The US expat tells us about her new book with an extremely long title.
The american émigré on her new novel set in Victorian London
novelists often talk about creating protagonists who seem to act independently, but this had never happened to Lisa Tuttle. Until, that is, she met one Miss Lane, late Victorian-era resident of 203A Gower Street, London, and one half of the Jesperson and Lane detecting duo. “She’s not me, but I hear her voice and her story comes with her,” says Tuttle.
And quite a story it is, as George RR Martin realised when Tuttle sent a Jesperson and Lane short story, The Curious Affair Of The Dead Wives, to her co-author and friend for inclusion in Rogues, a 2014 collection the big beard co-edited with Gardner Dozois. “George said, ‘This feels like the beginning of a novel, are you intending to write more?’” says Tuttle. “‘Oh not a novel,’ I said.”
Sometimes, in the best possible way, things don’t work out. After toying with the idea of shorter fiction, Tuttle realised a Jesperson and Lane novel would actually be far easier to sell, and the rather wonderful The Curious Affair Of The Somnambulist And The Psychic Thief was born. It’s an origin story set in 1893, which shows the duo – clever and composed Miss Lane, and eccentric, hyperactive, “excessively tall” Jasper Jesperson – teaming up.
The choice of year was important. “One of the reasons I’m so attracted to that period is it was getting to the point where there was much more resistance to the Victorian certainties – ‘You have to do this’ – and much more awareness, certainly on the part of women, that it doesn’t always work out.” Especially for spinsters at a time when people talked about the “surplus women problem”.
“[It’s] not that there were too many more women than men, but the number of men who could actually support a wife: there weren’t enough,” Tuttle explains. “Plus you often had women who would be looking after their parents because the other sisters got married off, and they were the ones who all the family duties devolved on, and their parents are dead and what do they do?”
For the wealthy, this wasn’t necessarily a problem, but for even middle-class women without capital, such scenarios could be potentially disastrous. “She is in a society where she has to be constantly on her guard, she’s vulnerable,” says Tuttle of Lane.
That doesn’t mean she’s weak. As Jesperson and Lane’s first adventure unfolds, it’s clear Lane, for all her partner has elements of Holmes about him, is no bumbling but brave Watson. Instead, she’s smart, self-assured and practical, a proto-feminist largely unfazed by a case involving a sleepwalker, missing mediums and decidedly eldritch happenings.
Which may make her a little more like Tuttle than the author concedes because the American’s career has been full of moments when she took a leap. Growing up in Houston, Texas, she remembers, she was somehow aware writers didn’t make a lot of money, but she decided to become an author anyway. “I realised, ‘Well, I may have to have a job so that I can then write the books I like,” she says.
Her career got off to a flying start and she began selling stories while she was still in college. In 1971, she attended the Clarian Writers Workshop where her tutors included Samuel R Delaney, Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison. In 1974, she won the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer. “When you’re 18 or 19, you don’t know, you think that’s how it works,” she says when SFX suggests her younger self didn’t realise how lucky she was.
north of the border
In 1981, she married fellow writer Christopher Priest and moved to the UK. When the marriage failed, she stayed, thinking to herself, “I’ve got a book contract, I’m writing a book, I’m here so I think I’ll stay here and see if I can make it, continuing to be a freelance writer.”
In 1990, possibly to avoid writing another Casualty novelisation (Megan’s Story under the pseudonym Laura Waring, since you’re asking), she and new partner, crime writer Colin Murray, moved to rural Scotland and a house “in the middle of a forest on the shores of a loch”. When SFX meets her in London, it’s a rare foray south.
Throughout her career, certain threads have run through her work, notably feminism (she’s written an Encyclopaedia Of Feminism), along with what you might call a slipstream sensibility, which has permeated her fantasy, SF and horror. “One thing that always appealed to me, and still does, is the intrusion of something weird, strange, inexplicable into the normal,” she says, “whether that’s time travel or a ghost or madness, I like all those things.”
On which subject the next, as yet untitled Jesperson and Lane book will find the duo in East Anglia. What could possibly happen in such workaday surroundings? “It involves the Shrieking Pits of North Norfolk, and witches, and a man who’s trying to set up a school of ancient British wisdom,” she says. It sounds great.
The Curious Affair Of The Somnambulist And The Psychic Thief is published by Jo Fletcher Books on 16 June.