Library Assistant Hannah is passionate about books and reading. In the latest in her series of author interviews, Hannah chats to former bookseller turned bestselling novelist Laura Purcell.
With a focus on historical fantasy and horror with a gothic twist, her novels include The Silent Companions, which was a Radio 2 Book Club pick, and The Shape of Darkness, winner of the inaugural Fingerprint Award for Historical Crime Book of the Year.
Described as 'deliciously creepy, riveting, and full of heart’, her latest book, The Whispering Muse, was published in 2023.
Hannah: Can you tell us a little bit about your latest novel The Whispering Muse?
Laura: The Whispering Muse is a Faustian tale set inside a Victorian theatre. It follows plucky Jenny from the costume department, who is charged with spying on the brilliant new actress Lilith Erikson. She begins to suspect something sinister lies behind Lilith’s runaway success, and as accidents take place around the theatre, it becomes clear that everyone has been put at risk for the sake of vaulting ambition. The novel was inspired by my love for Shakespeare and The Phantom of the Opera.
I became a fan of your books after reading The Silent Companions last autumn; it opened up a whole new genre for me in gothic horror. What is it that you like so much about the genre?
For me, the main joy of reading is finding out that we’re not alone. Gothic literature serves this purpose fully, giving a safe space to explore strong feelings and topics that are considered taboo in normal conversation. I also like that it delves into morally grey areas. Our society seems so polarised at the moment – I welcome the gothic’s liminal spaces that acknowledge how complicated the human condition really is.
You also wrote Roanoke Falls, an award-winning podcast with [Halloween director] John Carpenter as executive producer. How did the idea form for this, and how different was writing for a podcast compared to writing novels?
So the idea and the basic characters for Roanoke Falls were established before I was brought onto the project. I was approached with a brief and invited to ‘audition’, as it were, with a sample of writing to be approved by John and Sandy King Carpenter. Happily I passed and was able to put my own flourishes on the story – including the killer wearing a wolf’s skull!
This project was very collaborative, working in a writer’s room with each episode needing to be green-lit before the next could be written. I welcomed advice as to what could be achieved with sound design and had to focus on taking noise out of the text and putting it into directions instead. It was a completely different way of writing, much of the ‘inner world’ and subtleties of prose needed to be converted into speech. It was at once a hugely fun and stressful process.
I loved hearing the final product, brought to life by talent actors and sound artists, and I absolutely relished the opportunity to write a real slasher horror.
Do you have a favourite book of your own?
Of all the books I’ve written so far, my favourite is The Corset. It explores the long lasting effects of trauma, including the nature of revenge, against a backdrop of greed and luxury. Even in the modern day, we consume products without considering the human cost behind them. I loved giving my oppressed seamstress, Ruth, a magical way of fighting back against the system. I feel like The Corset was the novel I was always trying to write and I still think about Ruth and Dorothea on a regular basis.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
My next book is a Young Adult dark fantasy called Moonstone. After a scandal at Vauxhall Gardens, pampered Camille is sent far away from home, forced to stay under the care of her reclusive godmother until the gossip dies down. But the farmhouse deep in the woods holds secrets of its own. Haunting noises ring through the trees. Her godmother’s sullen daughter, Lucy, suffers from an inexplicable illness. As Camille tries to make the best of her exile, she soon realises Felwood is not the safe haven her parents promised. In fact, a danger far greater than scandal lurks both without and within.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Every author I know has taken such a different journey to publication, and we all have completely separate writing processes that work for us. So my advice would be to forge your own way and not get hung up on writing tips. Each artist is an individual. Find what works for you – there are no hard and fast rules.
Do you have a library card?
Yes! I try to buy books wherever I can to support my fellow authors, but I’ve belonged to a library all my life. I think the most influential library for me was actually the one at school. Due to an eating disorder, I was severely ill and underweight so I couldn’t take part in PE for some time. I used to spend those lessons up in the library reading the classics.