Kaite Welsh is an author, critic, journalist and activist. Her excellent debut novel, The Wages of Sin, set in the dark underworld of Victorian Edinburgh, is published by Tinder Press on 1 June. Here she discusses with fellow Victorianista Anna Mazzola her love of history, feminism, mob-caps and buttered crumpets.
Your protagonist, Sarah Gilchrist, is a medical student at a time when being a female medical student was deeply controversial, and it makes for a brilliant premise. How did you come up with this idea?
I’ve always been fascinated by the entrance of women into the professions. I devoured Phillip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series as a teenager, and the intersection of that with the gothic and frequently gory world of Victorian medicine was irresistible. I read textbooks for fun, because that’s the kind of super-cool teenage girl I was, and ended up knowing far more about 19th century medical advances and legal cases than any 15 year old should. Then I discovered grunge and riot grrrl (which I still love) and boys (that phase didn’t stick) and only came back to my first loves when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh and found two plaques in the old medical school – one to Sophia Jex-Blake, the first woman to be admitted as a medical student, and one to Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
So have you known for some time that you wanted to write historical fiction?
Yes, it’s always been historical for me. That’s probably 50-60% of what I read for pleasure – either historical fiction, chunky Victorian novels or biographies.
My aunt runs education and engagement programmes in museums, so there were always opportunities as a child to dress up as a bedraggled apprentice in a cotton mill or as one of the Brontë sisters. Writing historical fiction lets me slip into another time period without the pressure of having to give the mob-cap or jar of leeches back at the end of the day.
If I hadn’t been a writer, I’d have liked to be an historian or a time traveller. I always keep an eye out for the TARDIS, just in case.
Noted. The Wages of Sin is being described as a ‘feminist historical crime novel’. Was it important to you that it was a feminist novel, or did that just come from the story itself?
I don’t think I could write a book that wasn’t feminist. I can’t switch that part of my brain off, and frankly I don’t want to. It’s not as though I’m going to run out of material any time soon, sadly.
No, indeed. You brilliantly evoke Victorian Edinburgh. What were your key resources? What helped you to immerse yourself in the era?
It helps that a lot of Edinburgh hasn’t physically changed that much! If I need to absorb myself in Sarah’s time period I just wander around the old medical school building, or the Old Quad where the law library is, and find scenes coming to life in my imagination. The Cowgate, where a lot of the action takes place, is now full of clubs and student accommodation rather than slum dwellings and brothels, but it’s somehow still dark and unsettling even on the brightest day.
In terms of research, Elaine Thomson’s brilliant PhD thesis on Victorian women doctors in Edinburgh was invaluable. I remember reading it and just being delighted that someone else shared my weird obsession. A few years later, I was having lunch with the wonderful historical novelist E.S. Thomson and she mentioned the PhD she’d written. Thankfully, although we cover similar topics we have different time periods – she has 1840s apothecary Jem Flockhart, a woman who has to live as a man in order to pursue her profession.
I also found the 1892 Edinburgh Student Songbook in a second-hand bookshop in Yorkshire, quite by chance. It’s full of bizarre in-jokes and song parodies about the professors and gave me a real flavour of what student life was like. I’ve written a full-length parody of A Very Modern Major General called A Very Modern-Minded Graduette, which may or may not make it into a later book (but which I can, given enough gin, be persuaded to sing).
I’m definitely taking you up on that. Now, what was your favourite nugget of research that you came across (a fact, an anecdote, a picture, a story), and did it make it into the book?
There’s a scene fairly early on where some of the male students spread red ink powder on the lecture theatre benches, so it covers the women’s skirts and makes it look like they’ve been menstruating. It’s so horrible but so vivid. I remember reading it in the archives of the National Library of Scotland, then turning my phone back on when I left, to see that someone had tweeted in response to an opinion piece I’d written in the Telegraph: “Oh, she must be on her period.” Nothing changes.
I’m currently working on a piece about the history of trolling for BBC Scotland’s The Social, and it’s fascinating but infuriating.
I want to read that. What other parallels do you see between Sarah’s world and the modern world? How far have we come?
Every time we take a step forward for women’s rights, it seems like we take two steps back. Sarah spends her life fighting for the right to be taken seriously in her profession. Before November last year, I thought women had won that battle. But every woman who aims for success makes cracks in the glass ceiling, whether it’s a plucky Victorian medical student or a Presidential candidate.
Tell us about your path to publication: was it a rocky road or a smooth slide?
Suspiciously smooth – I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop! I’d queried a few agents and was implementing their editorial suggestions when the wonderful Laura Macdougall, then a commissioning editor at Hodder and Stoughton, dropped me a line. She’d seen the opening chapters on my website and wondered if I had an agent. I explained I was still querying and she explained she was looking to make the move from editor to agent, but in the meantime she’d love to see the full manuscript. A month or so later, the postman delivered a hand-annotated copy of my book full of lovely compliments and useful amendments, and a box of chocolate biscuits to help with the editorial process. We then ended up judging the Green Carnation Prize together and realised we had similar tastes in books. Once she joined Tibor Jones & Associates, there was no looking back.
Why has no one ever given me biscuits to accompany editorial notes? And, more importantly, how do you go about structuring your novels? Do you plan tightly, or plunge right it? And has it changed for your second novel?
Plunge right into it, get around 20,000 words in and wish I’d planned. That gives me enough time to have gotten a sense of what kind of story I’m trying to tell without having gone so far that if I’m going off-course. The next 10,000 words are sheer torture but after that, I can see the way ahead.
I like being surprised when I write, seeing what bubbles to the surface. I started Wages with a vague idea of who Lucy’s murderer was, only to realise halfway through that I was wrong. With the second book, which I’ve just turned in, I was writing a confession scene only for the supposed murderer to implicate someone else entirely!
Characters. You never know what they’re going to do. And what’s been the hardest part of the writing process so far?
Definitely battling self-doubt. I thought that would evaporate after I got a book deal, but no chance!
No, I suspect the self-doubt never goes away. But maybe someone who’s written ten novels can tell us different. The Wages of Sin is the first in a series. Can you tell us anything about what Sarah will be up to next, or are you keeping your cards close to your chest?
Sarah’s view of the world is pretty black and white at the start of Wages. Over the second book, she’s figuring out the direction of her own moral compass while trying to extricate herself from a tricky situation and solve a murder that’s much closer to home. Also, there’s haggis.
I actually have about five or six more books in the series loosely outlined that I’m desperate to write. I’m starting Book 3 at the moment and I’m nowhere near done playing in Sarah’s world.
If you do ever tire of the 19th century, which other historical eras would you like to explore?
I’d love to tackle Renaissance France during Catherine de Medici’s regency. I have an outline for another series about the group of noble women she called her ‘Flying Squad’: well-born courtesans who acted as spies. As well as Sarah Gilchrist, there are two Victorian standalone novels I want to write and I’d like to have a go at the Regency period as well. Oh, and the French Revolution. Basically, I have a very long list of things I want to write and not enough time to write them in. Maybe one day I’ll even write something contemporary. Who knows.
And now, my most important question: how many buttered crumpets did you eat while writing The Wages of Sin? I ask this because I seem to have eaten rather a lot while reading it. And what are your essential writing snacks?
Buttered crumpets are one of my major food groups, but they’re actually quite tricky to write with because the melted butter gets into the keyboard and then my butter-obsessed cat Franklin tries to eat it. My ultimate writing food is goats’ cheese slathered on cherry scones. I cannot recommend that highly enough. Preferably consumed with a large pot of Lapsang Souchong while listening to Chopin and the sounds of a rainstorm in the background. That’s my idea of perfect happiness.
Anna Mazzola‘s debut, The Unseeing, is based on the life of Sarah Gale who was convicted in 1837 of aiding and abetting James Greenacre in the Edgware Road murder. The Unseeing is out now in paperback. Read our review.