Happy release day to Yellow Jessamine from Neon Hemlock Press. This novella is a gothic tale of murder, poison, and sapphic pining, perfect for the fall season. In this interview, author Caitlin Starling talks about research, inspiration, and her favorite poisons.
Crafting Yellow Jessamine and Other Research
What came first: Evelyn, the world, or the poisons?
Evelyn! She’s a creation of my angsty teenage self (circa 2004). From her I derived a small amount of the world – what clothing looked like, that there was nobility, that Evelyn was able to live mostly alone in a creepy house up on a hill—and the interest in poisons.
What kind of research did you do for the poisoning? Do you have a favorite?
Most of my research on the poisons came from https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/poison.html, which I stumbled across in the mid 2000s. It’s a digitization of A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve, first published 1931. A little late for Evelyn’s time period-equivalent, but extremely useful in finding less commonly known poisons.
I filled in, particularly on the medical front when I needed to find plants specifically by their helpful qualities, with wikipedia and some general googling.
I’ve always had a fondness for Gelsemium sempervirens, aka yellow jessamine. It looks quite similar to honeysuckle (on a superficial level—honeysuckle grows in bushes, gelsemium is a vine that takes over other plants), but its nectar is extremely toxic. It also has a delayed effect, which is useful for narrative reasons, and terrifying in real life!
Did you have a favorite scene or moment to write?
It’s a toss up between when Evelyn accidentally overdoses while trying to drug the fear out of herself, and the later ballroom scene, where we see Evelyn out in society, and watch as all her fears of being singled out come true.
With the overdose scene, I got to explore something I’ve always been fascinated with—self destruction, combined with a sudden expansion of detail and honesty from the character in question. It’s based in some of my own experiences, fears, and wants. After all, while Evelyn is in the midst of all her extremely bad decision making here, she’s finally admitting to herself that she wants certain things: comfort, understanding, unconditional affection.
And she gets those, much to her combined relief and horror!
For the ballroom, it’s just so deliciously creepy, and we get to see Evelyn truly in extremis, confronted with the sheer scale of everything that’s suddenly gone wrong in her life.
Where did the idea for the new affliction come from?
I wanted something that would pursue Evelyn in particular, and that wasn’t just a monster “brought from distant shores.” Evelyn’s most noticeable trait is, of course, her extensive garden and how she’s used that garden to influence her life. Evelyn is also extremely self-isolating, misanthropic, and paranoid, so an actively menacing threat wouldn’t be particularly jarring; she already lives like she’s hunted by something that hates her.
So I gave her an antagonist that just wants her to be happy. That loves her. That refuses to acknowledge any boundary she sets up. That spreads and takes over her entire world, and echoes some of what she’s caused/wants the world to be.
What are you working on next?
I’m just finishing up edits on my next full-length novel, The Death of Jane Lawrence (St Martin’s Press, 2021). It’s gothic horror in a similar vein to Yellow Jessamine (secondary world historical, European-ish setting, a sinister house, bad decision bingo), but with a focus on 1800s surgical practices, esoteric magic, and calculus. It’s also, in the grand tradition of the gothic, about the risks of marriage, about if you can ever truly know somebody, and about repressed passions and dark desires. I love it more than is reasonable.
Are there any books you’d recommend for us to read once the chills wear off?
Absolutely check out the other three books in the Neon Hemlock 2020 novella series. They’re all incredible, and quite different, which is an absolute treat. I’d also recommend Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun if you’re hankering for more speculative gothic fiction. The Keep by Jennifer Egan is bonkers in the best way, and has some gothic flair to it as well. And a classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for more paranoia and misanthropy.
Oh, and if you want to learn more about poisons, I highly recommend The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum—it’s an excellent history of poisons in America and the development of forensic medicine in early 1900s New York.
Caitlin Starling is an award-winning writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction. Her first novel, The Luminous Dead, won the LOHF Best Debut award, and was nominated for several others. She tweets at @see_starling and has been paid to design body parts. You can find links to her work at www.caitlinstarling.com.