Novelist visits the grimy side of medical history

LANGLEY – Life and death are at the heart of Langley author Ian Weir’s new novel, Will Starling.


Where does one end and the other begin?


"Interestingly, it’s not a hard and fast question, even today," said Weir.


The subject matter comes up frequently in Will Starling, as the title character is a surgeon’s assistant in the London of 1816. Death and life were intermingled, especially for the doctors of the time. Science and graverobbing were closely linked, and there were even experiments at reviving the dead, sometimes using electricity.


It was those real – and unsuccessful – experiments that inspired Mary Shelley to pen Frankenstein in 1816. That is the same year that Weir has set his new novel.


Weir unexpectedly found a career as a novelist with Daniel O’Thunder, published in 2009.


He started out as a playwright, then moved over into television, where he worked for 20 years as a writer and showrunner on a variety of series, including the Aldergrove-filmed Arctic Air.


He also wrote a few young-adult books for Scholastic in the 1980s and early 1990s.


Then an acquaintance in publishing asked if he had an idea for a novel, and a project he’d been thinking about and working on for a couple of decades became Daniel O’Thunder.


For his second novel, Weir had a mere five years between start and publication. Its creation would include elements of his own life, as well as a love for the gothic world of the early 1800s, when "resurrection men" stole bodies for doctors to study anatomy.


"I guess I did about two years of research," Weir said.


He managed to head to London three times and read an incredible number of books to prepare for his tale of early-19th century medicine.


"The 19th century I find is a really extraordinary mirror for our own era," Weir said.


There was also an emotional connection.


"I simply fell in love with London when I was a graduate student at King’s College in the 1980s," Weir said.


In London, you are always turning a corner and finding some building that is essentially unchanged since the 1700s or 1800s, said Weir.


The surgical thread of the novel came from some of Weir’s earliest memories.


"In a way it’s a wistful tribute to my dad," Weir said.


His father was a surgeon when Weir was growing up in Kamloops. He remembered many nights when a late phone call would send his father out the door; he wouldn’t return for many hours.


The question of what motivates a surgeon has fascinated Weir.


He placed his novel at the point at which surgery was becoming a real part of doctoring. Not long before, if you needed surgery, you still went to a "barber-surgeon," someone who cut hair, pulled teeth and amputated limbs. Surgeons were considered distinctly inferior to doctors for many years.


Cutting into a living human body was insanely dangerous in the Regency era. There was no anaesthetic – and without germ theory, surgeons didn’t know to wash their hands or sterilize instruments.


"Within those constraints, they were making quite extraordinary advances," Weir said.


To immerse himself in the era, Weir read fiction, journals, biographies and historical works.


"Any fiction tells you a lot about what people are thinking at the time," Weir said.


Reviews of Will Starling have been positive, but Weir still has to make sure people know about his book. Many writers are naturally introverts, and aren’t necessarily that comfortable with self-promotion, Weir said. He’s found a few tactics that work for him.


"Something I love doing is readings, as it turns out," he said.


One of his early ambitions was to be an actor, hampered by what he says was a lack of talent in that field. Reading allows him to scratch that itch for performance.


Weir was a guest panelist during Vancouver Writers Fest last week.