Author interview: Jude Starling

Goldcord Asylum Front ColourThanks for popping by, Jude; it’s lovely to have you here to talk about your new novel, writing, publishing and other madness. I read the novel in three sittings, which is unusual for me, so it’s fair to say that I found it compelling. It’s an involving read and one I’d whole-heartedly recommend to fans of historical fiction and a damn good read in general.

On the book:

What’s the elevator pitch for the novel?

As it’s a fairly long book and the plot juggles five protagonists, I find that the easiest way to give a concise idea of what the book’s about is to refer people to the cover blurb (kindly penned for me by my friend Jen):

Preston, 1866:

Time is running out for Goldcord Asylum. Once a progressive establishment dedicated to curing the mental problems of the inmates, now the asylum is under increasing pressure to treat and release patients whether they are ready or not. Professional pride, personal ideals, financial pressures and dark secrets compete to determine whether Goldcord will survive.

In the midst of this maelstrom of conflicting interests, Ivy Squire is committed. A strange young woman, so self-destructive that she must be kept in isolation, Ivy begins to reveal her story to new nurse Tilly Swann. But can Tilly find the key to Ivy’s madness before she is dragged into danger by Superintendent Enoch Gale’s increasing recklessness?

The other thing I like to say is that this is a novel for adults by a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome about a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome and I’m not presently aware of any other books that fit into this category. If/when I learn of more this pitch will crash and burn, but on the bright side I’ll have discovered some new reading material!

What drew you to mental illness and Victorian perceptions of it as a theme for your book?

Part of it stemmed from my own issues (people with AS are significantly more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than the general population), but I wanted to challenge a few of our modern misconceptions about Victorian psychiatry as well: ask most people to describe a historical asylum and they’re likely to talk about straitjackets and caged patients and members of the public poking them with sticks, and all those things were (sometimes significantly) outdated by the middle of the 19th century. While I’m not for one minute suggesting that Victorian asylums at the time in which Goldcord Asylum is set were perfect or that I’d want to be a patient in one of them, I wanted to show that there were stepping stones in between those conditions and the ones in psychiatric hospitals now.

Given that you live with Asperger’s was it difficult, emotionally, to create Ivy and tell her story? She is SO misunderstood, and many of her behaviours, though considered odd at the time, going against the social mores of period, would be seen as perfectly normal in a modern woman.

I resisted the idea of writing about AS at all for years, so obviously there was a part of me that found the idea difficult, but once I made the decision and got started it was actually very cathartic. That isn’t to say that there weren’t things in Ivy’s story that I found very difficult to write – her tale is a tragic one – but you can’t face up to challenges by pretending they aren’t there, and looking them in the eye (perhaps an unfortunate expression to use in the context of a character on the autistic spectrum!) can be remarkably freeing. Part of my fear of writing an AS character came from not wanting to create an author insert, but eventually I saw that this was nonsensical (why would Ivy having AS make her an author insert, any more than her being white, northern, British, female or occupying any other common ground with myself?), and while for obvious reasons we have a lot in common, there are differences too, as anyone who knows me would be able to tell you.

Through your colourful cast of characters, you cover quite a range of mental illnesses, some that we still recognise today. Why did you choose to do this, rather than concentrate on just a few?

I was curious to look into how people with those conditions would be understood (or not!) and treated then, and also to acknowledge some of the debate that continues now as to whether Victorian asylums were filled with people who wouldn’t now be hospitalised for their conditions, if indeed they had any conditions at all (like Ivy, who only starts to really display symptoms of declining mental health as a result of her institutionalisation, or the post-menopausal Winnie Hall whose desire to divorce her husband is viewed as pathological) or people who might well be hospitalised for a time even now (Constance and Olive, who suffer from eating disorders, and Daniel Millward, who is probably schizophrenic and experiences psychotic episodes). I came to the conclusion that the truth was probably somewhere in between, and so I wanted a mixture of patients in the asylum to reflect that.

Tilly is more at ease with her natural sexual impulses than many of the more ‘refined’ women of the time. Do you feel it was easier for working class women to express their desire, and why?

Although the cultural emphasis on ‘chastity’ would have spanned all classes at the time, I think there was a difference in the working class in that they simply couldn’t afford to be quite as prim and sheltered as those from wealthier families. They lived in smaller houses, often sharing bedrooms, and were more in touch with the realities of things like pregnancy and childbirth: a working class woman simply couldn’t have a (quite literal) ‘confinement’ in which she avoided being seen in public once her pregnancy started to show, and when she gave birth it would have been at home in the bedroom with the local midwife, while the rest of the family waited outside, listening to the attendant noises. Girls would grow up helping their mothers, including with the bathing and nappy-changing of their siblings, so they’d know that there were physical differences between the sexes. So Tilly’s working class background partially explains why she’s a little more down to earth, but there’s also her occupation to consider: as is mentioned in the story, she’s given bed baths to male patients, and no doubt she would have helped bed-bound ones when they needed to use the chamber pot, and she would have heard doctors referring to parts of the anatomy by their proper names. All the same, there is still a difference when the time comes for her to approach a male body in a sexual context, and it’s still a very new and different experience for her.

Much is made of the religion of one of the leading characters. What was the thinking behind this and how does it feed into the themes of the novel?

The fact that Ivy and Tilly both come from Catholic families is what opens up a dialogue between them: Ivy’s Aspergian sensitivity to smell means that she detects the faint scent of incense lingering in Tilly’s hair the morning after she’s attended Mass, and when she (with characteristic bluntness) remarks on it, they begin to talk to each other as people rather than nurse and patient. Also, the fact that Tilly has experienced being judged and marginalised by most of society at this point (there were some Catholic politicians and self-made Catholic families living in relative luxury, but anti-Catholic prejudice was still rife in society as a whole) gives her something of an understanding of what Ivy goes through; in a sense, they’re both outcasts.

Enoch commits some horrific acts and makes very bad choices, but I found him sympathetic. Was this your intention?

The way I like to explain this is to talk about the criminal profilers who work with the police: in order to catch the killer, they have to get into their head to a degree and understand the way they think. Also, I find it grossly insulting to a reader’s intelligence whenever I encounter shining heroes (this is why Ambrose, who is a very well-intentioned character in most respects, is still very much a Victorian man in his belief that Ivy’s disinterest in her appearance is ‘unnatural’, and why he’s painfully naïve when it comes to dangerous patients) and/or moustache-twirling villains. Most people who do terrible things don’t view themselves as villains; in their minds, what they do is justified, and to explain how the man who in his youth founded a progressive institution like Goldcord could in later years go so far off the rails I had to get a sense of the gradual decline. To make him real I had to empathise (although not necessarily sympathise – like the criminal profiler, I can draw lines between the two) with him, and in many respects I think he’s scarier than an out-and-out monster because monsters are too easily dismissed. When people do evil things we often use the word ‘inhuman’, but either there’s a lot of inhumanity in humans or we need to re-examine our definition of the terms.

Both the male romantic leads are gorgeous. Do you have a personal favourite and if so, why?

Hmm, on balance I’d have to say Quentin. I tried to make sure that I didn’t write him as Mr Sensitive and Politically Correct 21st Century (hence his initial reaction to the discovery of Ivy’s pregnancy not being something we’d entirely approve of now, and of course for much of the novel he’s keeping a pretty big secret from her), but apart from Violet he’s the only person in Ivy’s life prior to her being committed who doesn’t find her utterly incomprehensible and annoying. This was partly based on something I once read in a book about Asperger’s – apparently some AS people find greater acceptance in cultures that are foreign to them because many people expect someone brought up in another culture to sometimes behave in ways that are a little odd by their standards, and of course many Americans famously think that Brits are rather standoffish and socially awkward so she’s not much stranger by Quentin’s standards than anyone else around them.

On writing:

Jude StarlingI’ve often thought about the gulf between the time it takes to write a novel and the time it takes to read one. How long did you spend on Goldcord Asylum, and how much of this was research?

Phew, good question. I’ve just been back through my diaries of the period and apparently I began writing it in March 2009 and finished in September 2010. (Add approximately two or three months of research beforehand as well.) Then of course it was edited and redrafted countless times – the original book was even longer; I think I cut about 60,000 words in total. Then came the time spent formatting it for print and ebooks…!

Where do you like to write first drafts?

Location: the living room, on my laptop. Software used: Word – I used to use OpenOffice and liked it, but had to switch to Word when I started editing professionally as practically all my clients use Word so it was easier to speak the same language, software-wise.

Can you tell us anything about your next book? A teaser?

My next book is called The Right of the Subjects, and will (provisionally) be published in January 2014. It follows a weaver through her involvement with the suffragette movement during their most turbulent years from 1906 to the start of World War I in 1914 and contains romance and militancy and appearances by some suffragettes who really existed, both well known and less so.

You write short stories as well as novels. If any, which do you feel more at home with?

Definitely novels – most of my ideas tend to be difficult to condense into a smaller word count!

On publishing:

How was the process for you? Did you employ an editor, proofreader?

Well, I am an editor and proofreader (www.judestarling.com/editing), but I still wouldn’t think of publishing anything without getting at least one impartial opinion first. It’s impossible to take an impartial view of your own work and after god knows how many drafts it’s easy to miss things, no matter what your experience is.

What three pieces of advice would you give to any author considering self-publishing?

1) As I say, the fact that you’ve spent so long dealing with your book (and if you haven’t, it’s not ready for publication!) means that you could miss things – after a while, you can’t see the forest for the trees. This is why a fresh pair of eyes (or more than one) is so important. 2) Get a decent cover, even if you’re ‘just’ publishing ebooks. It takes considerable skill to produce something that looks professional, and your cover is your first bid for attention in the crowded market that is an online book retailer. If you can’t produce something to that standard yourself (and I certainly can’t – my cover was designed by the fantastic Fena Lee: www.pheeena.com), contract the job out. 3) Self-publishing certainly moves faster than traditional publishing, but even so, take the time to do it right.

And do you see yourself continuing to self-publish or traditionally, or both as many authors are now?

I try to avoid making statements about things like this because it always seems to be my cue to end up doing things I said I’d never do, and besides, so much seems to depend on individual cases. I don’t see publishing in terms of lines of battle between traditional and self-publishing as some seem to – there’s no failure or selling out in either, and all I can do really is try to do what’s right for me at any given time.

Random madness:

If you were able to go back to mid-Victorian England and could take three objects with you, what would they be?

An ereader (I’d love to see how the literati of the day would react to them, and talk about steampunk!), a steel-boned corset (save the whales!) and some amoxycillin (a bit of philanthropy).

If you could invite six people to a dinner party who would they be? Dead, alive, real or fictional.

I’m not great with dinner parties (for obvious reasons!) so this isn’t my area of expertise, but I’m tempted to agree with Caitlin Moran, who when asked this question in a recent interview said that she’d like to do what she does in real life and invite her friends because she’d know that she’d have a good time. (In my case, I could also then say that I wouldn’t be dealing entirely with strangers.) Plus my friends are an interesting bunch with some interesting interests (!), so perhaps I could invite friends and each could bring a person of their choice. That would make for quite a mixture, I’m sure. (Oh, and I’m bringing Thomas Hardy – I think we’d have a bit to talk about in terms of how we approach writing fiction.)

We met through the writing e-magazine hagsharlotsheroines. If you had to define yourself as hag, harlot or heroine, which would it be?

Ha ha! Well I don’t really believe in heroes/heroines in the traditional sense of the word (hence my ability to create a bastard like Enoch and humanise him, I suppose) and I don’t have enough fun to be a harlot, so I’d have to say hag, or hag-in-training if there’s a minimum age limit. I have the grandma from The Addams Family earmarked as my style icon for my twilight years – I’m going to have a grey birds’ nest for hair and carry a stick even if I don’t need one so I can justify the purchase of an antique cane – so that word should fit in a few decades at least.

Thanks for a fascinating interview, Jude and best of luck with the book. Buy it here:

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