This week I’m thrilled to host ITW Debut Author Kaite Welsh. Kaite Welsh is an author, critic and journalist living in Scotland.
Her novel The Wages of Sin, a feminist historical crime novel set in Victorian Edinburgh launched March 7. It is the first novel featuring medical student, fallen woman and amateur sleuth Sarah Gilchrist, with two further books due in 2018 and 2019.
Her fiction has featured in several anthologies and she writes a regular column on LGBT issues for the Daily Telegraph as well as making frequent appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. In 2014 she was shortlisted for both the Scottish New Writers Award and the Moniack Mhor Bridge Award. She has also been shortlisted for the 2010 Cheshire Prize for Fiction and the 2010 Spectrum Award for short fiction.
The Wages of Sin, a gripping new historical crime series set in the underworld of Victorian Edinburgh featuring fallen woman-turned-medical student-turned-detective Sarah Gilchrist, is out from Pegasus Books in the US in March 2017 and from Tinder Press in the UK in June 2017.
“Welsh makes clever use of the conventions of the genre while throwing in a twist informed by modern sensibilities. Damp, sooty, moralistic, and sinning Edinburgh is convincingly evoked. A gritty detective story as unflinching as its heroine, rich in well-researched period detail.” – Kirkus Reviews
You can also follow her on twitter @kaitewelsh
You write a historical mystery series in Victorian Edinburgh. What drew you to the time period?
The first novel I ever completed was set in the present day, and it just didn’t work. I’m far more comfortable filtering my ideas through a historical perspective and I’ve always been obsessed with the 19th century, ever since I was little. When I was about four, my mother took her copy of Jane Eyre off the shelf and said “This is why you’ve got to learn to read.”
I grew up reading the Brontes – my aunt actually works at Haworth Parsonage Museum, where they lived – and that was a gateway drug to authors like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and the ‘New Women’ writers at the end of the 1800s.
I still read a lot of 19th century fiction and neo-Victorian fiction – it’s just naturally where my brain gravitates to. I came very close to doing a PhD on medicine, sexuality and the body in sensation literature (the 19th century’s answer to the thriller), but I think I’m exploring the same concepts a different way.
There are a few other time periods I’d like to explore – I’ve got a sketched out idea for a mystery series set in Renaissance France and I’ve had the opening chapter of a post-WWI vampire novel about the ‘lost generation’ floating around for about a decade and I’d love to get back to it at some point.
Protagonist Sarah Gilchrist is described as a medical student, amateur sleuth, and fallen woman. (I love that combination!) How did you arrive at her character?
In neo-Victorian fiction, the lady doctor is often this shorthand for progressive feminism. I wanted to needle away at that and explore the dissonance between being brave and brilliant and pioneering and actually existing day to day in a hostile environment that wants to see you shut up on the home, producing babies. In a way, I’m writing the origin story of the kind of character I love reading or watching. Sarah has very few role models for the kind of woman she wants to be, so she’s figuring it out as she goes along, but realising that everything has a cost and everyone has secrets.
Sarah didn’t fall as much as she was pushed, really. We learn early on that the scandal that forced her to leave London was actually a result of sexual assault, but her lack of consent is irrelevant in terms of how she’s treated. So at the start of the novel she’s angry, she’s traumatised and she’s in this weird position of having gotten the one thing she’s always wanted – a medical education – at the expense of being assaulted and then estranged from her family. She sees herself as having more in common with the disenfranchised women who come to the clinic she volunteers at – usually prostitutes – than the other women in her class, so she’s already primed to fight for the underdog.
There’s been a lot of justifiable criticism about the use of rape as a plot device, particularly in crime fiction, and I wanted to explore the fallout in detail. I deliberately made very few references to the actual event and focused on how Sarah deals – and doesn’t deal – with trauma. It’s like she’s got this knowledge of how awful the world is and she can’t unknow it so she turns it into a weapon.
Plus, at that time women were encouraged to be so divorced from their own bodies that the idea of taking control and understanding how the body actually works fascinates me. It’s Eve after the apple – once you know what’s beneath the surface, whether it’s clothing or skin and muscle, you’re never quite the same again.
As a feminist author, what would you like readers to understand from your series? Are the messages different for men and women?
When we first meet Lucy, whose murder and unhappy life Sarah avenges, she’s trying to get an illegal abortion at a clinic that would be closed down if they did. At that point, I had no idea that we’d see attacks on reproductive rights to the extant we have. Nearly everything that happens in The Wages of Sin could happen now. Slut-shaming and rape culture is still a massive problem. The divide between rich and poor is widening and we rely on charities and activists to protect the rights and services the Government should be safeguarding.
The message I’d want male readers to take away is “Pay attention. Pay attention to all the small stumbling blocks that get in Sarah’s way, like not being allowed out of the house without a chaperone or the limited number of washrooms for female students. Then apply it to what’s happening now – the way women can’t be outspoken online without being tweeted death threats, the way trans people are being criminalised for wanting to use the right bathroom. The problems haven’t gone away, they’re just dressed differently.”
For women, it’s slightly different. I’m a committed feminist, but some of the things done in the name of feminism are heartbreaking, like ignoring the needs of women of colour or outright transphobia. You can be fighting for the right things and still mess up horribly and hurt the very people you should be trying to help. In many ways, a lot of the feminist discussion on sex work hasn’t moved on from the Victorian period – we’re still obsessed with criminalising it or pushing the victim narrative when that isn’t necessarily the case, and it can make the women involved a lot less safe.
The ostracising of Sarah by her peers, who are all groundbreaking women fighting for equality, was really important to me. The other female medical students aren’t bad people, they’re just scared that they’ll lose the opportunities they fought for because of one woman’s tarnished reputation. A theme that runs through the book is the way oppression encourages oppressed people to turn against each other – over the series, we’ll see them grow and adapt, but right now it’s very black or white for them. It always reminds me of the line in Mean Girls, where Tina Fey’s character tells teenage girls “stop calling each other sluts and whores! It just makes it easier for men to call you sluts and whores!” Basically, I expanded that premise, set it in Victorian Edinburgh and threw some murder and medicine in there.
A lot of people have said that Wagesmakes them angry on behalf of the characters. Good. Use that anger – we’re still fighting the same fight.
With a background as a critic and journalist, how has your experience in those arenas impacted you as a novelist?
The goal was always to write novels, everything else got picked up along the way. It’s certainly helped, in the sense that I have a small amount of name recognition – I’m no Lindy West or Rebecca Traistor, but in the UK enough people have heard of me that it makes the book stick in their minds maybe a bit more than it would have done.
As a critic, it’s made me far more pragmatic about coverage. I was clearing out my bookshelves the other day, and the stack of things I’ve been sent that I just never had time to read or review really struck me. I’m enormously grateful for the people who have done both for me!
I’ve recently been mentoring writers through the Scottish Review ofBooks’ Emerging Critics programme and the cuts to arts coverage in print media really scare me. We need well-equipped, diverse critics to work with the amazing amount of diverse literature that’s being published, and we need column inches and fair pay to get their work across.
Tell us about your writing process? Do you do a lot of research?
Theoretically, I can write anywhere – my proudest moment was 1,000 words written in the Notes app on my phone during a bus journey across town – but I do better without any distractions, preferably with caffeine and snacks close to hand, and with Chopin’s Nocturnes played on a loop. I live in Edinburgh and went to university here, so going to any of the coffee shops I used to study in is a shortcut to getting in work mode. There’s one particular place I won’t let myself go in unless I’m writing, so I go in, order the same thing I’ve been getting since Fresher’s Week 2001, and the words just come.
I’m in a constant state of research, because this stuff is really awesome. Honestly, I think the novels are just an excuse to spend hours pouring through old medical textbooks and biographies of incredible women.
Novels two and three for your series are coming out over the next two years. How different has it been working on that kind of deadline?
Absolutely wonderful! I’m naturally a pretty speedy writer when I don’t let myself procrastinate, so deadlines keep me very focused. Again, working as a journalist has been excellent preparation because if I can come up with a pithy, informed take on a controversial or topical issue in two hours then I can damn well write a few thousand words a day about a time period I know a lot about, with characters I made up.
I have a two book deal with Pegasus, my US publisher, and a three book deal with Headline, my UK publisher – with Book 2 in the editing stages, I’m already feeling panicky about coming to the end of the contracted books, even though I have a clear idea about where I want to take Sarah after that. I just want to stay in this universe I’ve created forever, but the only way that can happen is for people to buy the books! Please, enable my vacation from the 21stcentury (and help feed my cats).
Final words of wisdom
Write about what you’re obsessed with, even if it’s something completely random. Make other people care about it too, and you’ll always have someone to rabbit on at.
Also, never give up caffeine in the middle of editing one book and promoting another. *shudders*
Thank you Kaite for this awesome interview! Don’t miss next week’s visit with ITW Debut Author Isabella Maldonado