We speak to Colchester author, Laura Purcell, about her latest gothic novel, set in the murky world of the Victorian theatre.

Your new novel, The Whispering Muse, is now out in paperback. Can you tell our readers a little about the book?

The Whispering Muse is a tale of obsession, jealousy and the true cost of obtaining your dreams.

Set in a Victorian theatre, it follows Jenny from the costume department, who has been sent to dress and spy upon actress Lilith Erikson. Lilith dazzles the crowds with an almost superhuman talent, but off stage her life is unhappy. Caught in an affair with the theatre’s manager, there are even rumours that she’s made a dark pact to achieve her success. As Jenny befriends the actress, she begins to fear the gossip may be true, and there will be a catastrophic reckoning not only for Lilith, but the entire cast.

I’ve just finished reading your 2017 novel, The Silent Companions, and loved it – it’s really chilling! What is it that draws you to write spooky stories?

Looking back, I’ve always been drawn towards Gothic stories. During my teenage years I was obsessed with The Phantom of the Opera and Wuthering Heights, and I’m a big fan of horror movies, but it wasn’t really what I planned on writing. I started my career with historical novels about the Hanoverian queens. However, after seeing real life silent companions – wooden dummy boards painted to look like people – I couldn’t get them out of my mind. These creepy objects were just asking for a scary story of their own!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

For most of my life. It was as a teenager that I realised I was meant to be a novelist, but writing is a difficult career path to break into. After leaving school, I went straight to work and kept honing my craft in the background. I worked in a Waterstone’s bookshop, where I met my husband, and later in finance and local government. I was in my thirties before I achieved enough success to make being an author my full-time job.

Great British Life: Laura cites The Corset as her favourite out of all the books she's writtenLaura cites The Corset as her favourite out of all the books she's written (Image: Laura Purcell)

Do you have a favourite amongst your novels?

Of all the books I’ve written so far, my favourite is The Corset. It explores the long-lasting effects of trauma against a backdrop of greed and luxury. Even in the modern day, we consume products without considering the human cost behind them. I loved giving my oppressed seamstress, Ruth, a magical way of fighting back against the system. I feel like The Corset was the novel I was always trying to write, and I still think about Ruth and Dorothea on a regular basis.

Essex is rich in folklore and tales of the uncanny – do you draw inspiration from around the county in your writing?

I would love to write something based on an Essex folktale in the future, or at least set in East Anglia. The Black Shuck legend in particular appeals to me.

Fortunately, I’ve always lived within walking distance of a country park and been able to draw inspiration from nature. Wandering through Essex woodlands is one of my greatest joys. It helped me create a spooky forest atmosphere while writing Roanoke Falls, a horror podcast executive produced by John Carpenter.

Your novels are largely set in the Victorian era – what is it that attracts you to this period?

The Victorian era was one of change, bursting with new and sometimes wild ideas. This is perfect for Gothic stories, as it puts my characters on an unsteady footing. What do they choose to believe when seemingly impossible discoveries are being made every year?

I also like to play with the rigid class structure of the period. Characters on the edge of society, caught between opposing worlds are ideal for my genre.

There seems to be a real appetite for ghost stories in popular culture right now – why do you think this is?

In a literary sense, ghosts often represent guilt or an inability to escape the past. That’s a feeling everyone can relate to, whether it’s your own actions or a familial link.

Today, I believe tales of the supernatural are particularly important as a vehicle for exploring our darker emotions. Fear is something you often face alone. There’s a stigma of ‘weakness’ attached to it. Similarly, death has become a taboo subject in our society. Stories are a great way of helping us confront these subjects in a safe place, without judgement.

Who are your favourite authors?

There are so many writers who have inspired me in different ways. The classics were hugely influential to me growing up, and I owe a debt to Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Hardy and Eliot to name but a few. In recent years I’ve loved Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Sarah Waters, Philippa Gregory and Kate Morton.

Have you read any good books lately?

I’m currently reading Beloved by Toni Morrison, a modern classic and very different kind of ghost story. It’s been on my list for a long time. After that I’m looking forward to The Temple of Fortuna, the last instalment in Elodie Harper’s ancient Pompeii trilogy.

When you’re not busy writing, what are your favourite places to visit around the county?

I’m a sucker for stately homes, so Hylands House and Audley End are big favourites of mine. I also love the castles at Hedingham and Colchester. Lastly, the beautiful village of Finchingfield, particularly its duck pond, holds happy childhood memories for me.

The Whispering Muse, published by Raven Books, is out on 18th January.

Great British Life: The Whispering Muse is Laura's latest novelThe Whispering Muse is Laura's latest novel (Image: Laura Purcell)