologue and general outlook on life.
Creating a conflict in a reader's emotion is a difficult and dangerous task for an author, because they risk losing the attention and interest of the audience; everyone likes to root for a hero. The supporting characters in the family breathe life and genuine emotion into the tale, and it is hard not to become attached to at least one of them, most likely more. Sarah reminds me of the wife from Tender is the Night, even beyond the mental health issues that she suffers from. I didn't see the climax coming, and the lack of predictability drags the reader through to the very last page. As Hawthorne said, "Families are always rising and falling in America", but it's true in England as well; this novel is a beautiful example of that, and should be read by anyone who is a fan of drama and truly spectacular prose.
Interview With the Author
Hi Chris Pearce, thanks for joining me today to discuss your book, A Weaver’s Web.
For what age group do you recommend your book?
I think A Weaver’s Web would suit people of just about any age group from teens onwards so long as they are interested in historical fiction or family sagas. I got a professional appraiser to go through an early draft, and she said it would mainly suit people aged 35 years and over in the UK, US, and Australia. A work colleague’s mother, in her 80s, read the book in one day, as she couldn’t put it down. Nearly everyone who has added the book to their to-read list at Goodreads is female and of various ages.
What sparked the idea for this book?
I had written a nonfiction book on an Australian convict, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway, who had been a brickmaker in Manchester UK before his conviction for stealing and transportation to Australia. I had done quite a lot of research into early 19th century Manchester and the social and economic impacts of the Industrial Revolution and found it very interesting.
Which comes first? The character’s story or the idea for the novel?
For me, it was the idea for the novel. The idea came from the convict book but I didn’t map out any sort of story for a novel until I did a postgraduate creative writing course. One of things I did in this course was to put an outline for the story in place, even including a floor plan of the main characters’ tumbledown cottage. Overall, I topped the class from 30 students so the lecturer must have liked what I was doing, so I pursued with the novel. The characters evolved during the writing process.
What was the hardest part to write in this book?
Being a fairly complex story, I think the hardest part was making it all sit together as a coherent whole. I ended up with about 150 characters plus crowd scenes and I wanted to make the story as realistic as possible. If I had to point to one particular area as being hardest, it might have been coordinating the various characters involved in the wedding of Benjamin Wakefield and the orphan Charlotte. His father Henry, the main character in the book, would not have supported their getting married if he thought she was an orphan, or the fact she had a disability from years of factory work, or that she was pregnant.
How do you hope this book affects its readers?
I hope readers of A Weaver’s Web get an appreciation of what life was really like in early industrial Manchester, UK. I tried to make the setting and the story as realistic as possible. The main characters, the Wakefield family, live in abject poverty, surviving on little more than potatoes they grow at the back of their cottage. Henry Wakefield starts a cotton mill and they become well-off, but this leads to a whole new set of problems for the family, and I am hoping that readers will weigh up the merits of being rich and poor and decide which was better for the Wakefields and perhaps other people they know and even themselves.
How long did it take you to write this book?
I was working full-time and wrote the novel on a part-time basis over about six years. Most of it was done late at night and on weekends. Some weeks and months, I wrote quite a bit, and other times not much at all. It depended how busy I was with work and other things. Had I wrote it on a full-time basis, I think it would have taken a couple of years to do the research, writing, and editing.
Could you explain your writing process.
I suppose the best way to describe it is that I like a book to evolve. I don’t put together an elaborate plan right at the start, nor do I just wing it. I might write a rough outline and write a chapter and then perhaps change the rough outline or flesh it out a bit more. Sometimes I might write a plan for a chapter. Other times I might write two or three chapters with very little planning. I tend to do quite a bit of editing as I go. Once I have a more or less complete draft, I go through it multiple times, tidying it up, rewriting parts, editing, and proofreading. I went through A Weaver’s Web perhaps a dozen times.
How did you get your book published?
I went through a company called Australian eBook Publisher. I got them to do the conversions to mobi and epub formats and the distribution of the ebook to various sites. Previous to this, I had sent the manuscript to over 100 literary agents without luck. They don’t seem to be taking on very much at all these days, especially new writers of fiction. I guess they just don’t want to take the risk, especially with bookshops shutting and the move from print to digital. One agent compared my novel to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and still couldn’t take it. Not long after this, I decided to go indie (independent author or publisher).
What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a published writer?
I think you have to weigh up the pros and cons of traditional publishing versus ebook publishing. I would still try about 20 or so literary agents most relevant to the particular work of the author. Fiction is very subjective and you never know what they might take on. If you have no luck, I would consider publishing an ebook. It’s not an easy market though. There are 80,000 new ebooks a month all trying to get a foothold and you will need to get your novel and yourself known through social media, interviews, reviews, promotions, and so on. But the traditional market is tough too. Finding an agent is no guarantee of getting published, and most books that do get published don’t make a fortune by any means. Whatever path you take, keep your day job. But I think it’s always better to write because you love it rather than thinking how much money you can make.
Thanks, Chris. That's very informative. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like to keep up with the political scene here in Australia and post comments to several online newspapers and magazines. I am interested in family history and have tracked various lines back quite a way, including to royalty. It’s fascinating that just about everyone with a UK or European ancestry is related to royalty. I tenpin bowl in a league once a week. I used to be competitive and won a number of minor tournaments and made the finals of larger ones. These days, I struggle with the synthetic lanes and slippery approaches.
What does your family think of your writing?
Family members, as well as friends, old friends of my wife, and friends of friends, read A Weaver’s Web before I sent it to literary agents. I got unsolicited comments from 18 people, five of whom said they couldn’t put it down. I have included the comments in the novel’s preface. One old friend of my wife rang from two states away and raved about the book for half an hour. Another took it on holiday to China to read a second time. One of my old friends forwarded it to several of her friends and reported back that “they all love it”.
Fantastic! Please tell us a bit about your childhood
I was born in Surrey, UK, and migrated to Australia with my family at age five. My parents were “ten pound poms” and part of the Australian government’s immigration program. We nearly moved from the UK to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I’m glad we chose Australia. We lived in bayside Hampton, a suburb of Melbourne. I went to the local primary and high schools. It was a happy, if conservative, upbringing. I was quiet but always had a group of good friends. I was small but a handy runner. I rode my pushbike all over Melbourne.
Did you like reading when you were a child?
Yes, I did quite a bit of reading, although I wouldn’t say I was a voracious reader, and I don’t think I was advanced for my age. I particularly liked the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton. I also read comics, newspapers and magazines. As a young teen, I would read Dickens and odd things like Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. But I rarely spent whole evenings or weekends reading.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
It was at quite a young age. I liked words and numbers from a young age. I recall in grade 1, I would sometimes sit at my desk and write while the other kids were sitting on the floor listening to the teacher read a story. By grade 2, I wrote essays of a few pages when we were only supposed to write a few sentences. I started but didn’t finish about four novels between the ages of about 11 and 14. I said to mum that I wanted to be an author but mum said I needed a “proper” job. I got into accountancy, same as dad, and lasted four years. Most of my jobs involved a lot of research, writing and editing, so that was good. I studied economics (honours) and business (masters) at university and this involved a lot of research and writing too. I’ve also written a lot of articles for a couple of US writing sites.
Did your childhood experiences influence your writing?
They influenced my early attempts at novel writing. There was a big old house in the street behind us that was unoccupied and known by the local kids as the haunted house. One day, someone had broken one of the windows and a couple of us climbed inside for a look. So I started a novel about a haunted house and perhaps got a quarter way. My more recent writing has been the convict book and the historical novel and neither were influenced by childhood experiences.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
I think Charles Dickens has had the most influence. I’ve read a lot of his work and seen the movies. At a time when nearly all fiction writers wrote about the aristocrats and the well-off, Dickens wrote about the other 99 per cent who lived in poverty. The authorities didn’t do much for the lower classes either, so it was Dickens who brought their plight out into the open and was influential in helping their cause. Two of my favorite books are Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I hear from readers in the form of reviews. I am getting some excellent comments broadly similar to those from family and friends. Reviewers have compared me to Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos. One reviewer gave AWeaver’s Web their “read of the year”. Comments highlighted at Amazon include: “The author’s command of his characters is amazing” and that “5 reviewers made a similar statement”, and: “A delight to read from start to finish, I can’t say enough good things about it” and that “4 reviewers made a similar statement”. At Amazon, nine out of 14 reviews are five-star; at Goodreads, I have 10 five-star reviews out of 13.
That's great, Chris! What can we look forward to from you in the future?
I am writing a book on the history of daylight saving time around the world. It is one of the most controversial issues of our time and there are some amazing stories. I’m also writing a novel set about 80 years into the future. I’ve had a few comments about a sequel to A Weaver’s Web and that’s a possibility sometime. I’ve also had comments that it would make a good movie or TV series and I’m thinking of writing a script based on the novel.
Sounds good. Thank you for taking the time to stop by today, Chris. Best of luck with your future projects.
About the Author
Chris Pearce was born in Surrey, UK, in 1952, and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He has qualifications in economics, management/marketing and writing/editing. He worked as a public servant (federal and state) for 25 years and in the real world for 12.5 years.
His inspiration for writing A Weaver’s Web was a postgraduate creative writing course he topped from 30 students in the mid 1990s. After unsuccessfully targeting many literary agents, including one who compared his manuscript to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he decided to publish it as an ebook.
He also has a nonfiction book (print only), Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway, which he plans to publish as an ebook later in 2014. He is writing a book on the history of daylight saving time around the world and has some notes towards a novel set 80 years into the future.
His other hobbies include family history and tenpin bowling.
Chris and his wife live in Brisbane, Australia.