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Where there’s a Will, there’s a grave

July 13th, 2014

Will Starling (Goose Lane $29.95) is Ian Weir’s forthcoming follow-up to his debut novel Daniel O’Thunder that was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Prize and Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize.

Having spent five years assisting a military surgeon during the Napoleonic Wars, nineteen-year-old Will Starling returns to London to help his mentor start a medical practice in the rough Cripplegate area. It’s an era when surgeons and anatomists rely on body snatchers to obtain human cadavers.

When a grave robbery goes awry, brash Will is led to suspect London’s foremost surgeon, Dioysus Atherton, could be conducting scientific experiments on the living.

The origins of Will Starling can be traced to a summer evening at the Weir’s family cottage at ShuswapLake in the late Sixties when Ian Weir was about twelve. When a neighbour’s son rode his mini-bike at considerable speed into a barbed wire fence, he was carried like a battlefield casualty to the Weir’s front porch where Weir’s father, a surgeon, was reading. Dr. Weir proceeded to calmly unfold himself from his lounge-chair, retrieve his battered black medical bag, and stitch up the young patient who was shrieking on the picnic table.

“I’m pretty sure the idea for Will Starling began to germinate right then and there,” says Weir, a screenwriter who has won two Geminis and four Leos, “as my brothers and I looked on agog and my mother—the novelist and historian Joan Weir—tried gamely to channel Florence Nightingale.

“It took me a good while to figure this out, of course. But 40-plus years later, midway through researching and writing a literary gothic thriller set amongst the surgeons and grave-robbers in London in 1816—the very summer that Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein—it finally dawned. The novel is at heart a wistful tribute to my Dad, who passed away seven years ago.”

Weir is quick to add that a year later Astley Cooper would make medical history in London by successfully repairing a ruptured aortic aneurism (the patient lived for eleven hours). Maybe that’ll be in book three.

Meanwhile none of the surgeons in the novel is intended to serve as a direct portrait of Dr. Weir—certainly not the golden and appalling Dionysus Atherton—but Weir notes there is a certain dour, squat and redoubtable Scottish surgeon who happens to share his paternal grandmother’s maiden surname.

“Although there was nothing dour about my Dad,” he says, “and nothing remotely squat about him either, he was wonderfully redoubtable.”

Will Starling will be published in September.


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