Sunday 16 July 2023

Helen Grant - Interview, and new book news!

Thanks to Helen for taking the time to reply to my questions about her life as a writer and her new novel, which sounds fascinating! 

Lots of people write in childhood but then stop. Did you – like many writers – simply keep going?

I did indeed write in childhood – both for my own amusement and for school assignments, which I absolutely loved. At my primary school we had one particular teacher who was really interested in creative writing and would set us quite challenging topics. The supposed punishment for some misdemeanour or other was to write two sides on "an empty room" and I always kind of fancied doing that! And yes, I did just keep going, though the types of things I wrote varied. When I started working, I didn't have a lot of time for writing, but whenever I travelled anywhere (which I did a lot in my 20s) I kept diaries. I still have them: scruffy handwritten notebooks full of remarks like "We are currently camping in a police compound in Loreli in the Baluchistan region, as there are bandits around here." I always wanted to write novels, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when we moved to Germany and I was at home with two young kids, that I had enough time to do that. By that time, my head was absolutely bursting with ideas. I used to drop the children off at Kindergarten at 7.30am and then work like a demon until noon, when I had to pick them up again. Limited time certainly concentrates the mind. My first published novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was written in those circumstances. I haven't stopped since.

You began as a YA author – was that in part because you wanted to emulate favourite authors you read as a girl?

I have always had authors I admire – M.R.James, obviously, among others – but that was not an influence on my first works being YA. I didn't actually set out to write YA at all; my first book was simply the book I felt moved to write, and when my agent showed it to publishers, Penguin picked it up for their YA range. I've never adopted different styles for my "YA" work and my adult stuff. The thing that probably categorised my first six novels as YA was the fact that the protagonists are all young: teens or even pre-teens. I suppose the other thing is that even where there is gore in my work, I tend to write euphemistically about it; I concentrate on the light flashing on the blade as it descends, rather than the knife burying itself in someone's flesh. That's probably perceived as more suitable for the YA market, but that genuinely isn't why I write that way. If I do emulate favourite authors, it's because I admire the way they express the unspeakable without rubbing the reader's nose in it. M.R.James is an absolute master at this. In "Count Magnus", for example, he tells us, " I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they laid him on the bier which they brought, and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they began to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them. And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place." So poor Anders Bjornsen has literally had his face destroyed – blood everywhere, eyeballs sitting there in the naked skull – but somehow M.R.James manages to tell us this without being gross. That gets a chef's kiss from me.

Your first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal – did that shock you or were you all ‘yeah, damn right it’s good’?

Ach – in my debut days I don't think I realised how damn' lucky I was to get that shortlisting. I probably wasn't shocked enough. When you consider how many books come out every year, it was an amazing thing to happen, and also super helpful – even now, over a decade later, I get a tiny sales blip whenever the Carnegie is in the news. I don't think I'm a literary genius or anything. Generally when a piece of work is finished, I am pleased with it, but I don't think I'm more deserving than the next person. It's a certainty that there are brilliant, beautifully-written books out there which don't win anything.

You’ve written some spiffing ghost stories – what is it about the genre or sub-genre that appeals to you? And who do you consider the best ghost story authors?

I inherited some of my reading tastes from my father – he had a huge collection of ghostly anthologies, which I read avidly – and I think that has a lot to do with what I write. Certainly I take ghost stories seriously. When I was a child – so we are talking nearly fifty years ago – I recall my grandfather asking me why I liked to read genre fiction when "it couldn't happen". I was incensed at that back then, and I still am now! Supernatural fiction is very freeing; you don't have to stick to the literal. And I also think that most of the time, ghost stories and the like are not really about ghosts. They are an examination of topics like fear, transformation and loss.  

My favorite ghost story writers include (naturally!) M.R.James, L.T.C.Rolt and J. Sheridan Le Fanu; they are consistently brilliant. There are other individual stories, such as Perceval Landon's "Thurnley Abbey" which I admire tremendously. As for modern writers, I very much like the work of Steve Duffy and Lisa Tuttle, among others. Also John Connolly – my copies of his Nocturnes collections are very well-thumbed.

I get the sense that places inspire you as much as people or ideas (not that your stories are short of either). Is that because you are constantly on the move, looking or new places to explore?

Yes, I am. Whenever I'm working on a particular book, I am also thinking ahead to what I will write next. My first book was inspired by the town we were living in at the time – Bad Münstereifel in Germany, a place rich in history and folklore. I eventually wrote three books set in or near Bad Münstereifel, and then we moved to Belgium. Suddenly I was in a new place where I knew very little about the local culture and didn't speak the language (we were in a Dutch speaking commune). So I had to go out actively looking for the same kind of inspiration I'd found in Germany. I went to other cities and visited museums and churches, I took Dutch classes and asked the teacher questions about Flemish folklore, and I went out urbex-ing with some friends. All these things surfaced in my work over that period, and nearly all the locations in the books I wrote at that time are real ones.

Fast forward a few years and we moved again, this time to Scotland. I couldn't explore abandoned factories and sewers any more because we were living in the depths of the countryside, but I had caught the urbex bug, so instead I started visiting derelict country houses. There are quite a few here! One of them inspired Ghost (Fledgling Press, 2018), about a grandmother and granddaughter living off grid in an abandoned – and supposedly haunted - manor house called Langlands. A similar place appears in a short story called "The West Window" which appeared in the Egaeus Press anthology Crooked Houses (2020). Basically I just visit as many creepy, abandoned or historic places as possible and hope something will come to me, and it usually does.

Have you ever just thought ‘This place is evil/wrong/dangerous – I’m off!’?

Ha! Yes. That's happened a few times. My daughter and I once stopped off to see a graveyard at the side of a single track road, right in the middle of the countryside. I'd been tipped off about the place by the librarian of Innerpeffray, the antiquarian library near Crieff. We had a look at the graves, which were interesting, but I assumed there was no church or anything; we couldn't see one. We were about to move on when I looked at this little copse of trees and realised there was a wall underneath the overhanging vegetation. There was a church, but it was pretty much completely covered up. So that was a bit unnerving to begin with. We walked around it until we found a way in, and we were standing there in the remains of the nave, when I noticed a dark opening under some hanging branches. I looked inside, and there was a room with trees growing up through the floor and creepers hanging everywhere. I made my daughter stay outside in case the roof fell in or something, and then I went in. There were bits of broken gravestones scattered about the floor. Boy, was my spider sense ever tingling! I couldn't get out again fast enough. I'm not sure why; perhaps it was the sense of being enclosed.

There have been a few other places I've felt "funny" about. When I was a student, I volunteered as a tour guide at a manor house in Hertfordshire, and that was supposed to have several ghosts. I never felt anxious about those, but I remember one summer they had an open day and decided to open up some tunnels which ran under the gardens, towards some other buildings on the estate. You had to climb into a hole in the ground, and then there was a brick-lined tunnel running away from the house. After some distance it forked, so they asked me to take a chair down and leave it at the fork to stop people going any further. Well, I did this, dragging the chair and a torch, and feeling uncomfortable because it was very dark and narrow. I got to the fork and had the most unpleasant feeling. There's a story by L.T.C.Rolt, called "The Mine", in which some men go down into a mine to look for a missing friend, and the darkness is described as "being angry". Well, it felt like that. Perhaps I was being fanciful. But I left the chair and got out as fast as I could, giving my head a good clout on the ceiling as I did so.

So in answer to the original question, yes, I have had these sorts of thoughts about a place. It's hard to say why. Perhaps it's a kind of nasty feng shui; being in anywhere enclosed and dark is going to set off alarm bells in the animal part of the brain…

Your latest novel, Jump Cut, is due out soon and it struck me as a bit of a departure – it’s the story of a lost film. Did the idea just strike you one day, or had it been bubbling under for a while?

Bubbling under, definitely. I've always been a film fiend; I particularly love seeing classic or silent films on the big screen. I've seen screenings of Nosferatu, Metropolis, Der Müde Tod and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari among others, as well as more recent films like Jaws. There's a certain power in visibly antique movies. I remember at one of the M.R.James conferences in Leeds some years ago I listened to a talk by Aaron Worth of Boston University about M.R.James's Uncanny Cinematography which touched on this topic. Certainly I feel that the dread inspired by certain scenes in Nosferatu is enhanced by its grainy, crackly quality. There's also a fascination in the whole idea of lost movies. London After Midnight is the classic example. The last known copy was destroyed in a vault fire in the 60s; imagine the thrill for a film fan if there were even a sniff of a surviving copy!

So I've long been interested in this whole area, and as it happens, around the time I started working on the idea for Jump Cut my daughter was writing her dissertation about German Expressionist films and their 21st century remakes. We watched some of them together, and talked about them all the time. I thought a lot about the development of movie making: what could be done with silents, how the advent of sound changed that, and whether people knew sound was coming. We take movies for granted now – the way they can do the impossible. I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie recently and there was Harrison Ford, de-aged with CGI for the first scenes. It's a kind of magic really, but we just accept it. Did people in the early days of film even know where the limits would be? Do we know? Jump Cut is set against that background.

The movie in the book has the intriguing title The Simulacrum. Where did that come from if it’s not an impertinent question? It has a slightly alchemical ring to it.

Haha, it's not impertinent. I pondered for a long time over the title of the movie. In fact, The Simulacrum wasn't the only one I considered, and I was halfway through writing the novel when I finally decided. I settled on it because it is suitably abstract-sounding and doesn't give too much away, while also hinting at the nature of the film. The Simulacrum is a movie, but it is also a tool in the director's hands – an expression of her will.

Your protagonist is called Theda Garrick – is that a nod to Theda Bara, the silent movie siren?

Yes! "Theda" is for Theda Bara. "Garrick" is for David Garrick, the famous eighteenth century actor, "supposedly a distant relative", although Theda is sceptical about that.

The elderly actress in the novel is Mary Arden, that also has an old-style Hollywood ring?

Yes – well, that was what I was aiming for, anyway. I wanted to choose a first name that was in period but not too prosaic-sounding to modern ears – it's hard to imagine a modern acress being called "Norma" or "Edna". There was Mary Pickford, for example. For the surname I wanted something glamorous sounding, and "Arden" fitted the bill because it's just one letter short of "Ardent", ie. "passionate". There was actually at least one actor with this surname – Eve Arden – and the heroine of Flash Gordon, first filmed in the 1930s, was called Dale Arden.  

The setting is Garthside ‘an Art Deco mansion’. Is it based on any real house or houses you’ve visited?

It isn't a real house! I'm not honestly sure how well an Art Deco mansion would hold up under Scottish weather conditions, especially if it had sections of flat roof! I felt the house ought to be in that style because its owner first made her fortune in the movies in the 1930s. I also have a great deal of affection for Art Deco buildings of all kinds. When I was a child my grandparents took me to see a re-showing of The Man in the White Suit at the then Odeon in Rayner's Lane. There was an Art Deco cinema in my home town too, the Embassy, and I saw the original Star Wars movie there. Sadly, it was demolished in the early 80s. My grandparents' house also featured a lot of Art Deco furniture and ornaments. We still have their dining table, bought in 1933; three generations of kids have groused about it because there are decorative knobs you bark your knees on. Art Deco creates an intense nostalgia in me.

If Jump Cut is made into a movie, who should play the leads?

Oooh, tough question. Occasionally I have a clear idea about this sort of thing; I wrote one book (The Glass Demon) which featured a character someone had actually compared to George Clooney. It's a bit harder with Jump Cut. Also some of the characters are in their 20s, and the actors I can think of who are most like them are older than that.

I guess the heroine, Theda, who is dark haired and dark eyed, reminds me somewhat of Keira Knightley – soulful looking, and also thin, because poor old Theda has had a rough time recently. Max? Hmmm. Chris Hemsworth perhaps, only blonded even more than he is when he plays Thor.

Mary Arden would have to be played by an old actor as she's 104; I imagined her as being rather like Bette Davis in her last years, although the only way Bette could play her now is via CGI. Assuming I had to choose a live actor I'd go for Maggie Smith, although she'd probably be disgusted, as she's only 88.

Angus is the only character whom I have ever envisaged in terms of an actor, and I've always imagined him as looking like Benedict Cumberbatch. This is utterly bizarre because (apologies, Benedict fans) I absolutely do not fancy Mr. Cumberbatch, whereas I do think Angus is desirable in a scruffy sort of way. There's no logic to the way writers think…

When will the book be released onto an unsuspecting world?

Jump Cut is coming out on 28th September 2023! You can already pre-order it from Fledgling Press at or via various online outlets.


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