Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Eighth Circle of Hell by Gary Dolman: Interview and Excerpt


How did you start your writing career? 

          Those who know me would think me the most unlikely creative writer they could ever imagine. I began my career as a result of a combination of circumstances:

Around six years ago, there were a number of difficult elements in my personal life; severe illness, death and hardship. I began to write creatively as a catharsis and as a means of escaping from, and therefore coping with, these. One day, I was visiting my father in the care home where he lived when one of the other residents, who was also in the end-stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, suddenly cried out, begging some long-dead uncle to stop, screaming that he was hurting her. It made me begin to imagine what sort of horrors she must be reliving and that sparked the idea behind my debut novel, The Eighth Circle of Hell.


Tell us about your current release.


          The Eighth Circle of Hell uses the fractured and disturbed memories of an elderly workhouse ‘imbecile’ to explore the horrors of child sexual abuse. It is set during what must surely be the greatest social scandal in modern British history; the Victorian Defloration Mania. It is a difficult read – both technically and emotionally but it tells a powerful and moving story that few people, even in Britain know about and which absolutely needs to be told.

When in the day/night do you write? How long per day?


          When I wrote The Eighth Circle of Hell, I was caring for a close family member who was going through severe mental health problems. They weren’t able to be left for any length of time on their own and so I wrote the majority of the novel in the wee, small hours, when they were sedated for sleep.

          Now that they are much improved, I can plan my writing time a little better. I tend to write from around 5am in the morning until I am too mentally exhausted to continue effectively. That might be for two, three or four hours typically depending on how intense are the pros.

What is the hardest part of writing your books?

          It’s always the dialogue. My books are all set in the Victorian period and I obviously need to reflect the idiom and style of the time. However, if I did that completely accurately, the pace of the novel would suffer and it would become quite tiresome to read. There is therefore a balance to be struck, which essentially hints at the time period but which retains the fluidity of modern speech.


Where do you research for your books?

Research is everything for me, as it should be to all writers of historical fiction. If I get a detail wrong, then there will be someone out there who will know the true facts and the story will be spoiled for them. Even in the relatively recent 19th Century, one needs to check whether a particular street or building existed, whether a word or phrase had even been coined and if it had, did it mean the same thing as now? I research online of course, but I’m careful to cross-reference everything because there is a lot of erroneous information out there. I like to personally visit places I write about too, because that way I can get a real ‘feel’ for them. If I can ‘method write’ passages I do too. For example; in The Eighth Circle of Hell I wanted to write about the protagonist leaping into a river, so I actually plunged my head and shoulders into that same river in the middle of winter to help me do so.

Who are your books published with?


I am published by Thames River Press, an imprint of WPC of London and a sister imprint to Anthem Press. It is an ambitious, traditional publisher of fiction and non-fiction.

How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?

          I tend to start with a basic idea. Then I research extensively and read around the related subjects because usually I find that ideas and subplots are thrown up in the process. A loose, skeletal plan of the plot follows, which I flesh out as I write.

As regards character development, I try to imagine that person in their whole

lifetime and think about what influences would have affected them and how. Would they have fears or phobias, for example? Would they be arrogant or judgmental, or calm and gentle? I then write a list of adjectives and adverbs about them as a reminder to me as I write. Because my work is historical fiction, I take great care to research the social norms and conventions of the day too, as these will have a major effect on character.

Is there one passage in your book that you feel gets to the heart of your book and would encourage people to read it?  If so, can you share it?


          The opening line of the novel is this: ‘In my experience, little girls who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.’

          This really sets the theme of the novel, almost to the end. During the real defloration mania, young virgin girls were seen as nothing more than simple commodities and playthings to be bought and used at will by the wealthy classes.

The Victorian age is often held up as a shining era of British history, a time of wealth and power, of civilisation and philanthropy. It was all of these. Yet it was also a time of cruelty and depravity, where power and wealth were used to ill-purpose. It was the time of the ‘defloration mania’, where young girls were bought and sold like the slaves they became.

“In my experience, little girls who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.”
Elizabeth sees his mouth moving, sees it framing the words – those words. She hears them inside her head, filling it, creeping through her body; through her arms, her legs, turning them to ice.
His hands lift and reach out towards her, overpowering, unstoppable. She wants to beg him for mercy, to beg him not to do it, but the undeserved words gag in her throat. She tries to turn, tries to push him away but her leaden limbs refuse to heed the shrieking, shrieking screams of her brain. Then two more people are there, with their smiling, laughing faces – a man and a woman. They catch her arms and hold her fast as he smiles the very smile of the Fiend, and reaches down for her.
“Elizabeth Wilson has lived in workhouses since she was a girl of fifteen, Mr and Mrs Fox.”
The Master of the Knaresborough Union Workhouse smiled benignly as he pushed open the door to his private office.
“Which amounts to forty-five years in total, barring a few months she had as a pauper apprentice. She had, let me see, thirteen years at the Starbeck Workhouse before it closed and then the rest here, at the Knaresborough Union. But in all that time, I believe you are the first visitors she’s ever had. Well perhaps not; I’m told there was one other but that was many years ago and it all came to naught.
Please, take a seat. I’ve asked that one of the better pauper girls brings us some tea and then I’ll have Elizabeth fetched from the infirmary.”
The warm, lilting Geordie accent tempered his otherwise austere appearance.
The Master’s office was very much like the man himself; large and ascetic but softened here and there by a few more comfortable furnishings. One of these was a pair of plump, buttoned leather settees and Atticus and Lucie Fox sank obediently onto the nearest of them while the Master settled into its mirror twin, separated from them by a low and highly polished coffee table.
He regarded them inquisitively for a moment, like an angel at the Gates of Paradise, and smiled once again.
“Are you relatives of Elizabeth, do you mind me asking?”
Atticus shook his head.
“I don’t mind at all, Mr Liddle and no, we aren’t relatives; Mrs Fox and I are privately-commissioned investigators. We’ve been asked to trace the whereabouts of Miss Wilson on behalf of our principal who is a close relative of hers.”
“I see. May I perhaps know the identity of your principal?”
“Certainly, he’s Dr Michael Roberts of Harrogate. Miss Wilson was taken in as a child by her uncle, Alfred Roberts, who is Dr Roberts’ grandfather.”
“Alfred Roberts the great philanthropist?”
Atticus nodded: “The very same.”
“Another of his great acts of kindness, no doubt,” said Liddle.
He sighed reflectively.
“There’s many a poor orphan or pauper child that Alfred Roberts sent on to a better life abroad or found a situation for in the houses of the gentry. I believe I read somewhere that he even had his own house built larger to take many of them in himself, until he could move them on.”
“That is true; it was a large annexe he added to the rear of his house. He took Miss Wilson in shortly after he had it built. That was many years ago when the second of her own parents, her mother, passed away. Alfred Roberts was her mother’s elder brother and her only living relative. Dr Roberts told us that she ran away around two years after his grandfather first took her in and, as we now know, eventually came to be here, in the union workhouse.”
Liddle nodded genially.
“I’ve heard a great deal of Dr Roberts. He’s recently become a firm acquaintance of Mr Manders, our Medical Officer here, and as I understand it, he’s a psychiatric doctor of no little renown.”
The leather of the settee creaked under him as he leaned forward, conspiratorially.
“We have, as you might imagine, quite a number of lunatics and imbeciles here. Dr Roberts freely gives us any help and advice he can. He’s a philanthropist in the family tradition; there is no doubt of it.
What you tell me is fascinating though. I knew that Elizabeth had come to be in the workhouse under rather… mysterious circumstances shall we say, but until now I knew very few of the details. She’s obviously well educated and gentle-born, but Lizzie – Elizabeth, that is – never speaks of her life before she went to Starbeck. In fact, by all accounts, she rarely spoke at all for quite a number of years. Sister Lovell, the workhouse nurse, has known her the longest; in fact, it was she who finally got her to speak again.”
He was interrupted by a timid knock on the door. It opened and a tall, gangly girl appeared, blushing heavily and carrying a handsome, silver tea tray as if it might suddenly turn on her at any moment and bite.
“Curtsey, Sally,” the Master reminded her sharply.
“I’m sorry, Mr Liddle.”
The girl paused to curtsy clumsily and then slowly, with infinite care, set the tray down on the coffee table.
Liddle watched each of her movements intently, almost hungrily, as a cat watches a bird.
Then he said: “Thank you, Sally. Is M... is Sister Lovell fetching Lizzie?”
“Begging your pardon, sir but Lizzie needed to be changed before she could be fetched. She’s gone and wet herself again; made a right mess on the floor and no mistake.”
“Is she resisting the nurses?”
“Yes, sir, it took three of them to change her: Matthew and Tom and Edith. Edith said that Lizzie would rather stink and be sore all day than be washed and have fresh clothes.”
Liddle sighed and nodded wearily.
“Ah well, she keeps the women in the laundry house well employed I suppose. Please pass my compliments to Sister Lovell, Sally and ask that she be brisk.”
The girl hesitated.
“Please, Mr Liddle, Miss Lovell asked me to say that she needs me to help her with her rounds tonight and that she’s arranged for Edith to bring you your bedpan and polish your tables. She said that you would understand.”
The girl curtsied again and after a quick, nervous glance at Atticus and Lucie, she hurried, almost ran from the room.
Liddle frowned.
“I do declare that the last thing I need to see before I retire to bed is that old crone Edith in my bedroom. I shall be having nightmares tonight and that’s a fact. If the Master of a workhouse can’t choose a pretty pauper girl to bring him his night time bed warmer, what can he do?”
They had finished with her at last. Please let it be over now, please, Lord Jesus. She felt dirty, sullied and used, just as she always felt after he had finished and dressed her again. She was a wicked, sinful girl and she had deserved it – needed it even. She deserved everything he did to her, just as she had deserved for her mama to go away. Her mama was in Heaven with Jesus and his angels. How could she have stayed to love a sinful child such as her? Why would her mama have been bothered with such a wicked, wicked creature as she?
She would shut it away. She would hide this memory along with all the others, festering away in that farthest, most remote part of her mind she kept especially for them.
Except that they wouldn’t lie still. Not these days. They wouldn’t stay there, far away, where they couldn’t hurt her. Every time she sensed that bitter, oily taste on her tongue, every time she saw eyes leering at her, hungering for her, every time she felt hands pulling at her clothes, the memories tried to come, tried to hurt her. She could hold them off by day, with busy and with the knife. But at night, when she could no longer be busy, they would come. They would spill into her dreams and turn them into nightmares. And it seemed that these days, there was no day and no night; that she had no knife and that her busy had gone.
She tasted once more the bitterness on her tongue and smelled it again in her nostrils. It was her medicine – her medicine for wicked girls. It helped. He always said that her mama would be pleased with her for taking it so well, with so little fuss. It helped her to be more... compliant to her punishments. Somehow, it seemed to make the punishments less real, almost as if they were happening to another little girl whose mama had gone away. And it helped her to hide away the memories when they had finished.



Gary Dolman was born on South Tyneside in the early 1960s but grew up in Harrogate in Yorkshire where he now lives with his wife, three children and three dogs. His writing reflects his fascination by the aberrations of the human mind.


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