A lot can be said about secretive, controlling men — none of it good. Well, one of it good: it can inspire authors to write something interesting. Which brings me to writer Caitlin Starling and her new Gothic horror tale about a secretive, controlling man: The Death Of Jane Lawrence (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Starling discusses what inspired and influenced this scary story. But don’t worry, it’s not bad.
Photo Credit: Beth Olson Creative
To start, what is The Death Of Jane Lawrence about, and when and where does it take place?
Jane is a war orphan in a mishmash of late Victorian and post WWII England who, rather than continue relying on her guardians, chooses to make a marriage of convenience to a local doctor. His only rule is that she can never visit his crumbling ancestral home, while he returns there every night — which is fine, because they’re not in love. Until they are, and she ends up at Lindridge Hall anyway, and oops, it’s haunted.
And then stuff gets really weird. Ritual magic, anyone? Cocaine? Calculus?
Where did you get the idea for The Death Of Jane Lawrence?
A combo of seeing Crimson Peak in theaters, growing up obsessed with Jane Eyre, and consuming every bit of medical esoterica I could for 2+ decades. Did you know the Discovery Health channel used to air surgery footage pretty much all day long? That was formative.
Weird. So, how often have your friends been like, “Wait, why are you killing Jennifer Lawrence? I like Jennifer Lawrence, she’s funny, and she was really good in Silver Linings Playbook“?
Ha! Never! Though if you google the title, it does bring up the obituary of an actress actually named Jane Lawrence.
It sounds like The Death Of Jane Lawrence is a Gothic horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Oh, it is extremely, 100% Gothic horror, from top to bottom. Though I suppose you could also partially call it occult horror? Maybe? Whatever A Dark Song is, anyway.
The Death Of Jane Lawrence is your second novel and fourth book overall. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on The Death Of Jane Lawrence but not on anything else you’ve written?
Does nonfiction count?
I’ll allow it.
I first read Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife sometime in high school (my grandfather gave me a copy), and it stuck with me. At some point in the early stages of developing The Death Of Jane Lawrence, as I was working on the mathematical side of both Jane’s character and the larger world-building, I remembered it, reread it, highlighted about half of it…a lot of Jane’s understanding of magic is through the concepts introduced to me by that book.
And how about non-literary influences; was The Death Of Jane Lawrence influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Crimson Peak and Discovery Health’s early 2000s offerings, as mentioned, but also Call The Midwife, A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and a little bit of Penny Dreadful for ambience. I saw A Dark Song fairly late in the writing process, but it helped me untangle some of the metaphysical aspects of the story, as did a few episodes of The Last Podcast On The Left.
The Death Of Jane Lawrence seems like it might be a stand-alone story. But scary stories can, of course, be part of larger sagas. Is The Death Of Jane Lawrence a one-and-done kind of thing or the first book of many?
It stands alone for now, but I know exactly what would happen in a sequel. Sequels, however, are business decisions more than creative ones. If that sequel ever happens, that will be the end of it, though — it will take Jane from where she ends up at the end of Death and make her confront some lingering questions and implications she otherwise tried to neatly put away.
Now, along with The Death Of Jane Lawrence, you also recently put out two novellas: The Land Of Milk And Honey, which is part of a collection called Vampire: The Masquerade: Walk Among Us, and a stand-alone one called Yellow Jessamine. People can read the previous interviews we did about them [here and here], but for people allergic to hyperlinks, what are they about?
The Land Of Milk And Honey is about a totally normal arts and farming commune up in north Portland, Oregon, and the manager of that commune’s day to day life over one totally normal winter. She cans soup, takes care of some sheep, meets a girl, makes terrible decisions because of said girl, and — oh, right, she’s also managing a farm-to-table blood supply for other vampires like herself.
Yellow Jessamine is a Gothic horror novella, in which Evelyn, a noblewoman and head of a merchant empire, is trapped in a blockaded and slowly dying city. She has a bad habit of poisoning people around her and, when one of her ships gets through the blockade only to unleash a strange, spreading illness into the city that makes whoever contracts it obsessed with her, suspicion as to her loyalties only increases. The houseguest she has locked in a hidden room only makes things worse.
How do you think writing them so close together influenced what you did in each?
I wrote Jane Lawrence in late 2016 (for the first draft), then Yellow Jessamine in early 2018, and The Land Of Milk And Honeyin late 2019, which means they came out in the reverse order that I wrote them. (Publishing is weird sometimes.) There was enough time in between them that I don’t think they influenced each other more than just general writing skill development (and, notably, Jane went through multiple revisions from late 2016 to earlier this year when I put the final touches on the last draft, so it both informed and benefited from both novellas in that regard).
There is one direct bit of influence, though: Jane Lawrence originally had a greenhouse / conservatory, and the weather was a lot rainier. As I wrote Yellow Jessamine, though, I decided the rain suited the novella better, and given Evelyn’s character, she needed the greenhouse more than Jane did. So now The Death Of Jane Lawrence has only a few thunderstorms and a glass-roofed library, instead.
And do you have any other books coming out soon? Because three in the span of a year is just lazy (says the guy who hasn’t written any and got up at 10 this morning).
It’s not quite in one year, if only because The Land Of Milk And Honey came out in audio in spring 2020 originally. But no, after Jane I don’t have anything scheduled. (Yet.)
Earlier I asked if The Death Of Jane Lawrence had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Death Of Jane Lawrence could work as a movie, show, or game?
Probably a movie? Possibly as a short miniseries, since there are a few “phases” the story goes through, and that would let you have more time to get into Jane’s mindset. But I think it’s too interior to work well as a game, and too limited in scope to fill a full TV series.
And if someone wanted to make The Death Of Jane Lawrence into a movie or show, who would you want them to cast as Jane and Augustine?
Jane has always been [Game Of Thrones‘] Gwendoline Christie in my head, from the very start. She definitely has enough gravitas to pull off a largely-solo film like Jane would have to be.
Augustine is harder — nobody has ever quite worked for all aspects of him, but the closest I’ve gotten is Hugh Dancy (particularly as Mortimer in Hysteria). I think Hugh Dancy could also handle Augustine’s unique blend of arrogance and vulnerability.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Death Of Jane Lawrence, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Probably Yellow Jessamine. While both Yellow Jessamine and The Luminous Dead deal with paranoia, claustrophobia, and secrets, Yellow Jessamine is a closer tonal match to The Death Of Jane Lawrence. It’s semi-historical, filled with gendered expectations of “reasonable” behavior, focusing on women who are committed to getting that they want.
Though if The Death of Jane Lawrence left you wanting our heroine yelling at her partner-of-convenience more often, The Luminous Dead has that and sci-fi action! There’s even an argument to be made that The Luminous Dead is also a Gothic novel, just with a cave in place of a mansion. There are still secrets everywhere, and death is a constant presence…