Stop the Clocks: Natasha Pulley on The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

As Natasha Pulley releases her acclaimed debut novel, The Skinny talks to her about history writing itself and finding her feet in the present

Feature by Ceris Aston | 30 Jun 2015

One cold November evening in 1883, telegraph operator Thaniel Steepleton is disturbed by a late telegram to the Home Office: news of a bomb threat from Clan na Gael. Returning home early he finds the door ajar, his dishes washed and a small velvet box containing a gold pocket watch. These two incidents mark a beginning, whence the reader is drawn into a fantastic Victorian London unlike any to be found in history books.

Natasha Pully's The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a beguiling, occasionally disturbing tale, exploring the nature of genius and human flaws, of possibility and the nature of free will. If a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane – well, then, what if there were two butterflies, or none? What multiple fates might hang upon the stroke of a butterfly’s wing? The future is uncertain and unfixed, and the smallest chance may alter everything.

The debut novelist is funny and thoughtful in our phone conversation, giving each question due consideration and occasionally inserting one of her own – the chance to quiz a reader is an enticing one. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street started life as a short story “one Christmas eve six or seven years ago.” By the time Pulley started her masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, she had already completed a first draft of the novel, which was revised and built upon in response to peer feedback. The deal with Bloomsbury went through before she went to Japan – “I think about two years ago now; I knew this was coming for a long time.”

With another two novels in the works, how has she has kept up the necessary level of self-discipline. “I really wouldn’t like to say how much coffee I drank over the course of the book! Probably dangerous levels,” Pulley reflects. “I think what I do is sketch writing – I write very fast for a few days and produce six or seven thousand words quickly. Usually, most of these get deleted again. The deletion process is like rubbing out pencil lines on a sketch once you start painting. Of course I always hit these troughs where I don’t know what happens next, then I need to go away and do a load of research and then come back.”

“I really wouldn’t like to say how much coffee I drank over the course of the book!” – Natasha Pulley

Meticulously researched, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a compelling mixture of fact and fantasy – more than once I find myself exclaiming that something apparently fantastic is grounded in reality. “There were moments that made me think it was remarkable how things fit together. It was always set in London, in Knightsbridge. I looked into Knightsbridge and whether there were really any Japanese people living there, and found out about a show village in Hyde Park. One of the things I found out, that I was very pleased about, was that Gilbert and Sullivan went to the village to research The Mikado and recruited a girl to help with tutoring the actors. It’s one of the strange examples where historical fiction sort of writes itself. Very weird – but that’s what happened.”

Despite the compelling nature of the world that she has created, Pulley has no desire to immerse herself and join her characters in Victorian London. “I think I’d fare very badly,” she muses. “Mainly because I’m very short-sighted and I wear contact lenses, so I would have been more or less blind in any other period of history than now. Whenever anybody says ‘which period of history would you fare best in?’ my answer is always pretty much ‘right now, really.'”

There’s a lot to be said for the present moment, and while the enormity of publishing her first novel hasn’t quite sunk in yet, Pulley says frankly: “I think I’m just getting cumulatively happier and happier now.”

The end of the book leaves the reader yearning for a sequel – and for a pet clockwork octopus (read it, you’ll see). While the latter desire may be doomed to frustration, fans of Pulley can take cheer – the novelist is currently working on the third in the series. Projected caffeine consumption undisclosed.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is out 2 Jul, published by Bloomsbury, RRP £12.99