Can you give us a little taster of what it's all about? The Whores' Asylum (out in paperback in September as The Unpierced Heart) is a historical novel set in 1880s Oxford, where medical student Stephen Chapman is persuaded to help out at a shelter for "fallen women" (basically a rescue home for prostitutes, to get them off the streets) in the city's poorest district, Jericho. He falls in love with Diana, the woman who runs the shelter, but his best friend Edward warns him off her, recognising her as a "femme fatale" from his own past. Edward tries to split them up, and that's when all their lives really start to unravel and the truth of Diana's past is revealed ...
The book is set in 1887, so how did you go about researching this period? I read a huge amount of Victorian literature, by Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, M.R. James and lots of less well-known authors, as well as reading factual books about the era (such as The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) and various histories of the people and the time (Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians was fascinating for getting into the mindset). I also read a few modern Victorian novels - Affinity by Sarah Waters stood out - to inspire me and see what could be done by a contemporary novelist setting their story in the period. I'll also confess to fact-checking on Wikipedia when I couldn't find out what I wanted from my other books ...
Where did your inspiration come from? Originally the idea was to write a short story, and the inspiration for the three central characters was Sherlock Holmes. It always seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me that Watson and Holmes have this intensely close (some would say homoerotic) relationship, and yet when Watson gets married - twice! - it never seems to get in the way of their friendship. I thought it would be really interesting to explore a different kind of love triangle, where it wasn't two men after the same woman, but a woman and a man both trying to win the loyalty of (in Diana's case) a lover and (in Edward's case) a best friend. Tennyson's In Memoriam, a beautiful elegiac poem to a dead male friend, published in 1850, also came into my mind while I was writing the book, and is quoted in it. The idea for the Oxford home for fallen women came from a tidbit I picked up from a friend who had been researching the history of Jericho - that it was once the red-light area of Oxford. The ideal place for a refuge for prostitutes! I lived in Jericho for four years when I was at University so I knew the area really well, too.
Have you always had an interest in this period in history? Yes. I've certainly always eagerly devoured fiction from and of the Victorian period - I'll read anything between about 1840 and 1900, from the Brontes to Thackeray to Wilde to Mary Elizabeth Braddon (a scandalous bestselling author of the time). I even tried reading Paul Clifford (which famously begins "It was a dark and stormy night ..." but it's pretty terrible, to be honest. There are some wonderful forgotten gems from that time, though - not to mention Michel Faber's superb neo-Victorian novel The Crimson Petal and the White, which I eventually allowed myself to read after handing in the final draft of my book last year.
What is your writing background? I did an English Literature degree at Somerville College in Oxford, and started off writing poetry, then I did an evening course where they made you write fiction and scripts as well, which was where I got more into writing short stories. The stories became longer, and in 2001 I wrote my first (deservedly unpublished) novel - it was dystopian science fiction, very different! I realised that I needed to work on my prose fiction and so I did an MA in Creative Writing at UEA in 2005/6, and started writing The Whores' Asylum in 2007. So it only took five years to get published ... :)
What advice can you give to those wanting to write historical novels? Love your period. If you adore reading about Romans, write about them. If you love the time of Elizabeth I, or the Dark Ages, or Ancient Egypt, or World War II, that's when you should set your novel. Don't think "Oh, Regency books are big this year, maybe I'll do that." You'll have to spend a long while (mentally) in that time so if you're bored by it, so will your reader be. Write what you're interested in, and read at least as much fiction and literature from that period (if possible) as history books about it - that will help you get a sense of how people then thought and felt, which is hugely important in creating a sense of authenticity.
The Whores' Asylum is being re released at the end of the year under the new name 'The Unpierced Heart', what can you tell us about the reason for this? The title The Whores' Asylum was considered too racy for WH Smith and supermarkets to stock it, and those are massively important outlets for paperbacks. Luckily The Whores' Asylum already had a subtitle (like many Victorian novels), which was The Unpierced Heart, so I used that. A pretty easy decision to make, and hopefully it will attract new readers who might be embarrassed to read it on the bus under its original title.
Do you have any other books waiting in the wings for your fans? Yes, I am working on a new novel - it's set in the 1860s in London and is about a housemaid accused of murdering her mistress. It's still a work in progress, though, so I can't say when it might be out - sorry! I do have quite a few short stories online though, if people want to read more; I link to a lot of them on my website, www.katydarby.com
You have done a Masters in Prose, how beneficial did you find this for getting published? Enormously. Spending a year surrounded by fellow writers, reading fantastic classic stories and novels, and doing lots of writing myself was invaluable. The UEA MA was also how I got my first agent, and even if you don't get an agent after the course, simply having done it means agents and publishers take you much more seriously as a writer. Doing an MA shows a commitment to pursuing your writing ambitions as well as honing your craft, and MA courses, because they are often highly selective in terms of who they take, also act as a sort of informal stamp of quality. Which is not at all to say that you have to take an MA to be a good writer - but I know it massively improved my own work. On the other hand, an MA is never (and should never be) a guarantee of getting your novel published. That bit's up to you: but if you're good enough, and you want it enough, it almost always happens, MA or not.
Would you recommend an MA to a keen new writer? Absolutely! Though I wouldn't jump into one straight from a BA - take a few years out to work and live and do stuff first, and you'll appreciate the amazing privilege of being a student again much more when you go back into education.
Female First Lucy Walton