Saturday 4 July 2020

How Victorian Gothic is still inspiring writers today: a conversation with C.G. Twiles, author of The Best Man on the Planet

I can hardly believe it. The launch of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is now only a month away! The book, as the title might suggest, is a work of historical fiction, inspired by the lives and works of the Bronte family. It’s based on a true episode in the great literary family’s history, and three of the four siblings who reached adulthood are major characters in my novel.


But there’s another important way in which the novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne continue to impact writers and bookshelves today. They are pivotal to our understanding of the Gothic genre.


I recently chatted to C.G. Twiles, author of The Best Man on the Planet, which the writer describes as a ‘modern Gothic romantic thriller’. I wanted to know what Gothic means today, and how the Brontes can help us understand our more modern ideas of romance and suspense.


Thanks for chatting with me today about Gothic fiction and The Best Man on the Planet! What inspired you to write the book?



Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read it when I was 21, and, ever since then, I’ve wanted to write something similar.


The Best Man on the Planet isn’t a retelling, but more of an inspired update. After all, it was hard to think of a really dark secret that my ‘Mr Rochester’ (in my novel, Mr Foster) could have that would shock people these days. We’ve heard it all at this point. My title is ironic, much like The Great Gatsby. I was also tired of thrillers with the word ‘Girl’ in the title, so I came up with one that had ‘Man’.


I have a lot of other interests, like true crime and psychology, which I wrote about for years, and so these themes also ended up weaving their way in. And I’ve always wanted to write a big soul-mance romance. So I put all that into one book. A modern Gothic romantic thriller was the result.



How would you define Gothic fiction in particular?



For me, a house that has a sinister vibe is key to a Gothic novel. It can be a mansion, a castle, an urban apartment, or a double wide, but the dwelling is a witness to all the drama, virtually another character.


And then there’s often a Byronic hero, which of course comes from the poet Lord Byron. A dark, brooding, usually male, character, with some kind of torturous past that punishes his present.


But I would argue that while Gothic fiction often centres on the tortured psyche of the male, it is really about the psyche of the female, and how she deals with it. I look at it as the male being the dark part of her psyche.


There are exceptions of course—in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the woman is the Byronic hero. And I haven’t read your book, Bronte’s Mistress, yet, but I’m imagining that in your novel, both Branwell and Lydia are Byronic: Branwell tortured by drink and a sense of failure, Lydia by her boring marriage and constraints of her class and era. Am I right?!



No spoilers here but you may well be onto something…


I find a lot of your answer really interesting, especially what you said about the central role of the Gothic house. One of the things that stood out to me when reading The Best Man on the Planet was the Gothic mansion in Brooklyn that your main character, Casey, finds herself working at. How did you go about characterizing the house? Is it a real mansion?



It is real! It’s a members-only club, called The Montauk Club, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I basically described it to a T. While I was writing the book, a member allowed me inside (and bought me dinner—thank you!). You can read more about The Montauk Club on my website, I hope it will survive the pandemic given that it has currently stopped all events.


I suppose mansions are so central to Gothic novels because of the genre’s origins. These books were often focused on the secrets and depravity of the upper classes, and those people lived in castles, estates and mansions.



Speaking of the genre’s origins, do you have any favourite Gothic reads, whether classic or modern, you’d recommend?



I love anything by the Brontes. I also like middle-of-the road Gothic authors, like Dorothy Eden, and Ira Levin, who wrote Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. In Levin’s stories, there are often sinister homes and strong heroines under duress. I was really into V.C. Andrews as a kid and read all the Dollanganger series, but I tried to reread it recently and couldn’t get into it.



And any favourite, or least favourite, Gothic tropes? Which can readers expect to find in your novel?



In The Best Man on the Planet, there’s crime, there’s love and sex (though not explicit), there’s a house that basically comes alive.


A couple of things I also did that aren’t common now in thrillers but were in Gothic fiction back in the day: I have a heroine with a strong moral centre; she is not an unreliable narrator. There’s a sense of humour threaded throughout. The Brontes were great, dry wits, and you don’t see much of that these days in thrillers; they’re all so serious from the first paragraph. But I’m not capable of writing without some humour.


I’m not a huge fan of the dark and stormy night trope. Charlotte Bronte made beautiful use of a storm sweeping in and splitting the huge oak tree after Rochester’s proposal to Jane, but I don’t think that can be topped, so I tend to stay away from storms. It just seems a cheap, easy way to try to get a thrill. How much more challenging is it to create a sense of dread under a clear, sunny sky?



Did you also find it challenging to deal with some of the digital realities of our lives today, when writing a Gothic with a contemporary setting?



Yes. It’s hard to give characters modern technology (cell phones, texts, emails and social media), and still manage to have the staples of suspense – like characters who can’t reach each other. If you think of that great scene in Jane Eyre where she and Rochester communicate telepathically, now they’d just text each other. Not as exciting! I kept making things happen and then realising it probably wouldn’t happen that way if there was a cell phone, so I went to elaborate lengths to get rid of modern technology.



What about our modern views on psychology? We’ve come along way in our understanding of the psyche since the 1840s!



I took the more up-to-date approach that our biology and brain wiring plays a huge role in our development, more than what our mother might have done to us at age five!


In the world I created in my novel, the brain scan has much more importance than the subconscious. I wanted to ask the question about the role our brains play in who we are—you hear about people who have a stroke and they are suddenly a completely different person! There are people who came out of strokes speaking with foreign accents, or whose sexual orientation changed, or who suddenly became math or musical geniuses.


So I wanted to explore that rather than the deep buried memory thing that so many thrillers are exploring. Who are we really? In the book, Mr. Foster has had a brain aneurysm that burst. He wakes up completely changed. Is he now responsible for the actions of the man he was before?



People will have to read your book to find out! Thank you so much for chatting for my blog and best of luck with The Best Man on the Planet.



It was my pleasure.



The Best Man on the Planet is available for purchase on Amazon now. Find C.G. Twiles online, on Facebook, on Instagram, or on Twitter.


Bronte’s Mistress is available for pre-order, in hardcover, e-book and audiobook, now, and will be published August 4. Click here to attend my virtual launch event with Strand Book Store NYC on August 3, wherever you are in the world. Want to stay in touch? Sign up to my email newsletter below, or connect with me via Facebook or Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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