Q&A with Caitlin Starling, author of ‘The Luminous Dead’

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Author Caitlin Starling was kind enough to sit for an interview with Fictionist after her book The Luminous Dead was published. This standalone sci-fi/horror novel packs an intense punch, and we wrote a spoiler-free review for those interested. The book follows a caver named Gyre, who made some questionable decisions which ultimately led her to exploring an extremely dangerous cave with only her handler, Em, talking through her helmet for company.


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First of all, is the main character’s name — Gyre — pronounced “jeye-er” or “guy-er”?

It’s pronounced “jeye-er” like in “gyroscope,” but no one defaults to that pronunciation. It’s really whatever you want to use, but I personally say “jeye-er.”


What is the easiest way to brighten your day?

To tell me that you’re taking me out to dinner – or happy hour. I like eating. I like being taken care of, and the easiest way for me to feel taken care of is to go out. For me, going out to eat is like getting a massage. Someone is taking care of you for the duration of your stay.


What is your strangest hobby/interest?

Well, I think the butchering class I just took probably counts. I just spent two days butchering a pig and making charcuterie, so, that’s a very new hobby but it’s something I definitely enjoy. I grew up not really caring about food, and then at 12, it still hadn’t clicked for me yet that ‘meat’ is muscle. I thought they were different – I thought there was muscle, and then there was a little place on the diagram that was ‘meat.’ Which makes no sense, but it had never come up. Then my dad and I started watching Food Network and I went to college, where I met the man who is now my husband. He’s from Wyoming, and he’s a hunter – he grew up hunting – so he was much more connected to that side of things. And then, between the two of us, we developed this interest in not only cooking but also self-sufficiency. If I’m going to be eating anything, I kind of want to know where it comes from, especially meat. Plus, anatomy is really interesting.


The silence of the cave is a part of the reading experience in The Luminous Dead. Did you write in silence? Or did you listen to music?

It depended on whether I could focus that day – sometimes I could listen to familiar music. I have a Luminous Dead playlist on Spotify that, especially when I was revising, I listened to a lot. But either I would write in silence – or there is a Spotify playlist called, I think, “horror ambient,” and it’s just really long kind of… it’s not music, it’s just tones. Some of them are legitimately terrifying. I can only use it when I’m writing horror like that. It kept my shoulders up around my ears so that that feeling got on the page.


Is the Luminous Dead Spotify playlist public?

It is public, largely chronological – though about 1/3 of it is just inappropriate credit songs (if it were a movie) because for some reason that’s how I associate music with stories. Most of the playlist is actually Em songs – it’s much easier to find music about “I’m refusing to feel anything and also I’m going to hurt you” for some reason. There’s one song in there that’s – later in the book – Em if she were singing a lullaby to Gyre, and it still makes me cry. One of the end credit songs is called Mother I’m Alive.


SPOILERS BELOW: What do you think of the relationship in The Luminous Dead?

Spoiler – as much as I ship them, I also think it’s really unhealthy. I think they’re going to have a lot of problems afterward. In my mind, the reason it’s so unhealthy is that they have no support network. So in order to have any chance of coming out of that okay, they kind of need each other – but the fact that they only have each other is also not going to help. I worry about them deeply. Another spoiler: I was worried about having them kiss at the end. I really wanted to see them kiss, but I was like “well, this sets a bad precedent, it’s a bad example…” It seems like I’m saying this is a good relationship, rather than just a logical relationship that the reader probably wants at that point. So I went to my agent and asked “should I make them kiss?” and she said “always make them kiss.”


What was your writing process like?

I wrote at least the first three chapters, around 15,000 words – and then I put it down for a year. I hadn’t written original fiction on a while, I took a big detour into fanfiction. I wanted to see if I could still do it. I took a weeklong staycation from my job, and I got to a point where I needed to start outlining. I got through most of the plot, and then I realized I needed to do a bunch of research on caves… and I remember spending the rest of that time playing Tomb Raider and eating Pad Thai. I may have needed an actual break from work. So I wrote this first bit and it was enough to get the atmosphere down and the basic structure down and get the characters established, and I had this plot that I was very excited about. Then I took a year off, and it just kind of bubbled in the back of my mind until the next Fall, when I basically wrote the rest for NaNoWriMo.


I read a tweet recently referencing your book, saying something along the lines of “it must take a lot of balls to write a book with only two characters in a confined space.” Did that confined space, two-characters thing make this book difficult to write?

I like writing very contained stories, and it’s actually taken a lot of work to expand my characters and stories. But it does cause a problem in that I need to make sure I’m keeping it interesting. I might be interested in this minutia, this drama, but most readers do not intentionally seek that out – otherwise there would be more books like this. So I didn’t want it to get repetitive. I didn’t want it to feel like the characters were taking one step forward and two steps back so that I could keep dragging out the drama. Things like that, especially miscommunication, drive me up a wall. I get secondhand frustration and embarrassment. And I know it still didn’t work for everybody – some people were like “oh, Gyre changes her mind a lot.” But generally speaking, that was my biggest challenge and worry. How do I make this not only interesting but fresh the whole time?

It didn’t start out so long, either – I think the first draft was 70,000 word and the final was 110,000. Not only that, but in the first draft the relationship arc finished up halfway through and it became sort of an alien monster movie. When HarperVoyager bought it, my editor was like “hey, what if you took out the monsters?” and I said “that’s half the book, David.” So, in a weekend, I rearranged the whole second half – but that meant it was just the two of them. There was no additional thing to take up plot space, and I expected it would stay around 70,000 words but surprise! It got really long. I didn’t start off that ambitious, I guess.


What is the weirdest thing you had to google while researching The Luminous Dead?

Probably a toss-up between a series of searches about whether caves are cold enough to cause hypothermia within less than a day – that was not as easy as you’d think because first I had to figure out what the average temperature of a cave was, and it was higher than I was expecting, so it wasn’t an obvious answer and then I had to look up how long it would take to get hypothermia in 50 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Turns out, North American caves are around 50 degrees, but in the Republic of Georgia they are much colder than that. So I wish I had known that; I could have just said it was really cold. So it’s between that and [googling] how colostomies work. Which I didn’t google for the book at first; it was actually for a family member who was getting one and I wanted to wrap my head around what was happening. And then I was like, “Wait a minute. This solves a lot of problems in my book. I’m going to gross a lot of people out with this.”

Dune has, of course, the stillsuit – which was my first inspiration for the suit. I know it goes into water reclamation from urine, but I don’t think [in Dune] they ever say they have a catheter or anything. I don’t think they would want to just be swampy in there – you’d want some kind of hook-up. Which is a real easy way to gross people out, which is great when you’re writing horror.


Do you have anything in common with Gyre?

I would never do anything that Gyre does in that book. Just to put it on the record – no. I’ve been in one cave in my life, it was a lava tube, and they’re easy. I went in, I went “nope” and I went out.


It’s really refreshing to read standalones sometimes, and I loved this one. Do you like writing standalones?

I just naturally write standalones. I think it’s also because I do such small-cast and small-location things – I don’t need a sequel or a trilogy. I don’t even know how to plan that – that’s one of those magical things other authors do that I have no idea how to do. I’m still at the point in my career where a lot of what I do is intuitive. I’ve begun to hit the points where I need to exert conscious effort and learn and practice, but I’m still in my comfortable safe zone. I look from afar and I’m like “how do you do that?” I put my characters through so much, I don’t feel like there’s anything left. There’s only so many body parts I can chop off!


You can read The Luminous Dead now wherever books are sold. Don’t forget to leave a review — and if you’re still curious, check out our spoiler-free review by clicking here.

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