Stuart Turton is a freelance journalist who lives in West London with his wife. Stuart is not to be trusted—in the nicest possible way. 2018’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was his first novel, which he has followed with The Devil and the Dark Water and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Devil and the Dark Water?
My inspiration was getting stuck in Australia when I was 23 – 17 years ago, now. Eek. I missed my flight out of the country and ended up wandering around the Maritime Museum in Perth waiting for another flight. While I was in there I came across the story of the Batavia shipwreck, which happened in 1629. It’s a horrible story. 200 people survived the wreck, but when the captain sailed off to get help he left them in the custody of a psychopath. By the time he came back 125 of the survivors had been butchered. That story stuck with me, and when it came time to write something else I decided I wanted that period, and the atmosphere of that ship, but not the real-life story. It was too bleak. I wanted something light, and fun, and clever, and scary, with a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery at its heart.
Are Arent, Sara, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Arent is based on a soldier called Wiebbe Hayes, who was on board the Batavia when it was wrecked in real life. He fought back against the psychopath and managed to protect a number of the survivors. He even managed to capture the psychopath and deliver him to justice. Creesjie Jans is based on a noblewoman called Lucretia Jans, who was also on board the Batavia. Lucretia’s story is soul-destroying, so I borrowed her strength and beauty, but fictionalized everything else. The other characters aren’t based on anybody specific, but they all span out of my research into the period and reflect various characters I bumped into.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
This novel changed massively over the two years I was writing it. Initially, it was much more globetrotting and had large chunks set in Jakarta, Amsterdam, and other places. In the end, it was too unfocused. I liked the claustrophobia of the boat and having a locked-room mystery for my characters to get their teeth into. For that to work, you need an isolated location and an unchanging cast of characters. It became obvious as I wrote that I needed to tighten the plot up, and that’s when I got the book I wanted. As a result, there’s absolutely nothing I cut that I wanted published.
You describe the Saardam in such great detail and in a way that allows readers unfamiliar with this type of ship to visualize the locations and how they interconnect. Were you familiar with 17th-century sailing ships prior to writing The Devil and the Dark Water? If so, how/why? If not, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?
I wasn’t, except what little I’d seen in the exhibition that inspired the story. I ended up doing a lot of research into these ships, including visiting one. There’s a place called Lelystadt in the Netherlands where they rebuilt the Batavia – which was the ship that inspired my book. They used the same construction techniques that would have been used when it was built in 1628, and they even sail her around. I walked around that boat for two days and pestered the staff with questions until I understood how it worked. That trip was what gave me the sense of claustrophobia, and how unpleasant life aboard would have been for the passengers and crew. Even with thirty other visitors, it felt horribly tight. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like with over 300. The problem was, the ship was only one part of the research. I had to throw myself into this period, so I could understand the life experiences of my characters. I had to know what life was like for women in this period. What a soldier’s life would have been, and where he would have fought. I had to dig into the occult, demonology, and superstition. Then I had to work out what I could safely throw away to make the plot work. All told, researching this book probably took three months, and a further two years to write. There was a lot to balance. It was intense.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about sailing ships during your research?
That sailors would end up washing their clothes in urine rather than saltwater because saltwater would make them too itchy. On the long list of disgusting facts that is probably the most disgusting.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I’ve usually got a few books on the go at the same time. I’m currently reading Leave the World Behind, which is beginning to come into focus. For the longest time, it was very creepy but I had no idea what was going on. I’m also reading The Porpoise by Mark Haddon, which is one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time. It’s so deftly written and manages to be constantly surprising. I love it.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Oh god, I’m going to sound totally soulless here, but nothing really impacts me very much. I’m one of those lucky people who doesn’t suffer too much from highs or lows. I enjoy things a great deal, but mostly I’m made from cogs and springs. When my two-year-old daughter says she loves me you’ll see the mechanism stutter slightly, but that’s about the only thing that can do it.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Hey Stu, can I give you ten million dollars for simply being you. The answer is yes.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on book 3, but it’s really early so I can’t say too much about it. It’s utterly bonkers, which I like, and I’m utterly terrified by it, which I don’t. At its centre is an idea I’m not sure I can pull off, which is pretty much how Seven Deaths and Devil got started, so it’s weirdly reassuring.