I loved this book and could not put it down, for the full review: HERE!
Helen Callaghan was gracious enough to let me ask her some questions about her debut novel, and I am so excited to share them with you! This interview was originally conducted in December 2016, but due to unforeseen circumstances, I’m just now posting it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
ME: I was incredibly surprised that this was your debut novel. Had you always been a writer on the side or did something or someone inspire you to begin writing as a profession?
HC: I’ve always written, from being a little girl. That said, the earlier works definitely had less murders and more unicorns! But I’ve weaved in and out when it’s come to pursuing publication. There was a draft of Dear Amy written in 1989, but for the longest time, it just sat in a drawer. It was only when my agent suggested that I try dusting it off over six weeks and sending it over to her that I realised that a) I had improved a lot as a writer since I first wrote it and b) there was definitely more than six weeks of work involved into making it sizzle! In the end it took thirteen months and it was all more or less completely rewritten. But the response to it has been fantastic…
ME: Your book deals with a lot of dark themes, was it ever hard for you to push through certain boundaries or did you ever considering “watering down” some of the more violent scenes because you were afraid to cross any lines? (I don’t think you crossed any line whatsoever, for the record)
HC: Well, thank you! I guess I think that things that are implied work so much better than explicit scenes anyway. I felt there did have to be violence in Dear Amy, because these are violent events, but I didn’t want to write anything I would hesitate to read in another book, if that makes sense. I’m reading a book now, a thriller, which is AMAZINGLY well done, but there are violent scenes in which are so explicit that I kind of have to get a run up to it to read past them, if you know what I mean, and you do have to steel yourself to carry on.
That said, sometimes you can only be explicit. If you have a traumatic event which is the main scene in the book, a scene that explains why everything fits together and has happened the way it has, you just can’t dodge that bullet; you have to write that character’s experience in full to be true to the book and true to you.
ME: What was your inspiration behind this book, and did you draw any inspiration from real life cases of women being kidnapped and held captive?
HC: I drew inspiration from real life cases in the sense that I could imagine nothing more terrifying. I did read up on real life cases, but I didn’t base Dear Amy on any particular one. Really, it’s about the What If – what if that happened to me? It really is drummed into you a girl that this is a real danger – that could be you. And as a novelist, the things that scare you are the primary things you want to explore.
The main thing that informed Dear Amy when I wrote the first draft all those years ago was actually the Yorkshire Ripper. I lived in the part of the world where he was murdering women and I remember how, even in the schools, they would hang posters up telling us girls to not go out at night alone. It went on for years, too. It was a very serious, paralysing sense of fear, and that I think was probably the inspiration.
ME: Your main character, Margot, deals with a great deal of emotional issues and a very specific mental illness. How much research into those aspects of the book did you have to do, and did you consult with any mental health experts who have dealt with patients like Margot?
HC: I didn’t consult with any experts, but I did a lot of reading. To be honest, I had more of an intuition on how things would play out for her, and then in the reading I found permission, if anything, to keep on the way I was going.
ME: Your book has so many crazy plot twists and surprising turn of events. Did you have any issues constructing the story and keeping track of the way your story was unfolding, or ever doubt your ability to tie everything together due to the many facets of your story?
HC: You know it’s interesting, but I was still doubting whether it held together by the time my agent was sending it out! There’s no way you can fireproof these things ever because unlike a movie or TV show, a book always happens in the reader’s head, not on the page.
I’m someone that has a sense of what should happen when I start, but the more I’m in the midst of it and completely absorbed by it and thinking about it 24/7, the more I start making connections that hadn’t been obvious before, and having better ideas, and also discarding ideas that seemed good at the beginning, but when they’re on the page, they fall flat. So you really need to write the whole book first, then give it another look. And of course by that time, you’re so close to the material, it’s hard to tell the wood from the trees. So you never really know if it will hold together, but you cross your fingers and hope.
ME: Did you ever speak to real victims or the families of victims of the type of crimes your book deals with? And if so, was it difficult to hear their stories? Or did you choose not to for any reason?
HC: I don’t think I would have spoken to real victims about this. I was actually very keen that the story not resemble any real case. Dear Amy, for all of its dark subject matter, is ultimately an entertainment – by which I mean that it’s written by me as a way of exploring my fears in a cathartic way, and ideally, the reader then gets to explore their fears cathartically too. If the book had resembled a particular case too much that would have felt quite exploitative to me and I don’t think I would too comfortable with that.
ME: Did writing a book with this type of dark material and such traumatic and violent scenes have any effect on you? As in the way you go about your life, such as making you weary of walking around alone, or being more aware of your surroundings or even cause you to have nightmares? (I know if I was walking around with a story like this in my head, it would definitely make me paranoid!)
HC: Oh yes! In a lot of different ways. I must check my front door is locked at least three times a night. And it’s not predictable, because one minute everything’s fine, you’re walking home and everything’s peaceful, and the next it’s in your head and you’re suddenly really rather alarmed. In Dear Amy there’s a point where somebody breaks into Margot’s home while she’s in it alone and I wrote that late at night (it all tended to happen late at night while I was alone, because I worked full time and night was my writing time) and that was a bugger. Not much sleeping after that!
In fact I’ve lost count of the number of times I’d be researching something – missing children, Jane Does, serial killers – and then realise a) it’s hours past my bedtime and I have work in the morning, and b) there is no way I am going to be able to sleep. Fear really is the price of imagination.
ME: Do you plan on writing more suspense novels like Dear Amy, or do you have any interest in exploring other genres? If so, which ones?
HC: I do – in fact I’ve just finished the next novel and sent it to Penguin. It’s a suspense novel based around someone who discovers that their mother, who appears to be the victim of a suspicious suicide, was in a cult in her youth. I’m waiting for the notes back on that, and in the meantime starting on a third one, which is also going to be a suspense novel.
Funnily enough, even though Dear Amy was the first thing I ever completed and is definitely crime, the other two I wrote between then and now were not. The first was a dystopian thriller set in the near future, which got me my agent, and the second was a big sprawling SF novel about multiple universes. But thinking about it, all of these books, in fact everything I do, is constructed around mysteries. To me that’s the most satisfying thing not only to write, but also to read. For the moment I’m really enjoying writing crime, but I would love at some point to do something with the other two. One day…
ME: Which authors have had the most influence on you or are your favorite to read?
HC: Well, basically, I’m a massive fangirl for the Gothic novel. I love the Brontes and I love Bram Stoker and Ann Radcliffe. When I was a teenager I loved Anne Rice, Iain Banks and Angela Carter. Nowadays I get very excited by the prospect of a new Donna Tartt novel – The Secret History was definitely an influence on Dear Amy and this year I read some great books – I loved The Girls by Emma Cline and Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin.
ME: If you were to have your book turned into a film, who would your dream cast be?
HC: Oh wow! I dunno! Years ago I used to think about Sigourney Weaver as Margot. I’m not sure who would play her now!
ME: What has been the best advice you’ve been given as a writer or could give to those you aspire to be writers?
Well, a suggestion – right. There’s all the staple suggestions about writing and being persistent and those are great – definitely people should do those, but I think the one I would recommend is finding a good writing group. You may need to try a few to find the right one, but when they work they are fantastic. You meet people interested in the same things as you, you learn to process criticism, and you can share tips and info. If you can’t get out for some reason, there are good online alternatives, but nothing quite beats meeting other writers in person. It’s made a huge difference to me.
ME: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do to combat that?
HC: Yes – though it’s not the absence of ideas, as such, it’s a form of performance anxiety: “What I am writing is stupid and I am stupid and I might as well give up now.” You know, that sort of tedious thing. As for how I combat it, I change gears – what I find quite useful is to switch from the computer to pen and paper. That blankness on the computer can be very intimidating, whereas if you are just mucking about in your notebook, it’s all lower stakes – you can say to yourself, no-one will ever see this. You can just go nuts and be as terrible as you want, and that is very freeing. And frequently out of that something extraordinary can happen.
I hope you enjoyed her answers as much I did! Read Helen’s new book Everything Is Lies ! click link to purchase! Review coming soon!
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