The Penmen Profile: A Q&A with Award-Winning Fiction Writer Caitlin Starling

by Nicholas Patterson

Caitlin Starling

Photo by Beth Olson Creative (2017)

Caitlin Starling is an award-winning fiction writer who creates original and unique horror stories that encapsulate speculative fiction’s broad reach. For example, you can probably find “Luminous Dead” on the science fiction shelf of your local bookstore, although this novel is not your typical sci-fi work. Starling considers herself “stubborn” enough for the writing industry; her determination helped her find a space for her niche topics in the publishing world. The Penmen Review recently had a chance to ask Starling about her experiences with writing and publishing, including her Ladies of Horror Fiction Best Debut novel, “Luminous Dead.”

Have you always written?

Yes, always. I was sneaking onto writing forum boards at 11 (and pointedly lying about my age to all and sundry), and completing National Novel Writing Month by 15. There was a spell after high school through a few years post-college where I’d given up on writing anything original, though. I was sure it would be a waste of time – financially and emotionally – so instead I spent all my writing time on fanfiction and written role play with friends. It was very fun and let me get in a lot of low-stakes practice. Then when an original idea reared its head again, I was able to grab hold and not let go.

How do you choose the way your stories unfold in your writing?

I do start out these days with a very rough three act outline, just to judge that the story is the right shape overall. But when it comes to chapter or scene level decisions, in most cases, it’s me asking myself what I’d find most fun or interesting to write next and ignoring what I feel like I “should” write. I craft scenes and whole character arcs based on what would make me go, “Oh, yes!” if I encountered it in another book. Sometimes this feels wildly self-indulgent, but I’ve gotten good at ignoring that and carrying on anyway.

If I hit snags, though (and I do, often), I fall back into analysis. I figure out, very clinically, where I’m coming from, where I’m going, and all the ways that could be accomplished. If I already have something that’s not working, I tear it apart to figure out what it’s doing and why it isn’t right. But once I’ve done all that, I still always go for the option I’ve presented myself that is the most fun for me, personally.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?

Confidence, a lot of the time. I know I just said I go with what I personally want and try not to feel too self-indulgent, but the truth is, it still hits. Often. I can usually get past it in the moment, but when you’re facing down a revision pass, or about to send the book to publishers, it’s very easy to get caught up in your head. I spend a lot of time worrying that I’ve presented myself as an expert I’m actually not, and that somebody is going to realize I’m just playing with little dolls in my head and making it sound pretty.

Yes, that does sound exactly like what writing is supposed to be. Yes, of course I somehow think that I should be different and more rigorous. The trick is usually just to wait out the spike of irrational panic, and if that doesn’t work, just read over everything again, and remember that I do actually like what I write.

What was the road to publication like for you?The Death of Jane Lawrence

I got very lucky.

Like I’ve mentioned, I spent several years assuming publication wasn’t a real option anyway, and just had fun. Somehow, amongst all of that fun, I wrote what became “The Luminous Dead,” and then sat there, blinking at it and wondering what I’d have to do next – because it was good, and because I thought I owed it to myself to try.

It took over a year, but I signed with my agent on that first book, with only a few revision passes while I waited. We sold the book within three months. It’s kept on going from there, and I have no idea how I’ve managed that, but I’m doing my best to hold on.

How do you market your work?

Very informally. I talk about it on social media, with a fair amount of honesty (and honest excitement). I make pretty graphics when I have the time and inclination, and I try not to be too shy about putting myself forward for opportunities and say yes even when those opportunities are intimidating. I try not to tip overboard into all sales talk all the time. For the heavy lifting, I rely on the reach my publishers have.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing that you know now?

Honestly, I think if I’d known anything more, I would have chickened out (again). And I don’t think I would have trusted myself or anybody else if they’d assured me that what I wanted to write (traumatized, manipulative lesbians in caves? Bizarre mathematical medical magical gothic romance? Paranoid poisoners being stalked by plants?) was commercially viable.

Maybe I just wish that I’d known that I am stubborn enough for the industry!

How do you stay focused and organized while working on multiple projects?

I try not to have multiple projects, mostly! (It doesn’t work very well.) I do try to stagger projects by stage, so that I’m not outlining or drafting two things at once. I’m very firm about personal deadlines, too.

It also helps if the projects have distinctly different styles/voices. It can take a bit of effort to switch gears between distinct projects, but once I’m in one, I’m unlikely to blur into the other if they just sound different.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?

Martha Wells has talked openly about the ups and downs of her career, and that’s been absolutely invaluable to me. It’s demystified a lot and helped me understand that you can be an astounding author, have terrible lows in a career, and come back from them (and that, terrifyingly, those lows and the comebacks will often be out of your direct power). You just have to keep pushing and change things that aren’t working anymore.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke – it’s like living in an oceanic fever dream. One of my absolute favorite books I’ve read in recent years, and it’s a beautiful object, as well.

“The Human Bone Manual” by Pieter Arend Folkens and Tim D. White, because sometimes you just really need to look up some bones.

“The Death of Jane Lawrence,” by me, because there’s something magical about it finally existing in print. I wrote it after I started querying but before I’d signed with my agent, and it has gone through so many dense revisions. I love every page of it, and it’s a powerful symbol that I can keep writing books that I love.