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!
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.