A Bas Bleu Mysteries Book a Month 2019 pick, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has the feel of a classic murder mystery, but with a unique twist: The protagonist, Aiden Bishop, is stuck in a time loop, where he inhabits the body of a different guest of an isolated country estate every day until he figures out who will murder/has murdered Evelyn Hardcastle. It’s an enthralling, poignant look at humanity wrapped up in an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit. This week, we had the pleasure of (virtually) sitting down with the author, Stuart Turton, to chat about how his journalism career informed his fiction writing, the tricks he used to keep his complex plot in order, and how “killing your darlings” really can make a better book.
Bas Bleu: Your professional background is in journalism. How did you make the shift to novel writing? Did your experience as a journalist influence this new creative endeavor, or did you draw inspiration from other aspects of your life?
Stuart Turton: I always wanted to write novels, but I didn’t know how. I moved into journalism because I wanted to learn how to write and it seemed a great way of earning money while doing something adjacent to the job I wanted. Problem was, I had a great time being a journalist and got so distracted I didn’t really start my novel until I was thirty-three. That turned out to be a blessing for me, because, by that point, I’d travelled loads, met loads of different types of (horrible) people, and had a ton of strange experiences. Whenever I needed a description for the book, I usually had something odd from my own life to draw on. The other benefit of being a journalist first was that I learned to be edited. I learned to value the experience rather than fearing it. Novel writing is such a collaborative thing that not being precious about my words really helped.
BB: The plot of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is…well, complex hardly covers it. The thought of keeping track of all of those elements while writing makes our heads spin! How did you stay organized? What particular pieces of the puzzle gave you the most trouble?
ST: Ha, my head was a knot by the time I finished that book. Before I ever wrote a word of the book I created a massive spreadsheet detailing every two minutes of every character’s day in the house, then overlaid that over a map of the house and grounds which I’d drawn. That kept me honest, because it meant no character could teleport from one place to another, or overhear something they couldn’t possibly have overheard. The hardest thing to plot was the murder, by far. After all, if you’ve got a time-travelling detective, why wouldn’t he simply follow the victim around all day and watch how she died? To combat that, I had to come up with a clever murder that could outwit him, but also felt like a murder a real person would commit. It was hard.
BB: In a previous interview, you mentioned that at one point you had to dump around 40,000 words of your manuscript. What can you tell us about that experience? Was there anything in that chunk that you kept, or anything you retrospectively wish you could have worked in?
ST: That was heartbreaking. The novel was so densely plotted that every time I veered slightly away from my plan, everything completely fell apart. This was a lesson I learned the hard way after I’d spent three months trying to write around an idea that wasn’t in the plan, but I wanted to keep. I spent 40,000 words trying to do it, before realizing I had to go back to the plan. There was nothing I could keep and now, to be honest, I think it was all terrible—so I’m glad it’s gone.
BB: Each character that Aiden inhabits serves a very specific purpose within the story. Did you create the characters and then figure out where they fit in the narrative, or did you craft each one around a particular skill set or characteristic—or something completely different? Which character was the most difficult to write? Which was the easiest?
ST: I created each character to service the plot, so when I needed to slow the story down I introduced an obese banker who’s a million times smarter than everybody else in the house. He couldn’t move very far, but he could think everything through and start putting plans into place the other hosts wouldn’t have thought of. If I needed to introduce a bit of action, I created a lithe, athletic character who was stupid, but who could crash around the house, making mistakes. The most difficult to write was the socialite heir Jonathan Derby. He does terrible things in the novel; he was based on a few aristocrats who did similar things and got away with them because they were wealthy. The research for that was heartbreaking. The easiest was my obese banker. My protagonist is very cruel about his weight and, initially, only sees him as a hindrance. As the novel goes on he realizes the value of his intellect and comes to miss him. That was a great arc to write.
BB: Trust and forgiveness are two major themes in The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Did you know from the start that they would be at the heart of the story, or did that develop organically? Did your personal perspective on trust and forgiveness change or evolve over the course of writing the book?
ST: I didn’t know what any of the themes would be, truth be told. I started with the plot, and from that came the characters, and then the themes. Trust and forgiveness sort of happened organically as I began to work out why this was happening, and how a character caught in this situation would react. My personal perspective on trust and forgiveness is hugely simple—trust is hard and forgiveness harder. I think those beliefs made it into the book wholesale.
BB: We don’t see anything of the world outside the Blackheath Estate, and what little we do know about it we learn from character commentary. Is there a fully fleshed-out world beyond the boundaries of Blackheath, or was it simply the frame for Aiden’s narrative? Any plans to show us more of that world in future books?
ST: There is a fully fleshed-out world, but I don’t want to explore it. I like the idea that there are still questions to be answered. I enjoy the feeling of this being one small corner of a greater universe, and that this story can continue in an entirely different direction. It’s not a book I want to write just yet, but who knows… I might come back to it in the future.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
ST: That’s a lot of weight to put on a book! I loved Agatha Christie mysteries and wanted to write one since I was eight. Seeing as the last few years of my life have been all about The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which is a very obvious Christie tribute, I’d have to say anything by her.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?
ST: My favorite author is Arundhati Roy, and I recommend The God of Small Things to everybody who’ll listen. I love Raymond Chandler novels, and most things by Claire North, Madeline Miller, and Ali Smith.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
ST: I’m working on my second book now, and it’s utter madness. I can’t wait for people to get hold of it. It’s another murder mystery, but in a completely different setting. It’s really fun. And big.
BB: Thank you, Stuart Turton, for taking us “behind the scenes” of this singular novel!
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