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Sunday 4 November 2012

Sarah Rayne in conversation with Lizzie Hayes

Sarah Rayne began writing in her teens, and after a Convent education, which included writing plays for the Lower Third to perform, embarked on a variety of jobs.
Her first novel was published in 1982, and since then she has written more than 20 books, including eight psychological thrillers, which have met with considerable acclaim, including the nomination to the long-list for the prestigious
Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year 2005 for
Tower of Silence,
(originally published in 2003).
As well as being published in America and Australia, Sarah’s books have been translated into German, Dutch, Russian, and Turkish.

Sarah, before we get to the questions, I have to say that I find your writing utterly fascinating. The suspense and tension you build is almost tangible, and in places has me holding my breath as I turn the page eager and terrified in equal measures to know what comes next. So you have here a fan avid to hear what comes next!
Sarah: Thanks, Lizzie.  I sometimes have to turn the page (well, scroll down the screen) myself to find out what comes next.

Q When you agreed to do this interview you said that you had just delivered your next book. So can you tell us something about this book?  Is it a Nell West? And when can we expect to see it on the shelves?

A Yes, it is a new Nell West/Michael Flint book – the title is ‘The Silence’, and publication is 31st January 2013.  It reveals a bit more about the family and the past of Nell’s dead husband, and she finds out some surprising things.  The eerie element to the book starts with music being heard where no music can exist – music that was first heard a century earlier when a macabre murder took place in a lonely house.  The echoes and the consequences of that murder are still reverberating in the present.  

Q Having read several of your psychological thrillers, I am curious to know what prompted you to start the antique dealer, Nell West, and the Oxford don, Michael Flint series?
A Several years ago I was asked to write and present a Halloween ghost-story evening at a local historic house.  There were so many legends attached to the place, it was almost a question of auditioning the resident spooks, to decide which to use.  (‘No, sorry, we can’t have a headless horseman because of Health & Safety…’  ‘Chain rattling is fine, providing you keep the noise down…’)  I took two or three of these tales, stirred in a couple of my own, and presented the result as a series of diaries, ‘found’ during renovations of the house.  It was quite well received; in fact there were requests to repeat the performance in other parts of the county, and it was interesting and fun to research ghost tales within the different areas, and adapt the original diaries to the locality.
Then, in 2010, I was commissioned to write a series of supernatural mysteries, so I disinterred the diaries, and adapted them yet again, this time creating a house on the Shropshire borders with a dark reputation.  For the modern-day frame, conscious of treading in the steps of the incomparable M.R. James, but hoping to print new footsteps of my own, I created an Oxford don as a reluctant hero/ghost-hunter, and gave him, as collaborator, an antiques dealer. 
The first of the books, Property of a Lady, seemed to go down well so the decision was taken to make it a series – which I’m loving writing.  Quite a lot of the disciplines needed in writing crime/thrillers also apply to ghost stories – for example, motives.  Ghosts, like any character in a book, need a motive.  They don’t just turn up because there’s a vacant slot at the moated grange, or the grey lady at the old rectory wants someone to make up a fourth at bridge.
Q You are the daughter of an Irish comedy actor. I seem to recall that he played a part or was the inspiration for Ghost Song. Can you tell us about that?

A          My father was a music-hall singer/songwriter – although during a slightly later era than Ghost Song’s flashback scenes which are 1890s and early 1900s.  He was indeed part of the inspiration, and I also named one of the characters for him.  For ages I had wanted to set a book in that era, but I couldn’t see a central plot. Then my brother mentioned how so many of those old music-hall songs have deeper meanings – in particular ‘My Old Dutch’.  People parody that now, especially the first line – ‘We’ve been together now for forty years/And it don’t seem a day too much.’   But in fact it was written as a lament – it’s the husband’s farewell to his wife as they trudge up the hill to the workhouse, knowing that once there, they’ll be separated for the first time in all their forty years.  Deeply moving, isn’t it?  So I suddenly saw that a crime could be committed and the truth about it hidden inside a music-hall song.

Q          In many of your books the buildings themselves are as much a character as the protagonist. From where did this fascination with buildings come?

A          I can only think it dates to when I was very small and my mother and I used to take walks during which she would say, ‘Let’s look at the houses and pick out one we’d like to live in.’e’s so much to glean from houses – their atmospheres, their histories.  I don’t  mean yomping round the Tower of London and thinking you’re seeing Ann Boleyn or the murdered Princes.  I mean ordinary buildings. Places where people have lived and worked.  My long-suffering partner has been dragged over most of the British Isles to view houses and locations.  (His sense of direction is better than mine, and he’s usually placated by the promise of a pub lunch en route…) I do find, though, that to use a real place can be fraught with pitfalls. There will always be at least one reader who lives in the town or the village you use, who will write to you – or, worse, to your editor –  pointing out that Arnold couldn’t have drowned Ethel in the duckpond, because it’s now a supermarket. But sometimes settings can take you by surprise.  Several years ago I wrote a book based on the seventeenth-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  She used to bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and beauty.  (Maybe we should put in a warning here, advising readers not to try that at home…?)  She lived in the Carpathian Mountains, but she also had a town house in Vienna.  At the time I couldn’t travel to either place, but a few years later I did go to Vienna, and I found her house in a place called the Blutgasse – Blood Alley.  I was very glad to discover the Blutgasse to be as creepy and ancient as I had described.  One of those really eerie pockets in Old Vienna.  But what I didn’t expect was to find that a neighbour of Elizabeth’s was Mozart.  About 150 years later he had lived in a house so close that they could have waved to one another, or discussed the weather when putting out the milk bottles – if it wasn’t for the century and a half that separated them.  I do wonder if I would have written parts of that book slightly differently if I’d been able to travel to Vienna at the time.
Q You write so convincingly and powerfully of forces that are not of this world, it makes me wonder if  you’re ever personally experienced anything paranormal?
I would love to say yes, and be able to relate a spooky story, but ghosts seem to pass me by.  The nearest I can get is when I was writing House of the Lost, and describing a particular character’s appearance.  It always matters to let readers know what people look like, of course, but he was a special case.  The lady eyeing him with semi-suppressed ardour was doing so with some guilt, being a young nun for whom attraction to any man was forbidden.  So I described him as being in his early thirties, with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt. I wrote the scene, then went off to collect some shopping.  And there in the supermarket checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie… By the time I reached the car park – which was awash with torrential rain – he had vanished. I do know that the sensible explanation was that I’d seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it.  But I would much rather believe I had conjured him up and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me

Q  Does a book come from something you have experienced or a place you have visited or do you sit at your desk and let your imagination take over? 
Ideas are everywhere. They’re in bits of TV news or overheard conversations in the cheese queue at the delicatessen.  One of my favourite inspirations is from a TV documentary about conjoined twins.  .  Among the case histories was one of two teenage boys who had been successfully separated a few years previously But after the operation, they both had identical near-nightmares, in which the original 'Siamese twins - Chang and Eng Bunker - would stand at the foot of their beds and threaten to have them re-joined.
‘We could never be separated,’ said these dream figures.  ‘So why should you?’ The idea of two sets of conjoined twins – but a century apart – dropped straight into my mind, and by the time the programme’s credits were rolling, I was already scribbling notes.  And from that, came A Dark Dividing. As for places providing inspirations – quite near to where I live is a large reservoir, and there’s an elusive but wonderfully eerie legend that says the reservoir’s creation drowned a number of buildings – perhaps even an entire hamlet. I wanted to use this concept of a drowned village in a plot.  The trouble was that other writers had used it, in fact it’s almost a genre by itself, sometimes called reservoir noir.  But I researched the tradition of lost villages – most of them lost to enclosure or coastal erosion or wiped out by disease.  More recently, by-passes, of course.  But some were the subject of strange experiments.  One of the most famous of those is probably Gruinard Island – the ‘anthrax isle’ in Scotland, sealed off from the world for almost half a century.
So I came up with the idea of – not a drowned village, but a poisoned village.  An ordinary English village that had been the subject of an experiment during the Cold War.  But an experiment that went wrong, so that the place had to be sealed up for the next 50 years.  What secrets could you hide inside a place closed to the world for half a century?  At that point, my lost village, with all its long-reaching secrets, suddenly became possible as a setting for a book.  And What Lies Beneath was written.

Q. When starting a new book do you always have a clear view of how the book will work, and if so do your books always pan out as originally envisioned, or change during the writing process? 
A I start by writing a synopsis – a fairly detailed one, virtually a work plan.  I think that’s the hardest part of the process – it’s like a sculptor facing a raw chunk of stone and having to hew a shape out of it and smooth it and refine it.  And all the time, you have to keep asking the question:  ‘What happens next?’  But once that’s done, there’s a blueprint to work from.
            Parts of the plot certainly change during the actual writing – I like it when that happens, because it usually means the story and the people are taking on a life of their own, and driving the plot along.  And quite often an unexpected twist presents itself, so that you think – ‘Oh, I didn’t see that possibility – will it work…?’  Then it’s a frantic scramble back through earlier chapters to see if you can make it work.

Q When embarking on a new book what area of the book challenges you the most?  And conversely do you have a favourite part of the writing process?
A There’s nothing quite like those first few moments when you type Chapter One.  It’s exciting and scary – you’re taking the first step of a journey into unknown, untested territory, and even though you’ve got a rough sat-nav (ie the synopsis), it’s more akin to those old maps that say, ‘Here be dragons’ in the unexplored areas.  Because you don’t really know what you might encounter or who you might meet.   The first sentence is always a challenge.  An author has about ten seconds to grab a potential reader’s attention, and if the first sentence (OK, maybe the first couple) doesn’t do it, that reader will close the book and be lost. So I do take a lot of trouble over the opening lines. Around Chapter Four or Five I often get dreadfully bogged down – usually because the threads of the story have been laid down, and the people introduced, and it’s time to pick up those threads and start weaving them into the action. That’s the point at which I usually announce I’m written out and that even if the book is ever finished, in any case it will be the worst book I’ve ever written. For me, what I call the ‘link’ scenes are often quite hard, too – the scenes that take the reader from one high-tension incident to the next.  You can’t have full-pelt tension all the time, and the quieter, inbetween scenes have to be interesting. But I absolutely love it when the first draft is done and I can start at the beginning again – take the book by the scruff of the neck and re-shape it and polish it – re-sequence parts to maintain tension, write in extra scenes, trim any repetition.
Q I see your recent series, featuring, Nell West, and the Oxford don, Michael Flint, I see are classed as ‘Ghost books’. Prior to that you published eight ‘psychological thrillers.’  But realising that you have been published since 1982 I went back to look at some of your earlier work and found that you wrote six ‘supernatural thrillers’ under the name of Frances Gordon.  Of the books I have read all of them seem to me to have an  ‘unexplained’ element. Who decides what  labels to use, You or the publishers?
 A         The labels are the publishers’ labels in all cases.  I think publishers like to pigeon-hole authors, so that readers know what they’re getting.  The use of the Frances Gordon pseudonym at the time was to differentiate those six books from others I’d written even earlier – some fantasy and some very light historical fiction.  I’m pleased, though, that those six FG titles have recently been made available again as e-Books.

Q I understand that you and author Maureen Carter formed the ‘Lethal Ladies’. How did that come about?
A I think Maureen would agree that it sort of sneaked up on us.  One week we were discussing authors who form groups for talks/workshops, and the next week we realised we had talked ourselves into doing the same thing.  It’s been a good thing for us: we like appearing as a double act and since we write quite different kinds of books (Maureen’s are sharp, taut, police procedurals), we think we’re able to give two different (and hopefully interesting) viewpoints on writing.

Thank you so much Sarah. It is fascinating to learn how your stories came about.  I look forward to reading The Silence.

Nell West, and Michael Flint Books
Property of a Lady
The Sin Eater

Pyschological Thrillers                                                     
House of the Lost                                                                              
What Lies Beneath
Ghost Song
Death Chamber
Spider Light Changeling

Written as Frances Gordon
Blood Ritual
The Devil’s Piper                                                                                        
The Burning altar

For more information on Sarah Rayne visit her web site  

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