Glorious Poison: An Interview with Kat Dunn
What prompted you to choose the time period for the series? What is it about the French Revolution that drew you?
I knew I wanted to set the book in the aftermath of a revolution. For a while I thought about a second world fantasy, so started researching real world revolutions for inspiration, but the more I read about the French Revolution the more I realised I didn’t need to come up with a fantasy world - there was so many fantastical things happening in the real world. For example, they created an entirely new calendar and currency! The fantastical elements of the books are also inspired by Enlightenment experiments with electricity, so it also made sense to keep the books tied to the time period.
How much research does such a story require? How much research did you have to do (did you already have knowledge of this period)?
I feel like with research you can do endless amounts and still feel like you’ve not done enough. I had a certain amount of knowledge of the period, but more about England than France, so I wanted to research as much as I could the details of daily life, fashion, food, what a typical home would look like, what walking down the street would feel like. It was a challenge to research because the revolutionary period was so fast changing that there aren’t hard and fast rules. I looked to contemporary literature, as well as modern films and books set in the period to try and get a clear flavour of the world my characters inhabited.
I am also curious - and maybe some of our readers will be if they have read any of the books - how do you decide on character names? Some are very French, some are true characters from the time, and others, Ada for example, don’t sound French at all! I like the combination and I wonder how important character names are to you and to this story?
I love choosing character names, though I always wish I could be cleverer about it. All the names (except for the English characters) are in use in France. Ada I wanted to name after Ada Lovelace, but Adelaide does have a French form (Adélaïde). I looked to the history of the period for some names, for example Camille is named after Camille Desmoulins and Olympe after Olympe de Gouges. And then some names are pure self indulgent choices – Al for example is short for Aloysious, the name of Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear in Brideshead Revisited. But it still has a link to France – Aloysious comes from the same root as Louis, the name of many Kings of France.
It is very important that any readers follow the books in this series in order; the story is complex and vivid. Did you set out with a trilogy in mind and the story mapped out?
Yes! I always knew this was one story told over three books. Though the final book changed the most in the process of writing and editing the first two, I always knew the ending I was working towards. My favourite thing about series is being able to seed hints of things to come in future books, and to see characters change and grow across a longer time scale.
As a debut author of fiction - though as someone familiar with writing - was it daunting to come up with this idea and then put pen to paper, to see it become reality?
Yes, and no. Dangerous Remedy was not my first book by a long shot, but it was the first I really thought could have a chance of finding an agent and a publisher. So I think I felt more excited and nervous than daunted.
There is science, magic, love and rebellion in each of the books. How much freedom do you allow yourself as a writer to use the real world you are writing about and at the same time create your own world around it?
I think the two things feed off each other. The real world is full of so many fascinated, exciting, horrific things, and as a writer, you’re in constant conversation with the real world, however fantastical the world you write about. In terms of historical accuracy, I tried to stay loyal to the spirit of the era, and not to include anything that would be too jarring to people familiar with the time – but at the same time, the whole series hinges on the idea of electricity working in a very different way than we know it does, so readers were always going to need to suspended their disbelief somewhat!
As the series progresses, the settings change. How challenging was it to move your mind between locations and keep the descriptions accurate whilst at the same time keeping the essential links between character and place ?
I didn’t find this aspect too difficult. The locations were so tied into the characters and plot points that they lived quite independently in my mind alongside the rest of the story, so it felt natural to shift setting when I wrote different scenes. In fact, moving around more was half the fun of it!
Was it important to you to research each of the locations you use for the story and keep the places and the people as authentic as possible?
Yes, as best I could. I think what’s so appealing about historical fiction is the chance to time travel, to live in a lost world if only for a few hours, so I wanted to make sure settings like the Vauxhall pleasure gardens or Paris’ Palais Royal felt real and tangible. But we also have certain preconceptions of who lived in the past, and I wanted to make sure I challenged that, because the reality is our world has always been a diverse one in so many ways.
How did you decide which voices to tell the story? You very likely knew which characters would be in the story for all 3 books and who we might lose... does this dictate whose voice tells the story?
I started writing the first draft with chapters from the perspective of all the Battalion members, but that quickly got too complicated. I always knew Camille and Ada were the heart of the books, so I told the story from their perspectives, and with each book I expanded the number of point of views because the story demanded to be told from more angles, both to follow different aspects of the plot but also to allow each character space to grow and develop.
I knew from the start who was going to make it out the other side and who wasn’t, so I wanted to make sure I told the story from their perspective too, to make that death have real impact… is that a bit of a spoiler?
You have started your writing career with a historical series - with some elements of fantasy, too. Is this a genre you would like to stay in, or do you see yourself branching out? Are you open to writing standalone books in the future as well as more trilogies/duologies or even series?
I love history, so I think one way or another that will always play a role in what I write. I’m definitely up for writing some stand alones – a trilogy was a fantastic experience but exhausting! I would be nice to get to write lots of different ideas in stand alone.
Is there a historical period that you would like to have lived in, and is there one that you would particularly like to visit?
I’d love to visit almost any period if just for a few days! I grew up in London and I’d be curious to get to see it in different eras. I think, as a bi woman, there’s not many other eras I’d be able to live in and have the same sort of life as I do now, but I’d definitely like to tourist for a bit.
I have tried to keep my questions from revealing too much about the story of the Battalion of the Dead in case readers want to discover it for themselves but can you tell us anything about any future projects?
I’m currently working on a standalone gothic horror romantic fantasy that’s not yet been announced so there’s not much more I can say!
Finally, our readers are book lovers, do you have any tips for any of them who may like to try their hand at writing?
My main tips would be to write what you enjoy (if you’re bored, your reader will be bored!), and to read as much as you can in the genre you’re writing in. It’s really helpful to get to know what’s currently being written and what you’re in conversation with.
Glorious Poison by Kat Dunn, published by Zephyr, is out now (£14.99).