Having already given us a scary sci-fi story in her novel The Luminous Dead, writer Caitlin Starling is going in an absolutely, completely different direction with her scary Gothic tragedy novella Yellow Jessamine (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview about it, she not only discusses what inspired and influenced this dark tale, but she also discusses her recently released audio-first novella Land Of Milk And Honey, which is part of the Vampire: The Masquerade: Walk Among Us collection, and her upcoming second novel, tentatively titled The Death Of Jane Lawrence.
Photo Credit: Beth Olson Creative
Let’s start with Yellow Jessamine. What is it about, and when and where is it set?
Yellow Jessamine is about a noblewoman and shipping magnate named Evelyn whose city is slowly dying under a military blockade while she tries to manage her company, her household, and her network of secrets. Oh, and keep her garden weeded. There’s poison, paranoia, a spreading plague — all delightfully, decrepitly gothic.
It’s recognizable as roughly the 1700s, technology-wise, but with a few changes here and there, and set in a secondary world with its own politics and problems. And I played a little fast and loose with the fashion; Evelyn looks very much like she’s in Victorian mourning, which is of course very temporally specific in the real world.
Where did you get the idea for Yellow Jessamine and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I came up with the basics of Evelyn’s character around fifteen years ago. She’s the product of an angsty teenager who loved lace and reading about gross stuff like poisons. But she’s stuck around, and I always wondered if I could write a story about her and have it come off as, well, not adolescent. I’ve explored a few different plotlines and none quite worked, until I decided I wanted to write a novella. I approached it from a very structured place — took my normal word count per chapter, divided my target word count by that, sorted the resulting number of chapters into Acts — and then just started playing. I built the outline completely out of order, just adding things where I had ideas, then figuring out what needed to happen in the resulting gaps. It was like solving a jigsaw puzzle.
It sounds like Yellow Jessamine is a horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Horror works well. You could also call it a gothic tragedy. We’re watching the fall of a powerful but deeply flawed woman, and seeing multiple chances she has to make different choices and save herself, but isn’t able to, due to her own shortcomings. Her actions have created the world she’s in, and impact everybody around her, but she’s also still (hopefully) sympathetic.
And then there are the monsters.
Yellow Jessamine is your second book after The Luminous Dead. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Yellow Jessamine but not on The Luminous Dead? Or anything else you’ve written, for that matter?
I’d definitely started reading more current SFFH by the time I wrote Yellow Jessamine. White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi comes to mind, as does Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, though I can’t say for certain they’re huge influences (it all blurs together). I was actively reading The Haunting Of Hill House while drafting Yellow Jessamine, so that’s probably a big one, too.
Since then, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction books about nature, plants, bees, etc. So edits and writing since that started are getting richer, more nerdy descriptions on that front.
What about non-literary influences; was Yellow Jessamine influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
A very small amount by the aesthetics of Penny Dreadful, I think. Black floral lace is also very pretty, and botanical poisons are fascinating. I’m sure that there were more influences, back when I was a teenager dreaming her up, but I can’t put my finger on any of them.
Now, in the previous interview we did about The Luminous Dead [which you can read here], we discussed how your degree in Anthropology influenced that story. Did it also influence Yellow Jessamine in any significant ways?
Yes and no. It always influences my world-building in subtle ways, and in Yellow Jessamine, there’s a particular detail regarding the military defectors that comes out of larger tattooing traditions in the world. But this is a pretty small-scale story, and I kept the world-building fairly simple, so I wouldn’t say there are any significant impacts.
As you know, horror stories are often stand-alone tales. But sometimes they’re parts of larger sagas. What is Yellow Jessamine?
This one’s another stand-alone. After all, it’s a tragedy. (I know what would happen after, but it’s so different that I think it’ll stay in the realm of fan-fiction.) I do really like the world it’s in, though, so maybe one day I’ll have another idea for the same setting…
Now, along with Yellow Jessamine you also have a novel coming out next year, which is tentatively tilted The Death Of Jane Lawrence. What is that book about, and where is it set? And do you know when it will be out other than 2021?
I believe we’re aiming for fall 2021, since it’s another spooktacular book. The Death Of Jane Lawrence is about a young woman who decides she needs to be married, picks a doctor for a husband who she thinks will leave her alone to go about her life, falls in love with him anyway, and then realizes his house is full of terrible secrets. Very traditional gothic set up. Except then it veers wildly off-track into ritual magic, madness, and drugs.
It’s set a little later, tech-wise, than Yellow Jessamine — more like 1800s. Gaslights, heroic surgery, carriages, the fading away of a religious understanding of the chaos of the world.
Is it safe to assume you wrote Yellow Jessamine and The Death Of Jane Lawrence either around the same time or back-to-back?
I wrote Jane Lawrence in the winter of 2016 (followed by many years of edits) and Yellow Jessamine in the winter of 2018, so technically a fair bit apart. Still, they were my first two projects post The Luminous Dead, so in a way they’re also back to back — and the writing timescale is long.
How did writing Yellow Jessamine influence The Death Of Jane Lawrence, and vice versa?
Writing them around the same time meant I made changes to each to make sure they were distinct from one another, not necessarily in plot (that was always notably different), but in writing style and detail. For instance, Jane Lawrence originally had a glass conservatory filled with plants. But then Yellow Jessamine‘s plot hinged on a greenhouse, so I swapped Jane Lawrence‘s setting to have a glass-enclosed third-floor library, plant-free.
All of my work, The Luminous Dead included, deals a lot with isolation, perception of reality, paranoia, and death. Often ghosts, too, or ghost-like creatures. So when working on all three, I was always making sure that they said at least slightly different things, or came at similar concepts from different angles. It’s been tough.
Also, is The Death Of Jane Lawrence the book The Calculus Of Grief that you mentioned in our previous interview?
It is! While we all still loved The Calculus Of Grief as a title, we like The Death Of Jane Lawrence even more. It’s been through many, many revisions at this point, too, to the point where I’m amazed how far it’s come. That original draft in 2016 was good, but this version we’re finalizing now? It’s great.
Along with Yellow Jessamine and The Death Of Jane Lawrence, you also had an audiobook novella called Land Of Milk And Honey come out June 16. What is that about?
Land Of Milk And Honey is a part of the audio-first collection Vampire: The Masquerade: Walk Among Us. It’s set in contemporary Portland, Oregon, on an arts and social services farm commune up near the Portland airport. The book follows one winter in the life of the commune’s community manager, Leigh, who spends her time tending to the sheep, making meals for commune members, and resolving disputes between neighbors. Then she falls for a new member, Robin, and things quickly unravel — because Robin wouldn’t like it if she knew why she never sees Leigh during the day, or the real reason behind members’ frequent blood donations, or what exactly buying a share in a sheep’s life means to the commune’s customers.
Leigh’s a vampire. Obviously.
It’s a mix of Caroline Kepnes’ You and a farming memoir. Obsession, manipulation, and how to butcher a sheep — the combination you never knew you wanted.
And just to confirm, this is connected to the Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop game, not the video game, right?
Both! This collection is tied to both the video game and the newest edition of the tabletop books. What happens in the novella is considered canon, but it’s in no way a novelization of the video game. It’s a wholly original story.
One of the interesting things about Land Of Milk And Honey is that it’s actually one of three Vampire: The Masquerade audiobook novellas coming out that day. There’s also Cassandra Khaw’s Fine Print and A Sheep Among Wolves by Genevieve Gornichec. Does your novella connect to the other two? Maybe form a trilogy?
They’re all independent, aside from the fact that they take place roughly simultaneously, in different parts of the world. All three will be released as one audiobook, instead of as individual audiobooks under a series heading.
So did you coordinate with the other two authors at all?
We weren’t in direct contact while writing, since the novellas are part of the same world (i.e., we all had access to the same source materials), but not part of the same contiguous story. That, and the work of the Voyager team and Paradox in shaping our pitches, has made sure our works are all distinct. Each of the novellas in the collection has a different flavor and view on the setting.
And for people who like to read, these novellas have been called “audio-first.” Does that mean print editions will be second?
There will be a collected print edition (as well as a collected eBook)! We don’t have a specific date yet, but the current plan is for May or June 2021.
Cool. Going back to Yellow Jessamine, one of the interesting things you’re doing to promote it is that your website has a section called “Yellow Jessamine KAL.” What is that?
It’s a knit-a-long, which is a thing knitters (and crocheters, though they call it a CAL) do when they all want to work on a project together. It can be organized by a pattern maker, a dyer, or any group of knitters, and it’s a nice way to keep the hype going on long and intricate projects.
You do realize that it’s kind of hard to read and knit at the same time, right?
I can do it.
No, really! I can. But only if it’s stockinette or garter (the most basic stitches) and I’m reading on my computer screen.
Also, luckily (?) the novella won’t be out until the end of the KAL, so the knitting shouldn’t delay any reading of my book!
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that influenced Yellow Jessamine. But has there been any interesting in making Yellow Jessamine into a movie, show, or game?
Not yet, but my film agent has a copy, and I’ve got high hopes…
Do you have a preference?
Movie or limited series for sure, given how contained it is. It has that same cinematic feel that The Luminous Dead had, with an added dose of lush scenery and costuming, and I’m a sucker for a foreboding house on the hill.
If that happened, who would you want them to cast as the main characters and why them?
Mia Wasikowska is very close to my mental image of Violetta, which of course makes me think of Crimson Peak [which Wasikowska starred in]. Jessica Chastain [also from Crimson Peak] would make a great Evelyn, or somebody like Rose Byrne [Spy]. I’d almost say Eva Green [Penny Dreadful], but she’s a little too smolder for me to read her as very paranoid and withdrawn.
Finally, if someone enjoys Yellow Jessamine what similar-ish horror story of someone else’s would you suggest they check out and why that?
Outside the written, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is a very atmospheric movie — not for everybody, it can be quite slow — but I enjoyed it. And, of course, Crimson Peak.