Hi Justin Evans, thanks for talking to Dark Matter. The White Devil has a very strong sense of place. It really helps to build the atmosphere and mood of the story. What research and writing techniques did you draw on to bring this sense of place to life so powerfully?
I actually lived in the place where the book is set, Harrow School, for a year in 1989. I was concerned that I had forgotten everything, so I consulted several hypnotists. One was creepy, the kind of guy you expect to grope you after he puts you under. The second was a self-deprecating, nervous, schoolteacher type, who basically told me that remembering the experience was not going to be my problem, but that recapturing the adolescent mindset was going to be impossible. She told me that as a man in my 30s I had more in common with my latency period (i.e. pre-puberty) than I did with my teenage self. I tried not to take this personally. When I finally did return to the school for a quick research trip, I found that the school had not changed at all and most of my memories were accurate.
Being a Harrow pupil yourself – that must have been great research! Any tales or recollections you’d like to share on that front? Did Andrew’s status as an outsider form part of your own experience?
My experience at the school was crucial to writing the story. I would never have dared to – or thought of – taking on such a topic, had it not been for the experience of attending Harrow. Although my own experience there was the exact opposite of my narrator’s; we both arrived as shiftless outsiders—and inevitably, remained outsiders. For my narrator, this had tragic consequences. For me, smacking up against such an authority and tradition-oriented school culture was in fact exactly what I needed. The seriousness with which the faculty and students took things like literature and theater woke me up and made me an intellectually curious person. And unlike my character, I made many friends and actually had fun. I had to edit out of the book all the rock concerts, European travel, and booze-ups that made my year there a delight. In the gothic genre, there is only slow-cooked misery.
The book has several very sharply drawn and believable characters – the smart, irreverent and gorgeous schoolgirl Persephone, fellow students, the fallible schoolmaster and fallen poet Piers Fawkes, the formidable but good-hearted librarian Dr Judith Kahn. What was it like living with these diverse fictional people inside your head while writing the book?
I’m glad you feel they are well drawn! I worked hard on, and really enjoyed, the dialogue in the story. The Fawkes-Kahn relationship is very much based on my relationship with a close friend of mine. I am the screwup and she is the merciless representative of truth. Persephone is an amalgam of all the women of my adolescent life, and all their most alluring traits, plus an acid British tongue. Persephone would have snapped my 17-year-old heart in two.
Recently I came across the idea of a “seed incident”, the initial thing that first brings a story into being, sparks it off in the writer’s imagination, lodges in your mind and won’t go away – ‘something lived through, heard about, or read, which catalysed the story’ (Doyle, 1998). It can seem significant or small, puzzling or resonant. Can you think of anything that fits this description for you, in creating The White Devil?
I love this question!! Yes, I did have a “seed incident,” but ironically it ended up buried in the story a little bit – I even could have cut it, really… had it not been the seed incident! It’s the scene where Andrew (the narrator) comes upon the ghost, tucked away in a secret room, rehearsing his lines for a play that was performed two hundred years prior, waiting for Andrew. This incident stuck with me because, when I was at Harrow, the young boys really did play the female roles in the Shakespeare plays we performed. One of these boys, in a play I was in, had a scene where he delivered a kind of curse-like monologue, and I felt like I was watching the wicked queen in Snow White… only it was this pre-pubescent boy… and there was something so uncanny and sexually deviant about this that it formed the heart of the whole book.
Justin…what are your thoughts on ghosts? Do you think they might exist? Have you ever had an experience yourself that has caused you to wonder about this?
I do believe ghosts exist, although I have never seen one. Maybe this comes from growing up in the American South; maybe it comes from knowing (credible) people who claim to have encounters with ghosts (for instance, a close family friend, when I was growing up, had a well-known house-haunting. I asked her about it when I was grown up, and when, presumably, time and distance would have allowed her to be more circumspect about the incident; but she stuck to her story.). I have an assignment for anybody reading this: at the next dinner party you go to, poll the group about encounters with ghosts. Out of any seven people you will get at least one anecdote—and not necessarily from the “flake” in the group. I find it a little silly that people don’t believe in ghosts. If physicists can believe in unseen dimensions, dark matter, and the “god particle,” why shouldn’t the consistent experiences of thousands of people across many cultures add up to a real phenomenon?
After reading your book, I became quite fascinated by former Harrow student Lord Byron and his tumultuous life. One of his novelist paramours described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Checking portraits of him online, I see that he was not just a talented poet, but also a bit of a spunk. His personality imprints itself quite strongly on the way the story unfolds. How did you become interested in Byron? What drew you to weave elements of his life story into The White Devil?
I suppose I should (rather sheepishly) admit that my interest in Byron before writing this book was very casual and limited to exposure to anthologies. I did some cursory research into his life to see if he would be an interesting link to include in my “book set at Harrow”… and his life was clearly so fascinating, that he basically took over the story – or at least, the backstory. Byron’s life is the stuff of twenty novels. He accomplished a ridiculous amount – not all of it commendable – by the age of 36, when he died; and I think he’s one of the most compelling figures in literary history. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about him is his contradictions: a philanderer who really fell passionately in love (several times); a writer in the gothic and lugubriously heroic genres, who had the soul of a comic writer; an aristocratic wastrel who was also a genuine champion of lost causes; and so forth. Then there’s the fact that he was crazy and committed incest. Really, what’s not to like?
Without landing a spoiler on our readers, this ghost story gains part of its horror through the way it manifests a particular illness, one we don’t see much of these days. This takes the “ghost” element of the story beyond mere spookiness into the more alarming territory of real, physical danger for the characters. How did this story element come about?
Tuberculosis! Spoiler! There I said it. I did a lot of research of tuberculosis for the book. The disease is handled so delicately, through coughing references, in most literature of the time; but if you think about what it really takes to die of TB… well, you sort of sit there and wait to cough up lots of blood and then drown in your own fluids. Horrible. And the disease is rampant today, only it’s in developing countries, and often caused by AIDS.
Sexuality, in many of its numerous guises, is handled beautifully in the book, although there are several scenes that are fairly confronting – not through being prurient, but via the relationship dynamics of the characters. Were some of these scenes difficult to write? And do you see parallels between the mysteries of sex, and the “unknowables” of death?
I would say it’s very difficult to write good sex scenes, and I’m not sure I did it well. You can take the “draw the curtain” approach, where you lead the characters up to the moment, and then use the filmmaker’s technique of “cutting away”; finding them wrapped in sheets and languid the next morning… or you can go all the way and do porn. I tried to find a middle ground. It seemed unfair to be completely polite about sex, since sex and sexual identity were such important themes in the book. Upon reflection, the way I characterize sex in this book is very specific to the time of my adolescence, the 1980s, where sex was both a little bit too easy – co-ed dorms; very few differences in the expectations and manners of the sexes, at least at the schools I went to (not too many girly-girls and make-up) – and also too hard, as HIV and AIDS had just become a very serious reality. Why else would the spectre of a gaunt, gay man, dead before his time, be the haunting figure of the book? To make sex work in a book, I think, what you really need to write about is yearning; then by the time you get to the sex, it’s just a bonus.
Do you know how your book will end before you start writing it, or do you discover it later on, at some point during the writing process?
I always plan the ending and then torture myself by changing it. In both the books I have written, it all comes down to the last paragraph, which is rewritten about eleven times and always at the last minute.
What are some of your self-imposed rules and work habits for successfully completing a novel?
I am a firm believer in artificial stimulants. If you can’t think of anything to write – have a cup of coffee. If you still can’t – have another. And so on. Dark chocolate is a pretty sure bet. If I were Piers Fawkes, I would be well into a pill addiction by now, but for better or worse, I am a square, and save the mind-bending for the supernatural elements of my books.
Thank you for talking to Meg Mundell from Dark Matter.