Bethany Pope’s views on life, love, and feminism boil over in her new Gothic novel entitled Ordinary Lives. A novelist and a poet, she received her Ph.D. from Aberystwyth in Wales, was awarded the first Luigi Bonomi Associates Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards, the Cinnamon Press Novel competition, and the Ink, Sweat and Tears poetry commission. An avid fencer, specializing in sabre, smallsword, and backsword, as well as a hiker and a comic book enthusiast, she lives in the United Kingdom with her husband Matthew. Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to visit with her for this Conversation to learn more about her book and her outlook on life.

STAY THIRSTY: You have said that writing revealingly about yourself was “like dancing, naked, behind a sheet of bulletproof glass.” Why?

BETHANY POPE: Writing about my own life is, at once, very freeing and at the same time absolutely terrifying because, if I’m honest, I have to make myself vulnerable. When I’m writing about my family, or about my rape, I am striving for objectivity. I am trying to see myself, and my context, exactly as it was, and because I’m human, this means that I have to be willing to reveal my flaws. Dancing is a public art. It requires practice, and a dance can be used to communicate many things, from grace to horror. A dance can, occasionally, be beautifully grotesque. A nude dancer cannot disguise her faltering (or the effort behind her work) with costumes or masks. Her muscles are prominent, as are her breasts, and the ruins which labor has made of her toes. If she manages to dance beautifully, that’s down entirely to her skill. It is not dismissible. If you are dancing behind a sheet of bulletproof glass, well, people can still take their shots, and they can still frighten you, but you cannot be harmed. The dance is made and performed by a real, living, breathing, bleeding person, but there is distance between her body and the audience. The printed page provides this distance, for me. I can afford to be free, I can afford to be true, behind the barrier of print. 

STAY THIRSTY: Growing up, you lived in many different places, including an orphanage. How did feelings of rootlessness shape your outlook on life? 

Bethany Pope
BETHANY POPE: I don’t feel rootless, in the sense that is usually meant by the word. I know who my family are, and my feelings towards them are very complicated – as you can probably imagine they would be, given the fact that my parents willingly gave up custody of me. If anything, I feel chained to the consequences of choices that were made for me by other people, and I spend a lot of time running from those consequences – or facing them down. I think that one result of my abandonment is that I have an interesting outlook on loyalty. I am much more loyal to ideas (to ideals) than I am to individual people. I have excised people from my life for persisting in behaving in a manner which I find to be harmful or morally wrong, even if (as in a number of occasions) I have loved that person very much.

I do not feel any particular affinity towards nationalism or tribalism of any kind, because such ideologies are servants of a lesser god. A homeless Afghan who loves her neighbor is more my sister than the most gung-ho, flag-waving nationalist who can walk by a scene of suffering without administering aid.

Speaking on a personal level, I know that it is very difficult for me to maintain intimacy with anyone. I am very afraid of rejection. I tend to put a lot of effort into letting someone in, emotionally, only to become frightened and run away for months or weeks at a time, until I am certain that they will not use the things that I have revealed as ammunition, and then I will come creeping back for another go. When I first met my husband, he described me as “emotionally feral,” and I don’t think that’s far from the mark. I am a bit like a part-domesticated fox or coyote. I can bite. I have to be repeatedly coaxed.   

STAY THIRSTY: You practice sword fighting with a passion. You even seem to relish your classes on stabbing and slashing. How do you see yourself with a sword in your hand – as a hero or as a villain? Are you battling inner demons when you fight? Which sword is your weapon of choice?

BETHANY POPE: I practice two styles of fencing – Sport and Historical English Martial Arts; and I fight with four weapons – sabre, epee, smallsword, and backsword. I fence twice a week with two different clubs. In terms of Sport fencing, sabre is my favorite weapon. There are a lot of rules and a lot of structure. Sabre has a complicated scoring system, and it is dependent on right of way as well as the speed and agility of the fencer. It also requires a lot of energy and passion. You have to be fast to fence sabre, and you have to be smart. In many ways, sabre reminds me of formal poetry; you have a complicated system of rules, but within those boundaries there is room for more than a little living blood. There aren’t many sabreurs in my club, so I don’t get to fence this weapon as often as I would like. Epee is the competitive sport which is most like a traditional duel with a rapier. If sabre is a double-acrostic sonnet, the epee is free-verse. On the surface, it looks like the easier sport because there are fewer rules, but though it is relatively easy to pick up, it is very difficult to master, so there’s always room to improve with this blade. There’s always room to grow.

In terms of HEMA fencing, well, I love it because it is more realistic. HEMA is not a sport; it is a martial art. I like it because I am learning a method of fencing that was designed for actual use, either during duels in the salon or out on the street after a night of ungentlemanly drinking. I am studying the Sir William Hope method of fencing and it is both fun and historically enlightening. The backsword is a cutting blade – something like a straight cutlass. You have to draw your arm as you swing in order to make the cut (otherwise the effect is rather like being hit by a length of iron bar – it’ll hurt, but it won’t have as much stopping power), and while it is difficult to actually kill someone with a backsword (this is one reason that the government issued them to police officers in the 19th century), it has a lot of stopping power and it draws a lot of lovely blood. You can survive a massive cut to your thigh or your arm. The wound can be washed and sewn shut. But you are unlikely to be able to keep fighting. The smallsword is, well, a small sword. It’s like a light rapier – a thrusting weapon. It is difficult to disable an attacker using a smallsword because a person can take a number of jabs before they lose enough blood to really slow them down. But this does not mean that the weapon is useless. If anything, smallsword is the more vicious weapon because although you might walk away from a bout, bleeding a little, one good hit to the guts means that you will die, later, after a long bout of sepsis. The smallsword is fast. The smallsword is good for a person who, like me, has a lot of speed and agility. The smallsword is a brutal weapon, whose appearance is deceiving. I prefer the backsword, ideologically. It’s got a lot of flash; you can fence with a lot of grace and panache, but while you could stop a crime with it, you are unlikely to generate any lasting harm. The smallsword is more fun to fence with, though. And it has that lovely, darker edge.

When it comes to how I envision myself, as a fencer, well, I think that I’d like to see myself as Inigo Montoya, Nightcrawler, or Errol Flynn as he appeared in Captain Blood. Of course, I’d prefer to be the hero, even if I am a hero with a large, black shadow, but I think, in all honesty, I am something of a trickster who veers towards the good. As a writer, you have to be both hero and villain. You embody both aspects, both characters, in the cage of your head. The evil that you write about is your own evil. The good is your good. It is important to acknowledge that.

STAY THIRSTY: Your novel, Ordinary Lives, has many Gothic and macabre settings. What drew you to these settings? If you could travel through time, what era most reflects your inner soul?

BETHANY POPE: There is a mansion in my brain and it is decorated as a cross between a high-class Victorian bordello and a High-Gothic Catholic church. I am a Jungian, a symbolist, and I think that a lot of the trappings of the late-Victorian era have a lot of archetypal meaning for me. My first novel was a Jungian-feminist retelling of The Phantom of the Opera and although the setting was Paris, not England, the time period was the same. I like the era because of the psychology and the hypocrisy that flourished there. Sex was sublimated into a fascination with death; gender roles were so rigidly enforced (actually living then must have been absolute hell, for everyone) that they sometimes reversed themselves. Everyone, it seems, was walking around masked. It’s very rich ground, story-wise. Seeds just seem to grow there.

In terms of which era I would have liked to live in, I think that the mid-1600s would have been fun, assuming that I could have lived as a man. I would have loved to set out to sea and do some exploring. As we’ve established, I’m a good fencer. I would have made a wonderful musketeer or dragoon. And, let’s face it, the male fashions of the time were amazing. I have a really wonderful pair of bucket-top boots which I wear every day as a part of my costume, but back then I could have paired it with my sword, a plumed hat, and a long velvet cape and really made the maidens swoon.

STAY THIRSTY: Mary, the main protagonist of your novel, is a pituitary dwarf. Why did you choose this particular characteristic for her? Does her disability have a personal or philosophical meaning to you?

BETHANY POPE: Mary is a Victorian woman. At the time, women were infantilized to the point of helplessness. Hell, this still happens now. Women are dismissed, passed over, our lives are controlled and our bodies regulated and acted upon without our consent. Mary’s dwarfism emphasizes that treatment. Her experience, as a woman, is magnified by her disability. Thankfully, her personality is strong enough to combat that treatment. She’s tough enough to say, “I might be a woman, and I might be very small, but you are a fool if you think you can dismiss what I want.” I love her, unabashedly.

STAY THIRSTY: In their different ways, your protagonists Mary and John experience abandonment and the loss of love. What drew you to explore these particular emotional pains? Did experiences in your own life guide you in developing these circumstances?

BETHANY POPE: When I was twelve years old, my parents left me in an orphanage. They didn’t have to do it. They chose to, in order to make their lives easier. That is an experience which never leaves you. I will probably always have difficulty trusting people, and I will probably always struggle to overcome that sucking sense of hopelessness and loss. Writing stories in which that loss is resolved for other people is one (very effective) way of proving to yourself that healing is possible. If you can’t find a happy ending, make one. Sometimes, making it is enough.

Bethany Pope

STAY THIRSTY: Many of the authority figures in the novel – doctor, upper-level students, school master, priest – are selfish and mean-spirited. Aside from your parents, have you had problems with authority figures in your life or are you making more of a social comment on the nature of people?

BETHANY POPE: I think that power corrupts. I think that if a person who has been powerless is given even a modicum of power over another life, then the temptation to abuse that power is very, very great. I know that the doctor in this novel shares a great deal in common with my father, a man who signed me up for experimental medical treatments when I was a child because my personality did not conform with his ideal of what was natural and proper for a young girl. I know that a person with a lot of ego, a lot of power, and a little knowledge can be dangerous and terrifying because they think they know better than they do and they are so very, very certain of the rightness of their cause that a little blood on the floor, a few wrecked lives, will hardly bother them. I know that when I was in the orphanage my social worker ignored the fact that I was being raped (in fact, she condoned it) because inaction would save herself from being scrutinized and protect her from the perils of paperwork. I know that a lot of abuse is allowed to continue because stopping it would be inconvenient for (almost) everyone involved, and so the innocent are allowed to suffer. I will go to quite a lot of trouble, myself, to point this out.

STAY THIRSTY: There are characters in your novel who wear false faces that they show in public. What drove you to see and express the world in this way?

BETHANY POPE: Honestly? I think that growing up in a Presbyterian church did it. People tend to confuse seeming with being. Or, rather, they think that seeming good in public is the same (or better) than actually being good (in an offbeat or unacknowledged way) before God. There is no hypocrisy like Southern, Presbyterian hypocrisy. And I say that as a practicing Christian. In public, people walk around smiling like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, while behind closed doors they beat their children and refuse to pay their minister. I think that real morality sometimes looks very strange. A person might do something which looks bad on the surface, rolling into church covered in mud, for example, or hanging out with “disreputable” people, but really they’re dirty because they were changing someone’s tire and that hooker they’re talking to has had a really hard life and, until they showed up, no one ever bothered to listen. I distrust people who care too much about what their neighbors will think. I believe that, ultimately, hypocrisy is another word for spiritual cowardice. It takes a lot of guts to be honest about what you are in the face of the world.

Bethany Pope

STAY THIRSTY: Mary and John are survivors, as are you. What skills do you share with these characters? What has been the principal motivator in your life that has helped you achieve your goals?

BETHANY POPE: In the novel, Mary knows who and what she is. She knows what she wants and she fights to get it. John has to discover these things for himself over the course of the book. In some ways, John (being born into money and a life of ease) seems more privileged, but he is by far the more emotionally damaged character. He requires emotional healing; all Mary needs is acceptance. They’re able to give those things to each other, and I love that they’re able to make it happen. I know who I am. I know why I’m here, on this earth. I know what I want out of life, and I know how to make it happen. All of that took me some time to work out, but I wasn’t afraid to give myself that time and dedicate myself to clarifying my own thinking. I think that a lot of people are unwilling to spend time discovering who and what they are because they’re either afraid of what they’ll find (everyone has a monster in them; the good news is that the monster can be tamed and set in the traces—the monster can be made to work) or they’re afraid of the idea that dedicating time to self-study is somehow selfish. But the fact is that you cannot really love another person if you do not know (I do not say “love”) yourself. You have to know what you have to offer, in terms of your strengths and weaknesses. Then you can give yourself, wholly, as a gift. I was very lucky to find a partner who was willing to go through that process of self-discovery with me. My husband, Matthew, has been the greatest and most steadfast source of support that I have ever known. His strengths compensate for my weaknesses, and my strengths compensate for his. And we’re still growing, still learning about ourselves and about each other. I think that everyone needs such a partner. I don’t think that it must necessarily be a spouse – friends can fit the same purpose, as can siblings – but I don’t think that this life is something that can really be gotten through alone, as tempting as it is (if you’re like me) to believe otherwise.

STAY THIRSTY: Doubly challenged by her physical fate and social constraints, Mary is a bold and fearless feminist. What message do you hope your readers—especially your younger, female readers—will take from this book?

BETHANY POPE: I’m really tempted to say something trite about the power of believing in yourself, but I will resist the urge. I think that it is important for people (especially younger, female people) to view themselves as the heroes of their own lives (the protagonists, no matter how they appear to the world) and not as the prize to be won at the end of the game, or something that exists as a secondary, supporting voice. If you view yourself as the Hero, the Main Character, the person whom the story is for, I think you’ll find that you have a lot more agency and a great many more options as you make your way through the world. I think it’s important for everyone to remember that they have a hero in them, or at least have within them heroic potential. Mary sees herself as she is; she sees her potential, and she knows (unflinchingly) what other people see when they look at her. She chooses not to care about that last bit, or rather, she chooses to use other people’s misconceptions to her own benefit. She acts as herself, and she acts to preserve herself, regardless of the consequences. Though she is but little, she is fierce, and I really hope that people love her for it as much as I do.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.