When I decided to review Biddy Trott, a gothic novella by Donna Maria McCarthy, I had no idea what I was in for. I haven’t read gothic fiction in a long while and I certainly didn’t anticipate coming across a work as much subtle as it is absurd, as much vivid as it is dark and dense, a work profoundly evocative and masterful in its execution. An accidental find I made as I walk the path of dark fiction.
It was a discovery that led me to ponder many things. So I invited Donna Maria McCarthy to chat with me about gothic fiction, as I prepare to write my debut in the genre, and am immersed in studying the form. I hope you enjoy reading my questions and Donna’s answers.
I often wonder what leads a writer into the dark side and what compels them to stay there. You’ve been writing gothic literature for many years now. What are your thoughts on the matter? What makes you write dark fiction?
For myself (this is no way a board stroke) I cannot say any one thing compelled me or altered my mind from the age of reason until now. I know many authors have either personal tragedy or adversity fuelling their fires but I cannot say that I have – at least nothing that occurred to me in the first instance as Gothic Horror even from a very young age inspired me. I say Horror but would say that my first love came from Alice in Wonderland, which although a strange observation – I find quite dark and a little Gothic. Obviously life enriches us all and whether it is through pain or pleasure we all become more rounded individuals – and how we pluck inspiration from within or draw on experience is in no way an indication of personal character at least for my mind. I had someone recently ask me how I managed to write such horrors – it was eye opening as she was truly astounded by it – I simply replied that anyone’s imagination on close inspection might be held up to critique and that authors are a brave and honest breed. I’m not sure she liked it but I’m not sure I enjoyed what she inferred.
I believe you are right. I think nothing reveals the whole human mind (and not our best face, the one we like to project on the world) better that dark fiction. In this sense, authors of dark fiction are laying themselves bare. Before I started writing horror, I had no idea how broad the genre is and how many different kinds of horror fiction there are. Gothic fiction is special. It pre-dates the horror genre by centuries. Who are your favourite Gothic authors? Who have been your biggest influences?
Hopefully I don’t sound boring but on leaving school (where early classics were hardly touched upon) I became bewitched by the following – not only their more famous works but by everything they wrote:
Robert Louis Stevenson
There are many more and more contemporary ones too.
An impressive list! I currently live in Australia, where a form of Gothic literature has emerged, one rooted in bleak settings and dark Colonial history. I wonder if Gothic is the right label for such works, and no doubt purists would bristle at the broadening of the definition. Yet if we narrow the term Gothic to stories set in creepy old ancient houses on the edges of cliffs, things start to look stale and old. What do you think makes a work worthy of the title Gothic?
That’s a great point and I’m not sure I can answer it! People have always referred to me as very soulful and Gothic and called my writing this with no prompt. I have to be honest, I never picked up a book because it was Gothic and I never intend to write that way, so the question has befuddled me. It’s incredibly perceptive too as I have been thinking on it recently. If I had to answer I would say that which distinguishes Gothic Horror from other types of Horror is the ability to portray or find beauty in the most gruelling or desperate text. To find terror divine and wish to drink it in as opposed to wanting to turn the page to find a hero or something that will numb you from what you have just read.
An ample answer that has given me much to think about. Just as there are many kinds of horror novels, a diverse range of fiction comes under Gothic umbrella. Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley and the Brontes were the forerunners. Now, Gothic includes everything from Elizabeth Kosova’s The Historian which is comparatively light in tone, to Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, both dark and disturbing. Then there are works like your own Biddy Trott, which are darker still. What motivated you to write a work as pithy and dark as Biddy Trott and does it exemplify the sort of Gothic fiction you write?
I am never sure why any one book that I write comes out so dark; I usually get inspired by one word – whether somebody speaks it or I read it in a different way to how I usually would. When I read I want to eat up the page – devour it like forbidden fruits and maybe that’s why I write such full text. The only analogy I can give you is that when I write it’s lustful to me and I never feel so alive – many times there are so many words that I can’t type quickly enough and this infuriates me. I’m always at that eureka point and so eternally frustrated too.
And yes, all my works are of this tone and I believe I can say, always shall be.
You’ve subverted some Gothic stereotypes in Biddy Trott. Particularly the damsel in distress. Do you think modern Gothic is more about subversion than it is mood building?
I love this observation and yes, modern Gothic Horror is edgy and has had to be, and sometimes offending people’s principles or upending their pre conceptions is kind of wonderful – a bit of a feast. However Gothic has always stretched people’s tolerance in my opinion, and this is maybe why I enjoy it so much. In a homogenised world where everything blends so as we are all acceptable to each other, Gothic Horror stands alone offering no excuses, only a demand that you read, enjoy and are touched, even if you are ashamed to say it.
I think Gothic is a porous genre in the sense that many works have one foot in and the other out, and could be classified as thrillers or romance or horror, or plain literary fiction. How does as writer ensure they have both feet in the genre?
Great question though I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer as I am rooted thoroughly in Gothic Horror with no wish or need to venture out. So maybe that is the answer? Maybe feeling 100% at home somewhere stops you straying and makes your writing pure.
I’m embarking on my first Gothic novel. I think I have always had a sense of Gothic in me, and long ago I identified my muse –she who must be obeyed — as a barefooted, wild-haired young woman in a red ball gown. She’s rooted in the nineteenth century. I call her Scarlet and she’s untameable. What is your relationship with your creativity? How does it affect your life?
Isobel, I’m already fascinated! I have a very dark muse, and if Scarlet speaks to you then maybe this is where you have always belonged? You obviously have a passion for the genre and write such beautiful text. My relationship with my creativity is that I am completely dominated by it – don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy that part and it’s what makes me me, but I am in no way master of my imagination. In fact I do believe no one is, for then surely we wouldn’t enjoy it or be transported.
What advice and tips do you have for Gothic novices like me? Should I adhere to the strictures of plot and motif? Should I experiment? Or be subversive?
I would be yourself and loyal to only you. Whatever you create is what was meant to be and if you are impassioned as you so obviously are then what an absolute treat!
Basically in a word – FEAST!
Where are you heading next in your writing?
I’m writing a series of novellas to accompany Biddy Trott. Although these aren’t follow on works. And I’m writing a Gothic Horror novel at the same time.
Sounds like you have your work cut out for the foreseeable. I look forward with relish to reading what comes next. Donna Maria McCarthy, thank you very much for participating in this conversation!