'I complained bitterly throughout': Sarah Perry on how she wrote The Essex Serpent

During an afternoon drive through Essex, Perry learned about a 17th-century legend of a mysterious beast menacing the area. What if it came back?

I wrote the first draft between January and November 2014. I like to recall this as a period of effortless endeavour distinguished by ecstatic imaginative flights. I’ve been assured that in fact I complained bitterly throughout and emerged, visibly unwell, clutching a manuscript I declared unpublishable. Still: like a sundial, I only count the happy hours, and disregard this evidence.

Novelists famously bristle when asked where they get their ideas, but it’s a sensible question. I was 33, cheerfully impecunious, working as a copywriter and awaiting publication of my debut. I had no idea what my next book would be, until one afternoon, driving through the Essex countryside, I saw a sign to Henham village. “Ah,” said my husband: “The Essex serpent”, and discovering I was ignorant recounted the 17th century legend of a mysterious beast menacing the surrounding area. Instantly I experienced one of those vanishingly rare moments of inspiration which electrify the mind: what if it came back after Darwin? What if a London woman went looking for it – what if, down in Essex, there was a man of God more rational than the woman of science? Within 45 minutes I had all my major players and a good deal of the plot, and a feeling of quiet, if daunted, certainty.

I went home and wrote not a word for a year. During this time the novel acquired subplots and characters without my paying it much attention. Once I tried to contrive a plot on sheets of coloured card, an enterprise that proved useless, since I never looked at it again. I don’t write longhand or keep notebooks or scribble on napkins: aside from matters of fact, I rely on the principle that if a line is fit to make it into a novel, I’ll remember it (a sadly fallible method which I cannot recommend).

Early in 2014 the book seemed as complete and familiar as one I’d read several times, and I could recite the opening. Clearly I could no longer avoid setting it down on paper, and so began at the beginning, and wrote – in real time, so that chapters set in June were written in the month of June – until the book concludes in autumn. I would dispose of my day job first, drafting tens of thousands of words of copy on shipping legislation or business liquidation procedures by mid-afternoon, then gratefully receding through 120 years to the Blackwater estuary. When poverty intervened and I couldn’t think much beyond the next Council Tax bill, the Arts Council awarded me a grant, leaving me so overcome I had an asthma attack.

Once the book was finished I reflected that the writing of it had given me great pleasure. My debut had been wilfully opaque: an attempt, I suppose, at the “literary”. The Essex Serpent was written to give joy as much as to provoke thought, and I still believe that novelists needn’t (indeed generally shouldn’t) choose between the two. At no point did I think the book would be a particular success. But I’d done what I’d set out to do: written about faith and superstition and friendship and desire and my poor beloved Essex – and I was as happy and content as I’ve ever been.


Sarah Perry

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry review – a compulsive novel of ideas
An Essex village is terrorised by a winged leviathan in a gothic Victorian tale crammed with incident, character and plot

M John Harrison

16, Jun, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Melmoth by Sarah Perry review – a labyrinth of guilt and loneliness
The follow-up to The Essex Serpent is a dark, difficult and ambitious novel about the importance of bearing witness

Alexandra Harris

05, Oct, 2018 @7:59 AM

Article image
Sarah Perry on her struggle to become a writer: ‘I was poor and getting poorer’
For years the novelist had to put her literary ambitions on hold to earn a living. She explains how a literary prize gave her the freedom to write

Sarah Perry

27, Apr, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Sarah Perry: ‘One day I found myself reciting the opening of the novel. I knew the crisis had come’
The novelist on lost notebooks, outrageous bouts of procrastination and why she’s still waiting to become a ‘proper’ writer

Sarah Perry

10, Dec, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
How I learned to love being an Essex girl | Sarah Perry
Novelist Sarah Perry carried Essex with her ‘like a white patent leather bag’ -until she discovered the county’s history of remarkable and outspoken women

Sarah Perry

02, Oct, 2020 @10:04 AM

Article image
Maggie O'Farrell: 'I wrote at least 17 separate drafts of After You'd Gone'
The Costa and Women’s prize winner on the long gestation of her debut novel

Maggie O’Farrell

17, Oct, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Sarah Perry: what good are books, in a situation like this?
The Essex Serpent author has been filling her days with sewing, baking and music - but not writing. How can you find meaning in work that feels useless?

Sarah Perry

02, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry review – love, faith and geology
The author’s blend of historical romance and gothic mystery is pure pleasure

Stephanie Cross

19, Jun, 2016 @8:59 AM

Article image
Peter Carey on True History of the Kelly Gang: ‘At 56, I wrote what my younger self could not have managed’
Thirty years after discovering an inspirational letter by bushranger Ned Kelly, Carey found the voice for his Booker prize-winning novel

Peter Carey

08, Feb, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
On the Trail of The Serpent: the story behind the true crime classic
Co-author Julie Clarke recalls how researching convicted serial killer Charles Sobhraj became a dangerous and shameful obsession

Julie Clarke

23, Jan, 2021 @12:30 PM