A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I met Helen Grant online and know her as an incredibly funny member of a YA writers’ group. Her new book Demons of Ghent was released on the same day as my novel, so I bought the ebook and quickly realised that as well as being the author of some of the most hilarious one-liners ever uttered in our group, she is also brilliant at writing tense, gripping novels. A few weeks ago I got to ask Helen some questions about her writing and she was kind enough to send me some very frank answers, which touch on cloak theft, secret societies who break into abandoned buildings, and sleeping with books…
Do you have a favourite amongst the books you’ve written?
I always feel a little guilty admitting to having favourites amongst my books. It feels as bad as having a favourite child! Truthfully though, some of them are nearer to my heart than others.
For a long time, my second novel The Glass Demon was my favourite thing out of everything I’d written. It was inspired by my lifelong love of the ghost stories of M.R.James, and my seven years living in Germany. I really loved writing the characters – especially the heroine’s really appalling self-seeking parents, Oliver and Tuesday Fox. After I’d finished writing the book, I slept with the manuscript next to my bed for several months – I just couldn’t let go of the characters. Some of the book locations are real places and when I go back to Germany, I like to visit those places and bring the book to life in my imagination.
I think, though, that my current favourite is probably Silent Saturday, the first in my trilogy of novels set in Flanders. When I came up with the idea for the Koekoeken (a secret society who break into empty buildings in Brussels) I was so thrilled with it – I find the whole idea of urban exploration incredibly exciting! Working on that book led me into some adventures of my own – I had to go up an ancient church bell tower to research the opening scene, and I went out with some urban explorers as part of the research for the overall trilogy. Abandoned places intrigue me to an irrational extent!
I also love Veerle, the heroine. She is one of my favourite characters ever. She is headstrong and brave but she also has a very compassionate side: her relationship with her over-anxious mother is very difficult but she can’t just walk away. Veerle also has a very impulsive streak, which is what triggers her dangerous adventures in Silent Saturday: she sees a light in a darkened place where there should be none, and goes to investigate, even though she knows it probably isn’t a good idea. She sees the abyss and she just can’t resist peeping over the edge.
I guess all of this is a long way of saying that I really want Veerle’s life!!
How has writing novels enriched your life? Do you think there will come a point where you stop, or are you in it until (or perhaps even beyond) state pension age?
Writing novels has given my life a structure it might otherwise not have had. When I wrote my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I was the spouse of an expat living in Germany – and I had two very small children. In those circumstances it is pretty difficult to have any kind of formal career. Before the move overseas and before children, I worked in marketing, which is a pressurised career with long hours. Even if I’d wanted to continue with that, it wasn’t practical in Germany where kindergarten shuts at lunchtime and we had no family to mind the children after that, and my German skills, though good, were not up to working in a commercial environment. Writing can be fitted in to whatever gaps you have in your schedule – in my case, that meant three hours a morning, five days a week. In the years when the kids were very young and their horizon was filled with Playmobil, trips to the playpark and Disney films, the hours I spent writing gave me something different – a place where I could express my own ideas and follow my own imagination.
Those are the practical ways in which writing has enriched my life. It runs deeper than that, though. I’ve never been a writer who talks about the agony and angst of writing. I love writing. I write about things I find thrilling – mystery, danger, heroines facing up to terrifying situations – and I find the whole experience intensely exciting! The research has led me to all sorts of places – an ancient German abbey, the Brussels sewers, the Paris catacombs, an abandoned factory, a 90 metre high bell tower, even a mediaeval torture chamber! And when I actually get down to writing some of the climactic scenes in my books, my heart is racing as though I were actually there living it alongside the heroine.
Oh – and, slightly embarrassingly, I always have a crush on the current hero…
I can’t see myself giving any of this up as long as there is anyone out there who is prepared to read it! I’m definitely not retiring. They’ll have to prise my laptop out of my cold dead hands.
As an author, do you feel you have a brand? Do you think readers know what to expect when they pick up a Helen Grant book? Sorry, tough question!
Yes, I think I do have a brand – in fact, as I worked in marketing for a decade before I became a full time writer, I am quite conscious of this. I think – or at any rate, I hope! – that when readers pick up one of my books they know they can expect a strong sense of place (I love my foreign locations!), thrills, and a sprinkling of gruesome and sometimes grotesque deaths! I also try to put the reader inside the heroine’s head; for me there’s no point in having those gruesome deaths if you don’t care about the characters. There’s always a personal story as well as the thriller plot. In my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, the young heroine Pia had to cope with being torn between the English culture of her mother and the German culture of her father. In Demons of Ghent, Veerle has some acute crises in her family and romantic relationships.
That’s what I’m aiming for. It’s challenging trying to establish brand values for yourself as a writer. For a start, most authors, unless they are bestsellers, won’t get any actual advertising. And heavy-handed marketing via social media can fall flat on its face; as a reader I dislike a Twitter profile that is nothing but multi-starred Amazon reviews and “buy my book” messages. I tend to unfollow those pretty quickly! I think the best thing I can do as an author to establish a brand is to keep working to produce books that have the qualities I value.
Quite a few things – though whether my teenaged self would listen is another question!
I’d say: Ditch him. Better still, don’t go out with him in the first place. In fact: you know that Freshers’ Week disco? Don’t even go there. Stay home with a book.
I’d also say: Learn Arabic while your brain is still fresh. You may think you’re going to do it later, but you’ll never find time, and it will come in handy when you do all that travelling. Which reminds me: get a decent passport photo, because a lot of people are going to be looking at it over the next few years.
And finally: you know that gorgeous evening cloak, the one with the gold satin lining? Someone is going to steal that. So don’t take it to any parties until you’ve left uni.
Please recommend five books and tell us why you love them.
She by H.Rider Haggard is one of my very favourite books, and has been since childhood. When I first read it, I was enraptured by the exciting adventures, gorgeous hero and shock ending. Now that I am (cough) a great deal older, I also appreciate the fact that it has one of the few really glamorous roles for older women…
The Way Of All Flesh by Samuel Butler is a book I have read again and again. Although presented as fiction, it contains much autobiographical material. It’s an account of what it was like to grow up with heavy-handed Victorian parents, written in a startlingly modern and self-aware style.
I’d also recommend Pump Six and Other Stories by Paulo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi has a simply breathtaking imagination; he takes ideas that other people would use as their entire story and makes them the starting point for something even more astounding.
Handling The Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist is another great favourite of mine. To call Lindqvist’s work “horror” is to tell only a fraction of the story. I suppose you could call this a book about zombies, but it’s actually much more than that. His great talent is showing the human side of all those monster tales: serial killers, vampires, the undead. How would you really feel if a recently-deceased loved one came back to life? I’ve read this twice and cried both times at the ending.
The most re-read book I own has to be Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by the great M.R.James. I love to be scared but hate to be disgusted; James’ stories are the apotheosis of creepiness, without straying into a gross amount of gore. I love these stories so much that one of them, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, partly inspired my novel The Glass Demon.
For more information about Helen, please click here.
Lisa is the author of the YA novel, Blue, published by Quercus Children’s Books
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.