Sandra Ireland – Interview with author of Beneath the Skin

Sandra Ireland, author of Beneath the Skin

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to get my hands on a preview copy of Sandra Ireland’s compelling debut novel Beneath the Skin. This beautifully written twisted thriller, featuring unhinged taxidermist Alys and ex-soldier and PTSD sufferer Robert “Walt” Walton, is a fascinating but disturbing read that will have you gripped right to the bitter end. I’ll be posting a full review of the novel in a few weeks to coincide with the release of the book, but in the meantime I decided to catch up with Sandra to find out what inspires her deliciously dark writing.


Where did the inspiration for Beneath the Skin come from?

I watched a documentary featuring Polly Morgan, a taxidermy artist. I was slightly freaked out about by the way she kept her specimens in a deep freeze, but it got worse! When she’s introduced to someone, she finds herself imagining their bone structure and all the things ‘beneath the skin’. I thought she would be a fascinating and disturbing (sorry, Polly!) character for a novel, and Alys was born. I should point out that Alys is entirely a creature of my imagination and not based on anyone!

Beneath the Skin is about former soldier Robert Walton’s journey after leaving the forces. What inspired you to write about the aftermath of war and what research did you do to get underneath the skin of a war veteran?

Walt came into the story after Alys. He was supposed to be a secondary character, but he developed a personality of his own. Although I had never contemplated writing from a male perspective, it seems to work. The idea of him being wounded made me think he would be a military man, and I’d been reading some modern war poetry which was very moving. This led me to do some research into PTSD and its treatment (art therapy, etc.) and I also read lots of combat diaries written on the front line. I interviewed my son’s friend, Ollie, who was in the Rifles for six years and served in Afghanistan. He gave Walt’s voice some authenticity, and insisted that he should also be in the Rifles!

Taxidermy features heavily in the book, is death and the preservation of it, is this something that has always interested you?

It’s something I became interested in, the more I developed the character of the taxidermist. I found the historical aspects of it fascinating. The Victorians were so keen to preserve things in death- it became almost cultish, and I think this is where we get our squeamishness from. Most people think taxidermy is very creepy and I’m sure that’s down to some very dodgy museum exhibits and small animals in glass domes! In the book, Alys’s hero is Walter Potter, a Victorian taxidermist who became famous for stuffing tiny kittens and having them play cricket, etc. This is totally abhorrent to us now, and I was interested in these changing notions of taste. Alys, of course, doesn’t even notice that others don’t share her passion for this sort of taxidermy!

One of the main characters in the book is Alys, a taxidermist, a character who is cruel and flawed in many ways. Do you enjoy writing characters who have a darker side to their nature?

I do enjoy it, but it’s quite tricky. You have to check constantly that they are acting ‘in character’, because they are unpredictable and often outside the writer’s experience. That said, it’s very liberating- there are no limits to the imagination!

Alys and Mouse’s difficult relationship added a really interesting dynamic to the book. Is writing about family struggles something that you enjoy?

Families fascinate me, because we have this idea that family members should always get along to some degree, with blood ties overcoming every obstacle. But real life isn’t like that- siblings have jealousies and unresolved issues, and fictional families should reflect that. My own family is boringly normal so it’s good to have a challenge!

Mouse was my favourite character in the book and her relationship with her son is so well observed. How does your own experiences of motherhood influence your writing?

I have two grown-up sons, but it seems like only yesterday they were eight, the same age as Mouse’s son, William. I think the experience of motherhood remains very fresh in the memory, so it wasn’t too difficult to imagine the interaction between Mouse and her child. And of course, maternal emotions don’t change when your kids leave home. You still experience worry, panic, guilt and all the rest of it!

The novel is a real page turner! How much planning did you have to do prior to writing, to create such a gripping novel?

Thank you! Writing a page turner was definitely one of my aims! I’m not a planner at all, which means I run into trouble when it comes to continuity and time frames. I carry the whole blueprint of the novel in my head. I know how it will end and what the characters have to experience, but other than the synopsis, none of it is written down. As I’m writing, I do pay particular attention to rhythm and pace. It’s the length and snappiness of the sentences that create the tension, more than the words themselves.

Beneath the Skin is your debut novel. Can you tell me a bit about what you’re writing now?

I was recently awarded funding from Creative Scotland to write my second novel, another psychological thriller, which is set in an old watermill. The funding has enabled me to undertake a residency at Barry Mill, Angus, so I’m on hand to observe the landscape, and research the folklore and traditions associated with milling. The novel is based around an old Border Ballad, which features dark deeds in the mill pond! It has a very modern twist.

Do you have a writing routine that you can tell us about?

I like to get up early and write before my brain clicks into domestic mode. I try to write 500 words every morning, which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t! I invariably end up on Twitter or Facebook, but that’s all part of the writing life too!

Beneath the Skin

You can read more about Sandra Ireland and her writing over on her website: www.sandrairelandauthor.com

Beneath the Skin will be published by Polygon on the 22nd of September. You can pre order a copy on Amazon.

Guest Post: Mr Peek, Getting Silly – How to grow your children’s love of poetry

I love reading with my children. Watching them get lost inside a land filled only with words and their own amazing imagination, is just magical. Recently we’ve been exploring poetry too with Bits & Bobs: Mr Peek’s Poetry Fun Time, a book filled with gloriously silly rhymes that have my girls giggling like crazy before bedtime and pleading for just one more poem. My girls were instant fans, but how can parents encourage reluctant poetry readers to dive in?

I asked kid’s poet Mr Peek for his advice on how we can all grow our children’s love of poetry…

Mr PeekThere are many ways to encourage children to enjoy things, equally, there are many ways to put them off something for life. Reciting Shakespearean sonnets or The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to a three-year-old might give them a sense of the glorious beauty of language, but it’s probably not the best way to plant in their minds the seed of poetic appreciation.

On the other hand, give them a poem in which the word ‘Loo’ appears, rhymed with ‘Poo’ and, without a doubt, you’ve got a winner. So the first thing you have to do when encouraging your child’s poetic appreciation is to shrug off your serious ‘parent cloak’ for a while and don a more fun and outlandish outfit. Yes, silliness is the order of the day so don’t be afraid to read or think up some crazy, kooky rhymes. Kids love to hear poems where adults act childishly, for example, teachers putting their knickers on their heads! Moments like this are bound to bring a smile to children’s faces and allow them to gradually enjoy poetry through a sense of innocent, anarchic fun.

Of course I’m sure you’ve all sat down and read the wonderful Julia Donaldson books with your child but how to encourage their own creativity with words? One way to start is to allow your child to finish the rhymes as they appear in the books you know well. So you read the book as normal and then allow them to say the last word…

“…I had an Anaconda he was a great big snake I loved all of the noises Anaconda used to make, He used to bang his tail, it sounded like a drum, But when I took him to my school he bit the teacher’s…” (This is where your child shouts ‘THUMB’ or perhaps something else!)

Now it’s time to let them think up their own rhymes. I often play rhyming games at bedtime with my children. It’s simple enough; we find a word e.g. ‘floor’ and then everyone has to think up as many words that rhyme with the word ‘floor’ as they can. Then try it with ‘sink’, ‘towel’, ‘head’ and, god forbid, ‘blue’!

Although it might sound strange, drawing can also be a key to enhancing children’s fun with words. So when I mention a monster to the children in my workshops, I’ll ask them to describe what it looks like, how many arms it has, how many eyes etc. And once they’ve described the monster it’s a natural step to ask them to draw if for me. Then Hey Presto! They’re off!

Another idea that I have found encourages creativity is to get your children to make their own little booklet. I often have children at workshops presenting me with little booklets they’ve made of poems and illustrations that they’ve written drawn and stapled together themselves. These are the Julia Donaldson’s and Michael Rosen’s of the future.

Once your child is used to thinking about rhyming, you can ask them to think up a simple four-line poem for a card e.g. Mother’s or Father’s day, a Christmas card for a teacher, a thank you card illustrated and written for a special friend. Encourage them to write about anything you feel they might enjoy and then display their work in a prominent place so they can see that there is a final result and it isn’t just shoved in a draw and forgotten about. Praise their creativity and endeavour and they will quickly start volunteering to make cards and poems themselves.

No matter how you get children to enjoy poetry and creativity remember that it should also be fun for you. The more fun you are having yourself the more fun you will give to them. There’s nothing worse than someone doing something they obviously can’t stand doing. Engagement and inspiration are primeval powers and if you’re having fun, your children will instinctively feel it and long to join in and have fun as well. When the children are writing something, why not write something yourself? Maybe even something fun that tickles your sense of humour. Then, perhaps when it’s late at night, try writing a poem about something that’s been troubling you or worrying you and see how much better getting things off your chest makes you feel.

Poetry isn’t all about monsters and poos and loos but these things can be the gateway to a child’s imagination and can open up a world that will be valued and appreciated by them for the rest of their lives.
 

To order Bits & Bobs: Mr Peek’s Poetry Fun Time for £5 or to find out more about Mr Peek’s Poetry workshops visit: http://www.mrpeekspoetryplace.co.uk 

Interview with Alex Bell, Author of YA book The Haunting

Alex BellIn my opinion YA novelist Alex Bell is the ultimate queen of scream. After reading the terrifyingly creepy Frozen Charlotte last year, I wasn’t sure if I’d be quite brave enough to face Alex’s latest teen novel The Haunting! But I soldiered on and I can tell you that it’s every bit as brilliant and scary as Frozen Charlotte. When I eventually emerged from underneath my covers, I caught up with Alex to ask her a few questions about her inspiration for the book.

What inspired The Haunting?
The Haunting was inspired by many visits to Looe, and Cornwall in general, where I enjoyed learning about all the old lore to do with shipwrecks and smuggling. In particular, there’s a restaurant called the Smugglers Cott in Looe that’s built from the timbers of a sunken ship from the Spanish Armada. It’s an incredibly atmospheric place, and I loved the idea of a haunted inn built from the wreck of a ship. Also, I’ve always found anything to do with ghost ships – such as the Mary Celeste – incredibly spooky, and wanted to see if I could put a new twist on it.

The Haunting includes fork lore and legend, ingredients which also feature Frozen Charlotte. What draws you to these elements in your storytelling?
I’ve always been very interested in legends and folklore, especially as Britain has so many wonderful examples of this. There’s something innately fascinating about an old legend that has survived for so long – you can’t help thinking there might once have been a little bit of truth to it.

Witchcraft features heavily in the book, did you have to do a lot of research into this and is this something that interests you?
Yes, I did quite a lot of witchcraft research for the book. As part of this I saw a real witch bottle in the guildhall in Looe. I’ve also been to Salem, and found all the history there really fascinating. It’s definitely an interesting – if brutal – period to learn about.

The haunted Waterwitch Inn in Cornwall makes a fantastic setting for the book. Why did you choose to set the book in Cornwall and have you ever stayed any place haunted yourself?
Cornwall is one of my favourite places. I think it has such an amazing atmosphere, and I love all the smuggling lore, as well as visiting places like Jamaica Inn. It seemed like the perfect setting for this type of book.
I stayed in a hotel in Flagstaff once called the Monte Vista that definitely felt like it was haunted. I also once stayed in an old hacienda in Mexico that I found terrifying. That may have been my over-active imagination, though . . .

Emma, one of the main characters in The Haunting is in a wheelchair. Why was it important to you to feature someone with a disability?
I think diversity in fiction can only be a good thing, and didn’t see any reason why a horror novel shouldn’t have a disabled teen as a protagonist. At the same time, though, I wanted to make sure that Emma was a well-rounded character and that I treated her the same as all my other characters. Her disability is certainly not something that defines her.

Shell is haunted by terrifying birds in the book, what inspired that element of the book and what frightens you in real life?
Well, Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds was an obvious source of inspiration for this, although I think birds are used in quite a different way there. Really, I just wanted a different type of haunting from the usual bump-in-the-night stuff and it seemed to me that being haunted by birds that no one else believed in would be pretty terrifying, especially as they weren’t limited to one location that you could easily escape from, or choose not to return to. As far as my own fears are concerned, I’m not at all happy about clowns.

In both books you describe terrifying mermaids! (which I loved!) Will we perhaps see a book about mermaids in the future?
Ooh, I hadn’t considered it, but now that you’ve made the suggestion . . .

Both The Haunting and Frozen Charlotte are terrifying novels for young adults, what made you want to write horror?
I’ve always enjoyed reading horror, and think there’s something especially engaging and thrilling about being a bit frightened by a story. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to think up original scares that I haven’t come across in fiction before.

Your books are incredibly scary! Do you ever frighten yourself when you’re writing them? And if so can you tell what scenes in particular?
I definitely have spooked myself when writing, although I tend to get the most frightened when doing the research. It’s less scary knowing it’s something I’ve made up myself. I definitely got quite freaked out whilst researching various haunted dolls for Frozen Charlotte.

When did you start writing and what was your path to publication?
I’ve always written stories, even as a kid. It’s just something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I wrote my first complete novel when I was at college, and I got my first agent when I was at university. When I was 19 I wrote The Ninth Circle, and that ended up being my first published novel.

Do you have a writing routine that you follow?
Not especially, although if I’m having a dedicated writing day then I generally try to write 2,000 words minimum each day.

Do you have any tips for wannabe writers?
Read as much as you can, across all different genres. And write as much as you can so that you can find out what works and what doesn’t. Don’t worry too much about first drafts being a bit rough around the edges. You can always come back and polish it up later.

The HauntingWhat books/authors inspire you and your writing?
There are so many! I absolutely adore Cassandra Clare, John Boyne, Dennis Lehane, Charles Dickens and Madeleine Brent – but I think all the books I’ve read have probably influenced me in one way or another.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on something completely different from the horror novels. It’s good to have some variety.

Your mum gave you a specially commissioned tea cup when Frozen Charlotte was published. Will you be celebrating with anything special for The Haunting?
I have an equally beautiful specially commissioned teacup for the Haunting, which I’ll be sharing on my blog in the near future.

The Haunting (Red Eye) is out now and available to buy online on Amazon.

 

 

Interview with Try Not to Breathe author Holly Seddon

Holly-Seddon-bw-1024x1024Just one week into 2016 and there is already a must read novel climbing the book charts. Try Not to Breathe is a gripping psychological thriller, perfect for cosying up with on these cold winter nights. I was lucky enough to read a preview copy a few weeks back, which had me staying up to crazy o’clock reading ‘just one last page’, and I can tell you, it’s definitely worth getting stuck into.

The novel is about a girl called Alex, a journalist who has lost everything she once loved, because of her unhealthy relationship with the demon drink. During the course of her work, she stumbles across Amy, a 15 year old girl who is living her life out on a coma ward after she was attacked 15 years previously. Something about Amy resonates with Alex, they are the same age, they liked the same music and they are both trapped. As Alex becomes invested in Amy’s story she starts to carry out her own investigations about what really happened that night, all those years before….

Afterwards devouring my copy, I caught up with the book’s very lovely author Holly Seddon, to ask her a few questions about her stunning debut….

They say that all first novels are autobiographical! Is this the case for Try Not To Breathe and if so can you tell me in what way?
Oh there are definitely autobiographical elements! Nothing dramatic, but some of the colour and flavour of Amy’s teenage experiences (like Amy, I was music-obsessed, ambitious and 15 in 1995).

My own journalism experience definitely helped with writing Alex’s career highs and lows. When we meet Alex in the book, she’s a freelance journalist (as I have been for millions of years) but she was once a columnist for the Times at a very young age. I certainly never scaled those heights, but I worked for News International so I know the old Wapping offices intimately and really enjoyed digging deep into those memories.

Alex was my favourite character in the book! Can you please tell me where the inspiration for her came from?
Thank you! That’s really hard to answer, because when I first wrote her she just popped onto the page. She really did. I was writing the scene in the hospital ward and the name Alex Dale and description of her just appeared, while I was writing. I knew that she would be a journalist as that was integral to the story, and that’s obviously a comfortable area for me, and that industry certainly has its fair share of alcoholism and general boozing. But she’s not based on anyone I know!

Where did the idea for the book come from?
The initial spark came from a radio show about persistent vegetative states. Someone described it as a “living death” and that really moved me and fired up my imagination.

Did you have to do much research for the book?
Some, but I used a huge amount of artistic license. I wanted to make sure that the portrayal of Amy’s condition was believable, if not entirely medically specific, but also that Alex’s alcoholism was realistic. The hard-drinkin’ hack beating down the story has obviously been done many times, but I wanted the alcoholism in Try Not to Breathe to be tragic and crushing, which it is, and not romantic. So I did a lot of reading into living as a functioning alcoholic, the potential medical problems that arise.

But Alex’s coping strategies, those were mine. In other words (because I’m not a hard drinker), I thought about how I would make something like that work, how I would structure my life to keep it ‘functioning’ and not just ‘alcoholic’. It scares me how easily we can all slip, how easily I could imagine it.

Music plays a big part in the book, how did this help the process? And did the REM song inspire some your writing?
Funnily enough, I only settled on the final name after my first draft was complete so I didn’t listen to the REM song at all while writing, even though I do love it.

Music is so ingrained in me, I’m such a nerd for it, that I couldn’t help but thread it through the story. As a teenager, music is a tribal, visceral thing. It’s a huge part of the process of working out who you are and how you feel. When we were growing up, we’d make mix tapes for friends, mix tapes for the people we fancied. Every song was a code for how wanted to be perceived or how we really felt. It just made sense to me that music would be vital to Amy, the perpetual teenager, and Alex, trying to understand her.

In try not to breathe Amy is trapped inside of her own body which must have been difficult to write. How did you get into the mind set to be able to write this so effectively?
The truth is, I had to totally clear my head and not write anything else before writing the Amy bits. With the other points of view, I could switch between Jacob and Alex while writing. With Amy, it was totally different. I also had to write them in bed. Which was a nice excuse.

This is your first published novel can you tell me a little about your career up until this point?
I always wanted to write books, more than anything else. But that was like wanting to be a premiership footballer or an astronaut, so I put it to one side and just always tried to do something that was as close to that as possible, while being realistic! I’ve been a writer for a long time, I started out in charities and freelancing for magazines and then moved into newspapers and online communities. I’ve been a freelancer and home worker for a long, long time though, I’m completely unsuited to office life.

Have you always wanted to write? And if so, was it always a psychological thriller that you planned on?
I wouldn’t say it was always going to be a thriller, but it was always going to be something dark and something with complex characters. I like asking the question, how did this person get in this mess? And I love stories that build up layer upon layer in the present day while peeling back layers of the past.

Any writing tips for wannabe novelists?
Write every day. Set yourself a minimum number of words, and hit it. Even if it’s 200 words a day, it all adds up. If you can hit 1,000 you’re flying. Protect your writing time, own it. Get up early, stay up late, write on the train, take a notebook everywhere. If you want it, you can do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t because they don’t know.

And give up crap TV. Not all TV, I love good TV, but TV that you’re just half-watching out of habit, and not really enjoying. That time you’re spending is so valuable and you can choose to use it better.

What are you working on now?
My next thriller. It’s set in Manchester, which is very special to me as my husband used to live there and it’s an awesome city. I can’t say too much about it, but music is in there.

Which authors do you admire?
That’s such a hard question! Too many to list, but some of the authors whose books had the deepest effect on me at different points growing up were Peter Carey, Charles Buckowski, Irvine Welsh, Brett Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Franz Kafka and Martin Amis. Two books I’ve read recently that really stayed with me are Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh and The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett.

Do you have a set writing routine?
On the two days I have childcare, I write during those hours and I’m very strict about it. When I don’t have childcare, I write when my littlest one naps (if he naps!) and then at night when the kids are in bed, often until the early hours. My husband is incredibly supportive and does everything he can to help me carve out extra time too. I have a note on my phone that I constantly add to with ideas when I’m not able to properly sit down at the computer.

try-not-to-breatheYou moved to Amsterdam recently, how has the culture affected your writing?
Honestly, I’m not sure yet! I think I’ll be able to spot influences when I look back at the finished draft but right now, I’m too close to it to know. Amsterdam has affected my attitude and outlook though, the work life balance here is amazing, people are very straightforward and helpful and it feels like an easy place to be creative.

Try Not to Breathe: Shocking. Page-turning. A breath-taking psychological thriller. is published by Corvus and available to buy now. Just don’t be expecting to get an early night, any time soon.

My Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

her-fearful-symmetryyou’ve read (and loved) Audrey Niffenegger’s first fantastic novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, you’ll have been as anxious as I was about her follow up novel Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s a book I both yearned for and dreaded. How could it compare with The Time Traveller’s Wife, one of my all time favourite novels? I was scared to find out.

Unlike The Time Traveller’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry is not a love story. In fact it’s quite the opposite, it’s a dark haunting ghost story set in London. The book centres around identical teenage twins Julia and Valentina who find out that the aunt they never knew existed, has died and left them a flat in London overlooking Highgate Cemetery. They travel away from their American home for the first time to begin their new life in England. There they meet their new neighbours Martin, the obsessive compulsive and Robert their aunt’s elusive lover, and they begin to piece together the life of their mysterious aunt Elspeth.

But their fresh start is overshadowed by a ghostly presence in their new home. Their aunt Elspeth, who so desperately wanted to know the twins when she was alive, finally has the opportunity to spend time with her long lost nieces. And now that she’s finally found them, she’s doesn’t want to let them go.

Her Fearful Symmetry is an eerie novel which examines the strange relationship the twins share and looks at the secrets that we keep from the ones we love the most. The book might not please all fans of The Time Travellers Wife, but this delicious and deadly tale will definitely have you turning the pages. Perfect for a cosy autumnal night in.

If you enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry, why not try one these?

Rebecca by Daphne Du Marier

This timeless classic tells the story of the new Mrs de Winter who is living in the constant shadow of her husband’s dead wife, Rebecca. This haunting tale sees a young girls struggle to find her own identity in her new home, the gothic Manderley, where the memory of Rebecca never dies.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale is the story of reclusive author Vida Winter. Now an old lady, she calls on a young biographer to reveal the truth about her life. What follows is a spellbinding tale about the beautiful and wilful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.