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Haunted By Boarding School, Phoebe Wynne Twists The Classics In Debut Novel 'Madam'


High above a craggy Scottish cliff - the sea crashing below, ancient castle walls rising above - sits an elite girls boarding school, a fictional school, we should note, and a really strange one, which we soon grasp is training girls for a lot more than their university entrance exams. This is the setting for the creepy Gothic debut novel titled "Madam." Phoebe Wynne wrote it, and she is with us now. Welcome.

PHOEBE WYNNE: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Start by painting us a little bit more of a picture of Caldonbrae. This is what you've called this school.

WYNNE: Yeah, absolutely. It's a - an all-girls boarding school. It's very British. Usually you'd find them in England, but this one is on a peninsula just off the coast of Scotland. And it's very hidden away from the reaches of - well, I don't want to give away too much, but away from any prying eyes or reaching hands.

KELLY: Yeah. And it's a proper castle with dungeons and tunnels and everything.

WYNNE: Absolutely, yes. And I based it on a real place, so it's just a ruin.

KELLY: Really?

WYNNE: Oh, yes. It's a place quite near Aberdeen, and it's called Dunnottar Castle. It's a short peninsula, and then you've got a ruin. So I sort of - I went to visit, which was amazing, great fun. And I used the beach and everything. And I took stones from there, and I had them around me when I was writing. And so, yes, it's sort of geographically realistic, if you like.

KELLY: I hope in - without giving anything away, I hope in terms of plot and what happens to the girls in this school, it's not modeled on anything remotely (laughter) realistic because it does get really creepy.

WYNNE: Listen, I mean, I borrowed a lot from Daphne du Maurier and, you know, Charlotte Bronte with "Jane Eyre." And it's melodrama, and it's sensational. But, I mean, I myself went to boarding school, and I taught in two in the U.K. and trained in two others. So there's bits and pieces there. It's not all entirely made up. Of course, the system within the school I've - as I said, is dramatized. But there is something about the boarding school that has always haunted me, and I've put it all in "Madam."

KELLY: Yeah. All right. Well, let's talk more. Because you modeled your protagonist, Rose, a little bit on your background. She arrives at the school to take over the classics department and to teach. How did you weave all that into the story?

WYNNE: I think in Rose - she's significantly younger than me. And she's naive. She's flawed. You know, she's like many of us. She's an everywoman. Well, we're taught, you see, as women, I think - this is not my quote, but I've been told it many times - men are taught to be somebody, whereas women are taught to find somebody. And Rose doesn't have much. So she leans on her academia, and she leans on what she understands, which is the classics and what she loves dearly.

And then, of course, if you're with academia, you assign yourself to an institution. And then she finds that this institution is, in fact, not what she's expecting and rotten in some ways. So she wants to battle her way through it and recruits the girls to help her achieve that. And I think it's inescapable, obviously, the connections to my own story, which is really, really fun because, I mean, as you read the book, the lessons in there, they were some of my favorite parts to write. And a lot of that is lessons that I've taught myself.

KELLY: We should explain. Interwoven into the main plot are little mini chapters, we'll call them, that are familiar tales from the classics. The story of Medusa, for example, which you interweave in, and she's - Rose is teaching them to the girls. And they're discussing them and then (ph) they become relevant to situations they're living through.

WYNNE: Exactly. And I - and she's very interested in the classics. Classics is her upbringing and her passion. And so she sees these significant - much like I do - these significant female figures throughout - in the ancient world, whether they're mythological or historical. But they all have the same pizzazz, and they all have a fight. And their voices came through because even - because these stories were written by men, and they made their impact through high emotion or ambition.

And these characters have always been very interesting to me as a classicist and as a young woman. So I was happy to put them into - imagine using Rose's voice. Because I think in some way as well, I was taught by old white men. And you often hear people talk about teachers that they admired and so on. And I never had a figure like that. So it was quite fun to write one and to write the version that I would have liked to have been.

KELLY: Can we circle back to some of the stories from the ancient world that you weave in? Because as Rose's students note, (laughter) most of them meet a pretty grim end, many of them die. And again, without giving away any plot twists, there's a very dark quality to this story.

WYNNE: Yeah, absolutely. I think I've always been really interested in challenging stories that are dark, and I've always been drawn to these stories. And I'm a huge fan of Greek tragedy. It's one of - it was one of my specialties when I was studying classics. And those stories have such a profound impact. And - you know, for example, even Shakespeare borrowed them when he wrote, you know, "King Lear" and "Othello."

They resound through the centuries. And - because the Greeks were interested in human nature. And I am, too. And I think there's a huge amount of color and peculiarity in those stories that I wanted to explore. And I think, yes, I mean, "Madam" does have its - it has a catastrophic ending, and it has very, very dark moments. But for me, it's about freedom, and it's about finding freedom, and it's about finding agency. And while the girls learn about these heroines, it's about choosing a better end for themselves.

KELLY: Of realizing you're in charge of writing your own story. Or at least that's the hope. That's the plan.

WYNNE: Well, yeah, absolutely. But I mean, in some ways, I did write the story that I had to write. It was very kind of organic and almost like an exorcism in a way (laughter).

KELLY: (Laughter).

WYNNE: So I feel like I did have a choice. But then at the same time, I - it had to be told.

KELLY: So I will note you have given us a challenge because this is a really tough book to talk about without giving away the big plot twist. There's a whopper of a plot twist in there. But I think we can say there are several strong female characters in here, not just Rose. But the girls and women in this book are very much not seen as equals. They are not in charge of their own destiny for much of the book. Why was that something you wanted to explore in 2021?

WYNNE: Well, I can tell you. You know, I come from a sort of society, you know, within the U.K. that's, as I say, like the boarding school kind of. You're told what to do and slightly oppressive, very, very patriarchal. And it has been really interesting to, as an adult, sort of walk away from that world and then reflect back on it. And I think part of that was what I was trying to explore there. Because what's interesting about Caldonbrae Hall, the school, is that the girls don't really know - it takes Rose, their teacher, to point out to them what's really going on. And then it changes a few of their minds.

And also in 2021, to answer your question, I think young women are still in danger. My novel is set in 1992, but even in 2021, you know, they're victims of the male gaze and seen as instruments of reproductive and sexual values still. We're still struggling with bias and stereotype. There's still these lessons that we need to learn, and I was interested in exploring that and combining it with looking at ancient women all the way through the millennia and writing a story that's sort of timeless in that way, that's about breaking through and turning your back on convention and, well, breaking free.

KELLY: That is Phoebe Wynne talking about her new novel, "Madam." Thank you.

WYNNE: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "MARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.