About The Author
Katy Darby studied English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford and took her MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she received the David Higham Award. She currently lives in London.
Her fiction has been read on BBC Radio and she has published stories in magazines including Slice, Mslexia and The London Magazine, as well as winning prizes in several international fiction competitions.
She teaches Short Story Writing and Towards Publication at City University, was until recently editor of the short story magazine Litro and co-runs the monthly live fiction event Liars' League.
Set in the 50th year of Queen Victoria's reign, her debut novel, The Whores' Asylum, sees a brilliant young medical student, Stephen Chapman, venture into Oxford's most disreputable locale, a place haunted by drunkards, thieves and prostitutes.
His best friend has misgivings about his decision to volunteer at a shelter for fallen women, but even he does not foresee the macabre and violent events that will unfold around them. As one woman threatens to destroy their friendship, Katy Darby unfolds a thrilling gothic tale of friendship and desire that drags the reader headlong towards its shocking conclusion.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Katy talks about the social obstacles faced by intelligent women in the Victorian era, the enduring influence of Conan Doyle and keeping a place in our culture for short stories.
Questions & Answers
Do you see The Whores' Asylum as a subversion of the gothic novel, or an affectionate homage to it?
A bit of both, really - I love the visceral thrill of reading gothic and sensation fiction from any century, but I also know that readers are aware of the conventions and enjoy seeing certain tropes subverted as well as used in a straightforward way. The challenge is taking certain characters and situations (e.g. the whore with a heart of gold, the femme fatale, the wicked, dissolute aristocrat and especially the imprisonment section) and making them credible and fresh within the world of the novel. That's one of the reasons I give each of the major characters their own narrative; that way we see them from the inside as well through the other characters' eyes, and understand their actions and motives anew.
What appeal does the gothic genre hold for you as a writer?
Enormous appeal! Both reading and writing in the genre is a (slightly guilty) pleasure which never stales. I first encountered Jane Eyre, which made a deep impression on me, when I was about 13, and that's as gothic as you like: a lonely house, a master with a mysterious past and a madwoman in the attic. I then read Wuthering Heightsand Gormenghast immediately afterwards, which pretty much sealed the deal. I respond to passion and drama in fiction, and love reading books which are larger than life and unashamed to tackle the big stuff ... remorse and revenge, love and death, guilt and betrayal, sacrifice and murder - bring it on! I think I particularly like what you might call "gothic" fiction because it's rarely dull: The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, is page-turning, breath-taking and heart-rending all at once.
The books I turn to as "comfort reading" are mostly Victorian novels - Vanity Fair, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, etc. - so I decided to write a novel which I, as a reader, would pick up in a bookshop. What's so great about writing in this genre is that you can take wonderfully (melo)dramatic situations and extreme characters, and put them in a context which makes the wild stuff seem natural - if not normal. If I'd tried to set The Whores' Asylum, with its caged woman, masked orgies, duels and dancing bear, in the modern-day, it would be just too weird and unbelievable.
Do you count any particular writers or novels as inspirations for your novel?
Wilkie Collins did inspiring and innovative things with structure and point of view (The Moonstone) as well as creating fascinating, three-dimensional women (Marianne in The Woman in White). Nobody who writes anything set in the 1880s can ignore the enduring influence of Conan Doyle, who invented lasting, iconic characters as well as ingenious mysteries. In terms of modern historical fiction, Sarah Waters is superb on atmosphere, voice and plotting, especially in Affinity, and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White - which I've finally allowed myself to read - is a strange and surprising masterpiece, incredibly evocative and minutely detailed, with two of the most compelling characters (Sugar - another prostitute - and her lover William Rackham) I've encountered in any genre.
The book has a relatively complex non-linear structure, with layers of the story gradually unfolding. Did this make writing the book a similarly complex process?
I think writing any book, however apparently straightforward, is a complex process ... but basically, yes. Anna's prison experience was originally told to Stephen, who then recounts it in his letter to Edward, but that was just a credibility step too far, and quite rightly I was advised to change this. Like many nineteenth-century novels (e.g. Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights) The Whores' Asylum has a sort of Russian-doll "nested" narrative structure, where you find stories within stories (this is also something Conan Doyle did a lot in the Sherlock Holmes novels). I wrote it first in the order in which the story occurred to me, and then rearranged it into a more logical sequence - hopefully this makes it relatively easy to follow. I spent a long time trying to work out where to put what in the final version; rather like fitting all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together so that the full picture slowly emerges.
As the story unfolds, a reversal takes place in perceptions of Anna, both on the part of your protagonist and on the part of the reader. Did you originally conceive of Anna as a sympathetic character or did your opinion of her undergo a similar reversal?
I always knew she was being maligned by Edward - he has his own reasons for hating her and so we can't really trust his opinion - but the question you have to ask from the beginning is whether Stephen would have fallen in love with someone who is all bad? I certainly didn't intend her to be the villain of the piece. However, although I knew her "origin story" from the start, in the first draft she didn't get to tell her side of things, which was a big problem that was instantly picked up on (I'd hoped I'd get away with it - nope!) I was a bit apprehensive about writing in her voice at first, because I wasn't sure if I could make her sympathetic, but as soon as I started I got right into it. Anna deserves a chance to answer back!
It's hard to write a Victorian female character who doesn't either fall into stereotype or display an uncomfortable proto-feminism at odds with the times - and who knows if I've done it here - but there's no doubt many women in the nineteenth century were very frustrated at the inequality of the sexes, and the lack of female freedoms (Jane Eyre again). After all, what intelligent woman wouldn't chafe at being made a pariah because of behaviour that would be forgiven - even applauded - in a man? The other thing about Anna is that learning her history is one of the catalysts for Edward's change of heart. He's humbled and chastened when he understands what she's been through, and he becomes more compassionate and forgiving because he finally grows to understand that this woman he has feared and loathed from afar is only human - flawed and fallible, admittedly, but human - just like him.
Contemporary Jericho, a suburb of Oxford, has undergone a recent gentrification, from run-down and seedy to quirkily bohemian. Did you draw on your own time at Oxford for some of the book's inspiration and atmosphere or rely more on historical depictions of it?
I had the huge advantage that in terms of layout, Jericho and Oxford have barely changed since Victorian times, so I drew heavily on my five years of studying and living in Oxford, and on historical descriptions and my imagination for the rest of it. I certainly read a lot of Victorian literature while writing the book, in order to capture the voice and flavour of the period, but nearly all of it was set in London.
However, I have a very good friend who lives in Jericho, and I visited her as often as I could - she'd written for the local paper, the Jericho Times, and originally alerted me to the fact that it used to be the city's red-light district. The seedy pub in the book (The Ox's Head) is made up, but Edward and Stephen's local (The Harcourt Arms) really exists. The Tolling Bell, scene of the John Wilmot Club orgy, is invented, but sits quite near the Old Tom pub, which is where I used to mark papers with a glass of wine when I was teaching a summer school at Pembroke College.
You also heavily involved in the promotion of literature, as in your former role as editor of Litro and as one of the organisers of monthly live fiction event, Liars' League. Do you feel optimistic about the future of quality fiction?
Yes, I do, but I think opportunities for short story writers (both Litro and Liars' League are short story-focused) are shifting slowly from the page to the stage - and online. Print's expensive and slow, but all the web's a stage; and people really enjoy seeing writers and actors performing fiction, just as much as they do curling up with a book on their own. That's why at Liars' League, as well as doing live events, we video the story readings and put them on YouTube so anyone from around the world can watch them.
Short stories are often seen as a niche area of fiction - and also as inherently "literary" (which for many publishers equates to "non-commercial") and that's why it's still nigh-on impossible to sell a collection of short stories to a publisher (noble exceptions like Salt and Faber aside) without a novel to precede it. Yet at the same time, there are live story events springing up all over the place and proving very popular, which shows there's a demand for the form. Live readings provide an outlet and enormous encouragement for writers, because they can actually see their stories working in front of an audience, and get instant feedback on what works and what doesn't. In many ways, I think the current upsurge in fiction events continues a tradition begun back in the 1850s by Dickens himself - his readings of his own work were legendary, and massively popular.
Can you tell us anything about what you're writing at the moment?
Well, right now I'm writing the book and lyrics for a musical adaptation of The Lost Stradivarius, a novella by J Meade Falkner, who wrote Moonfleet. It's a Victorian ghost story, so it's right up my street and the theatre's Artistic Director, Gene David Kirk, plans to direct it this Christmas - the traditional time for spooky tales.
The new novel I'm working on at the moment also stays in the era, but includes elements of a murder mystery: it's set in the early 1860s, and is the story of a housemaid accused of killing her mistress. The action moves from Kentish Town (where I used to live) to Newgate Prison, so I'm having a great time reading and writing about Victorian London - which is visited comparatively briefly in The Whores' Asylum. I've just completed a scene in an opium den which was enormous fun to write, and it'll be online at the UEA creative writing website www.newwriting.net in early February, if anyone fancies a sneak preview of the next book....