Tamzin Merchant discusses her debut fantasy novel The Hatmakers and Carnival Row season 2
While Tamzin Merchant is deep into filming season 2 of Amazon's Carnival Row, she's also about to roll out a new fantasy world that's wholly of her own creation: her debut fantasy novel, The Hatmakers.
The young-adult tale, which recently garnered a rave advance review from Kirkus, follows a girl in an alternate 18th-century London who comes from a long line of hatmakers who imbue their headwear with magical attributes. When an ancient rivalry begins to surface and the threat of milliners' magic is used to start a war, it is up to the young girl to find out who's behind it and why.
EW chatted with the British actress (who has also appeared in Salem and The Tudors) by Zoom from London about her new book and what Carnival Row fans can expect from season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So I know you've told this story before, but it's a good one: How did you come up with this idea?
TAMZIN MERCHANT: The idea for the book came to me as a dream. I was shooting Carnival Row in Prague, and I had a costume fitting the night before with our amazing costume department. So I've been surrounded by these amazing costumes and having a fitting, and they were talking about a special hatmaker. They had to get a special hat to go with David Gyasi's horns (he has horns in the show because he plays a faun). That night I had this dream, and it was like a whole book. It was a story about these magical hatmakers that made these special hats in London, and there was this shipwreck and a rivalry with the bootmakers. And I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and woke my boyfriend up and told him about the dream. He told me to write it down and I was so wired and excited. I saw the book. That was three years ago. It took seven drafts.
So now that it's done, what excites you most about it?
What excites me is this idea that the handmade things made with love and attention and care can have their own magic within it. The things that are made from nature can have their own power, one that humans need to look after and can also benefit from.
Was there anything in your research of 18th-century London, or about hatmaking for that matter, that that particularly surprised you?
Well, I did learn to make hats, like with chestnut carved hat blocks, and you make it by hand and it takes ages and ages. You get felt and get an old-fashioned flatiron and cloth, and then you steam the hat by hand. I did that when I was writing draft 3, and that really showed me how special and how much attention goes into making something so small. It's kind of the opposite of sweatshops, this love of the creation of things by hand. And I researched a lot of alchemy as well. I got some books and there are some very bizarre illustrations which are symbolic representations of science. It really made me rethink my chemistry when I was from high school.
It's tough to enter the young-adult fantasy space without at least thinking about or acknowledging Harry Potter. Was there anything about that book series that was either influential or had tropes that you were kind of deliberately trying to avoid?
Harry Potter is an amazing series because of the way [J.K. Rowling] weaves in her world-building. One element that I wanted to draw on was how it's not set in an alternative world. It's not like in Narnia. What I love about Harry Potter is the idea that just around the corner could be Diagon Alley, or if you lost your way in the Highlands of Scotland, you might stumble across Hogwarts. So for kids reading this book, I weave in real history with invented magical history.
The book ends on a cliffhanger. Did you have any internal debate about whether you were going to bet on getting a sequel as a first-time author?
Well, actually I got a two-book deal. So it was very much like, yes, I got plans for the next book. I'm making the story whole to make sure that it's satisfying for book 2. I wanted it to feel like a self-contained story, then I have ideas for further books down the line. Writing book 2 has felt like playing that game Snakes and Ladders — I think you [in the U.S.] call it Chutes and Ladders? — where there's that one big snake that takes you all the way back down to the bottom and you're starting all over again.
I would have played Chutes and Ladders so much more as a kid if it was called Snakes and Ladders. It sounds so much more exciting and perilous.
Right? A chute isn't very scary.
It sounds like such a minor setback. Anyway, you also have season 2 of Carnival Row coming up, which I read wrapped filming in August?
We finished the first five in August. We're not wrapped. I don't know when it's going to be out, it's been such a weird year for that. If not for COVID, it would have been out ages ago.
What can you tease about Imogen Spurnrose's story line in season 2?
Imogen and Agreus [David Gyasi] get on the ship at the end of season 1, and everything is grand for the first five minutes of season 2 — and then things go very badly wrong for them. The thing that I wanted was, I asked the costume department, "Can I please not wear a corset for the whole of the season?" Eventually, it does happen that Imogen is called upon to not wear a corset, which was wonderful.
You've been in so many period dramas, you were probably like, "Oh great, another corset."
You just don't get the right amount of oxygen that your body needs to get through a day! But what I love about Imogen and just really spoke to me about that character is how much on her high horse she is, and then she gets knocked off her high horse. She gets taken down a whole new level by the people she meets in season 2. Because we haven't finished the season, I can't really say how that will go. But it's been so fun so far to play the challenges that she's met, and how her aristocratic personality who's deeply in love with Agreus faces the challenges she's dealt.
And finally, is there any sort of general or overall way the new season seems different from the first?
Erik Oleson came on board as showrunner, and his team of writers have been creating some really interesting stories about the moral landscape — what happens when you build a wall around the ghetto, as they did at the end of season 1, and what happens and what rises out of that. And to me, that's the show at its best.
The Hatmakers will be published Feb. 2 by Norton Young Readers and is available for preorder now.