Countdown to June 5th: Interview with Helen Grant

Posted May 18, 2014 by chooseyabooks in author interview or q&a, blogtour / 2 Comments

Firstly, sorry to Jim and Helen as this should have been up earlier today but due to technical issues on my part and work, I could only just put it up now. Jim, the lovely blogger at YAContemporary among other blogs and on twitter as YAyeahyeah has organised a fabulous blogging event CountdownYA to celebrate UKYA books published on June 5th this year. I was thrilled to invited to take part and am thrilled to introduce the brilliant Helen Grant, her novel  Demons of Ghent (Book 2 in Forbidden Spaces trilogy) will be out on June 5th.

Demons of Ghent_AG-1
People are falling from the rooftops of Ghent. But did they throw themselves off – or did somebody push them?
Veerle has seen enough death to last a lifetime. 
But death isn’t finished with Veerle just yet. 
When people start to die in her new home town, some put it down to a spate of suicides. Some blame the legendary Demons of Ghent. Only Veerle suspects that something – somebody – has followed her to wreak his vengeance. 
But she watched the Hunter die, didn’t she?

Helen Grant
Helen Grant
1. Silent Saturday involves a form of urban exploration. Did you do any research, or experience this for yourself while writing? Yes! – although it didn’t involve breaking into anyone’s house! For the bell tower scene at the beginning of Silent Saturday, I went to the local church in the village where we were living at the time, in Flanders. I wanted to be sure that all the details were right. It turned out that that church wasn’t really suitable, because the access to the belfry didn’t go high enough to allow anyone to see the bells. So I went to another nearby village and climbed the bell tower there. The tower had obviously been closed up for years. There were no lights and no handrail on the spiral stairs, and everything was encrusted with pigeon droppings, yuk. The bell tower at the beginning of the book is based on that one. The opulent expat houses in Silent Saturday are based on real ones, although as I say, I didn’t break into any!! I’m meticulous about book research but not keen on getting arrested. I used to trawl the Brussels real estate websites for ideas. Some of those websites offer the option to search for “castles/palaces”!

The city of Ghent
The city of Ghent

When I came to write the sequel, Demons of Ghent (out on June 5th), I went to the city of Ghent, where the book is set, and spent a lot of time exploring the locations.Some of the action takes place on the rooftops, so I went up the 91 metre high Belfort tower to check out the rooftop landscape. That was horrible, because I hate heights! It was interesting, though. There are a lot of blocks with sections of flat roof, where it would be pretty easy to get about from building to building. Also, a lot of the older houses in Ghent have “corbie steps” which is a kind of façade with steps up the sides, and those would be perfect for climbing around on! In addition, I spent a long time inside the Gravensteen castle. I wanted to include a scene in which the main characters spend the night inside the castle, as part of their urban explorations. However, the Gravensteen was built in the 12th century as a defensive castle with very high thick walls and a moat. It would be just as hard to break into now as it was in 1180AD! So I spent a really long time there trying to solve that problem. I went all over the castle, from the torture chamber to the dungeons(!) and took loads of photographs. I wanted whatever I came up with to be possible in real life.

2. On a related note, if you could explore any abandoned or closed area in the world, which would it be and why?

This is such a brilliant but incredibly tough question! I’ve spent hours thinking about it and I’m not sure I can pick just one. I’ve always fancied visiting some of the “lost” underground stations in London because they have fascinated me ever since I was a kid. If you know where some of them are, you can look out for them, and I remember doing that once and seeing a brief glimpse of a deserted platform. So that would be amazing…but on the other hand, why settle for something relatively close to home? If I could see just one place, why not make it the underwater city of Shicheng in China…or the wreck of the Titanic? The other thing I’d love to explore would be an Egyptian tomb – supposing there were one still undiscovered in the Valley of the Kings, I’d love to see that. I think the most exciting thing would be to explore something that nobody else had seen first…or at any rate, hardly anyone. It wouldn’t be the same if loads of people had traipsed all over it. I’d like it to be somewhere with a history, too. The combination of decay and the sense of times past is incredibly evocative. In Ghent, where Demons of Ghent is set, I’d like to go up the belfry of Sint-Baafs cathedral, because that is hardly ever open to the public. Oh – loads of ideas! I can’t choose one.

3. One of the things I found most compelling in Silent Saturday, apart from the quite chilling thriller plot, was Veerle’s relationship with her mother and particular how it ended. How important was the development of that strand in Silent Saturday to both the plot and Veerle for you, and without too many spoilers, which I know may be hard, the way the novel ended with the relationship of those characters?

The relationship between Veerle and her mother Claudine is pretty central to the plot, but even so I am surprised at the extent to which it stands out to readers. A lot of people have commented on it. It’s not a spoiler to say that Claudine is a very anxious person – and it goes way beyond a bit of ordinary maternal protectiveness, into the realm of a mental health issue. The character of Claudine is partly inspired by my grandmother, who also suffered from severe chronic anxiety. It’s not something you can control – you can’t just switch off persistent anxious thoughts any more than you can “snap out of” depression. Claudine can’t help herself. It makes her a difficult parent but she isn’t a bad character, and I think this is important to understanding the dynamic between her and Veerle. If Claudine were just a bitch, Veerle would find it easier to walk away. But actually she feels a great and rather terrible sense of responsibility towards her mother. There are two ways in which Veerle can respond to the way her mother behaves. Either she can accept Claudine’s view of the world, and become very cautious herself, or she can react against it. And that is what happens, of course. Early in Silent Saturday there is a scene where she impulsively jumps off a bus in the dark and goes to investigate a light in a lonely place. That’s a very bold, even rash, thing to do. You’d have to have some very strong impetus to make you behave like that, and I think in Veerle’s case it is because she can’t stand having to be “safe” all the time. As regards the ending of Silent Saturday, what happened is dealt with in more detail in Demons of Ghent. Suffice it to say that there is rarely any ideal resolution to an impossible situation…

4. What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you have a routine or special writing spot?

I do have quite a rigid routine because otherwise I would never get anything written – it would be too tempting to get distracted into other things. When I am working on a book I have a target word count for every working day. If I manage to get my target for the week met by Thursday, I can take Friday off! In every house we’ve inhabited, I’ve had a “special” writing place, but I don’t choose them in some kind of conscious rational way based on which room has the best wifi signal or anything! I just find that some rooms “feel” right. When we moved into our current house, I walked into the dining room and just knew that that was where I wanted to work. It faces north and can be quite gloomy, and it has the most disgusting floral wallpaper you have ever seen (inherited from the last owners) but it was still the right place. If I try to analyse it, I guess I like rooms with a peaceful view. In Germany I could look out at a hillside covered in pine trees. The mist used to hang over it in the mornings and that always made me feel good, seeing that. Here in our house in Scotland I look out onto the back garden. I like to see the outdoors, but I wouldn’t like to work in the front room, because that looks out onto the street. It would be too distracting seeing cars and pedestrians going past, and even worse, I would end up waving at the neighbours etc which would just disturb my chain of thought!

5. When writing, do you plan everything ahead or let the plot surprise you? I’d say it’s about 90% planning with the occasional surprise. I like to have the skeleton of the plot completely laid out before I start writing, and increasingly I am producing a detailed synopsis. I’ve had a few experiences of having to write to a deadline and writing myself into a corner because I hadn’t planned carefully enough – the worst example being the time I had a character walking around after he had died!! Luckily I realised what I had done before anyone else saw the manuscript, but it meant a lot of unnecessary stress as I rewrote bits at high speed. Having said that, although the “big things” in a novel rarely deviate from the plan, I am often surprised by the turns the smaller details take. Characters have a life of their own; they can surprise you. They can be nastier or kinder or braver than you ever expected.

6. In one sentence (two if you need more than one) what can readers expect from Demons of Ghent?

Three Ms: Murder, Mystery and Mediaeval, the mediaeval bit being the gorgeous city of Ghent, where the book is set.

7. What drew you to writing YA in particular?

My inner teenager, I guess! I think someone of Veerle’s age is more open to certain things than someone older would be. In my very first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, it was essential to the plot that the heroine was a child, because most adults would simply dismiss the idea that a series of disappearances in their home town was down to supernatural causes, whereas Pia believes this readily and investigates accordingly. If Veerle were thirty, would she still be exploring the rooftops of Ghent at night with a hot bloke? Or would she be thinking about how early she was going to have to get up for work, and where she was going to find a babysitter? Hmmm.

8. A lot of your books have a crime/thriller edge. What do you think makes an engaging thriller?

I think there needs to be a genuinely scary villain, although that doesn’t have to mean that he (or she) is huge and muscle-bound; the chilling narrator of John Fowles’ The Collector is an ordinary, even dull-looking person who comes across as inadequate. What’s scary is his bizarre and self centred way of looking at things. I think there does need to be a real threat to the characters; you have to be afraid for them to get that exciting thrill. Personally I also like there to be an intriguing mystery, but I like there to be enough signposts along the way that the reader can guess at who or what is behind it. If the mystery is so opaque that you have to just wait for it to be revealed at the end, I feel less engaged. I like to keep guessing, even if I am being fed red herrings the entire way through! I saw a Flemish thriller movie called Loft a while ago; in that, you are constantly being given new snippets of information which lead you to believe that this or that person did the crime. Every fresh revelation turns the spotlight on someone new. That is fantastically engaging, as you keep changing your opinion about who the killer is.

9. It’s a slightly clichéd question and may be hard to answer, but it’s one I absolutely love to hear the answer for, what are five of the books that have inspired you as a writer?

M.R.James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary: I write ghost stories for adults as well as YA novels, and some of them are inspired by M.R.James’ work. I have even written an ending to one of his unfinished stories, The Game of Bear, which appears in my collection The Sea Change and Other Stories. I love the subtle and eerie style of his work. My second novel, The Glass Demon, was partly inspired by M.R.James’ story The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, which features a set of stained glass windows.

H.Rider Haggard’s novel She has always been a great favourite of mine too, and I think it has influenced my writing in some ways. I always loved the fact that Haggard went to the trouble of including documents in latin etc at the beginning of the book, to support the story. It adds a real air of authenticity. In my own novels I have used genuine folk tales, history, and in the case of Demons of Ghent, a famous art treasure, as part of the story, as opposed to making those things up.

I admire the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope very much because as well as writing cracking books, he had a very disciplined approach to writing. He worked for the post office (in fact he has been credited with inventing letter boxes) but he also wrote a set amount of words every day, often rising early in the morning to get his word count done before work. This is one of the great secrets of writing a book: actually sitting down and doing it. If I had to choose one of his books, it would be Barchester Towers. I think those three would be my top influences!

If I had to choose two more books I’d probably choose Max Brooks’ World War Z, because it’s so very readable, and Paulo Bacigalupi’s short story collection Pump Six, because of his truly wild imagination. Those are both things to aim for in writing!

10. If you could say anything to your teenage self, light-hearted or serious, what would it be?

DITCH HIM NOW. Oh, how much trouble that would have saved me.

Thank you so much, Helen, for your time and your brilliant answers. Also thank you to Jim for organising this event and inviting me on board! I can’t wait to read Demons of Ghent next month! 

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