And The Swans Began to Sing by Thora Karitas Arnadottir
In this gorgeous creative nonfiction, Thora Karitas Arnadottir writes with aching beauty, gentle simplicity, and raw truth about her mother, Gudbjorg Thorisdottir. About the appalling abuse she endured at the hands of her grandpa. About how she spent half of her life trying to forget it. The book is a journey – that of a woman who did not seek professional help until she was forty-eight-years-old for the ‘ugly secret’ she had buried most of her life until then, a secret that caused acute claustrophobia.
“It does no good,’ my mother said on her deathbed, ‘carrying your past around on your back. Write your story: the good and the bad.’
As someone who also has many buried memories, these words resonated so powerfully with me. But oh, there is good as well as bad in this story. There are beautiful scenes of the love between Gudbjorg and her mother – memories of suckling at her breast, then looking at her loving face, recallingthe absolutely joyful and perfect emotion. There is her absolute love of poetry and stories. There is a love of the land where she lives, so vividly evoked in the prose.
‘I hardly ever cried when I was a child, however I remember one summer night when I uncharacteristically lost control, and my emotions burst out frighteningly. I was about six.’
The book explores how shame silences the brightest child. How silence then was Gudbjorg’s worst enemy for most of her life. How this silence created a chasm between her and the rest of the world. The abuse began for Gudbjorg at the tender, tender age of one. She knows this because of the particular dresses she wore with knee-highsocks. She even told her own mother that her grandpa had kissed her ‘with his tongue’ but cannot remember that anything happened as a result. When her mother then saw them together, in a painful scene in a bedroom, nothing happened. As a reader I felt such sadness and anger at how Gudbjorg, therefore, continued to bury her pain.
The writing is exquisite – nothing is lost in the translationfrom Icelandic into English. There is such a gorgeous sense of place, enchanting imagery, and every emotion is evoked in deft strokes. The message of survival and forgiveness is strong. Gudbjorg says she is aware that she was definitely ‘bent and contorted’ from her abuse but that she had an inner strength that helped her have a ‘normal’ life, one she is aware many don’t achieve.
‘Stories heal the soul. There’s relief in giving the wings of fiction to life’s secrets and watch them trailing up to heaven like an offering of incense.’
I’ve always felt that stories are powerful. That in fiction we can explore what is too painful to look at directly. So And The Swans Began To Sing really sang to me. It’s a stunning book that I won’t forget for a long time.
Thora Karitas is an Icelandic actress and author and this is the English translation of her Icelandic debut. It’s a narrative non-fiction about her mother’s life in Iceland.
THORA KARITAS ARNADOTTIR studied drama in Britain and is best known for the award winning TV series, Astridur, in her home country and for hosting Unique Iceland, a highly popular travel magazine show about Iceland.
Thora is currently working on her first novel, which will be released in Iceland in 2019.
‘Deep down, I think I’ve finally written my masterpiece. And it scares the living shit out of me.’ – Truman Capote
At my recent book launch – a split second before I was about to end the Q&A to go and sign books with my glorious, hand-crafted wooden pen shaped like a lion– my brother asked me a question that I only answered briefly, but that has haunted me ever since.
Do you think you’ve written your best book yet?
Do I? In that moment, my immediate answer was no. God, no. An absolute no. No, definitely not. No way. No, no, no. Please accept my first answer only. But is this quick response because of the abject fear that I have? A fear that I’ve already peaked with book four and the only way to go is down. No one wants to have been their best, they only want to be it now, or in the future.
Author of When I Find You, Emma Curtis, said ‘not by a long chalk’ when I posed the question to other writers. ‘Once you think your best book is written, you might as well stop,’ said Ellen Alpsten, writer of Tsarina. ‘No way,’ said Joel Hames, author of Dead North. ‘The moment I don’t think I can get any better I’m putting the pen down.’
I thought some more about it. Was my answer instinct and truth, or raw fear? The reviews for my latest novel – The Lion Tamer Who Lost – have taken my breath away. Readers have said it’s their favourite so far. All writers want this. To have improved and learned and grown. But the pressure on those two little words – so far – is immense. Will the next one continue that trend or am I going to fall off a cliff and cut my poor, curly-haired, hardworking head open?
I talked to my husband Joe about it in the car late one night after I’d finished work. ‘It’s a bit like Michael Jackson,’ he said. ‘Is it?’ I asked. ‘Yes. Everyone wondered where he could go after Thriller. And Bad was fantastic, but was it another Thriller?’ True. Was it? How does one succeed an album that spawned seven top-ten hits, sold 40 million copies, and won eight Grammy Awards?
Have I written my Thriller? My magnum opus? My defining work?
(Not that The Lion Tamer Who Lost has been shortlisted for any Grammys or sold 40-million copies … yet.)
The answer after much consideration is still no, I don’t think I’ve written my best. The reason for that isn’t only that I’ve learned so much during this publishing journey – about editing, about pacing, about point of view – but that I’m too self-critical. I want to push my limits a little more each time. These limits scream at me every time I sit down to write; then there’s this voice that whispers to me that I’m stupid, not good enough. If it ever disappears, where will the fire come from?
So I asked a few more writers how they would answer.
Will Dean, auther of Dark Pines and Red Snow, said, ‘I bloody hope not. My whole writing process is based on fear. Fear if I stop and reread, I will lose confidence. Fear if I slow down on a first draft, I’ll lose momentum. Fear if I look at my work too closely, I’ll lose all hope. I always look forwards and don’t want to try to judge my own work. I just want to keep writing and keep having fun with it and let others decide.’
That fear word again. In many ways the whole writing process is about fear. Fear of not finding any words – or as Truman Capote said, of not plucking them from the clouds. Fear of forgetting how to do it. Of running out of ideas. Of not being good enough. (Perhaps the latter one is only me?)
Conversely, Claire Allan, author of Her Name Was Rose, said, ‘I think yes. So far. I think there are two books in particular that stand out for me. But I’d hope to give you a different answer in five years’ time. I think we’re always striving to improve.’
I’ve used the word fear a lot, and yet writing is my joyful place. Despite the niggling, critical voices – they are not mine, I know that – I feel quite unwell if I don’t write regularly. I’m free here. If I ignore the nagging voice, I know exactly what I’m doing. Language fascinates me, the rhythm and flow of the words, the secrets they reveal.
Michael Malone, writer ofAfter He Died, answered the question this way. ‘I really hope not. While I’ve still got something to say – and a desire to commit it to print – I hope that I’ll find even better ways of engaging my readers. I believe we are always learning, as writers, primarily from reading and observing people around us. There’s also the feeling that it is in some ways in the hands of our readers. Different themes/ subjects/ characters will engage them to greater or lesser degrees, regardless of how my skill as a writer has developed. I’ve already had people say that was good, but not as good as X. We have to pray that along the line it all marries up – technique/ character/ story – or continues to in a meaningful way.’
Adding to this, Phoebe Locke – author of The Tall Man – said, ‘I’d like to think I’m always improving but then I hope that will always be true no matter how many books I write – so yes and no, I guess! It will be fascinating to see what others say.’
The novel I think could be my best scares the bejesus out of me. And that’s a good thing because I won’t write it until I’m ready, which of course I might be never. I’m not even sure it’ll be a novel, and I’m even less sure anyone would want to read it. Because ‘best novel’ doesn’t necessarily mean bestselling. Some of the best novels in the world didn’t sell well.
Will Carver said, ‘I’d have to say both yes and no. Good Samaritans is my fourth book to be published and I think it’s my best so far. I certainly learned from the things I did right and got wrong in the first three books. However, I have other projects on the go and I think I’ve learned from the things I did with Good Samaritans to make my next one better. So, when I’ve finished a book I have, at once, written my best book and not written my best book – because the next one should be better. I wrote the shit out of my second book but publishing cold feet meant that I changed a lot of it to suit people who were never going to read it. But if your question means have I written my magnum opus, the answer is no. I’m still discovering myself and what it is that I really want to write about. My best book, the one I deeply want to write, is locked up somewhere. It’s there but I haven’t written it yet. I want to find my Gatsby, of course. But I’m fucking miles away from it, right now. All I can say is that I learn with each book and hope I can continue to improve.’
I agree – I’m always trying to write the best thing I’ve ever written. I want to stretch myself, hence the genre change with my next book. I also don’t want to write what people expect from me, which after Lion Tamer is tragedy, tears and tissues. I want to surprise and maybe even shock. I never want to be lazy, churning out form books, one after another. I’d rather never write another word again.
Carol Lovekin – author of Snow Sisters – agrees about her best book being locked up somewhere. ‘I sense it’s hiding in my heart, waiting for me to decide, once and for all, that I’m good enough to take real risks. I still, sometimes, feel like an impostor. And I agree – once you write your best book, where do you go?’
Laura Pearson, author of Missing Pieces, said, ‘I hope not. It would be really sad to be always trying to match previous skill or success.’ Elisa Lorello, author of The Second First Time, said, ‘I always want and hope for my next book to be my best book yet. And then the next, and then the next…’
As I write my sixth novel – currently called We Are Our Own Ghosts – and am at that excited stage, just over halfway, where the characters are shouting me in the night and the ending is starting to form, I feel sure THIS is my best. I hope it is. Because it’s a couple of years from being released.
After it’s out and I’m on my seventh? Then I hope it isn’t…
Most of us read a next book based on an author’s last book. I know I do. But what if that next book is very different to that last book, even if the writer’s very recognisable style is still there, their voice, and their certain way with words that we love? Would you be excited at the change, annoyed at not getting what you thought, or just go with it and what the hell because you trust in the writer?
I’ve read a few blogs/posts recently by writers who have switched genre. Even micro genre, as in a genre within a genre. Whether that’s under pressure or by choice, the fear remains the same; is this a risk that will pay off or will it end my career for good? I talked to Miranda Dickinson and Barbara Copperthwaite about this at Harrogate Crimefest recently, and how we all have books written that might be our ‘risky’ ones. We love them, but will anyone else?
Most of the books I’ve read by these genre-switching authors have been incredible and seem to be doing very well. Among them is Claire Allan’s Her Name Was Rose (she went from romance to psychological thriller, and how) and John Marrs’ Her Last Move, which I had the privilege of reading in its early form and is ‘more police procedural than previous.’ Judging by the great advance reviews, no one is complaining. But I wonder if some ‘risk’ books sink, and we never know about it, and that’s the fear. No one wants to sink.
Having never belonged to any genre, I didn’t think this was a dilemma I’d ever face. It was due to the fact that I couldn’t be pigeon-holed or put into a clearly-labelled box that it took ten long years (and four novels and about twenty-eight million rejections) to get a book deal. It was also due to this fact that I’ve always felt free to write what I choose. I can’t write any other way. I just can’t.
It isn’t down to stubbornness or being awkward or trying to be pretentious – it’s simply the way I do it. All writers have their way. Some plot. Some don’t. Some like the confines of genre. Some don’t. Some eat eighty-four custard creams before starting for the day. For me, the story occurs, and I write it. I can’t force that story to fit a form. Okay, maybe I’ll admit here that word is won’t rather than can’t; I probably could if my children had been kidnapped and it was the only way they’d be returned to me.
But here’s where I now understand this big fear of changing direction as a writer. Here’s where I might have switched genres when I wasn’t even in one in the first place …
I wrote book five last year. Star Girl. The use of girl in the title is a risk in itself – come on, all the girls are gone or on trains or in windows or in certain apartments, and we’re probably sick of them – but I humorously refer to this trend within the novel, and therefore I might just get away with it. Besides, there simply was no other title. You’ll see why if you ever read it. (My stomach just turned over at the very thought.) Only two people have so far and they are related to me and probably very scared of me therefore.
The story came to me as vividly as my other novels did. I saw Stella McEaver working her final late-night radio show; isolated within the studio walls; coping with a mother who has returned to her life after fourteen years absent; obsessed with a boyfriend who likes to dabble in very dark games; knowing that whoever killed local pregnant woman, Victoria Valbon, is still out there; taking calls from a man who says he knows everything.
When I finished the first draft, I realised it was a psychological thriller. I never intended this. It was dumb of me to not to click when there’s a murdered woman at its core, and one of five of the main characters may or may not have been involved.
And I realised (with abject terror) that it is very different to my other books. Which people have said are all different to one another too. But maybe this is more different. I don’t know. I just know I’m scared. It’s pencilled in for 2019. But do I pencil in the book I’m now writing for next year instead, and move Star Girl to 2020? Do I give readers another emotional-drama-type-thing first (no genre name for that) or risk my risky one first?
You see, just to be awkward, this year I’m writing book six, We Are Our Own Ghosts, and it’s more of an emotional drama again. This one involves a young autistic man’s relationship with a high-class escort. No one is murdered, at least not yet; I can never know for sure as I don’t plot. There’s likely to be tragedy. There’s plenty of sex, which my publisher adores. (She doesn’t.)
After some amazing early reviews of The Lion Tamer Who Lost I fear that readers will expect more tears from me. More heartbreak. More tragedy. Not murder. Not which-one-did-it, as opposed to whodunnit.
I can’t promise that I’ll deliver what you expect. There’s a rebellious side of me that doesn’t want to do that. A side of me that wants to write erotica. Wants to write a ghost story. A horror. But I can promise that every single book I write I give a chunk of myself to it. Every character I create, they are as real to me as my own family or friends, even though I don’t tend to treat them very well. Every word I string together will be with care and effort and endless rewriting.
Don’t oppress me, my books scream at me.
So I don’t. I write what comes to me. Bugger where it takes me. I’ve had fun. It was an absolute blast writing Star Girl.
God. I just hope it’ll be a blast to read in 2019.
If a psychic had predicted five years ago that I would one day stand up – on my own – at a very elegant literary lunch and speak for almost an hour in front of seventy-five actual, human people, I’d have said polish your crystal ball a bit more vigorously, love. Never. Going. To. Happen.
And yet it is the very and exact thing I did yesterday. Without alcohol. Without my notes, which were abandoned after a few minutes. Without any visual aids. Without passing out from my heart feeling like it had been squashed between two bricks.
I can’t lie and say it was easy. I can’t lie and say I want to rush out and do it again any time soon. But I can say that when I got home afterwards I was rather proud.
People do often say to me, ‘But you’re such a chatterbox. How can you be shy? How can you be afraid of speaking in public?’
Afraid is an understatement. Until recently I would have rather gone into a cage of hungry lions while coated in antelope blood and with a sign around my neck saying EAT ME. And even now the lions sound like the slightly better option…
We often assume that the smiley, chatty people are the confident ones. That they couldn’t possibly be shy. Or insecure. Or introverted sometimes. But I think they are the very people who need to be so friendly to put everyone at ease, to mask their nerves, and to try and make the world a more pleasant place so they can cope with that shyness. I don’t want anyone to feel as anxious as I do sometimes, so I go in full smile.
It’s easy talking in the company of those you know. Speaking in front of an audience is an entirely different thing. I knew I’d have to do it at some point when I got my book deal three years ago. The thought of it woke me at night in a cold, dread-filled sweat.
I thought that even if I could manage to do it – fuelled by alcohol or drugs of some sort – the audience would just think I was an idiot. Boring. Incompetent. Stupid. Gormless. Tiresome. You pick the word, I’ve thought it.
No one with half a brain would want to listen to me yacking on.
I grew up in a house that didn’t listen. My parents were both absent for varying lengths of time/reasons, and when they were around things were chaotic. When I started writing stories aged nine I now know it was a way to speak, ever so quietly and privately, so I could cope with having come home from school to a social worker who took my siblings and I away to live with my grandma, for a full year, no explanation. I found out when I was fifteen that my mother had attempted suicide and been in a mental hospital for that time.
Everyone shushed me as a kid. My mother. My father. My mother’s boyfriend.
Me (aged fourteen): I think I might be depressed. It’s worse than being just sad.
My mother: Don’t ever come and say the word depressed to me again. Ever. You have no idea what the word even means. No idea at all.
When I was shushed up, I wrote instead. The page listened to me.
I found my voice a bit when I was in my final years of school. I spent half of my time sitting outside the classroom on the stairs for talking too much. I got expelled from sixth form for messing around.
A year later I started three A levels at college: English Language, English Literature, and Theatre Studies. In the first Theatre Studies lesson we had to stand up and talk for two minutes. I couldn’t do it. I sat down, mortified, blushing, and totally embarrassed. Stupidly, I’d thought the course would just involve studying plays, not actually having to perform in any way. I dropped that A level the very next day.
I got pregnant at college so thank God I didn’t have to attempt to stammer my way through any sort of university experience.
Then I didn’t have to think about any sort of public speaking for a long, long time.
Thirty-three years after I first started writing, the dream came true. My first novel was published in 2015. And this meant book launches and festival panels and interviews. Book launches are sort of okay because you’re usually chatting with someone, not alone on some stage, and there’s always alcohol. Panels are also sort of okay because you’re with other, possibly equally nervous, writers.
Being a part of Women of Words in Hull – a monthly open mic event – has helped me find my speaking voice in ways I’ll never forget. At a workshop we had to stand alone on a stage and look at the line on the paper and then look up and say it. Not read it. Say it. Looking directly at the audience. Slowly. We were told not to be afraid of pauses. That a connected audience will wait for that duration.
I suppose it was the pauses I was afraid of. That silence. That moment when the eyes in front of me cloud over with boredom. When someone gets up to leave. Laughs at me. Frowns.
When I think to myself – shhhhhh.
I did a short talk at Hull University last year for International Women’s Day, about a woman who had inspired me: Marilyn Monroe. I tried to use what I had learned at the workshop. It helped that it was a small room. That this was a topic I thought might interest people. A person I myself felt passionate about.
Still, I dreaded someone saying shhhhhh.
Then a few months ago I was asked to go and talk at a literary lunch in my area. I was so anxious I literally typed the email saying no. I came very very close to sending it. But my lovely husband told me off. He said they must be interested or they wouldn’t have asked me. Plus there was a free lunch. He always knows the right thing to say.
When I left the house last Friday I hadn’t slept a wink. I dreamt that Deirdre Barlow and I were sharing the stage at some pub, and she kept force-feeding me sausages so I would choke.
Lots of kind people on social media had told me to be myself, to which I’d joked that that would mean going in my dressing gown, with huge hair, and saying ‘for fuck’s sake’ every other minute. But I had seriously thought that being myself was the very thing that would put them off. Yet who the frig else could I be? Deirdre Barlow? It wasn’t an entirely bad idea…
When I arrived at the venue, there was a large, beautiful room off the bar, all set up for a wedding. I commented on it, and the barman said it was for the lunch that was happening. I thought I would pass out. I had anticipated one large table with maybe fifteen people sitting around it. This was set up for about eighty. Maybe they wouldn’t all come…
Oh, they did. Seventy-five of them.
When I got up and stood all on my absolute own in front of them, seventy-five pairs of eyes looked expectantly my way. I don’t have words to describe how terrifying it was. The advice is to picture them naked. Didn’t help. The advice is use positive visualisation. All I could see was Deirdre Barlow. The advice is to be yourself.
So I started out by saying exactly that. That people had suggested I be myself, but that if I’d done that I’d have been standing here in my red dressing gown with hair like Billy Idol. They laughed. Everything in the room changed. They seemed to relax. So I did. I had written some bullet points but I didn’t even look at them. I simply talked about the writing journey, from being nine and my mum disappearing for a year, to being a young single mum, to my book deal. At times it was emotional. Because it came from a real place.
Without Consent by Sid Spencer is a short memoir about Sid’s childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. It tells of his time with his birth family, three foster families, and then at a boarding school. It’s an honest and brutal account of the systematic abuse that he endured for four years. The book describes Sid reporting this to the police thirty-five years later, and the two trials and then successful conviction of his abuser.
I wanted to chat to Sid, and find out more about what led to him writing the book, and his journey to recovery.
Sid, I think you were incredibly brave to write Without Consent, and I found it very moving. I wonder, was there an exact moment when you realised you had to write it?
Thank you. After the successful conviction I felt so different, so at peace and so strong that I wanted a way to try and tell others, to tell other survivors that you can secure a successful conviction. There are so many cases that sadly don’t get that or indeed even make it to court. I wanted to share my story to show that, although it is a very traumatic thing to go through, that it is also very empowering.
Did writing it help you cope with what had happened to you? As a writer myself, I find that writing things down helps me make sense of them. Deal with them. Did that happen to you?
My writing and my art is my therapy really. It helps me to unload, to dissect and make sense of my feelings. I truly now feel that I am the person I should have been before I was raped and that is as much to do with writing the book as it is the trial and outcome. It also reminded me of how dreadful and unacceptable it was. I think because it happened for such a long period and no one did anything about it that I might have forgotten just how bad it was. As I wrote it and I saw it through the eyes of the adult I am now, the father that I am now, and that reminded me of how severe it was.
I totally understand how being a parent makes you realise how terrible some of the things that happened to us really are. With all the #TimesUp and #MeToo things going on, it does feel like more people are feeling empowered to come forward. Do you think books like yours might help with that? Is that what you hoped the book might achieve?
I very much hope my book will help others to come forward. In the feedbacks that I have received, many of them have disclosed abuse that they endured as a child and they have mentioned how it has helped them to read someone else’s story. Us survivors need to shine our light now, shine it so brightly that these monsters can no longer hide in the dark and prey on our kids.
I agree – one voice often leads to many. You mentioned in your book forgiveness being the only key to moving on. I really agree with you on this. Did it take you a long time to get there?
The forgiveness thing was very difficult for me. It took me a while to get there. At first there was quite a bit of well-intentioned pressure or urging from those that love me to forgive so that I could heal but for a long period after the trial my emotions were too raw, the memories all too fresh again.
But about a year ago, while writing a part of the book, it dawned on me that I had moved on and I was able to give a degree of forgiveness towards my abuser. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision, more of a realisation.
Being a dad now, and having a partner, must make you so proud. Do you think one day your children will read the book? Do you want them to?
Both our kids come from abusive backgrounds, they have both experienced traumatic childhoods before they came to us. They are aware of the book and they know they can’t read it.
I have explained that it is about a difficult part of my childhood and they know I grew up in the care system too. I think that when they are adults, if they want to read it, then that can only be a positive thing.
I imagine one day they will read it. What advice would you give to anyone else who has been abused?
Firstly, I would tell them that it wasn’t their fault – it’s a powerful thing to hear someone tell you that when you have carried it around for a long time. I would also say what so many of us need to hear and that is that I am sorry that you experienced that.
I would encourage them to come out and tell their story, but I would also make sure they were aware of what a difficult journey it is.
One of the things that I became aware of very quickly was the need for emotional support. The police were great at catching him, interviewing him and all throughout the trial, but not so good with supporting me emotionally. At the end of the trial they just walked away on to the next case and I was left with all these emotions. I was feeling euphoric but also vulnerable because I had relived it all in such detail. So, get emotional support from a specialised organisation because it is a really fast rollercoaster ride that you are about to step on to.
What are your hopes for the future?
To continue to raise awareness of CSA, to work with other survivors.
I am also currently turning the book into a screen play, so who knows? It may be on a small screen near you soon.
Oh, and to write more books. Fiction next time.
Fiction is exciting, trust me! What kinds of books do you like to read?
I’m nosy – I like to know what makes people tick so autobiographies are my favourite, but I do also enjoy a good thriller. It isn’t rare for me to have two books on the go at the same time. I’m currently reading I See You by Clare Mackintosh and Unaccompanied Minor by Alexander Newly, so fiction and an autobiography, depending on my mood.
Is there anything else you would to share about your journey?
I would like to say thank you to everyone that has and will read my little story, I hope you enjoy it and see that it is a positive story. I hope it continues to help others to come forward so that we can all make this world safer for our kids.
My life now is exciting, new opportunities come my way almost weekly and I am meeting some fantastic people, survivors, counsellors and those that run the great support agencies that are out there. But more importantly than that is that I am learning about the little boy that I was, what he likes, what his talents and strengths are, and I have to say, I am incredibly proud of him.
Welcome to my website, John, and to your official publication day of The Good Samaritan, which I loved, as my review here describes.
And here’s the blurb…
She’s a friendly voice on the phone. But can you trust her?
The people who call End of the Line need hope. They need reassurance that life is worth living. But some are unlucky enough to get through to Laura. Laura doesn’t want them to hope. She wants them to die.
Laura hasn’t had it easy: she’s survived sickness and a difficult marriage only to find herself heading for forty, unsettled and angry. She doesn’t love talking to people worse off than she is. She craves it.
But now someone’s on to her—Ryan, whose world falls apart when his pregnant wife ends her life, hand in hand with a stranger. Who was this man, and why did they choose to die together?
The sinister truth is within Ryan’s grasp, but he has no idea of the desperate lengths Laura will go to…
Because the best thing about being a Good Samaritan is that you can get away with murder.
So, a book blurb tells a reader loosely what to expect, and word of mouth and reviews add to that, but for you what is The Good Samaritan about? What was the story in your head when you started writing it, and did you end up with the story you intended when you were done?
Well, Samaritan first came to me after meeting a friend’s new partner. He worked part-time manning the phones for the Samaritans a few nights a month. He explained to us what this role entailed and how he had heard people commit suicide while they were on the phone to him. I was shocked by this, I knew the Samaritans were there to listen, not to judge or interfere, but I wondered how I would cope listening to something like that and not be able to do a thing to prevent it or to try and talk them out of it. I thought it might make an interesting subject for a novel, so I got to writing about a (non-Samaritans) helpline woman called Laura who falls in love with a suicidal man who calls her regularly. One night, he kills himself while talking to her, and she’s horrified. However, later, she wants to find out more about him and starts looking into the life he had. And to be honest Louise, this is where I became bored with the story. Suddenly it came to me, how much more interesting would it be if Laura was actually encouraging certain vulnerable people to whom she spoke to end their lives? It was at this point, the entire plot flipped on its head and I started the novel from scratch. The more I wrote, the darker it became. At one point through the book, Laura is trying to encourage a new ‘candidate’ Ryan to end his life, but that becomes her undoing. Because Ryan knows who she is and what she does as she helped his pregnant wife end her life. Thus begins a cat and mouse game between them. For me the book is about loss and how different people can deal with it in different ways. Suicide is never going to be an easy subject to base a book on and has proved quite divisive. But I try and deal with it by showing both sides of the argument – what it’s like for someone who feels like they have no choice but to end their life and how the people they leave behind try and pick up the pieces. My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by it.
This is the most interesting aspect of writing to me – how a story changes and evolves and mostly becomes the thing it never even started as. I hear you on the Samaritans and suicide fascination. I was a volunteer and it was the most harrowing thing I’ve ever done. My mother attempted suicide when I was a nine – a very serious attempt where she went to a deserted place with all her pills and vodka. She’s only alive today because a homeless guy found her. So I think this has shaped my interest in life/death/survival. Which brings me nicely back to your Laura. My daughter Katy loves the line about her obsession with final breaths. You’re never afraid to go really dark, so to speak. Does it excite you to take risks with your work? I guess this could be classed as a risky book with the subject matter, but you handle it really well. And like The One, I think it’ll get a lot of discussion going. Do you like that?
Thanks, and I’m sorry to hear about the pain your mum must have gone through, and as a knock-on effect, your family too. Naively, I didn’t think The Good Samaritan would create the fuss it did. Reviews have either adored it or hated it because of the subject matter alone. But I didn’t set out to write a divisive story; I just wanted to write a book on a subject that interested me. And while it excites me to take risks, I don’t think writing Samaritan excited me at all. It just drained me. It was the first-time characters I’d created seeped into my non-writing world. I was mentally exhausted after finishing it and I decided I didn’t want to inhabit characters like that again for a while. I wrote that book from a first-person viewpoint, and for my next I switched to third person because I needed to disassociate myself from the bleakness for a while. And please thank Katy for me! As for provoking discussion, if it does, I’m won’t be reading it. I have long given up reading reviews and comments about my novels.
I know you love candles when you write, so what’s your favourite candle scent?
Either pomegranate or sandalwood. Or if I’m having a particularly dark writing day, patchouli.
Which is your favourite Imagination song from the 1980s?
Funny you ask. I was a reporter at the Chronicle & Echo in Northampton back in 1994 when I had to interview Ashley Ingram, the band’s bassist as he too was from Northampton. I returned to the office when I was asked by my colleague how it went. ‘I didn’t like him,’ I said. ‘I thought that he was up his own backside because of the success of Des’ree’s You Gotta Be song, which he co-wrote.’ ‘Have you met his little sister?’ my colleague replied. Sitting next to him was a stonyfaced school girl on work experience who it turned out was, indeed, Ashley’s sister. What were the chances of that? Oh, and I choose Just An Illusion.
Laughing evilly here at the Ashley Ingram thing. I ALWAYS end up expressing my (ill-advised) opinion at the most inappropriate time…
I think all our books can be mentally exhausting, can’t they? I really do live mine. Like when people say, ‘oh, I could write a book,’ like it’s something you do in an easy flash. Yeah, right. Interesting about the first-person aspect. I too love this POV but it can drain you. Does the voice come to you as soon as the story does? In that, I mean do you know immediately who will tell the story in your novels, and how? The POV can make or break a novel, I think. How different Laura would have been in third person! I guess you don’t miss her? What do you reckon she’s doing right now?
I’ve read two of your books and will start my third soon but it’s obvious that you put your heart and soul into them and leave a chunk of yourself in there. So yes, I completely believe you when you say that you live your characters.
Thank you for your kind words – I think the only concern when we ‘lose a chunk of ourselves’ each time is what about when there’s nothing left?
I also hear ‘oh I could write a book, I just don’t have the time or the patience’ as that is all it takes. I know writing a novel isn’t like brain surgery or working down a coalmine – I mean, I’m sitting here in my office, listening to Post Malone on Apple Music with the heating turned up switching between writing a chapter and writing to you – but it takes a lot of bloody effort to tell a story and to then promote it and make people aware of it. But I digress. In answer to your question, sometimes the voice comes to me immediately, on other occasions, the voice will begin one way and end up completely different by the time I’m done. It’s often the supporting characters whose voices I know from the start. The main players take me a little longer. Do I miss Laura? Not at all. People keep asking me if I will bring her back for a sequel. There are no plans to, but who knows? If I get a good enough idea, I might revisit her. I think right now, she is planning to get revenge on…. Actually, I can’t tell you that otherwise I’d give away the ending.
Scorpios are meant to be dark, evil bastards. Do you agree or is it all just witchcraft and sorcery?
Star signs and horoscopes are rubbish, in my humble opinion. I worked for a magazine once where they repeated a whole year’s worth of horoscopes the following year because they couldn’t afford to renew the astrologer’s contract. Not one reader noticed or complained.
I agree about newspaper horoscopes. They are porn to the erotica of a carefully-calculated birth chart.
Can I turn the tables and ask you a question? You can bring back to life David Bowie (in his 1970s period); Michael Jackson (1980s period); George Michael (1990s period) or Amy Winehouse (2000s period) – which one do you choose and why?
Good question. I had to think about this one. For me, it’s a toss-up between Michael Jackson and George Michael. I saw Michael Jackson in 1988, my first big concert, and was quite literally speechless. But then George Michael during the 90s… it felt like he sang the anthems to my experiences at times. And such a sweet, troubled, and gifted soul. So I have to say him, if only so he can write the theme song for my next novel, The Lion Tamer Who Lost. How about you?
If you went to see Jacko in 1988 in Leeds, then I was there too! £25 for a coach ticket and gate entrance. Kim Wilde was supporting. My mate Sean and I waved to her and we swear to this day that she waved back. It was the second gig I ever went to, the first was Madonna’s Who’s That Girl tour the year before. And I’d bring George back to life too. He was the first artist I followed the career of right from the start when I bought Wham’s Fantastic album and right up until his death. I was genuinely gutted when he died.
I was indeed at the Leeds Jackson concert – oh my God, yes, £25 a ticket including coach! You couldn’t even see Steve Brookstein for that now.
Doesn’t Steve Brookstein spend his days playing at Pizza Express now and trying to wind up the world on Twitter?
I don’t know, but he’s here now cleaning my outside toilet, so I’ll ask him.
Back to The Good Samaritan. You mostly write books that explore dark topics. But what scares you? For me it’s deep water (I have a recurring nightmare about going into water in a car), heights (I had panic attacks about my kids riding bikes across the Humber Bridge for ages), and it used to be public speaking, but I’ve had to get over that.
Public speaking scares the bejesus out of me. I won’t do it. I’ve tried it, hated it and vowed not to do it again. I have participated in a book panel, book launch or even a public book singing despite my publisher trying to talk me into it. I did a live Radio Two interview with Simon Mayo when The One was picked by his Book Club and I’d have been mad to have said no to that. But it was only him and me in the studio and I couldn’t see the five million listeners at home. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I also hate heights, yet the one time I tried it, I loved zip-lining. Death also scares me. I’ve yet to accept that one day I’ll die.
You’ll never die. Because you’ve written books. We’re ensuring our immortality remember.
Since it’s International Women’s Day, who’s your favourite female protagonist in any film or novel?
I’m going to choose two recent-ish characters in novels – Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and Lily from The Kind Worth Killing. I love it when you never know where you stand with a character, and even if you hate them, you are still fascinated by them. I like to use strong women in all of my books in one way or another.
I liked turning the tables and asking you questions – name three actresses you would choose to play Catherine in Maria in the Moon?
You’re such a bloody journalist! As an excuse to bring her back from the dead and meet my idol, I’d say a likely very miscast Marilyn Monroe. Failing that, I’d say Sheridan Smith or Julie Walters circa Educating Rita.
As we’ve mentioned a lot, you write books with pretty dark themes. Is there anything you would never write about? Why? Or is nothing off-limits?
Hmmm… interesting question … I don’t think I’d touch religion with a barge pole and while I’m not afraid to write about violence, I haven’t ventured into gore for the sake of it. In two books’ time I have a storyline about child abuse (it’s one of many different storylines), but I’ve tried to tread carefully with that. Often you can say enough without saying too much on a subject. I’d like to be one of those writers who isn’t afraid to tackle controversial matters – I just don’t want to write about them for the sake of it or to try and cause a stir.
How will you celebrate your publication day today? My celebrations usually involve peanut butter, an egg whisk, two clean towels and the local rugby team. (I’m lying – I don’t like peanut butter.)
Your celebrations of publication day are the same as mine! However, I use just the one clean towel, and why make do with a team when you can have a league? Think big, Beechy.
In all likelihood, I’ll completely forget I have a book out for the first couple of hours of the morning, then remember, then tell myself not to look at the sales rankings on Amazon, give in to that minutes later and spend the rest of the day refreshing the website hoping some bugger has downloaded it. Although I won’t read the reviews. Do you read them? And if so, why?
I too want to be a brave writer who tackles issues. But, like you, not for the sake of controversy but because I can’t do light and fluffy. It just doesn’t interest me. I may act silly and love to have fun, but I’m actually pretty serious.
I do read my reviews, yes. Even the bad ones. I read the good ones because I’m eternally looking for the validation I never got as a kid. I read the bad ones because they fire me up to work harder, because I want to keep myself in check, and because some of them are actually hilarious.
I used to read both, but then some of the bad ones were really quite nasty and I began to doubt myself as a writer, even though the good ones totally outweighed them in volume. So I decided not to read the bad ones, and as a result, I don’t look at the good ones either. Reviews are from one reader for another, they’re not there for me. It’s not my business.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now? Or at least a little about the next book, as I know that’s already written?
I am currently working on two books. I’m putting the final touches to my fifth novel, Her Last Move, a detective thriller in which two detectives hunt a serial murderer in London. One of the detectives is from a little known (but true) department called Super Recognisers – they have photographic memories for faces. That book won’t be out until around August time. The next book has the working title The Passengers and is more Black Mirror- style, in the way The One was. It has a hint of science fiction, but is set in the present.
And I can’t talk about you or your success (because yours is an incredible success story, it really is) without mentioning the indomitable, extraordinary and utterly diseased, sorry delectable, Tracy Fenton. Tell me who she is, why she is so important to you, and why the hell her bloody name keeps popping up in your books?
Ah, Tracy. My first book, The Wronged Sons, was self-published and had shifted a few thousand copies but its shelf life was coming to an end. Tracy was a member of an online book club, found the book, read it, and loved it. She got in touch to say she’d be recommending it to other members and within a day, sales had rocketed and continued to do so for months afterwards. Its success and positive reviews led to it being picked up by a mainstream publisher and republished as When You Disappeared. It’s partly thanks to her that the first book was a success, it found me a new audience and enabled me to continue writing. Ever since, she has made a cameo in each of my novels, from a masculine looking lawyer to a talent show judge. She’s not just a supporter, she’s a friend.
What you like to do to switch off from writing (that won’t make people’s eyes fall out)?
I slip into old man mode and I love pottering around the garden, decorating, going to the gym, and walking my dog with my husband, confusingly also called John. We also like to travel, and we are going on a road trip around California for a few weeks later in the year. John’s my biggest supporter and sounding board for stories. And considering he reads about two books a year, he comes up with some great twists of his own that I’m happy to steal and claim as my own…
I am so jealous of the California trip. I’ve been to LA, but I really want to do it for longer one day. Enjoy every bit.
Thank you for being so willing to be probed, and I wish you every bit of luck with The Good Samaritan as it deserves to fly. And I think it will.
I am honoured to be kicking off the blog tour for Madeleine Black’s memoir Unbroken.
Sometimes you don’t just connect with a book, but with the writer too. You read a story – a true story – that touches you on a deep level, one that you almost feel the author was writing just for you. That’s how it was when I first read Unbroken by Madeleine Black.
We had connected over social media and bookish groups when Madeleine contacted me to say she had read my first book. Her memoir had been on my radar before that, and now I finally picked it up and began. It is a book that changed me. This might sound cliché or overly profound, but it’s completely true. I took it wherever I went, on the bus, to work, shopping. But I had to take my sunglasses too; because I was crying on the Number 66 to Hull.
Unbroken is about more than just what happened to Madeleine. And what happened is terrible. Terrible isn’t a terrible enough word. Her experience, aged just thirteen, was the truest definition of horror. No, this is about how she eventually faced, dealt with, and overcame her brutal gang rape. This is no misery memoir. This is a soaring, uplifting, difficult, beautiful diary of the spiritual journey Madeleine took, and how she eventually came to forgive her attackers. I was most fascinated by the monk, who she tells me is often still at her side.
I had someone ask me once how I could read such a bleak book. I asked if they read crime or psychological thrillers, to which they said, yes, they devoured them. And this struck me hard. That readers might eat up fictional murders so brutal they cause nightmares, but would not consider learning of the effects of real-life crime of real-life people. We should all read this book. Knowing about rape is power. Talking about rape is power. Madeleine happens also to be a great speaker. She isn’t afraid to talk, and she’s very eloquent when she does. Try and see her at an event.
Madeleine and I realised the themes of Unbroken and my current novel, Maria in the Moon, were every similar. They both involve women finding the light again after the darkest of experiences. So we did an event together at Leeds Waterstones, called Not Broken – Exploring Survival Through Writing. When I met Madeleine for the first time at Leeds Station it was as though we have known one another for a lifetime. For me, it was quite emotional. She is so petite that when I hugged her, I thought, who could hurt such a girl? But Madeleine is strong. She is an inspiration. And she is now a dear friend.
So I’m honoured to be kicking off the blog tour for her haunting memoir, a book that should be a must read for all of us. If Madeleine can find the courage to share her experience then we can at least find the courage to read about it. If she can talk, then we all should be.
Sister Grace – or Bob Fracklehurst as she’s known on social media – and I like walking. We like wedding dresses. We like making people laugh. And we like helping others. So, we thought, why not walk while wearing a wedding dress and laughing lots, and raise money for our charities.
So for five days, from 29th April to 4th May 2018, we will walk the Wolds Way, which is 79 miles from Hessle to Filey, Yorkshire, while wearing wedding dresses.
We are raising money for the NSPCC because, after a very tough childhood of our own, we want to support the leading children’s charity that fights to end child abuse in the UK. We are also raising money for JDRF (Juevenile Diabetes Research Foundation) because my daughter Katy has had Type 1 Diabetes for ten years since, since she was seven, and they are a charity devoted to researching this incurable, life-threatening condition, so we can hopefully one day eradicate it for good.
Below are our Just Giving pages. Please give generously.