Ahead of our Paperback Ramblers meeting on Laura Purcell’s Bath-set gothic mystery ‘The Shape of Darkness’, Sam interviewed the author to find out a bit more about her research, themes, and writing process. We hope you enjoy the Q&A; if you’re interested in walking in the footsteps of Agnes Darken on a Paperback Ramblers walk, sign up here: https://mrbsemporium.com/events/2022/06/paperback-ramblers-the-shape-of-darkness/

Q&A with Laura Purcell

We’re big fans of your books here at Mr B’s, particularly those with a historical-gothic crossover. What drew you to writing about the supernatural, the gothic, the frightening?

I feel like a bit of a fraud answering this question, because it happened largely by fluke! It’s true that I’ve always adored things with gothic vibes like The Phantom of the Opera and Wuthering Heights, and I was a horror film addict in my teenage years. But my passion was for historical fiction. I started off writing straightforward historical novels about real people and would have continued if I’d had more success. It was only after I’d parted ways with my agent that I had a great idea for a ghost story (The Silent Companions) and thought I would give it a go, just to see if I was any good at writing that type of book, and give my brain a bit of a cleanse. But then that story landed me a top agent, a big publisher and sold over 100,000 copies and I thought … maybe I’m better at this.

‘The Shape of Darkness’ is set in Victorian Bath, and follows silhouette artist Agnes Darken and supernatural medium Pearl as they try to solve the mystery of who is killing Agnes’ clients. Where did these characters come from? Are they inspired by real people?

Certain aspects of the characters were inspired by real people. For example, the idea to make Pearl albino came from researching the life of Millie Lamar, a contemporary who worked as a mind reader and called herself The White Fairy. Many of Pearl’s séances scenes drew from the memoirs of Elizabeth D’Esperance, a Victorian era medium. If Agnes had been born earlier and married, she might have been another Isabella Beetham, who ran a successful silhouette parlour in London, but sadly she finds herself out of place and time.  

The novel captures a society on the cusp of change: Agnes’ business is threatened by new technology and the rising popularity of photography, and superstition is giving way to science. Would you say the novel has a theme you were interested in exploring? Are there themes that suggest themselves when you’re writing in a particular genre?

I knew from early on that I wanted to explore instances of the old being overwritten with the new. Progress is often a great thing, but I wanted to capture the fear of people who felt that both they and their way of life were becoming obsolete. My characters need to change and adapt to survive in the new world – and not necessarily in pleasant ways! Decayed grandeur is of course one of the classic Gothic themes, and it was interesting to work with this in an urban setting, rather than the usual country estate.

The genre of ‘The Shape of Darkness’ is a mercurial creature incorporating elements of detective-mystery, gothic horror and psychological thriller; the result is a reading experience that is satisfyingly unpredictable while still feeling logical and inevitable in its conclusion. Who are your genre influences? Do you envision your novels ‘for’ a certain type of reader?

It’s difficult having to constantly switch between thinking of writing as an art form and as a product. When I come up with ideas, I’m focused on telling a great story, one that I will enjoy writing, and the ‘genre’ doesn’t occur to me. It’s only later when you’re trying to market that story that these definitions become important. My initial concepts veer strongly towards gothic horror and sometimes have to be reined back or rejigged to make a more commercial title. I try to bear in mind that I’m published by a crime and thriller imprint! My favourite authors include Sarah Waters, Daphne Du Maurier and Philippa Gregory, and I’m not sure I could confine them to a single genre either.   

Having lived in Bath for a while, reading ‘The Shape of Darkness’ was particularly satisfying: I learned some aspects of the historical city I was ignorant of, and enjoyed imagining streets I walk down in their somewhat grimier Victorian condition, appreciating Bath as a palimpsest. Why did you decide to set the novel in Bath?

As a massive Jane Austen fan, I’ve been obsessed with Bath for at least two decades and have studied its history for fun. My teenage years were spent writing bad Regency Romance novellas, many of which featured Bath. I visit as frequently as I can. I was so used to thinking of the city in its Georgian heyday that it didn’t occur to me I could use it in a gothic novel. But one of the bus tours mentioned how Bath had fallen out of fashion as a resort in the Victorian era, and it got me thinking about Persuasion and Sir Walter Elliot retiring there as his fortunes declined. While I was at The Jane Austen Festival in 2016, I attended a talk on silhouettes, then a ghost walk, and all the pieces started to slot together in my mind. I was so delighted that I could put all my Bath knowledge to use at last!

In terms of researching the place and time, and planning the book’s intricate plot, did you visit Bath before writing the novel? What was the process of deciding the locations for the Silhouette Parlour, the Surgery, the various locations where the bodies are discovered? Is ‘inhabiting’ the novel an important thing for you, and perhaps for the reader as well?

So yes, as I’ve said, I’ve visited Bath many, many times. There were certain favourite locations I wanted to get in there, such as Sydney Gardens and the gravel walk where Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth have their stroll together. For the characters’ homes, I had to think about their social status and use street guides to see what kind of businesses were operating where at the time. Simon’s surgery was placed in an area where many doctors were living in 1850. With Agnes I cheated a bit, because I wanted her within sight of the Abbey, so I put her in Orange Grove for purely selfish reasons. One thing I adored about writing this novel was having a real world to inhabit, seeing how long it would take character to walk from one location to another, where they would shop. It brought everything to life for me so vividly, in a way I haven’t felt since writing about real Georgian Queens in their real palaces. 

Was there any aspect of the research you weren’t able to get into the book?

Originally, Pearl and Myrtle were going to be Spirit Photographers, so I delved quite deeply into the process used to make these fraudulent prints. In the end, I decided it was more exciting for the narrative to have séance scenes rather than watching an image slowly develop on a plate, so all of this was shelved for the future!

Have you read anything great recently?

I’ve just finished and enjoyed The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean which was great fun, a bit fantasy, a bit horror and a bit action. I would recommend it.

Can you tell us anything about ‘The Whispering Muse’, or what you’re planning to write next?

The Whispering Muse was inspired by my love of classic tragedy plays and The Phantom of the Opera. It follows costumier Jenny as she makes a deal to spy on an upcoming actress, only to find that actress has made a pact of her own: a much darker bargain which may have grave consequences for everyone in the Mercury Theatre.

I’m also working on a young adult book called Silver and Moonstone, which I pitched as Carmilla meets Ginger Snaps!

Sounds great! Thanks for your time, Laura. We’ll look forward to seeing ‘The Whispering Muse’ next February.