Just 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.
You 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.