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Interview: September 18, 2018

THE 7½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE, freelance journalist Stuart Turton’s debut novel, reads like a retelling of Groundhog Day as told by Agatha Christie --- with a hint of science fiction. In this interview conducted by’s Rebecca Munro, Turton discusses how the premise of this unique thriller came about and took shape, why he chose a rotting manor for the story’s setting, the characters he enjoyed writing the most (and the least), and the reason for the title change in the US (the book released in the UK as THE 7 DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE). At the center of THE 7½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE is a man named Aiden Bishop, who is tasked with solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle at a party taking place at her family’s dilapidated manor, Blackheath. The twist is that each day he wakes up in the body of a different man, each a witness and a suspect in the case of Evelyn’s death. When writing your book, how did you keep these separate characters and timelines straight?

Stuart Turton: I did an insane amount of planning! Three months before I started writing the story, I created a massive spreadsheet detailing every character’s actions every two minutes throughout the course of the day. I then plotted that on a map I’d drawn of the house and grounds, so I knew where everybody would be, and when. Once I had that down, I wrote plot ideas on post-it notes and gave each of my eight main characters a notepad, which I filled up with their traits, quirks and background stories. From all this paper, I assembled the book --- and probably felled an entire forest somewhere.

BRC: You open the book on a high point of suspense: Aiden has just woken up in a body he doesn’t recognize, in the middle of a dark forest, with only the knowledge that he is there to save someone named Anna. In a way, the opening mirrors the way Aiden enters the loop, in that the only clues are the ones we can immediately see. Why did you choose to begin your novel this way, rather than laying out the rules and end goal right from the start?

ST: From the start, I knew I wanted to give my readers every chance to solve the mystery. The book is written in the first-person present tense, and my protagonist gets the same information the reader does, at exactly the same time. At no point does he ever know anything the reader doesn’t --- until he begins to figure things out. But if I really wanted to create a level playing field, it seemed only fair that the reader feels his confusion and anxiety. Throwing him (and the readers) into this harrowing situation without explanation immediately unseats everybody. It’s like somebody hands you the book, then kicks you out of a plane. It’s a brilliant feeling, and pretty unusual, I think.

BRC: Because the book plays with time travel, there is an ever-present fear that Aiden, or one of the other characters, will do something that will irreparably change the story. Aiden is hell-bent on solving the murder and saving Anna, but he must be very careful about which knots he unpicks. Did you fall into any of these traps as you were writing, or did you always know which direction the book would take?

ST: Only once. About seven months into the writing, I had a brilliant idea that hadn’t been in the plan. I figured “what’s the harm?” and just stuck it in. That, of course, led to another “great” idea and another. A few months later, the book had gone so far off piste, it was a complete mess and utterly unrecoverable. In the end, I tossed away 40,000 words and went back to my original plan. After that, I stared with scorn and suspicion at any new idea that wasn’t in my plan.

BRC: As the reader observes the day of Evelyn’s murder again and again through the eyes of Aiden and his “hosts,” we begin to see the effects that the men Aiden inhabits are having on him --- both physically and mentally. Can you tell us a bit about exploring their different personalities and physiques, and how they help to both pace the story and develop Aiden’s character?

ST: Aiden begins the novel as an amnesiac --- which is a story I really, really, really DIDN’T want to tell, because I never had any intention of giving him all of his memories back. But I needed to show his personality, so I decided to explore that by forcing him to react to the desires of his hosts. Basically, if his host is an idiot, and Aiden instinctively fights against that, you know Aiden’s not an idiot. Which is not to say he doesn’t have any ignoble qualities. Early on in the novel, he reacts badly to a cowardly host and then an overweight host. That doesn’t reflect too well on him, but we watch him overcome those prejudices. As for pacing, that was always a lovely benefit of having a character jump between different types of bodies. I realized really quickly that if I wanted to slow things down, I could put him in an older gentleman. If I needed speed, I stuck him in a twenty-something. The joy was making the twenty-something stupid and that older gentleman crafty.

BRC: The unsolved murder of a woman could happen almost anywhere, at any time, but in Blackheath you’ve given us a setting that feels nearly like a stage, perfectly set for the sick games the characters play with one another. Why did you choose a rotting manor for the book’s setting?

ST: I needed an enclosed space to tell my story, otherwise the list of suspects would be endless, but I needed the space to be big enough that it would have lots of different areas where the action could happen. I really didn’t want people reading exactly the same day over and over again, so some parts of the story happen in the house, others in the gardens, or out by the lake. We have a cemetery and a gatehouse and stables. I basically cheated and squeezed an entire world into a country-house estate. As for the Blackheath house itself, what author could pass up the chance to write a horrible gothic house that broods over the entire story?

BRC: Early on, Evelyn remarks to Aiden that the manners of the guests of Blackheath are a mask and wealth is poisonous to the soul. It is true that when the guests deceive and betray one another, it is largely to uphold the ideas of wealth and privilege; they are all terrified of losing their stations. Did you always intend to include this detail as a commentary on society, or did it arise organically?

ST: It’s something I feel quite deeply, especially about inherited wealth and power. Nobody who has everything given to them over and over again stays sane. When I started thinking about the secrets these aristocratic people would keep, and what they’d do to protect them, it felt perfectly natural that they’d be trying to protect these rotten, privileged lives.

BRC: Although the setting is historical, the plot feels brisk and modern. The way that Aiden approaches each day reads almost like a live-action video game, with your protagonist being given a set body for the day and a set number of days (or “lives”) he can use to solve the murder. How did you strike this balance between the sprawling history and the timely and immediate?

ST: I’ll admit, the history took a backseat. I wanted to write a heavy novel that was quick on its feet, so I kept anything historical that would help my story --- including the power dynamics and limited technology --- and disregarded anything that would unduly slow me down, including patterns of speech. It’s interesting you mention the video game angle, because I’m a keen video game player. It’s now been mentioned a few times that this book has a video game feel, which I can only attribute to constantly grappling lives, levels and bosses growing up.

BRC: Through Aiden’s eyes, we see many horrible people doing horrible things. From blackmail to murder and even rape, none of the visitors of Blackheath are truly innocent. Was it difficult to write about so many terrible people, or did you enjoy seeing how far you could push your characters?

ST: The only difficult character to write was Jonathan Derby, whose nature still makes me feel a bit sick. But I knew I had to challenge Aiden and that inhabiting these bodies had to be a torment. If it’s not, he loses a big motivation to escape the loop. All the other characters were pretty great to write. The worse I made them, the most lavish a literary punishment I could ultimately give them. There’s something freeing about knowing that every person in your playground is a monster, and you get to kick them around all day.

BRC: In reading your book, it is obvious that you have been inspired by classic mystery writers like Agatha Christie, but rather than sticking to the typical “whodunit,” you have really given yourself freedom to bend timelines, narrators and red herrings into a sort of Mobius strip. Were there any challenges in sticking to the classic murder-mystery setup while adding your own creative flair?

ST: Only that writing an Agatha Christie-style novel will inevitably draw comparison to Agatha Christie herself, and she’s hard to live up to. I spent a long time making sure my mystery wasn’t just a pastiche of her work and would be satisfying in its own right --- even if you took out the time loops and body swapping. At its core, this should be a really good mystery with a really satisfying conclusion the reader can guess. Christie did that with every novel, and I really wanted to honor that.

BRC: Throughout your book, there is a prevalent theme of revealing one’s true nature, with Aiden remarking, “Nothing like a mask to reveal somebody’s true nature.” Can you tell us how this theme propels the book and if it reflects your own feelings as well?

ST: I think most of us are trapped in Groundhog Day loops of our own devising, because we keep making the same sorts of decisions over and over again. Usually, it’s because we’re limited by our imaginations, or our natures. The people I admire most made big changes to their lives and had to confront their own fears to do it. They had to be braver than they’d ever been, or sacrifice something. In the novel, this theme is prevalent because of a drunken conversation I had with a mate years back: if you met yourself tomorrow, would you like yourself? I honestly couldn’t answer that and thought it would be fun writing a character who had to.

BRC: Aiding your protagonist in his investigation is an enigmatic man dressed as a plague doctor --- an image that will no doubt immediately strike fear into the hearts of your readers. With his wisdom and his costume, the Plague Doctor feels like someone outside of time, though it is clear that Aiden’s investigation will ultimately affect him, too. What can you tell us about the Plague Doctor?

ST: Only that he’s my favorite character. I always wanted to write a book that had a plague doctor in it. I remember reading about them when I was a kid. They dressed up like that to tend plague victims, which is a kind act. But to do it safely (or what they thought was safe), they had to put on a truly terrifying uniform that probably scared to death the people they were trying to help. Something about that contradiction has always pleased me --- and I made it a massive part of the Plague Doctor’s personality in my book.

BRC: The character of Evelyn Hardcastle is at the center of the story, and yet she is no less mysterious than any of the other characters Aiden meets. Beautiful, well-dressed and cold, she is not someone the reader --- or Aiden’s hosts --- always wants to see saved. Aiden himself remarks that if he had started the loop through a different character’s eyes, he might never have seen her warm, friendly side. Was it important to you that the reader see both sides of Evelyn?

ST: It was important to me that we see every side of every character. None of us are the same person with everybody in our lives. We change bits of ourselves to suit. Some people we’re very kind to, others we’re openly hostile towards. Having a character who could approach people in different bodies gave me a platform to explore how we treat the different people who surround us. With Evelyn, it was massively important to see all around her because --- despite her repeated deaths --- I didn’t want the reader to think of her solely as a victim. Or to pity her, just because she died. Dying seven-and-a-half times is the least interesting thing about Evelyn, which says a lot.

BRC: Although the men who Aiden inhabits and interacts with are all terrible in their own ways, there were a few gems in your characters who I feel readers will come to love --- or love to hate. For me, one of them is Charles Cunningham, the attendant to Lord Ravencourt, the wealthy man to whom Evelyn is betrothed. Cunningham is no angel, but unlike the others, his motives seem purer, and his fate is tied to the case, whether he likes it or not. Can you tell us a bit about Cunningham and how Aiden comes to admire him?

ST: Cunningham is as close to an audience surrogate as I could come. He’s just a dude with a job, ultimately. He doesn’t like his boss much. He doesn’t like the people surrounding him. He has friends, he has a life, and he has questions that he wants answered. And then Aiden turns up, and everything gets weird. I think Aiden responds to the simplicity of this man, who’s one of the few characters who reveals better sides of himself the more you see. He also has a strange rapport with Ravencourt, which Aiden immediately adopts. That relationship was really fun to write, as they’re constantly getting the best of each other.

BRC: Is there one character you enjoyed writing more than the others, and likewise, was there one who challenged you more than the others?

ST: I loved Ravencourt, the obese banker. Aiden is very unkind about his size at first, which is born of frustration --- he wants to be moving much more quickly than he can in that body --- and because I think it would be such a shock to go from being a frail, thin butler to this very obese man. But I loved how he realizes how sharp Ravencourt’s mind is, and how quickly it lets him solve these problems no other character could. In the end, he’s one of the few characters Aiden would go back to. My least favorite to write was the socialite Derby, who’s a composite of a few people who actually lived in that period and were vile. Just researching their lives and the things their wealth allowed them to get away with put me in a bad mood for weeks.

BRC: It seems impossible that this is your debut, as it is not only beautifully written and polished, but endlessly clever and full of brilliant clues, red herrings and the potential for loose ends. Did you always know you would write a novel? If so, was it always going to be THE 7½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE, or did this story take you by surprise?

ST: Wow, thanks so much! I’ve known I was going to write a novel since I was eight, and that it would be this novel since I was 21. By this novel, I mean an Agatha Christie-style mystery with a twist. Sadly, I didn’t come up with the twist until I was 31. Now that I think about it, 7½ DEATHS has been assembling itself in my head my entire life.

BRC: In the UK your book was published as THE 7 DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE, but here in the US it is called THE 7½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE. Can you tell us why the title change occurred? Does one feel more accurate to you as the author?

ST: Both titles work really well, so I’m not precious about which one is used. We changed the US title because you guys had a novel called THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO coming out, and we didn’t want people getting confused. How unlucky is that?

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

ST: I’m working my second novel, which is an entirely different thing --- though it’s still a murder mystery. I can’t really say any more, because it’s constantly shifting shape as I write it. It’s due for publication sometime in 2020. I write slooooooow.