The Death of Jane Lawrence blends the gothic atmosphere and mood of Crimson Peak with some chaos magic and a marriage of convenience that turns into anything but. Caitlin Starling delivers a spooky season treat here, and I’m so thrilled to talk to her on this eve of release about the kind of research and craft work that went into this viscerally terrifying, ghostly novel.
Crafting a Gothic Horror
How much did you know about this project going into it? Are you more of a plotter, a pantser, or a discovery writer?
I knew I wanted a gothic horror novel, with surgery, and with a romance that survived the end of the book. That’s about as much as I usually know going in. I start from an initial scenario (Jane convincing a doctor she’s never met before to marry her, and then finding herself trapped in a crumbling, creepy house), have a rough end point in mind (the husband being redeemable by the end), and then I get rolling.
As I draft, I start building an outline, partly to keep track of what I’ve done already, partly to organize ideas I have for future scenes I haven’t quite gotten to yet, and partly to solve problems as I encounter them. Outlines are fantastic for giving you a top down view that’s easy to move around and remix until the order of things click, or to show you where points A and C are so that you can figure out what characteristics point B is going to need.
Is there anything you researched either about old timey surgery, chaos magic, etc. that didn’t make it into the book?
The initial surgery in this book used to be a very traditional, very dramatic amputation at the thigh, which came with a lot of its own research. But generally speaking, I absorb research semi-independently of writing any given book. For instance, I read a lot of medical memoirs, and little bits and pieces from those have found their way into Jane. The magic research was like that, too. Take Last Podcast on the Left’s old multi-part series on Right Hand/Left Hand magic and chaos magic, add various other bits of media (A Dark Song comes to mind in particular), things absorbed from anthropology classes a decade ago on the unreliability of source materials regarding taboo things (such as cannibalism), and out comes the esoteric worldbuilding in Jane. So by that definition of research, there’s a lot that didn’t end up in the book!
How did you go about integrating the logic of math into the nebulousness of magic?
Honestly, the work was practically done for me. The history of the development of calculus is steeped in mysticism. (As I like to point out every single time I talk about it, Sir Isaac Newton? Alchemist.) There’s this great book that blew my mind as a teenager, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife, and I went back to it while developing the setting and figuring out just what Jane might know about calculus and related concepts. There is so much weird stuff that happens when you start involving zero in math. Impossible-seeming paradoxes that still get you the right answer are commonplace, along with situations that seem feasible but produce completely illogical results (see the appendix in Zero that mathematically proves that Winston Churchill was a carrot, for an example).
I am not anything near a mathematician (though I come from a family of them), and Jane by no means defines magic using math. But she does understand some of its trickier concepts by equating them to the math she’s learning simultaneously. You can’t divide by zero, but if you get close, whole new worlds open up. You can’t defeat death… but maybe you can sidestep it.
How did you go about developing Jane’s world and history of Great Breltain and its neighbors?
It started with me just magpieing various details that I wanted. I knew I wanted to involve chemical warfare (gassings) in Jane’s backstory (partially due to the character of Avdotya Nizamiev, but that’s a much longer story that involves roleplay profiles on Gaia Online back in 2004). I knew I wanted WW2 Blitz-style air raids for the same. But I also wanted big dresses and no telephones and no cars. I wanted medicine to exist at that strange and brutal cusp that it was at in the 1800s, where anaesthetics were just being adopted, where antiseptic technique was still disputed, and where surgery was getting bolder and bloodier every year.
Other decisions were more practical. It would take years, maybe decades of research to really understand the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and then I’d still have to contend with its pointedly racist origins. So I stole what I wanted (ritual magic, internal workings, fancy parties for rich folk) and ran, shoving it into a world where magic is definitely, indisputably real and has physical effects, and where its by-and-large absence from the everyday is an intentional mystery.
Everything else was a result of piecing these parts together, then adding the aesthetic trappings that I wanted to roll around in.
The Death of Jane Lawrence is your third published book, and I want to know: where did it come in the writing queue? Was it before The Luminous Dead, after, or somewhere in between?
After The Luminous Dead, but before I ever had an agent. I queried TLD for a little over a year, and in the middle of that, I wrote Jane in an attempt to keep moving forward. I actually wound up loving Jane even more than I loved TLD and was looking forward to starting to query it right around the time I finally got my offer of representation.
(It then turned out that Jane needed a lot of revisions to get it from pretty good to great. That was a shock.)
Is there anything you know now that you would want to tell Past!Caitlin either about this work or your journey so far?
The weirder you get, the more people like it. Seriously. Stop trying to make things “normal”.
What are you working on now?
The book I wrote a first draft of last winter, affectionately called “fucky bees book” on Twitter, is currently marinating. In the meantime, I’ve started another novel, this one more contemporary in setting, but I can’t tell very much about it yet! It’s early days. There is some malevolent architecture, though…
What are some books that you’re reading or looking forward to others reading?
I just finished The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon and it is everything I’ve ever wanted in a cult book. (Real-world type cults, to be clear; spooky horror cults are a different beast.) I also read Freshwater by Akaweke Emezi a little bit ago, and it blew my mind in the best way. Both are great audiobooks, too, if that’s your thing.
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.
Photo credit: Beth Olson Creative 2017