AN INTERVIEW WITH HELEN GRANT
Conducted by Jason E. Rolfe, © January 2013
Helen Grant was born in London but has lived in Spain, Germany and Belgium. Her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, won an ALA Alex Award in the US and was shortlisted for both the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Booktrust Teenage Prize. Since then she has produced two other novels, The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead, and is currently working on a trilogy set in Flanders. The first book, Silent Saturday, will be published by Bodley Head in 2013. Helen now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two cats. You can find out more about Helen Grant on her website.
Jason Rolfe: First off, I really enjoyed The Sea Change, Helen. The seven stories in the collection appeared in various publications between 2005 and 2012 but they fit so well together I can’t help but wonder whether they were written with this collection in mind. Is it style or content that blends these stories so seamlessly together?
Helen Grant: Thank you for your kind words, Jason! I’m glad you feel the stories fit well together. Although the stories were produced for a number of different publications (All Hallows, Supernatural Tales, The M. R. James Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter), all of those publications come from small presses. I wasn’t paid for writing them and there was no commercial pressure to write in a particular way. This provided a wonderful freedom to write the way I wanted to write. Many of the stories are written in the first person, which is a form I feel very comfortable with; three of my novels are written that way. I like nastiness but it must be suggested rather than dragged brutally into the light of day. I’m interested in people and how they react to the supernatural events in the stories; I want my characters to be more than screaming victims. Plotting is also very important to me; I dislike stories that lack structure and are simply a series of vaguely threatening impressions (this is a personal taste; other people like a story which does not come to a decisive conclusion because it is mysterious and suggests the sinister nature of the unexplained).
JR: What inspired you to first take up the pen?
HG: I’ve loved writing since I was a kid — since I first could write, in fact. When I was ten, my primary school teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, “A writer.” However, I took a rather circuitous route to that point!
After I left university I worked in Marketing for ten years and spent all my spare cash on travelling. During that time I mostly wrote travel diaries. Then children arrived and I had my hands full! It wasn’t until the youngest started kindergarten that I was able to write full-time.
At that point we were living in Germany and I think that had a big influence in my decision to give the time to writing. One of the great pleasures of living abroad is that it offers the opportunity to make a completely fresh start and reinvent yourself. When people in Bad Münstereifel asked me what I did, I felt I could say “I’m a writer” and they would absolutely accept that. They had no history with me, no reason to think, hmmm, dream on! That was very liberating for me. I do wonder whether I would have had the confidence to start writing full-time if we had stayed in the UK forever.
I didn’t launch myself straight into novel-writing; I started with non-fiction articles, many of which appeared in the M. R. James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, and then began to write short supernatural fiction.
JR: So why ghost stories?
HG: I’ve always loved ghost stories. When I was a kid my father used to retell the stories of M. R. James to amuse us on boring journeys — that was a great treat and the start of a life-long love of ghostly tales. I am bemused rather than irritated when people are sniffy about “genre fiction”. I like to be thrilled, moved and scared out of my wits!
I simply could not envisage myself writing chick lit or kitchen sink dramas because that isn’t the sort of thing I enjoy reading. If I tried, the romantic heroine would end up pushing the hero off a bell-tower or something . . .
I think my experience of writing ghost stories had a heavy influence on my first novels. The very first, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, actually includes a number of local German ghost stories that I have retold in my own words. I do aim for “creepy” rather than “disgusting”.
I would not rule out writing a novel-length supernatural story in future either, although I am currently building a reader base for books that fall more into the crime/thriller category, although they do contain apparently supernatural elements.
JR: In your story notes you mention that Bad Münstereifel inspired your first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and may serve as the setting for “Grauer Hans”, the opening tale in this collection. In your notes on “The Calvary at Banská Bystrica” you point out that it, “like others of [your] stories . . . was inspired by a real place.” I am curious about the influence of “place” on writers. How are you influenced by the physical (and cerebral) world around you? What is it about a place that inspires you?
HG: I am very heavily influenced by the world around me, particularly the physical world, although also the cerebral world in the sense that I have a keen interest in local folk tales (especially creepy ones) and bizarre snippets of history. When I wrote The Vanishing of Katharina Linden I was living in Bad Münstereifel and had been researching local legends simply for the fun of it. I was fascinated by them, particularly the story of der Unerschrockene Mahlhannes — “Unshockable Hans” — the miller who was entirely unafraid of all the nasty ghosts and supernatural creatures he encountered. I began to think that I should start work on the book I had always talked about writing, and make him the unofficial hero of it! I can’t imagine living in a place like Bad Münstereifel and not being inspired by it. It is a mediaeval town with the circular defensive wall and towers still standing; it has cobbled streets and half-timbered houses and several stunning old churches as well as two castles. It also has a shed-load of weird tales attached to it, most of which are retold in the book, such as the story of the Fiery Man of the Hirnberg. Really, the town was crying out to be the setting for a book!
I also set the two following books in that part of Germany (the Eifel). By the time I had finished writing the third novel (Wish Me Dead), we had left Bad Münstereifel and moved to Flanders, which presented me with a new challenge. I knew Bad Münstereifel very well because we had lived there for seven years, and we had been there for at least four before I even started thinking about writing a book about it. Also, I spoke German fluently so I was able to immerse myself in local culture. When we got to Flanders I had to start learning Dutch from scratch, and I knew very little about the area we lived in at all. So I very cold-bloodedly went out and looked for inspiration. I went on local history talks, struggling to keep up with the Dutch language; I visited churches and ruined abbeys and castles; I hoovered up snippets of Flemish tradition from my Dutch lessons. I even went down the Brussels sewers! There are no catacombs in Brussels, so I took the train to Paris and went down the ones there. Basically I tried to soak myself in as much culture and history as possible, concentrating on the more “Gothic” aspects, in the hopes of finding inspiration, which indeed I did.
I know I am not alone in having other people suggest particular local places or legends as the basis for a story. M. R. James himself said, “How often, too, have ruinous old houses been described or shown to me as fit scenes for stories. ‘Can’t you imagine some old monk or friar wandering about this long gallery?’ No, I can’t.” Well, I can’t either. I have to respond personally to a location. Whether this happens or not as is unpredictable as falling in love. Rosslyn Chapel didn’t do it for me (though it did for Dan Brown!), but Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent did. Bad Münstereifel was a huge inspiration for me, but nearby Monschau, which also has gorgeous old houses and cobbled streets, left me cold.
JR: You mention your admiration for the ghost stories of M. R. James. “The Game of the Bear” is, in fact, the completion of an unfinished M. R. James tale. I am loath to compare the work of one writer with that of another, but I certainly do see a touch of James in your work. That being said, I see a bit of Machen there as well. What other authors have inspired you?
HG: I’m not conscious of being inspired by a single author, but I have been a passionate fan of Victorian literature since I was a teenager, and I know that this has influenced my work quite a lot. I enjoy the moral dilemmas that face many Victorian heroes and heroines. Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton springs to mind — a minister tries to help a prostitute with the best of intentions, but risks having his motives grievously misunderstood; also Wilkie Collins’s The New Magdalen, which follows the attempts of a fallen woman to make a fresh start. I am simply fascinated by these situations. I think this is reflected in my work, for example, when Steffi, the heroine of Wish Me Dead, apparently has the ability to make wishes that come true and then has to decide whether it is justified to use it to get rid of people who are abusive to others.
I also like the sense of purpose in Victorian novels. Everything fits together so neatly. The Victorians were not afraid of employing a stonking great coincidence either, such as Jane Eyre happening to end up at the house of St. John Rivers, who turns out to be her cousin.
I have occasionally heard a modern writer say that they put something into a novel because “it seemed right at the time” or “it just occurred to me”. That is certainly a far more realistic reflection of the random nature of real life, but I actually like a story to have structure, for every element to have meaning, for there to be closure at the end. And yes, this probably does make me hopelessly old-fashioned . . .
JR: While reading the stories in this collection, I often found it difficult to pinpoint a time period. I found hints of the contemporary throughout, but your writing style strikes me as elegantly older (late Victorian or perhaps Edwardian?). Regardless, it creates a sense of timelessness that suits the subject matter well. Was this “timelessness” your intention, or simply a by-product of your writing style?
HG: Well, as I mentioned before, I am very fond of classic literature so I am sure that that has had an influence.
I suppose I do try to avoid using details that would date a story very strongly, unless setting it at a particular point in time is critical to the plot. Technology particularly is something that changes so very quickly that it soon anchors a story to the past, and not necessarily in a good way. Even when the technology in question is right up to date there are pitfalls; you need it to be state-of-the-art if you are writing Robocalypse but if someone creeping around a ruined castle at midnight suddenly whips out an iPhone 5, it adds a jarring note!
JR: How would you describe your writing style?
HG: That is a very difficult question! I aim for fluidity; I like prose to be easy to read aloud, which often means following the natural rhythm of speech. I do like elegant, understated prose but I cannot say I always employ it; in my latest novel the main characters sometimes use expletives because that is what is called for. Nobody discovers a body and says “Goodness me”. One of the things I do take a pride in is having a large vocabulary and using the correct word for the situation. I resisted a suggestion by my then editor to remove the unfamiliar word “came” (meaning the lead strips used in making stained glass windows) from The Glass Demon because it was absolutely the correct word. I am pleased to say that the same book also contains one of my favourite words, “palimpsest”! I don’t try to be obscure on purpose (pity the poor readers) but if the word is right, it is right, and people can always look it up!
JR: “Alberic de Mauléon” is a prequel to the M.R. James story “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”. Were this the only Helen Grant story I had read, I would say you captured James nicely. Because this story was but one of seven, and because it blended so wonderfully with the others, I have to say you’ve captured the essence and style of Helen Grant nicely! Your stories have a clear and consistent voice. Was that always the case, or did you (like many writers) struggle to find it?
HG: I don’t feel it was a struggle to find my voice, but I think I have developed in confidence as I have gone along. All my early stories were written in the first person because I felt comfortable with that and I felt it was working. The humour in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden largely comes from the character of Pia and her way of observing things. First person can also be a great way of telling the reader something without directly telling them — they have to read between the lines because they only know what the character chooses to tell them. Larkin in “Self Catering” would be less funny and probably a lot more annoying if seen from the outside — for example, if I came out and stated that he was an old fusspot and a hypochondriac rather than letting the reader draw their own conclusions.
At some point, however, I started to get tired of the limitations imposed by the first person narrative. It means that the reader knows that the narrator is going to survive to the end of the story/novel no matter what, unless it is going to turn into one of those clichéd “then I realised I was dead” endings. There is also a risk that my longer works would start to blend into one another: feisty heroine, sassy comments about those around her. So for the novels I am working on at present I am using the third person, and thoroughly enjoying myself!
JR: When putting this collection together, were you tempted to change the stories in any way?
HG: No, not really. I don’t like anything to go out to an editor, let alone get into print, unless I am happy with it myself. Now and again I notice that there is some tiny detail that I might change, such as the use of a distinctive word twice in one paragraph, but I would not change anything major. Also, you know, I would hate to end up like the guy in Camus’s La Peste who keeps re-writing the first line of his novel! Onwards and upwards.
JR: While I enjoyed all the stories in The Sea Change, my personal favourite was “Nathair Dhubh”. It was, as you said, “an old-fashioned ghost story”. The ghost story is arguably the oldest “genre” in literature. It is certainly one of the oldest themes in storytelling. How do you explain its ongoing popularity?
HG: Well, I’ve heard a theory that supernatural stories are all about confronting our most deep rooted fears: of death, mutilation, insanity and disease — e.g. vampire stories would represent a fear of infectious disease. I think there is some truth in that. Since ghost stories often seem to involve the settling of a grudge or retribution, I suppose they are exploring the question of whether there is any kind of ultimate justice. But basically I think you can split people up into two groups: the ones who absolutely hate to be scared, and the ones who like it! I know people who say “How can you watch films like that/read books like that?” That is one half of humanity. The other half are comparing notes on which is the scariest movie/novel ever, so they can get it . . .
JR: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and The Glass Demon, were nominated for the Carnegie Medal, which is awarded to the authors of outstanding books for children. The Daily Mail has called you “a writer to watch”. The recognition must be rewarding, but does it create a level of personal expectation?
HG: Truthfully? No. I don’t think you can let it. If I write thirty books in my lifetime, then (as well as spending a king’s ransom on print cartridges) I will inevitably produce at least one that gets horribly panned. I think you have to write for yourself first.
Awards and good reviews are lovely because of the publicity and its effect on sales — The Vanishing of Katharina Linden got its highest ever listing on Amazon after the Carnegie shortlisting was announced — but it’s all so subjective. Some readers think Wish Me Dead is my best book, others think it is not as good as the first two. Who is right? When I get a one star Amazon review I try not to let it get to me, and when I get a good newspaper review I don’t let it go to my head.
My main hope is that I will produce books that will do well enough that my future books will also be published. That is my main “personal expectation” and it’s more of a hope than an expectation!
JR: You’ve written three novels and released this marvellous collection. What do we have to look forward to in the future?
HG: I’m currently working on a trilogy set in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. The overall theme of the trilogy is Forbidden Spaces, and the first novel, Silent Saturday, is being published in the UK in April 2013 by Bodley Head, an imprint of Random House. I have just finished writing the first draft of the second novel, The Demons of Ghent. The third book is going to be called Urban Legends. The entire idea for the trilogy sprouted from something my Dutch teacher in Flanders told me. Apparently on Stille Zaterdag (“Silent Saturday”), the day after Good Friday, no church bells are rung in Flanders. They are supposed to have flown away to Rome to collect Easter eggs for the children! When I heard this story, my very first thought was, if I were a Flemish child, I would be mad keen to get into the church belfry and see whether the bells really had flown away or not. And that is the starting-point for Silent Saturday. The hero and heroine, who are children at this point, climb the tower of their local church and see something appalling happening below in the village. Ten years later, a sinister chain of events appears to be linked to what happened that day, Silent Saturday.
This is the first time I have ever attempted to write anything like this, i.e. several books with the same hero and heroine and a unifying theme. My first three novels were all set in or close to Bad Münstereifel and there were a few minor characters (the town gossip, the local policeman) who kept reappearing, but otherwise they were completely separate stories.
I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about trilogies and series that are basically one story cut into chunks. As a reader I find it horribly frustrating to get to the end of an absorbing novel and find it finishes with a cliffhanger and you have to wait twelve months for the next book to come out. So I am aiming to make each of the three books in the trilogy a complete story in itself, with some closure at the end, even if that closure is not final for all the characters.
Once I have finished writing Urban Legends (hopefully some time in 2013), I will be looking forward to some new projects. I now live in Scotland, so one of the possible options is to set something there. I have been scouting creepy or unusual locations for a while, looking for what you might call “stimulus material”! I’ve visited Pictish standing stones on lonely hilltops, toured old churches and one or two castles, and spent quite a lot of time ferreting about amongst the antiquarian books at Innerpeffray Library (where they let you read them — even the ones that are four hundred years old!). Most of my time will be devoted to novel writing but I am not excluding the idea of a few more short stories too.
Jason Rolfe is a writer of speculative and absurd fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous online and print venues including Wormwood, Sein und Werden, The Willows, and The Absent Willow Review. He has worked as an associate editor at Horror Bound Magazine, co-editing the anthology Fear of the Dark with Maria Grazia. For the past five years he has reviewed, essayed and interviewed books, fellow authors, editors and publishers at Bibliomancy: www.jasonrolfe.blogspot.com
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