Combining fact and fiction: Local author’s novel is a suspenseful ghost story


M.J. Rose

Ghost stories don’t often come to mind when one considers the life of legendary writer Victor Hugo, but Greenwich resident M.J. Rose hones in on just that in her latest novel, Seduction.

A master of suspense, international best-selling author Ms. Rose offers a historical novel that integrates fact, fiction and a bona fide ghost story in her latest work.

The story begins with a real-life tragedy in 1843, when Hugo’s eldest daughter drowned in a shipwreck while he was on vacation with his mistress. Utterly devastated by the event and his subsequent guilt, Hugo spent the next decade consumed by grief until he learned about the popular parlor game “talking tables,” which allegedly allows the living to speak with the dead.

Initiating hundreds of séances in hope of speaking to his late daughter, Hugo embarked on a haunting journey on the Isle of Jersey during which he claimed to speak to many people, including Plato, Shakespeare, his daughter, and even Jesus. The scripts of these séances, many of which are still available in print today, were all said to have been published. That’s where the fiction sets in.

Flash forward to the present day, when mythologist Jac L’Etoile, the protagonist from Ms. Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances, visits a friend on the Isle of Jersey in hope of uncovering a secret about the Druid ruins located there. Along the way, the mythologist discovers Hugo’s lost conversations with the “Shadow of the Sepulcher” — the devil himself.

The remainder of Seduction intertwines Hugo’s real-life séance experiences, including claims that he spoke to Lucifer, with an intricate and compelling plot that leads Jac L’Etoile into the heart of a centuries-old mystery.

Never an avid fan of Hugo’s work, which includes Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ms. Rose told the Post it was a visit to the writer’s home in Paris about seven years ago that inspired her latest novel. With the house still in decent condition, with Hugo’s paintings strewn about and his writing desks still in place in his bedroom, Ms. Rose said, she found his home — and life — fascinating. The experience prompted the author to re-read Les Misérables, after which she became captivated by the character Fantine and how Hugo had created her, she said.

As a writer in search of further inspiration, Ms. Rose then read a biography of Hugo. The book used only three pages to describe the séance period in the “changed, grief-stricken man’s” life, a fact Ms. Rose found fascinating, she said.

“This amazing statesman and poet and novelist that everybody thinks of as somebody who fights for justice … was obsessed with the occult,” Ms. Rose said.

Hugo’s obsession with ghosts was an “amazing aspect of his personality that no one talks about,” which is what prompted Ms. Rose to begin her work on Seduction five years ago, she said.

With 12 novels under her belt, Ms. Rose is a seasoned author, but she approached Seduction in a way that differed from her past work, she said. Ms. Rose wrote the book as three separate pieces — Hugo’s voice, Jac L’Etoile’s voice and the history behind the Isle of Jersey’s Celtic ruins — then integrated them to produce one complete story, she said.

“I needed to keep Victor Hugo’s voice intact in my head,” Ms. Rose said, adding that she couldn’t have kept his personality authentic if she had constantly been switching the time periods as she wrote. Having written past novels that combine time periods in their plots, Ms. Rose never had a problem going back and forth between eras, she said, but channeling Hugo’s voice was a challenge that required a different approach. In fact, at one time the challenge nearly caused Ms. Rose to give up on the novel altogether, she said.

“When I started writing the book, I couldn’t actually connect to Victor Hugo,” she said.

Sitting at a computer in the 21st Century attempting to conjure up the personality of a 19th-Century “genius” wasn’t working out, Ms. Rose said. “For weeks I was stumped.”

Then one serendipitous day, Ms. Rose got up from her desk, frustrated by her writer’s block, and knocked over a jar of pens. One was an old fountain pen that rolled and fell on the computer. It was then that Ms. Rose had a change of pace. Finding a bottle of ink, the author sat down with a simple notebook and began to write by hand. As the ink flowed, so did the words, she said.

Three notebooks later, Ms. Rose had written the entire novel by hand — something very unusual for a modern author, she said. The feat was so meaningful, in fact, that Ms. Rose used images of the original, hand-written draft of the novel as the endpages in the print version of the book.

Despite writing the novel by hand, it took about a year and a half to complete — the author’s typical working period for a novel — after the research was finished, she said. Fortunately, Ms. Rose added, she had been researching reincarnation and the occult for many years before she began to work on Seduction. The history behind Hugo and the Isle of Jersey, as well as the Celtic ruins, however, was a different ball game. Ms. Rose spent a full year researching the topics then continued her research the following year as she began to write the novel, she said.

One thing that is not included between the pages of the book, Ms. Rose said, is any kind of personal message. The stories Ms. Rose writes are all about the fictional characters she creates, none of which have ever been based on herself.

“I think it’d be incredibly boring to write about myself,”  she said.

As someone who reads to be entertained, Ms. Rose said, she writes accordingly, hoping that readers are satisfied and fulfilled when they are finished with the story, but never focusing on sending them a bigger message.

“I don’t write thinking about the reader. I write thinking about the characters,” she said.

Perhaps Ms. Rose’s focus on character development is what prompted the author to bring Jac L’Etoile back from her most recent novel and incorporate her into Seduction. The plan was always to tell the character’s story over the course of three novels, and having written two of them, Ms. Rose has a firm grip on exactly who she is, she said. All three novels will be readable on their own, focusing on different aspects of the character’s life. But as a whole, one is able to witness her character’s evolution, Ms. Rose said.

Although the third book is still in the works, the focal point will be whether or not Jac L’Etoile is going to accept who she is and move on, she said. Her story as a whole, Ms. Rose added, was always a question of whether someone who doesn’t want to believe in anything can accept proof that other forces and unexplainable phenomena exist.

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