Recently I was excited to have the opportunity to interview the very talented Helen Grant, one of my favourite authors. Her books blend together creepy mysteries, local legends, hints of the supernatural, romance, drama and intriguing foreign locations. Her first novel, ‘The Vanishing of Katharina Linden’, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie medal and the second book in her ‘Forbidden Spaces’ trilogy gets the slightly less prestigious title of being one of my Top 7 books of 2015.
1. Why did you decide to include local legends in your novels?
This really began with my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. I’d always wanted to write a book, but I’d never settled on what exactly I wanted to write! In 2001 we moved to Germany with my husband’s job, and we found ourselves living in a little town called Bad Münstereifel. It’s an amazing place, with beautiful old houses and cobbled streets, and a wealth of history and folklore. I guess in many places, folk tales have been forgotten, but about a century ago in Bad Münstereifel, a local parish priest, Father Krause, decided to record the local stories. He went and talked to the old people of the town, listened to the legends and then wrote them down in his own words. The stories were published in a magazine called the Eifelvereinsblatt. That’s how they survived. Some of the tales are fairly standard fare for folklore – there’s an eternal huntsman, for example, and a witches’ coven. But some are unique, like the story of the Fiery Man who lives in a cave called the Devil’s Hole, under the Hirnberg hill. I found the stories so fascinating that I wanted to retell them in a book of my own, and that was where I got the idea for The Vanishing of Katharina Linden.
They’re very much at the heart of the book. Pia Kolvenbach, the heroine, hears the tales from an old resident of the town, so her head is full of these imaginary creatures. As a result, when local children start disappearing, she decides that there must be something supernatural going on, and she decides to investigate, not realising that she is bringing herself closer and closer to a very real danger.
Some of the legends in my later books are partly based on real legends or history, and partly my own invention. In The Glass Demon, for example, there is a series of stained glass windows supposedly haunted by a demon called Bonschariant. There is actually a genuine folktale about Bonschariant, associated with Steinfeld Abbey in Germany, but in my book I have embroidered the legend and added some things of my own to it. I suppose I could use entirely imaginary legends, but I think that would be a shame. I like to think that if anyone read the book and tried googling “Bonschariant” they would find that he was a genuine legendary figure, and maybe they’d get a little bit of a frisson from that!
The legend that features in Demons of Ghent is a legend I made up myself, based on the historical facts so far as we know them. It concerns a famous painting, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and the two brothers who painted it, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. The “facts” of the story are true so far as anyone can tell, even the rather gruesome bit about Hubert’s arm being cut off and buried in a casket in the wall of the Saint Baaf cathedral. I’ve just added my own interpretation to what happened. I think authors would make good conspiracy theorists; we can take a lot of disparate facts and turn them into a story! Again, I like to think that if anyone looked into the back story of Demons of Ghent, they would get a tiny thrill from finding out how much of it really happened.
2. Did you encounter any problems with setting your novels in places where you have lived?
No, I can’t say that I have. It was easy to set the novels in those places (Germany and Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) precisely because I lived there, in Germany for 7 years and Belgium for 3. So it wasn’t difficult to do location research because it was all right in front of me!
I suppose there is always the question of whether local people are going to be offended by the way their home town or country is portrayed and I did think about that a bit. I asked some of my German friends in Bad Münstereifel whether they thought that anyone would be annoyed that I had depicted their town as being full of ghosts, witches and serial killers! One of them said that someone had already written a non-fiction book about the tragic fate of the Jewish community in the town in World War Two and that nobody had protested about that; by comparison, my book, which was very obviously fiction, was not likely to upset anyone.
I knew Bad Münstereifel very well before I started writing about it, but we didn’t live in Belgium for as long and I did wonder whether people would be annoyed that I had been so presumptuous as to write a book with a Flemish hero and heroine in it. I asked a friend and he said he thought they would be interested to see how I had portrayed Flanders, rather than offended. Anyway, nobody has complained!
3. Where do you find the inspiration for your characters?
I have never based any of my characters on a real life person, except once; I based Pia Kolvenbach’s mother in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden on myself. When I started showing the manuscript to literary agents, I was rather dismayed when one of them said that he loved the book but that Pia’s mother was a bitch!! Oops.
I do sometimes use attributes of people I have met in real life, as part of a fictional character – I just don’t use the whole person. For example, Tuesday, the awful mother in The Glass Demon, was not actually christened Tuesday at all; her real name is something a lot more conventional. I had the idea for that from someone I worked with years ago, who had a very unusual Bohemian name but had quite another name in her passport (which she inadvisedly gave me to look after while she went to the ladies!). But Tuesday herself is not based on that colleague of mine.
I also like to “cast” my characters as though they were going to be in a film. It helps me to fix their outward appearance in my head. I imagined Oliver Fox in The Glass Demon as looking like George Clooney!
4. Which three of your characters would you like to be stuck on a desert island with?
Oooh – brilliant question, but also a very difficult one! I think out of all the characters I have ever written, my favourites are probably Kris, Veerle and Bram out of the Forbidden Spaces books, but I can imagine it would be a bit annoying being on a desert island with a love triangle like that! They’d probably either ignore me so they could fight over each other, or else they’d want to tell me their woes all the time, which would be just as bad.
I just told my daughter about this question and she said she would like to be on a desert island with those three; it would be as good as a soap opera!
It would probably be a public service to maroon all the serial killers in my books on a desert island where they couldn’t kill anyone but each other, but then I wouldn’t want to be there with them!
I guess I’ll have to go for Lin and Michel out of The Glass Demon, and Lin’s Dad Oliver Fox. Not only does he look like George Clooney, he knows all about mediaeval history, so he could entertain me by telling me all about that, and hopefully keep out of Lin’s hair…
5. Do you find it difficult to balance the different threads of your story eg family, romance, mystery?
A little bit, perhaps. It’s never a problem knowing where I want the romance or the mystery to go, but nobody’s life is one hundred per cent romance and mystery. There has to be a bit of background, a bit of ordinary life going on, and it’s sometimes tricky to know how much of that to include. It’s not the most thrilling part, but it has to be there. I did have someone comment – in a amazon review, I think – that there was not enough of Veerle’s everyday life in Silent Saturday, so that it felt like it was a series of snapshots. But I’m not sure people would really want to read more about her daily commute to high school etc, and I didn’t really want to write it!
The Forbidden Spaces trilogy never mentions the everyday life of brutal serial killer De Jager either, although he must do something for a living! I imagine him doing some kind of tech job, something where he doesn’t have to interact much with other people. But I don’t think spelling that out would add anything to the books.
6. Do you feel that studying Classics has had an influence on your work?
Yes, to a certain extent. I think Classics contributed a lot to my love of history and folklore. Some of the first legends I ever read were Greek ones. But I think a bigger influence is the Gothic tradition. I’ve always loved novels like Dracula and Frankenstein. My novels tend to have a lot of Gothic aspects: crumbling old castles, ancient churches, ominous legends, a hint of the supernatural at work. Recently I did an online course on the Gothic Revival 1700-1850; it was created by Stirling University, who have a Gothic Studies department. I was amazed to realise how much my work fits into the Gothic tradition. This may explain why I am irresistibly drawn to old ruined buildings…
7. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Practise, practise, practise! And be honest with yourself, which is harder to do than you might think. I think many authors get to a point in every book where they are convinced it is all rubbish, the worst thing ever put onto paper, etc etc. That is the voice of self doubt talking, and the best thing you can do is put your hands over your ears and keep going. Chances are, if you leave the text for a few days, when you read it again you will find it was better than you thought it was!
On the other hand, if something is really niggling at you all the time, maybe it does need changing. When I was writing Demons of Ghent, the dramatic denouement originally included a much bigger number of people than the four who currently appear in it. I wrote 10,000 words of that scene and the whole time it felt difficult and uncomfortable; it felt like I was trying to stage Die Hard in Ghent or something! In the end I deleted the whole scene and started again, and as soon as I did that, I knew it was right.
The other thing I find hugely helpful is planning the outline of the book beforehand. Some people like to start writing without knowing where the plot is going; that doesn’t work for me. I end up getting stuck because I’m not sure where I’m going or I’ve written myself into an impossible situation. I don’t plan every tiny detail, but I like to know broadly speaking where I’m heading with the story!
8. What can we expect from your next book?
I’ve just finished the second draft of a book set in Scotland, where I now live; in fact, it’s set in Perthshire, and there are some scenes in places that local people would recognise. Like my other books, it has a mystery at its heart, and a romance, and has hints of the supernatural, real or imagined. It also draws on the character of the real life location. One of the things that struck me about this part of Scotland when we moved here, was the number of deserted and ruinous buildings dotting the landscape. In the five years since we moved to Perthshire, I’ve visited ruined castles, abandoned churches and even a disused railway tunnel in the middle of the countryside. I think if these things were in a more densely populated place like the south of England, either they would have been pulled down ages ago so the materials could be reused, or they would have been fenced off to stop people getting in. But this doesn’t happen in very lonely remote locations. It makes me wonder what else could be hidden from view in some wild part of the land. That is what the book is about.