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A.K. Blakemore on her new novel 'The Glutton' set in 18th-century France


"The Glutton" opens in 1798 France, when a man named Tarare, chained to a hospital bed because he's reputed to be a cannibal, and the nuns who care for him are afraid. He does possess a famously prolific and insatiable appetite - consuming rats, snakes, corks, sod, dripping livers and other offal and live animals - not all of them small. Tarare becomes famed, useful, used, poor, perpetually hungry and alone in the world. "The Glutton" is by A.K. Blakemore, the poet and writer, author of the previous novel "The Manningtree Witches." She joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

A K BLAKEMORE: Thank you for having me. This is my first radio appearance in the U.S. (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, my word. Well, we are honored. Thank you.

BLAKEMORE: Yes. (Laughter).

SIMON: Well, thanks for choosing us. Tarare, who you call a medical marvel, a sight of rare and arresting hideousness - he was a real person, wasn't he?

BLAKEMORE: He was, yeah - so, a French peasant born in a town near to Lyon in the south of France in the late 18th century. He would have been about 18 years old at the height of the French Revolution, when the Bastille fell. So he was living during a particularly sort of chaotic historical epoch in Europe. And he was what was described as a polyphage - literally a person who eats everything. Why or how we don't know. And obviously, kind of medical understanding at the time was very different from what it is now.

SIMON: Well, what made you see a novel in Tarare?

BLAKEMORE: It's interesting because he's kind of this French folk figure. He kind of taps into a certain sort of fairy tale - kind of these Rabelaisian conventions of sort of the hungry giants, the sort of big, roly-poly, jolly eater. But when you actually read sort of accounts of his life drawn from contemporary or near contemporary sources, it actually sounds like his life was, in many ways, very nightmarish - kind of the idea of being hungry all the time and not able to do anything to fully sate one's appetite was kind of the most nightmarish way of living I could imagine. So I was kind of interested in the dissonance between the kind of monstrousness or comicness (ph) with which he's been portrayed historically.

There's kind of one main contemporaneous account of his life, which was recorded by a doctor who had treated him. And it's a medical document, but also, there are all these aspects of it that are obviously fabulized and made up. You know, this doctor describes how Tarare's countenance was so frightening that animals would flee from him in the street, and how he smelt so bad that kind of literal stink lines would rise off his body - things that couldn't possibly be true. So kind of already, in even these ostensibly historical documents, there's these elements of fantasy and, you know, mythos being injected into Tarare's life. And in the novel I kind of play with those, but I also wanted it to be a more gritty and sort of realistic interpretation of him as a character - kind of tried to get my way under the skin of who he might have actually been.

SIMON: It's hard to read the sections in which Tarare is presented for the entertainment of crowds. But this is how he became known, isn't it?

BLAKEMORE: Yeah. It's astonishing. And it's something I've been thinking about a lot 'cause the novel's already out here in the UK.. So I've been kind of touring it around the U.K. over the past couple of weeks. And a reaction - sort of things people have said to me afterwards has been quite often, oh, God, I'm so glad we've moved on from that sort of gruesomeness as a form of entertainment. And I think, well, in some ways, yes, certainly not in the way it was in the 18th century. We're still sort of doing those sorts of things. But I don't know, in the U.S., if you have "I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!" It's a reality TV show over here in the U.K.

SIMON: You know, I've got to say, I don't know. But we do not lack...

BLAKEMORE: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...For appalling reality shows.

BLAKEMORE: Of course, yeah. Yeah. And it's quite a big deal over here. You know, millions of people tune in. And quite an essential part of it, which, you know, ends up making the newspapers every year - you have former politicians or boy band members eating disgusting things - eating insects, eating unusual parts of animals. And it's this kind of - this sort of festival of depravity, I suppose. We're still very attracted to the sort of schadenfreude or depravity of seeing people do things that are taboo or that are shocking or kind of out of the natural order of things.

SIMON: Some sections are so graphic, they're hard to read. Is that the right reaction? That what you're going for?

BLAKEMORE: Oh, there's no right or wrong reaction. (Laughter) In the U.K., we might call it a Marmite book. Marmite - you either love it or you hate it.

SIMON: Marmite is that - I don't want to call it a condiment. It's like...

BLAKEMORE: It's like a condiment (laughter). It's yeast extract. It's sort of dark brown and quite tarry, and some people really like it, and some people don't. And here I am explaining Marmite on NPR. It's not going to be to everyone's tastes. And I kind of - yeah, I'm aware of that. My thinking was if I was going to write a novel about Tarare, which is something I've wanted to do for a very long time, it was that I kind of needed to swing for the walls (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

BLAKEMORE: You kind of - there wouldn't be much point in writing a novel about a man who historically ate offal as a form of entertainment and having all of that kind of happening off-screen, as it were. So, yeah, at the end of the day, you can only kind of write for yourself. And I've got quite a strong stomach, I guess. (laughter).

SIMON: A.K. Blakemore's new novel, "The Glutton." Thank you so much for being with us.

BLAKEMORE: Thank you for having me. It was lovely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.