Caitlin Starling is joining us today to talk about her novel, Yellow Jessamine. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In Yellow Jessamine, shipping magnate Evelyn Perdanu controls the dying city of Delphinium with trade deals and secrets. But when mysterious sickness sparks death and obsession, all leading back to her, Evelyn’s brittle existence is strained to breaking. She retreats to her estate, amidst paranoia and poisonous secrets, intent on rooting out this plague before it destroys everything she has built.
What’s Caitlin’s favorite bit?
Evelyn looked over the array of unlabeled jars and boxes that she had accumulated over the years, organized according to a specific pattern held only in her mind. Goldenrod to slow bleeding, willow bark to dull the pain, ginger to push off infection. She was no doctor, but she was skilled enough to nurse a man back to health.
Or put a man in the ground.
Poisons lined her shelves, white bryony and belladonna, oleander and aconite. Some a magistrate would recognize by name, but many were more esoteric, like the bottle of gelsemium tincture, its stopper crusted over in the decade since she’d used it last. She’d tended the plant, harvested the root, powdered it and infused it into clear grain alcohol obtained from a chemist ostensibly for the extension of an old bottle of perfume from her childhood. Mixed into a glass of spirits, the clear poison was all but tasteless and took hours to strike. Two, four, as many as eight hours after ingestion, breathing would become difficult, the lungs begin to slow and fail. The body would become cold, the heartbeat rapid and feeble. Eventually, inevitably, death would follow.
Gelsemium killed without pageantry. There was only a quiet death in the middle of the night, and in the morning, a body born out of the house to the tower mausoleums, built above ground so that the drowning floods could not reach the bodies inside.
Her father had been first.
Chapter 4 of Yellow Jessamine, as well as being an unnervingly detailed list of all the poisons our protagonist Evelyn keeps on hand, is also a recitation of her sins. Evelyn is not a good woman; she has murdered and manipulated her way to the top of a very unpleasant heap, one of the richest merchants left in a dying empire. She is emotionally closed off, bitter and misanthropic. She hates every person in the world (herself included), except, perhaps, for two people: her long-dead mother, and her erstwhile assistant, Violetta.
She’s also a character I invented when I was about fourteen years old.
Read that description again, this time looking for the teenage angst, the goth kid penchant for drama, amplified scraps of my adolescent ennui and rage.
I first designed Evelyn as a role-playing character, and I struggled to fit her into setting after setting. She was too overwhelming, and too static. She was more set-piece than protagonist, or even villain. I have several scraps of story attempts featuring her, Penny Dreadful-esque monster-hunting romps that never quite congealed. I cosplayed as her, drew her over and over again, even customized a ball-jointed doll to look like her, and then, finally, stuffed her in a trunk and forgot about her.
After I sold The Luminous Dead, I had some free time. Not enough to write a full-length book, but what about a novella? Another try at horror, this time in a broader world, something with a different texture. I took her out, dusted her off, and with the benefit of a few more years under my belt and a whole paranoid, atmospheric horror novel about to go to press, I finally figured out what she needed.
She needed a gnarled, gothic tragedy of a story. I had to let her be the set-piece: the plot, the genre, all of it.
There were times (in writing the first draft, in editing, in sending it to publishers) that I felt raw and exposed. Embarrassed. I was sure any reader would be able to see teenage-me coming through my ostensibly professional image, and that they’d not only be disinterested – that they’d laugh. Or be disgusted.
I’d comfort myself with the changes I’d made: At least my language is more restrained. At least she doesn’t play angry violin solos when she’s upset (though if she did, it would sound like this*). At least I’ve confined her self-loathing to a few particular scenes where they do actual work.
At least I’ve given her an actual plot to deal with – one that is about her, that punishes her, that is all her fault.
I still felt like a fraud; I’d written this lovely little book, this terrible little tale, and it was all about a character I’d made up as a kid.
But as I was writing Evelyn, I was also writing Violetta, her erstwhile assistant who would scorch the earth to keep her safe. Violetta loves Evelyn, and that love became a second lens for me to see the story through. To remind me that I adore Evelyn, with all her grandiose tragedy and gothic trappings. While the narrative is deep in Evelyn’s psyche, by writing Violetta, I got to step outside and look with fondness on the angst, the passion, the darkness. It let me indulge in the emotions and fascinations I’d made myself cast off to become more “adult”. I wrote Chapter 4 with honest glee, and now I can tell you, truly, that it’s one of my favorite chapters.
Because all of that angst and drama? Is still in me. It makes me the person I am today, the writer I am. I was embarrassed because Evelyn is so intimate to the core of me, to who I was before I became the author I am now. And I’m still a little nervous. But I’m also proud to put this book in front of you, with Evelyn rendered in full detail on the cover†, black veil, poison, and all.
In fact, I think you might enjoy it.
So please, come, explore the darkness with me.
* full playlist is here!
† cover art by the incredible Robin Ha.
Caitlin Starling is an award-winning writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction. Her novel The Luminous Dead won the LOHF Best Debut award, and was nominated for both a Locus and a Bram Stoker award. She has two gothic tales forthcoming – Yellow Jessamine (Neon Hemlock 2020) and The Death of Jane Lawrence (St Martin’s Press 2021) – and has a novella in Vampire: The Masquerade: Walk Among Us. Her nonfiction has appeared in Nightmare and Uncanny. Caitlin also works in narrative design, and has been paid to invent body parts. Find her work at www.caitlinstarling.com and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.