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caged patients and members of the public poking them with sticks, and all those things were (sometimes significantly) outdated by the middle of the 19th century.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:

Mini blog tour

To celebrate the launch of the Kindle edition of BloodMining, my editor at  Bridge House (thank you for moving so quickly on Kindle by the way), Gill James, suggested that I organise a blog tour. Now, I confess to knowing very little about blog tours, but I understand that you visit lots of other blogs and talk about whatever it is you do, are interested in and so on.

To this end between now and Christmas *shudders at the use of the C word in November* you won’t find me here very often, but you will find me in a variety of exotic places throughout the web. I set off on Friday, landing at Susan Howe’s blog with a small suitcase. I forgot my toothbrush so I’m back home for a couple days before heading off to Ireland and Katy O’Dowd’s gaff next week.

Pop by occasionally and I’ll let you know where I am – a virtual postcard. And drop by the blogs and comment; they’re beautiful places.

As an aside there’s another lovely review for BloodMining at the Book Club Forum. Thank you, Michelle.

An interview with…

debut novelist Rachel Connor

Those of you who know me will be aware how much I love Twitter. It’s a great tool, especially for writers, and it was on Twitter that Rachel and I first met each other. Other than being authors and mothers we have such a lot in common: debut novels published within days of each other, Manchester-based publishers, another job to juggle alongside the writing… and when we got talking in more detail we realised that there were several thematic overlaps in our novels: motherhood, different social structures and family arrangements, ethics and beliefs.  Sisterwives is the story of two women in a polygamous marriage living in an isolated, religious community. Tension simmers beneath a tranquil surface when pride, love and principles clash. It is a sensuous and seductive read, with moments of great insight and tenderness.  It’s a powerful book. You can read my review here. Here’s Rachel on writing, reading, and whether or not she’d share her fella.

How did you come to write? Tell us about your journey.

I’ve always loved that tussle with words but it wasn’t until my 30s that I started writing properly. I enrolled in a weekly adult education class in my local area, then went on to attend a residential ‘Starting to Write’ couse run by the Arvon Foundation (which is now my employer!). That was an amazing, life-changing, door-opening week.  I can’t describe how ecstatic I was at the end of it.  One of the tutors at Arvon persuaded me to apply for the MA in Novel Writing at Manchester University.  I wrote my first novel (which is still in a drawer) on that, then went on to write Sisterwives.

Do you have any rituals you have to go through before you start writing?

I always write better with a cup of coffee in front of me, so I guess the pre-writing coffee-making is a kind of warm up ritual.  I’ve never really gone for that other superstitious stuff like putting on a particular hat or pair of socks or whatever.  Mostly I write in our outbuilding and I find that short journey across the courtyard helpful in making the division between home and work.

Any top tips from your writers’ toolkit you’d like to share?

Ok, here are two: once concrete, one more abstract.  Always have a bunch of blank index cards with
you.  They’re great for sketching out scenes when you’ve a spare 10 minutes and when you’re planning the structure of a project, they can be invaluable.  More esoterically: develop the skill of listening – both to yourself and others.  If you can listen to yourself, you’ll learn what’s really working. Listening to others – discerning which is the right and appropriate feedback and filtering out what isn’t – takes time, practice and humility.  I can’t say I’m there completely; I think it’s probably a lifetime’s journey.

Which writers do you most admire and why?

There are so many amazing writers, both classic and contemporary.  In my work hosting courses for the Arvon Foundation I encounter brilliant writers most weeks, and hear them read from their work: it’s a fantastic job to have!  Is that a cop out?!  There’s one enduring influence I must mention though: Virginia Woolf.  I studied Mrs Dalloway in sixth form and I was blown away by her ability to capture interiority and consciousness, and by the sheer beauty of her sentences.

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Sisterwives?

I heard an interview a few years ago with a wife who had escaped from a fundamentalist Mormon compound. I was completely riveted by her tale, and started wondering what it would be like to have to share your home, your husband, your children – and even your bedroom – with another wife. My decision to set it in an imagined community (rather than sticking with the Mormon context) might be seen as risky, but it allows me to question the basis of structures – religious and social – as a whole.  The reader might disagree there, though…

One of the themes of Sisterwives is faith, and biblical references abound in the novel. What does faith mean to you?

To me, faith implies a belief in something unseen and unknown. Many people find that a comfort, a guiding framework for living life. But it’s not for me. I’m interested in the here and now, and I don’t hold with the traditional notion of God.  Attending a Quaker meeting for the past few years has taught me the value of seing the spiritual in the everyday.  So for me, writing is praying, running might be praying; a simple task – like chopping vegetables – can have that function for me too. ‘Spirit’ for me is evident in anything that allows that intense awareness of the moment, that rare, fleeting thing we are all capable of
feeling: of being ‘outside’ ourselves. If I have any sort of religious practice at all, it’s that – trying to
move beyond the limitations of the tiny yet all consuming ego.

You’re married.  Would you ever consider sharing your husband with another woman (or man)?

Ha! I can see I’m going to get asked that a lot!  I’m trying to explore the practical and emotional benefits to non nuclear families and co-parenting. But – from the research I’ve done in a Mormon context – it’s also hell: the rivalry and having to share.  So, no, I couldn’t do that.  On the other hand our lives are  made up of a complex web of intimacies with others.  For one person (our partner) to provide everything – satisfaction on an emotional, physical, mental and spiritual level – is too high an expectation.  We need those friendships, flirtations, frissons with other people.  Sisterwives explores what can happen when the boundaries of fidelity are opened up.

The characters in Sisterwives are beautifully realised and they are all portrayed with great compassion.  Do you have a favourite? And if so, why this particular character?

I very much wanted to give a balanced view of each character, and there are plenty of instances where we see the characters from each others’ viewpoints.  I recognise myself in many aspects of each of the three main characters. I’ve got Rebecca’s sense of responsibility and seriousness, I think, and I share Tobias’ passion for the creative process.  But it’s Amarantha who is closest to my heart; I certainly had the most fun with her voice – it’s more lyrical and poetic than the others.  She’s the most flawed and yet – to me – the most fascinating because of her capacity for adventure.

What’s next for you, writing wise?

I’m developing ideas for radio plays, which is great fun.  And I’ve started the next novel. It’s early days yet but this one’s very different – it’s historical, for a start, set in the late Victorian/early twentieth century period, around the school of artists known as the Glasgow Four (Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his
group).

Coffee or tea?  Beer or wine?  Marmite or Bovril?  Dark chocolate or Milk?  High heels or flatties? Blusher or mascara?

What great questions! But it feels like my other answers have been quite wordy, so I’ll keep this brief: both; wine; neither (yuk!); both; depends; neither, most of the time, both occasionally.

Thanks for your time, Rachel. Fascinating, and I’m looking forward to your next novel. To find out more about Rachel and her work, please visit her website. To buy Sisterwives, click here.