"One star. Turgid," Stuart Turton pretended to read from the back of his debut novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as he and fellow author Laura Purcell settled down in front of the audience. Fortunately, this evening discussing Gothic fiction was anything but. Over the course of an hour, we heard a reading both from The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and from Purcell's latest novel The Corset, a dark tale of murder and (perhaps) magic, before delving into questions about writing, characters, and how you become a Gothic author.
I'd read a little of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle before the event, but wasn't familiar with Purcell's work. It was fascinating to hear about how two authors working in the same genre, with similar processes (they're both meticulous planners), can end up writing such different contributions to the Gothic canon. Turton's novel is a time-travelling, Groundhog-Day-meets-Quantum-Leap story. The hero lives the same day, the day of Evelyn Hardcastle's murder, seven times over, each time inside the body of a different guest at the deliberately Agatha Christie-style country house. In Purcell's novel, time moves forward at its normal pace and the characters remain themselves, but there's a thread of magic and madness running through the story; it centres around a Victorian seamstress who is accused of murder, and who claims she committed the crime by sewing a curse into the titular corset.
I always love hearing about authors' writing processes, and finding out how Turton and Purcell dealt with time-travel, unreliable narrators, and working in the reveals that both resolved and heightened the mysteries of their novels was fascinating. Turton's revelation that he had a plan detailing every characters' movements for every two minutes of the day that Evelyn Hardcastle dies was astonishing, and there was a collective wince from the audience when he revealed that, after writing himself into a corner, he had to throw away 40,000 words - three months' work. When talking about unreliable narrators, Purcell told us that "I don't really know what's real and what isn't when I'm writing", making the reveals just as exciting to her as they are to the reader.
The conversation turned to research, which got some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Purcell had done extensive research into sewing and period clothing, and had even learned how to sew an authentic corset, but she'd also discovered that Victorians wore fake bottoms made out of cork - something she'd included in a scene that she'd sadly had to cut. We also got into a discussion of the male and female perspectives used in the stories, which broadened out into a discussion of common problems with female characters written by male authors.
Audience questions rounded off the evening, and unlike a few other author events I've been to, there were no "This is actually more of a statement than a question"s - instead, Purcell and Turton answered queries on the audiobook versions of their stories, how they made sure they didn't give too few or too many clues, and their opinions on the writing advice 'kill your darlings'. The atmosphere was as friendly and informal here as it had been throughout; both Turton and Purcell were engaging, approachable and very funny, and, as someone who'd only read part of one novel and none of the other, I appreciated the diligent avoidance of spoilers from everyone in the room. I left the event ready to dive back into The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and The Corset is next on my reading list.