Agnes Trussel’s story came to me in a flash, one cold night at a bonfire on Dartmoor, and grew from there, slowly, over four years. I began to write and found there were different layers to the shape I was attempting: there were the ideas I wanted to explore, and the more concrete occurrences I needed to show for the story to progress. There were the atmospheres and textures I wanted the story to steep in, and there was the path through the information I’d gathered whilst researching eighteenth-century life and the history of pyrotechny. I also found that a novel has its own microclimate, and often things seem to just happen inside it, of their own accord.
I had a childhood passion for fireworks; the fifth of November was quite significant where I grew up in Sussex, and the man who ran the local shop made his own fireworks – very loud, plain and erratic, which he would set off later in the evening when the display was over and the bonfire had died down. It struck me even as a child as a vigorous kind of subversive activity.
I loved the idea of fire being the catalyst for change, for luck, for strength, for magic, and for danger. It is rich in symbolism, and I wanted my firework-maker John Blacklock to be enigmatic, dark, with something of the Promethean myth about him. I was fascinated by the discovery of coloured fireworks – which finally happened towards the end of the century – but even more intrigued by the thought of the time before the discovery itself; the period of searching and experimentation, hope and disappointment, that led to the crucial moment when the gap in knowledge was filled.
Whilst writing I also became increasingly interested in the lot of the rural and urban underclass as enclosure and industrialisation rapidly altered the countryside and town. The Old Bailey accounts of those hanged in the name of the law, for often the smallest of crimes in the face of abject poverty, became part of the story as parallels and quickeners to Agnes’s plight. I felt that her character grew directly out of the landscape she had left behind – and I was interested in exposing her to the city as a place of ideas, of change. I also wanted to explore the tug of home in dream and memory during a life lived elsewhere.