An Interview with Lauren Owen

Lauren Owen juggles writing fiction with researching a PhD at Durham University.

Most students at Durham University might struggle to make it to a 9am lecture at Elvet Riverside (even if it is the only lecture of the day). Lauren Owen, however, has managed to write her debut novel alongside working on a research PhD. The Quick has been described as ‘a feast of gothic storytelling’, and brings together Owen’s love of the Victorian era, the gothic and the supernatural. The Bubble’s literature editors conducted an interview to probe Lauren’s influences, and to discover how she managed to avoid the Twilight stereotypes…

The Bubble: The Independent has called The Quick ‘a feast of gothic storytelling’. Where did your interest in gothic fiction come from, and what was it that made you want to write your own gothic novel?

Lauren Owen: As a child I loved ghost stories, I was fascinated by anything creepy or gothic – even if a book gave me nightmares, if it had ghosts or monsters in then I had to read it. I find the gothic a fascinating mode to study and write in because it’s so outrageous and full of possibility. I think that there are parts of the human mind and human experience that aren’t safe or rational, and the gothic is a helpful way to explore these places.

Could you share some of your favourite gothic novels with us?

I’m particularly drawn to the fin de siècle gothic, so works like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray are favourites of mine. I also love M. R. James’ ghost stories. Recently I’ve moved away from the nineteenth century a bit, and have discovered Shirley Jackson’s work – The Haunting of Hill House is wonderful. As far as works by living authors go, I particularly enjoyed John Harding’s Florence and Giles, and Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter.

Your publishers say that you started out writing Harry Potter fan fiction, and The Quick is your debut novel. How have you found the journey between stating to write and having your first novel published?

There have been lots of surprises along the way. When I wrote stories as a child it was pure enjoyment – I wasn’t thinking about publication or even writing well, I just did it because it was fun. There have been some gruelling and alarming moments between then and now, but the same joy is still there – as long as I can keep in touch with that, I feel that things are going alright.

What did you find the biggest stumbling block in realising The Quick?

My first draft of the novel was incredibly long and convoluted. I think that anyone trying to read the book at that point would have given up in rage and confusion. It took me a while to work out that I should divide the book in two. And then of course once I’d actually made the decision, it all seemed obvious and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t worked it out sooner.

You’ve completed two MAs and are currently researching a PhD here in Durham; has your academic work helped your writing and how do you manage to balance your time? Most of us struggle just making it to lectures!

My academic work is related to the subject matter of The Quick and its sequel, so my studies are very helpful in turning up new ideas and ways of looking at the gothic (and vampires in particular). But time balancing is definitely difficult, and I tend to feel guilty about not writing when I’m studying, and vice versa. I have to remind myself that other people can balance study with a job, so I should be able to manage it too.

Did you have a particular audience in mind when writing The Quick, and did you see yourself as bringing something new to the literary landscape?

Whilst I was writing, I wasn’t really thinking about how the book might be read by other people. But I edited in the hope it would appeal to people who like a thoughtful treatment of the supernatural, who enjoy reading and gothic adventures, people who are interested in the nineteenth century, fans of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. I hope that people will find it a fresh and interesting take on the vampire story.

The Quick opens around the end of the Victorian era, and even reads like a Victorian novel with its three-part structure. Do you think it’s fair to say the Victorian era has a strong cultural resonance for us today, and why do you think that might be? What made it the right historical setting for The Quick?

I’m fascinated by our fascination with the Victorian era – I’m actually hoping to write about that in my next book. I think that part of the appeal is that it’s so tantalizingly close – for the first time we have photographs, more newspapers and other works in print. There are also far more tangible pieces of history left – buildings, sewers, clothes. I think that we go to the Victorian era to look for ourselves – the birth of modernity, the discoveries and reforms that led to where we are now. And we define ourselves against the Victorians – we look back and reflect that however unjust or intolerant our society is today, at least things are better now than they were then. Victorian repression and hypocrisy have become a kind of fetish.

Vampires have been a salient feature of much popular literature recently, but your treatment of them in The Quick is certainly distinctive. What informed or inspired your use of vampires in the novel – were you bothered at all by the inevitable association of vampires with Twilight?

Dracula was probably my biggest point of reference when writing the book, along with a number of other nineteenth century vampires. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla was the most important of these – it has a vampire who’s sympathetic and argues for her right to exist. I also had Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, and Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot in mind whilst I was writing. People did tend to assume I was writing something similar to Twilight – I felt bad disappointing them!

Family relationships feature prominently in The Quick; what is it about this sort of bond that you find so compelling for literary treatment?

I find family relationships fascinating in literature and in real life – it’s so interesting to see someone in the context of their family, the different roles people adopt, the incredible closeness that can exist between family members.

Geography plays an important part in The Quick, with characters moving between Yorkshire and London. The capital city seems to be a source of change and disruption in the characters’ lives; would you say this is a fair assessment, and were your choices of location important when configuring the plot?

I would definitely say that this is the case. Middle-class Victorians saw parts of their London as dangerous, unknown terrain, and I wanted to reflect this in the book. I also think that London is the natural place for modern writers to approach the Victorians – the city is so important in nineteenth-century literature. What I really like is the fact that the Victorians were aware of the historical appeal of their city – starting the blue plaques scheme in 1866, for instance. And now they’ve left their mark on London and become part of its past.

Finally, are you able to intrigue us with an insight into what might come next for you?

I’m currently working on a sequel for The Quick, set in the present day – some of the same characters feature in the book, and it’s nice to work with them again.

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