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Q&A with Jess Armstrong - The Curse of Penryth Hall



By Cariad Wooster


We are excited to welcome Jess Armstrong to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, The Curse of Penryth Hall, released on the 5th December 2023.


After the Great War, American heiress Ruby Vaughn made a life for herself running a rare bookstore alongside her octogenarian employer and house mate in Exeter. She’s always avoided dwelling on the past, even before the war, but it always has a way of finding her. When Ruby is forced to deliver a box of books to a folk healer living deep in the Cornish countryside, she is brought back to the one place she swore she’d never return. A more sensible soul would have delivered the package and left without rehashing old wounds. But no one has ever accused Ruby of being sensible. Thus begins her visit to Penryth Hall.


A foreboding fortress, Penryth Hall is home to Ruby’s once dearest friend, Tamsyn, and her husband, Sir Edward Chenowyth. It’s an unsettling place, and after a more unsettling evening, Ruby is eager to depart. But her plans change when Penryth’s bells ring for the first time in thirty years. Edward is dead; he met a gruesome end in the orchard, and with his death brings whispers of a returned curse. It also brings Ruan Kivell, the person whose books brought her to Cornwall, the one the locals call a Pellar, the man they believe can break the curse. Ruby doesn’t believe in curses—or Pellars—but this is Cornwall and to these villagers the curse is anything but lore, and they believe it will soon claim its next victim: Tamsyn.


To protect her friend, Ruby must work alongside the Pellar to find out what really happened in the orchard that night


Hi Jess! Thanks very much for agreeing to talk to us. The Curse of Penryth Hall had a tense and gripping atmosphere, and I loved seeing the story through Ruby’s eyes, and learning about the curse through her as a fish-out-of-water. How did you develop Ruby as a character, and as our protagonist?


Ruby was a very difficult character for me to get quite right, and it took several revisions before I had her exactly as I wanted her to be. I really love that you mention the fish-out-of-water aspect of her character because that’s one thing I always knew I wanted. I didn’t hone in on the rest of her backstory and personality until probably the second or third draft. When I first conceptualized her, Ruby was going to be a folklorist travelling into the countryside to gather folk tales before ending up in one of her own, but as I dug into the research the story moved to Cornwall and the character of Ruby had to evolve so she didn’t get overshadowed by some of the other characters.


What drew you to write a gothic mystery novel? Did you have any inspirations?


I’ve always been a huge fan of gothic novels, but sitting down and writing one was more of an experiment than anything else. I had this idea to try to take the conventional lady sleuth detective and drop her into a gothic plot and see what happened. Around the time I was debating whether I should actually write it, I had been binge-reading Deanna Raybourn’s backlist and there was something about her style that gave me the courage to see if I could pull it off. I figured at worst I’d end up with something I’d written just for fun, so I’m honestly thrilled that other people seem to enjoy it as much as I did.


Mystery novels rely on tension and intrigue to keep the reader hooked throughout. How do you come up with stories that can hold an audience from start to finish?


With great difficulty—I always hold my breath after finishing the messy first draft until someone else has read it to let me know if the mechanics of the mystery work. I am not the sort of writer that has all the beats of the story plotted out. Starting out, I usually only know who the killer is and vaguely why they did it. All the other subplots, red herrings and twists are things that I come up with as I go along. It makes it challenging to write a mystery that way—I always have two or three big revision passes before the story starts to lock into place—but it’s the way I write and I actually find it a lot of fun to figure it out as I go.


Cornish folklore plays a large part in the story of Lothlel Green and the titular curse. What drew you to Cornish mythology in particular, as well as Cornwall as a setting?

 

It really was the folklore that brought me to Cornwall. I mentioned earlier that I had initially meant for Ruby to be a folklorist, but when I was doing my research for her character, I kept coming across 19th century accounts of Pellars and how people would go to the Pellar to get help with serious problems--things like curses, stolen goods and serious illness. For those who haven’t read the book yet, Pellars in the folk tradition are reputed to have the ability to cast out demons, break curses, heal the sick and find stolen things. The lore and mystery surrounding these figures really got my imagination going and I knew at once that I needed to have a Pellar figure to put into contrast with Ruby, our thoroughly modern heroine. It ended up being the tension between these two very different characters that really pushed the plot forward.


Do you have any further plans for novels? Is Ruby going to make a return, or do you have something else in mind?


Yes actually! The Curse of Penryth Hall is a first in series and the next book, The Secret of the Three Fates, will be coming out in the US in Fall of 2024—so readers won’t have to wait too long to see what Ruby gets up to next. The Secret of the Three Fates takes place about six weeks after The Curse of Penryth Hall ends when Ruby goes to a castle in the Scottish borders to acquire illuminated manuscripts and ends up investigating the death of a murdered medium.   


What books or authors would you recommend to fans of this book?


I’d definitely suggest folks check out Hester Fox or Simone St. James.  Both write delicious gothic novels with intriguing mysteries. I really loved Hester Fox’s most recent novel, The Last Heir to Blackwood Library.


Where can readers purchase The Curse of Penryth Hall?


It’s currently available online from several major book retailers including Waterstones, Blackwell’s and Amazon.



Jess Armstrong’s debut novel The Curse of Penryth Hall won the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur First Crime Novel Competition. She has a masters degree in American History but prefers writing about imaginary people to the real thing. Jess lives in New Orleans with her historian husband, two sons, yellow cat, speckled dog, and the world’s most pampered school-fair goldfish. And when she’s not working on her next project, she’s probably thinking about cheese, baking, tweeting or some combination of the above. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram at @JessL_Armstrong or see what’s new on her website at http://www.writingjess.com.

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