Abigail Argent stands out: some admire her lean figure and beautiful
dark eyes, but others notice that she always wears gloves and shudder when they know why. The ones that know her best notice her ability
with metal. Her particular talent lies in the colouring of alloys. She has a gift for seeing the beauty in a plain piece of metal and being able to draw it out. She comes to the attention of a powerful group who protect a strange secret: the real history of alchemy. This group holds the key
to a mystery of what has been happening to alchemists, and those
suspected of the ability, from time immemorial. Terrifying and thrilling, this is a testimony of being in the grip of people with fantastical views and extreme beliefs.
There's something very contrary in my nature. I have a tendency to pursue the things I find most difficult rather than those that come naturally to me. At school, I doggedly pursued mathematics and sciences, which fascinated me though I never rose much higher than average in my class. Whereas, at English and languages, I didn't have to try too hard to score well but, perhaps for that reason, I never took them seriously. I would fill notebook after notebook with stories, usually written on my knee hidden beneath my desk, during many classes and yet I never considered a career in writing.
I had my sights on something else. I wanted to work in art restoration which was my family’s profession. I defy anyone not to be interested in this field. I work with large-scale sculptures both historic and contemporary and I get to puzzle-out the reasons for their degradation. There's something very satisfying in taking an object which is down on its luck and researching what it should look like and then recreating that vision or at the least stabilising the current vision so that it isn't lost entirely. However, as much as I was satisfied with my career choice, I still had the itch to keep writing.
In my 20s, I continued to write for myself as I had at school and I didn't feel the need to write for an audience. I used to feel about my writing the way I would feel about reading. I'm a voracious reader - any free second in the day is usually filled with reading a few lines from a book. Even when I've been at my busiest, I've still managed to get through a good few novels just by reading while I brush my teeth, wash my hair, and dress.
I'm the sort of person that walks into lots of lampposts as I can't bear to walk anywhere without reading at the same time. Oh, and I burn a lot of dinners as I'm too busy trying to get to the end of the chapter rather than concentrating on the food. I would write so that I could be in that alternative world in that solitary way that only reading ever provides. I love being in a fictitious world and it’s even better when the parameters are your own. When I neared the end of A Rarer Gift, it suddenly occurred to me that the pleasure I took in it might appeal to others as well, which is when I began to think about publishing.
For me, a story never flowers from just one inspiration; there are always several. A Rarer Gift is a good example as it sprouted from three different places: first and foremost, I wanted to have an opportunity to gush about metals. That may sound odd, but I specialise in restoring metals and they are an incredibly beautiful and special thing, I am endlessly fascinated by their properties and what can be achieved with them. Apart from the great Primo Levi, who wrote magnificently about metals in his auto-biographical book The Periodic Table, I have never read anything which put the wonder I feel about them into fiction. I wanted to relate what I loved about them. This was my opportunity and alchemy is such a seductive subject - it seemed a perfect match.
Secondly, I wanted to play with the boundaries of myth and science. Every day, I work with historic objects and one of the questions I often ask myself when restoring them is ‘what is missing from this object. What can I not see?’ and ‘why might evidence have been lost?’ It has made me very interested in what’s absent from history and why. Scientifically speaking, alchemy is not impossible it is just very unlikely to be achieved. What consolidates this finding is that there are no physical objects to prove that alchemy has taken place. My inspiration came from asking the question ‘what if history had been airbrushed?’ ‘What if people with a vested interest have made it their purpose to remove all physical evidence of alchemy from the public domain?’ Could there be an alternative history to alchemy? I do love a good conspiracy theory and I find writing out questions about a subject a great way to find inspiration because our brains like to solve and often there’s a storyline in the solution.
The third strand of inspiration came via an experience which occurred to a good friend of mine who is a historian of science and was studying something very academic. He was calling up some pretty rare books from a library in Italy and received a written warning to stay away from the material he was studying. I wondered why anyone would be so protective of something so dry and academic. I wondered what motivation they could possibly have and what might happen if he ignored the warning. This was one of the pivotal events which I built the book around.
As a final word on inspiration, I think there is no event so dull or personality so grey that a little magical realism cannot make fascinating - though I imagine, other authors with their own particular penchant for a genre would claim the same thing. I think inspiration is everywhere, but its imagination which is the pixie dust.
# # #
About the Author
Lucy Branch runs a sculptural and architectural conservation company in London. She is lucky enough to have worked on many of the UK’s most famous monuments, art works and buildings including Nelson’s Column, Cleopatras Needle, Eros, St Pauls Cathedral and Historic Royal Palaces. She went to University College London to study History of Art with Material Studies as an undergraduate and worked for many years before taking a mid-career Masters with Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum. She lives in North London with her husband and three children. Find out more about Lucy on Twitter @lucybranch11 and her website www.lucybranch.com