Q&A with Karen Coles
1. Can you describe your book in one sentence?
Under hypnosis, asylum patient Maud relives her past, uncovering dark secrets that someone at the asylum is desperate to keep hidden.
2. What was your inspiration for The Asylum?
I discovered that one of my ancestors had died in Peckham House Lunatic Asylum. It made me wonder what her life had been like, and what events had led to her illness. This led to me investigating how women’s mental health was treated in the Victorian and Edwardian eras throughout the UK. The setting for Ashton House was inspired by a village close to where I now live. It has a church with a graveyard leading to a marsh where a murder took place in the mid-19th century. It set my imagination racing, as you can imagine.
3. Did you do a lot of research before/while writing? What themes did you want to tackle?
I did a lot of research through books and online before I started writing. Once I had the story mapped out, I decided to set my story at Angelton asylum, Bridgend, which was close to where I now live. I was able to study original documents, both patient notes and handwritten letters, at the Glamorgan Archives in Cardiff. I was also lucky enough to be taken on a tour of what’s left of the old Victorian asylum buildings, which was fabulous.
As for themes, I was interested in how women’s mental health was viewed and treated. As a person who detests housework, I found it alarming to discover that an aversion to domestic tasks was seen as a sign of mental illness! I was also particularly interested in social mobility at the time the story is set. It was incredibly difficult for a poor man to better himself, but for a poor woman, it was almost impossible. I think both themes are still relevant today.
4. I noticed while reading that you use a lot of different senses to describe places and experiences which makes the novel quite immersive. Maud also goes through quite a journey – what was the hardest bit of the novel to write?
Oh, I’m glad you found it immersive. That’s lovely. Using the senses wasn’t a conscious thing. I think it just came from being inside Maud’s head.
The hardest part of writing the novel for me was continuity and getting the balance right between the asylum chapters and the backstory. Not being a very organised writer, I found those quite difficult.
5. Do you have any advice for budding authors and writers or can you tell us about your writing process?
I can only really speak from my own experience, but my advice would be to write the book that you long to read, the story that’s in your heart. Write it the way you want to, without worrying about whether anyone else will like it, and most importantly, never give up.
My writing process is a bit haphazard although I’m trying to be more organised with my new one. With both The Asylum and my current work in progress, I had a loose plot in mind before I started writing. I begin with a picture in my head of a character in a setting, and I go on from there.
The Asylum by Karen Coles is out now!