Last week I reviewed Langley, B.C. author Ian Weir’s new novel Will Starling, and as you can see from the post I enjoyed it quite a bit! After reaching out to his publisher, Goose Lane Editions, I was very lucky to able to ask Weir a few questions about the book, the thought process and research that went into putting it together. Read on for a sneak peek into how one of my favourite Canadian books this year was sewn together…
This Nerding Life: While the back section of the book shows some of the sources you consulted when working on Will Starling, how much time would you say you spent on this part of the process? Were there any facts you learned during your research that you didn’t have room to put in the novel that you’d have liked to?
Ian Weir: As a matter of fact, I spent a solid two years researching Will Starling before I started writing, and continued alternating between writing and research for the next three years (the novel took about five years, all told). By the end of it I had a bookcase pretty much full of books with some connection to the material, and I’d taken three separate research trips to England.
Partly this has to do with my own writing process. I can’t get untracked until the characters and the setting feel absolutely real to me — what the characters are wearing, what they’re thinking, what they had for breakfast, where they’re coming from and where they’re going and what they’re likely to encounter en route — all those countless little details that we take for granted as we go about our daily business. And I think there’s also a kind of implicit contract that exists between writer and reader, when it comes to historical fiction — i.e. if you’ll agree to come along with me, then I’ll promise to give you a sense of what it was actually like, to walk down that street in 1816 (or whenever).
So yes, there’s a whole lot of research material that never made it into the finished novel, since there’s nothing worse than detail that’s shoe-horned in just for the sake of proving that the writer did his homework. It’s kind of the iceberg principle. Only the tip is visible, but the rest of the iceberg is nonetheless in place.
TNL: Both of your novels to date, Will Starling and Daniel O’Thunder, take place in England before the Twentieth Century, in the Regency and Victorian periods respectively. Could you see yourself ever writing a book that takes place in the modern day? What is it about England that has such a hold on your imagination?
IW: Martin Amis has a great theory that we all have a “second country” — a kind of homeland of the imagination that serves as a repository for our romanticized impulses. For me, that’s always been England — and London in particular. Why? Good question. I have a hunch that part of it was falling in love with the Paddington Bear books when I was seven or eight years old, and forming the conviction that life in London was somehow more heightened and magical than the version of life that was on offer anywhere else. When I was in my mid-twenties I had a chance to live in London as a graduate student, and I’ve managed to get back every couple of years since then.
And as for the Nineteenth Century? Well, in very many ways it holds up a remarkable mirror to our own era; it’s the beginning of the modern world, and as a story-teller I’m strongly drawn to that. And nineteenth century London is still very much present and vital within the modern metropolis — vestiges of the Victorian and Regency periods still exist, essentially unchanged. There’s something really captivating in that, turning a corner and discovering that you’ve as it were stepped back centuries in time.
TNL: Many reviewers, including myself, have remarked upon Will Starling‘s resemblance to the “sensation novels” of the late Nineteenth Century. What does this style of writing offer to an author when crafting a story? Are there any other authors operating in this mode now that you enjoy?
IW: Ah, the sensation novel — yes, I’m delighted you picked up on that. Basically, the sensation novel as a form is a direct descendent of the gothic thriller, and I love gothic tropes. (One of my favourite novels of all time is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a perfectly constructed thriller, and a stylistic gem, and it evokes nightmare archetypes that are rooted way down deep in the psyche.)
For me, part of the joy of the gothic narrative tradition is that it offers up so much scope and energy in terms of twists and turns. Anything goes, as it were, and the stakes are never short of life-and-death. Gothic narrative also tends to have a keen sense of its own baroque style, which means it’s ripe for sly, gleam-in-the-eye parody. And of course gothic narrative is all about the clear-cut distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. That can constitute a great a gift to a twenty-first century author with subversive intentions.
As a reader, I’ve always been deeply partial to contemporary novelists who turn traditional modes and styles to their own purposes. Michael Chabon springs immediately to mind. Sarah Waters is another example of a tremendously gifted literary novelist who is keenly aware of gothic tropes and conventions.
TNL: When reading Will Starling, I was struck that while many, many gory details about grave-robbing, surgery and the Napoleonic Wars are detailed to the reader, the writing never seems ghoulish or overly gross. Was this a tricky path to walk given the novel’s subject material?
IW: Well, I’m pleased and relieved that you felt I succeeded in threading that particular needle — and I have a confession to make. I’m a surgeon’s son, but I’m also about as squeamish as it’s possible to be, when it comes to blood and other people’s suffering. So that was basically my litmus test while writing Will Starling. Quite simply: if I can write this paragraph without sending myself fleeing from the room, then I can feel fairly confident that I haven’t grossed out my readers.
TNL: With Will Starling done and reaching great critical acclaim, what are you working on at the moment?
IW: I’ve been really pleased by the critical reception — and thanks so much for the very kind words. And as a matter of fact I’ve begun working on a new novel. I won’t say too much about it — I’m a bit superstitious about these things, and besides it’s still in a somewhat inchoate state — but I will say that it’s a bit of a departure, in some ways (though not in others). It’s historical fiction, but there’s also a framing narrative that takes place in our own era. And it’s western-themed. In fact, it’s set almost entirely in Nineteenth Century North America (though one of the central characters is from London).
At least, that’s how it’s shaping up so far. A novel for me is always a voyage of discovery — I don’t work from an outline. And while I usually start with a notion about where I think the story may end up, I almost invariably discover that I’m mistaken about this.
So far, I’m finding the voyage challenging and stimulating, which is about the best I can realistically hope for. In other words…so far, so good!
Thanks again to Ian and the publicity staff at Goose Lane for allowing me to put this interview together. Will Starling and Daniel O’Thunder are available wherever good books are sold, and they’re both well worth checking out. You can find Weir on Twitter at @Ian_Weir, and stay up to date on his books over at ianweir.net.