Interview – Caitlin Starling

On my quest to read more science fiction as well as read more in general, I stumbled upon the novel “The Luminous Dead”, a wonderfully crafted Sci-fi / Psychological horror and debut novel of Caitlin Starling.

As I dream of having a debut novel myself, I wanted to reach out to Caitlin and pick her brain about her novel, her writing process, and how she came up with the idea for such a unique and interesting story.

Caitlin was generous enough to lend me her time and I was able to get some wonderful and informative questions.

How long have you been writing for?

Well, back when I was 8, I wrote a thirty page (large type, with pictures) Sailor Moon fanfic… 🙂 But I really started focusing on writing in high school, around 15 years ago. That’s when I started doing NaNoWriMo and started sharing my writing with other people. 

What made you decide you wanted to write for a living?

Honestly, I didn’t think it was a realistic option for a long time. It wasn’t until I wrote The Luminous Dead and realized I wanted to try to find an agent for it that I started looking at it as a career. I realized I wanted to be able to keep writing, despite other life obligations – and that made sense most if I kept making sales and really treated things like a business instead of a hobby.

That said, I still don’t write for a living. I make a decent amount, but I still work a day job full time, both for the benefits (health insurance is a lot more expensive if you buy it yourself) and for the structure. Eventually, I’d like to drop to part time or maybe even try writing full time, but that’s not in the cards for at least another few books/years.

What was your inspiration for “The Luminous Dead”? 

I’d been playing a lot of the running app Zombies, Run!, which tells its story entirely by radio transmissions from your base to your “headset” – your character never talks, but you’re getting to know all these other characters with varying goals, and I realized I loved that type of storytelling. I’ve also always loved characters in video games like GLaDOS (from Portal), who are ostensibly filling the roll of a tutorial/guide character, but have their own motivations.

The cave setting came from a dream I had (and I still have no idea why I dreamed it, it’s the only time I can remember dreaming about a cave!), and the suit proceeded naturally from what I needed, plotwise, to keep my main character isolated but capable of doing the very difficult tasks that she would usually need a large support team to manage.

“The Luminous Dead” was your first published book, but did you write books before this?

More or less! I finished NaNoWriMo four or five times during high school and college, though I never queried any of them, and I also wrote a few novel-length fanfics post-college. The Luminous Dead was the first book I thought was good enough to show to agents.

A lot of authors get discouraged at how long it takes to find representation, how long did you query “The Luminous Dead” before you found Caitlin McDonald? 

From first query email to signing was 14 months, I think! It was nervewracking at the time, but absolutely worth it.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer so far? 

As a writer, probably when I nailed the large-scale rewrite that my editor asked of me for The Luminous Dead (which took it from a creature feature to a much more psychological/social horror story).

As an author, nothing tops the day I found out I was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. I’ve been nominated (and won) other awards since, but that first time knocked my socks off.

What would you say your writing process is?

I’m somewhere in between a pantser and a plotter. I pants until I run into an issue, and I plot until I run into a hole. Then I switch modes and the problem tends to sort itself out. I’m capable of writing straight through (thanks, NaNoWriMo!) but generally I like writing the start of a story, jotting down notes, and then getting distracted with another project. By the time I get back to the original project, my ideas are usually a lot more nuanced, leading to much more interesting, less frustrating to write first drafts. 

Who are the biggest influences to your writing?

I have a lot of very eclectic influences, including farming memoirs! I read outside of my genres quite a lot, and am always attracted to writing that captures interesting details that I don’t always come across. 

I also have a lot of authors I just adore, but I don’t know how directly they influence my work. Tamsyn Muir and Martha Wells come to mind. Actually, both have shown me that you can get away writing some really interesting, gnarly stuff, which has made me more confident in tackling my own weird and complicated ideas.

What can you tell us about your upcoming work?

My next book is The Death of Jane Lawrence, out next fall from St Martin’s Press. It’s in some ways very traditional gothic horror/romance – you’ve got a marriage to a mysterious man with a crumbling family estate outside of town, secrets, ghosts, a single light burning in a top floor window… but it also deals with esoteric magic traditions, Victorian-era heroic medicine and surgery, and the development of calculus.

It’s gone through a few fairly major rounds of revisions to get it to where it is today, and I am so, so proud of it and excited to have it out in the world. It’s twisty and fucked up and delightful.

If you could give any piece of writing advice to new writers, what would it be? 

Have fun whenever you can. Writing can be tough, and publishing even more so; it’s easy to get stuck in your head. I got a lot of my practice in by writing with friends with no intention to try to publish that work, just to have a good time and delight whoever I was writing with. Without having that pressure to produce something that would change my whole life, I wrote a lot of words and learned a lot of skills.

I want to thank Caitlin again for her time and her answers. It’s always a pleasure to hear writers talk about their craft and what inspires them and it’s a huge inspiration to writers like me when we can talk to people who are in the shoes we hope to walk in one day.

Make sure you check out Caitlin’s work and follow her on Twitter at @see_starling


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