Ten to One is an occasional series of interviews with writers, artists and other creative types. Today I’m speaking with Jude Starling, author of Goldcord Asylum, a novel exploring the secret world of the Victorian lunatic asylum. (You can read my review over here.)
Hi Jude, and welcome. Can you tell me a little about your life and work?
I’m a historical novelist, editor and proofreader from Lancashire, although I’m somewhat besotted with Edinburgh, albeit in a long-distance relationship with the city at this point. I’m slightly obsessed with stationery, collect tattoos and may be keeping Starbucks in soya milk.
My new novel is Goldcord Asylum, which is currently available as a paperback from Amazon and in ebook form from Kindle and Smashwords (more ebook retailers to follow soon), and the blurb is as follows:
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?
Which writers, and books, do you count among your literary influences?
I have a great deal of time for Thomas Hardy: his attitudes to things like sex, religion, animal welfare and the role of women were admirably modern, and he was merciless in shoving the harsh consequences of the values of his day into people’s faces. I think Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a brilliant example of the sort of thing Victorian novelists might have written without the level of censorship there was at that time, and Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin is a real page-turner of a historical novel: the first time I read it, I did so in a day because I couldn’t put it down.
You have described the Victorian era as your ‘passion’. Can you explain why?
To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, [repressed] sex, death and religion in an interesting, nighttime telly type of way. I don’t think it’s always easy to explain why one gravitates towards certain things, but as far as I can objectively analyse the matter, I think it’s the juxtaposition of great change (so much was developing in the 19th century, and at a relatively rapid pace) and the curious psychology of the period.
The people of the 19th century achieved so much and we owe them a great deal for so many of the things which today play an everyday role in our lives (disinfectants; industry; the modern computer which can be traced back to Charles Babbage’s work), and yet of course in many respects their attitudes were what we would now think of as backward: think of the treatment Tess Durbeyfield gets for being a single mother, the proliferation of sweatshops, or the workhouses which were not even incidentally unpleasant – like prisons, they were designed to be so in order to discourage people from reaching that point, thus effectively equating poverty with criminality.
Life was cheap (hazardous working conditions, high childhood mortality rates, the likelihood of women dying in childbirth which dwarfed today’s figures), and death was a growth industry, with overt displays of grief practically a social requirement among the middle and upper classes: many people would have more fuss made of them and money spent on them at their deaths than at birth or on birthdays or weddings, and indeed one of the reasons for the practice of photographing the dead bodies of relatives for the family album was that the individual might not have had their portrait taken until their death pressed the issue.
And looming over it all, a great deal of veneration of (or lip service to, depending on your perspective) a wandering philosopher who advocated charity, reservation of judgement and sympathy for the poor. There’s a lot of conflict there for a novelist to explore!
What inspired you to write about mental illness in Goldcord Asylum, and how did you go about researching the subject?
Partly my own experiences of Asperger’s Syndrome, the condition I share with the novel’s central protagonist Ivy Squire (AS people are significantly more likely than the general population to suffer from anxiety and depression), and also the misconceptions many people have now about the ‘lunatic asylums’ of the period: ask people to describe an old asylum and they’re likely to talk about patients in chains and/or straitjackets being kept in dungeons and available as entertainment for the paying public, but certainly by the 1860s in which my story is set that vision would be outdated and viewed as barbaric even by mid-Victorian standards.
Asylums at the time of Goldcord Asylum were far from perfect (indeed, their flaws are a large part of the story), but we didn’t jump straight from ‘Bedlam’ to our present incarnation of psychiatry and I wanted to explore one of the phases in between.
What do you consider to be the other main themes of the novel?
Many of them stem from the challenges Ivy faces (what is ‘normal’; perceived gender roles; outsiders), but there’s a lot in there about professional ethics too: I doubt that someone like Eugenie Harvey, Goldcord’s resident matron, would ever be the subject of a disciplinary now as her code of conduct seems to be based almost entirely on following orders and not questioning the motives behind those orders, but that approach, while certainly a good one to take if you want to avoid friction at work, is hardly a blueprint for an ethical working life, especially if your work is with the vulnerable.
Enoch Gale’s decline was something I was interested to examine as he didn’t start out that way, but clearly by the time of the story’s setting he’s reprehensible, and does (and has done) some utterly inexcusable things. Whatever was once progressive and conscientious within him has been eroded, but for some time his former reputation protects him as it takes a while for anyone to scrutinise or challenge his current practices.
I think there’s something to be said for darkness in fiction; that happy endings aren’t the only way to make a point, and in the case of Goldcord Asylum I wanted to show how terrible the story of someone like Ivy could be without any degree of understanding or tolerance.
How did you bring together, and balance, the perspectives of different characters?
To begin with it was really tough. I always knew that Ivy would have the greatest ‘voice’ in the book, but when I started out trying to write chronologically, cutting between all five protagonists as their respective chapters and scenes came, it was like swimming through treacle even though I knew the story from beginning to end and had everything plotted out in my diary.
Then I decided to try writing Ivy’s material from beginning to end, without breaking to turn my attention to anyone else – I didn’t even separate Ivy’s stuff into chapters. Then when I’d finished and had one great mega-chapter for Ivy, I went through and chopped it up at appropriate intervals, then turned my attention to writing everyone else’s scenes. Nobody else minded being interrupted, but apparently Ivy did!
Goldcord Asylum is set in your native Lancashire. Is a sense of place important in your writing?
Yes and no. On the one hand I wouldn’t say that it’s in my mission statement to write about the county (not least because I don’t actually have a mission statement), and indeed the novel I’ll be releasing next is set in a number of different places all around mainland UK (and, in a couple of chapters, France), but then I find it strange that so much British-set fiction is set in London, and I do think it’s valuable to have representations of other parts of the country.
I suppose what I’m saying is that I don’t find it especially important in itself, but because there is so much focus on London and the south I can see how that aspect of my work distinguishes itself somewhat, and it’s a distinction I’m happy to display.
How do you sustain your enthusiasm and focus for writing over long periods of time?
I get this question a lot as a self-employed writer and editor and my honest answer is that it’s never been a problem for me. I’m naturally pretty disciplined and focused so I don’t find myself putting on DVDs when I’m supposed to be working, and as far as my own writing goes I only write about subjects I’m passionate about and intrigued by, so that holds my attention.
Which ways of promoting your work do you find most effective?
I don’t have a great deal of experience so it’s hard to say for certain, but I think that as online bookselling becomes ever more powerful, so too will online means of promotion.
I also think there’s a lot of potential in postcards printed with the book’s cover art on one side and the blurb on the other, as they can be handed out to people who ask about your work and aren’t as easily lost as scraps of paper with the title written on them. Plus, they double as bookmarks for those who read paper books!
What are you working on now, and are any further publications on the way?
The next book I publish will be The Right of the Subjects, which follows a teenage weaver through her involvement with the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage during their most tumultuous years from 1906 to the start of World War I and is set for release in early January 2014.
My current work in progress is another Victorian-set novel (it may also have a contemporary storyline; I haven’t quite decided yet) which is very dark and focuses on an illicit relationship that turns deadly.
Highlights of Jude’s blog tour include an interview with Laura Wilkinson, a guest post for Melanie Clegg (aka Madame Guillotine) on the historical background; and a research-friendly booklist at Goodreads.