Supermarkets Don’t Like ‘Whore’

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Katy Darby, English alumna of Somerville College, has recently published her debut historical novel The Unpierced Heart. Anyone with a soft spot for Jericho would be shocked to hear that before it became the go-to location for quirky cafes, yummy mummies and frequent Raymond Blanc sightings, it was a place of debauchery, its sordid backstreets home to the “lowest sort of brazen female as ever lifted her petticoats.” 

As a Somervillian who spends more time in the Jericho café than in libraries, I spoke to Katy about writing, Oxford, and why certain supermarkets aren’t inclined to display a cover featuring the word ‘whore’ on their shelves. 

On The Unpierced Heart

“I didn’t have the idea whilst at Oxford; actually it first came to me at UEA. It started as a short story, a homage to Sherlock Holmes. I had the idea of a love triangle, of love getting in the way of friendship. I enjoyed writing it and it got too long to be a short story. I got carried away.

The story starts in Worcester College then moves to Jericho. I had a friend who was researching the history of Jericho for an article. She asked me if I knew it had been the red light district. There had been dodgy bits of Jericho up until the 1950s: I think you could always get yourself a good time – I took that idea and ran with it in the novel, inventing a refuge for fallen women on Victor Street.”

Benefits of Studying English

“Huge. Doing English Literature as a degree gives you ideas and allows you to read critically. Also, a rookie error when writing prose for the first time is overwriting: I was a terrible over-writer so the Creative Writing MA at UEA was a great benefit. I saw examples of other people’s work and got feedback. I had the bad habits knocked out of me.” 

On Being A Writer

“Lots of people closet themselves and won’t tell others about their work unless they feel it’s genius, but this doesn’t help you improve. You must have a thick skin, or grow one, to become a successful writer. If you have perseverance you can be a writer; if you have talent you’ll get encouragement eventually as long as you show others your work. There’s nothing worse than a bad writer who is oversensitive. Tutorials, writing classes and writing groups teach you to handle criticism and learn from it.” 

On the Market

“Even if the market loves a particular genre, if you hate it, don’t write it. With commercial fiction, the priority is never beautiful prose, but there’s always at least one thing a commercial book will do really well, whether that’s making women horny or keeping readers hooked with a great plot. A ‘good’ book will just do more of those things well.

Many 19th century best-sellers were awful – they’re just not read any more. In the 21st century it’s different but it doesn’t mean that in 100 years today’s bestsellers will still be read. Build a career that is based not on other people’s sales figures, but on what you want to write.” 

What’s Next?

“If your first book is in a particular genre, your readers perceive you as that type of author. For Penguin to pick up my second novel it would have to be historical, it’s what’s expected. Luckily I enjoy writing it!

“There’s lots of research involved in historical fiction. To get the voices, or the incidental details like how people address each other and how many pence a mile it costs in a cab.

The new book I’m working on is based on the so-called ‘Newgate Novels’ or ‘Gallows Stories’. A Victorian housemaid is accused of murdering her mistress: she’s tried and sent to Newgate to await execution, when a journalist asks her to tell her story.

I’ll make sure not to give the new one a controversial title: the first novel was originally published as The Whores’ Asylum, but supermarkets don’t like ‘whore’, so it’s been renamed as The Unpierced Heart. Thereby hangs a tale!” 

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