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.

 

 

Review: Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution at Dundee Rep

Witness for the prosecutionAfter thoroughly enjoying Dundee Rep’s spectacular production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None a few years back, I was really excited to see their latest production of Christie’s play, Witness for the Prosecution.

The play centres around Leonard Vole, an apparently harmless and lovable rogue who stands accused of murdering the wealthy Emily French. He knew this older lady well, they were firm friends in fact, Vole even admits that he was with her on the night of her murder, but claims he was back at home long before any crime had taken place. But will the court believe that he’s innocent? Will the testimony of Vole’s strange and mysterious wife Romaine, his only alibi, be enough to prove to the judge, jury and the audience that he is in fact not guilty?

I’m not going to say much more about the story as I want you to be just as gripped by the twists and turns of the court room drama as I was. I want you too to gasp so loudly that the person next to you shakes their head and gives you a loud tsk (apologies Mum). But what I will tell you is this – I spent my entire time in the “jury” seat trying to second guess how the play would unfold, and I got it wrong every single time. Forty years after her death, Dame Agatha Christie’s still got it.

With Christie’s play demanding a big cast, this was an ambitious undertaking for the Dundee Rep, but they smashed it, producing a slick and compelling drama worthy of any west end theatre. With stellar performances, a fantastic set and a positively captivating story, I highly recommend you get yourself down to the Dundee Rep and see Witness for the Prosecution very soon.

Witness for the Prosecution is on at the Dundee Rep until Saturday the 19th of March. For further information and to book tickets, visit their website: www.dundeerep.co.uk

 

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.

Pop Up Christmas Dundee #SteepleChristmas

steeple christmas tableYou know you’ve had a good night out when you feel more than a little broken the next day. And that’s exactly how I’m feeling this afternoon as I recover from the excellent Pop Up Christmas #SteepleChristmas party organised by Red Pepper Events.

As a freelance journalist, I have no official Christmas night out, so when El and her lovely team invited me to join in the fun at the best pop up party in town, I jumped at the chance.

 

magicianThe night was filled of magic, from the incredible fire breathing woman that greeted us as we arrived to the phenomenal magician Michael Brandie who had me shouting “how is that possible?” over and over again as he performed his wonderful table magic.

The three course traditional Christmas meal (which included the most amazing potato gratin that I have ever tasted), was divine and the cocktails even more scrumptious, although I’ll admit they did cause my head to pound ever so slightly this morning!

WP_20151218_19_23_24_ProAs an infrequent and over enthusiastic party goer, I love nothing more than hounding the DJ to play my favourite tune, but at the #SteepleChristmas I didn’t even have to leave my seat. Instead I just tweeted the DJ with my brilliant requests (seriously thinking about becoming a DJ myself in 2016, I’m that good) and they started playing as if by magic! Okay so perhaps a few of my choices were slightly dodgy, but thankfully The Mackie Twins indulged me all the same.

From the terrific lighting by Vision, Sound and Light to the fabulous festive atmosphere, #SteepleChristmas is an enchanting event which has all the right ingredients for a perfect Christmas night out.

Pop Up Christmas #SteepleChristmas is organised by Red Pepper Events. Find out more about them by visiting their website or Facebook page.

Cinderella at The Webster Theatre, Arbroath

cinderellaI love a good panto. I mean really, what’s not to love? The music, the cheering, the boo hissing, that lovely warm festive feeling inside you have by the time you reach the end? Done well and a good panto can be just magical. But all that really is dependent on it being done well.

After seeing the amazing Jack and the Beanstalk last December at The Webster Theatre, I wasn’t worried. After all both pantomimes are written by the brilliant John Binnie, an award winning Scottish playwright famous for his moving productions. Really, what could go wrong? Nothing as it turns out, everything was just very, very right.

From the very beginning we know that this panto isn’t going to be exactly traditional when we meet our handsome prince who looks more emo than classic Prince charmer. And the surprises don’t stop there, Cinderella is feisty, our fairy godmother has a bright pink bob and Buttons is an irresistibly cute mouse.

The amazing cast of stellar Scottish actors, including River City’s Carmen Pieraccini, had the audience captivated from the moment the curtains went up and we were instantly rooting for the quirky Cinderella and Prince to get together.

All in all the production is flawless. The catchy songs, hilarious gags and lovable goodies and baddies, have the whole audience in an uproar, and at times, quite literally out of their seats. The audience participation makes this production particularly special for the younger guests who were whooping with laughter as the ugly sisters Bangers and Mash made their way through the crowds and through the theatre aisles.

With loads of laughs, plenty of mad antics and some lovely touchy feely moments, I spent my time alternating between giggling happy big girl to blubbering sappy big girl. The kids loved it too, even my three year old, a notorious wriggler, sat transfixed the whole way through, magically mesmerised by the show.

Yes, it’s official, Cinderella at the Webster Theatre is definitely a panto done well. In fact, judging by the immense festive cheer I felt by the end and the sea of smiling, jolly faces that I passed as we left, I’d say that this panto is right up there with the very, very best.

Cinderella is on at the Webster Theatre until the 24th of December. For ticket information visit: www.webstertheatre.co.uk or call the Box Office on 01241 435800.