Stuart Turton is a British novelist and journalist.
His first book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, won the First Novel Award at the 2018 Costa Book Awards, and Best Novel at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards.
His second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, won the 2020 Books Are My Bag Fiction Award, and was shortlisted for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger at the Crime Writers’ Association Awards.
After finishing university, Stuart travelled around the world for five years, working at various jobs, including stocking shelves in a bookshop in Darwin, teaching English in Shanghai and writing travel articles in Dubai.
Talking About Books interviewed Stuart about his two crime novels and how his travelling influenced his writing.
TAB: I found The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle mind-blowing. You turn a classic murder mystery into something entirely original. The plot is complex, to say the least. It could not have been an easy book to write. In fact, you have said that writing it was an “awful experience”. How did you come up with the plot and how did you manage to keep it all together?
ST: It took about 15 years to come up with Seven Deaths. I tried writing a murder mystery when I was 21, but it was terrible, and I realized I was lacking an original idea to elevate the material. I went away to come up with something, but the rest of my life happened instead. Then, when I was 36, I was on a flight and the idea just came to me fully formed. I got my laptop out and wrote about 2000 words there and then.
As for keeping it together, it was just a matter of planning. I planned every two minutes of every character’s day in the house, so I always knew exactly what everybody was doing.
TAB: Your second book, The Devil and the Dark Water, takes place in a very different setting: in the 1600s on an East India Company ship, the Saardam, sailing from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam. The ship actually existed. Did you weave some of the historical events into your novel? Why did you choose this particular setting?
ST: I chose the setting because I was looking for something completely different from my first novel, and I’d been fascinated by the wreck of the Batavia—which is a real-life shipwreck. These vessels in this period were basically haunted houses at sea. They were cramped, squalid, and dangerous. Most people who boarded would never make it to their destination. Into that mix you’ve got superstition, the occult, and class dynamics. It just felt like the perfect place for a murder mystery adventure to take place. I think the history found its way into the book just because I wanted it to feel authentic. I wanted the reader to feel like they were on the ship, with these characters, and for that to happen, you had to know what they’d been through.
TAB: What drew you to writing crime fiction?
ST: I loved Agatha Christie as a kid and always wanted to write her type of mysteries. Seven Deaths was my attempt to do that. When you have a successful novel, your publisher then gets you to write more in that vein. I’ve been lucky that I can change the genre around a little, but they still want me to write mysteries.
TAB: Have your extensive travels influenced your writing?
ST: Definitely. It’s more style than content, I think. Travel writing is intended to evoke the destination for the reader, and to put them there with you. You want them to smell the air and feel the heat, and see the thing you’re describing. I try to do that with my books as well. I want each one to be a vivid, tactile experience.
TAB: Tell us more about yourself. Is writing something you have always done?
ST: I travelled extensively after university, and I paid my way around the world by getting writing jobs for magazines and newspapers. I never intended for it to be my career, it was just a way of paying for the next hostel, or meal. But when my travelling finally ended—after five years!—I realized that writing was my only skill, so that was the job I ended up doing.
TAB: What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?
ST: Write the book. Too many would-be authors worry about getting published and waste time on blogs, or interacting with agents on Twitter, but they don’t write the book. It doesn’t matter if you make friends with everybody in the publishing industry if you don’t have a book to show them.
TAB: I love the fact that each of your books is so different while staying in a single genre. It’s no secret that I am a big fan of yours. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I’m looking forward to your next book!