A couple weeks ago I reviewed Ghost by Helen Grant, a thriller novel with a gothic twist. You can read my review here. Today I have the honour of hosting a Q&A with Helen, I asked the questions from a reader and writers point of view, so hopefully they will be of an interest to you.
Q: What made you decide to write books?
A: I’ve wanted to write books since I was at primary school! I’m not sure what first sparked my interest – probably my love of reading them. I’ve written stories since I was a child, but I didn’t really try to get anything published until very much later. When I was at university I was too busy studying, and when I first started working I was very preoccupied with travelling, so most of what I wrote was travel diaries. Then I had my two children (fairly close together) and we moved to Germany. When the kids started kindergarten, all of a sudden I had loads of free time and I started writing. I didn’t throw myself straight into writing a book. My very first published piece was a non-fiction article about Steinfeld Abbey in Germany. I also wrote short stories (in fact, I still do write those as well as novels). Writing shorter things was a good experience in terms of finding my own writing style, and learning to accept constructive criticism. I eventually found the inspiration for my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, in the legends of the German town where we were living. The town had a very rich folklore which had been preserved by a Catholic priest who wrote down all the stories and published them in a local journal, over a hundred years ago. I found the stories really fascinating, especially because they were often set in parts of the town that I had actually visited. So I think there were a lot of things involved in my decision to write books – a love of writing, having the opportunity and time to write, and finding the right inspiration.
Q: Do you have a specific writing process?
A: The more I write, the more I like to plan. I’m not somebody who loves the whole editing process. In fact I pretty much hate rewriting things! And obviously if you don’t plan carefully, you risk having to rewrite sections of the book because of continuity errors or plot holes. I don’t always write the plan down, but I like to think it through for a long time before writing. I also tend to write in fairly intensive bursts. It’s always been difficult for me to get much done during the school holidays and weekends, because I like peace and quiet to work. So when I do have the house to myself, I really apply myself to my writing. I usually have a target word count for the week, and if I have written enough by Thursday, I am allowed Friday off. However, in practice I rarely do take Friday off because it is more tempting to get ahead for the following week! I don’t show work in progress to anyone except my agent and my teenage daughter, and I don’t even like showing it to the agent! It’s frustrating trying to incorporate feedback on a partly-finished work when you still haven’t got to the end of the first draft. I definitely don’t post juicy excerpts online or show drafts to anyone else. The other, shameful secret of my writing process is that it is fuelled by sugary snacks like jelly babies…
Q: Do you listen to any music while you write? Or do you prefer silence?
A: I never, ever listen to music when I am actually writing. However, I like listening to music when I am thinking through plot ideas. I think it helps me to block out other, intrusive things. I often listen to certain pieces of music over and over again when I am thinking through book ideas or trying to work through a problematic plotting issue. When I was writing my earlier books, which were set in Germany, I tended to listen to Bach. When I was writing my latest book, Ghost, I listened to John Grant’s I wanna go to Marz probably hundreds of times. Since I finished working on the book, I haven’t listened to it at all.
Q: What was the driving force behind Ghost? Was it a place, character, event, etc. that began the idea?
A: Ghost sprang from my interest in the lost country houses of Scotland. Before Ghost, I worked on a trilogy of books with an urbex (urban exploration) theme, and I became very interested in that. When we moved to Scotland in 2011, I continued to explore, but I was visiting very different types of places. There are a lot of really fascinating derelict country houses in Scotland. Typically they were built in the early 1800s but by the mid-1900s had become completely impractical to maintain. They were then either demolished or sometimes simply made uninhabitable (by removing the roof etc) so that they would not be subject to inheritance tax etc. Many of them are still sitting there in the depths of the countryside, slowly crumbling away. I love to visit them and take photographs of this rather beautiful process of decay. One day we went to the site of a house that had supposedly been demolished in the 1960s and it hadn’t been! It was still there. And then I started to think: supposing there was a house like this, and the owners had simply locked up and walked away, leaving it intact with all its contents? Who might be hiding themselves away there, and why? That is where the idea for Ghost came from.
Q: How do you overcome writer’s block?
A: If I get really blocked (which doesn’t happy very often), I go for a long walk in the countryside, preferably on my own. Sitting at my desk just looking at the screen doesn’t help. Fresh air and a change of scene often bring me the ideas I need! I have occasionally realised that the reason I was struggling with a particular chapter was that there was not really enough to say about the scene I was writing. If that happens, sometimes the best remedy is simply to cut the chapter altogether.
Q: What’s your favourite type of book to read?
A: I love thrillers, ghost stories, anything a bit Gothic. I like the work of the Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, and the ghostly novels of Michelle Paver. I also love Victorian novels – I’m a big fan of Wilkie Collins and also Anthony Trollope, two very different writers.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: I’m currently working on a novel-length ghost story. This is something new for me. My books to date have all had supernatural elements but sometimes these can be a fairly subtle part of the plot, such as the interweaving of folklore into the story. There is always a human being behind all the bizarre deaths and gruesome discoveries. Occasionally readers ask me when I am going to write a book without a “Scooby Doo” ending! So this time I writing one.
Q: Do you have any advice for new writers starting out on their journey?
A: I think the main thing is “practise a lot”! I’m pretty sure that if I re-read some of the things I wrote when I was younger, I would facepalm! It can take a while to find your own style and to be confident to write naturally, rather than worrying about what you think you ought to be writing, and what you think the reader wants you to write. I think the other thing that was very useful to me when I started writing in earnest, was to submit shorter pieces to magazines and journals. It’s a good way of getting used to the process of submitting stuff, of accepting rejections (which everyone gets), and accepting constructive criticism. If you get something published, it also gives you the sense of satisfaction of seeing your work in print. Finally, it means that you have built up a kind of “writing CV,” which you can include when you start submitting a novel to agents or publishers.
Thank you to Helen for being a good sport and answering all of my questions! Helen is on social media and can be found on Twitter through her handle @helengrantsays, she’s always happy to answer questions or for you to say hi! You can find her books on Amazon or through her website.