Today I’m thrilled to welcome author Helen Grant to my website.
Helen writes young adult thrillers with a decidedly Gothic edge and I love them!
Her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. It’s set in the picturesque town of Bad Münstereifel in Germany. It was followed by two more thrillers, The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead, also set in Germany.
Helen was born in London. She read Classics at St.Hugh’s College, Oxford, and then worked in Marketing for ten years in order to fund her love of travelling. In 2001 she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany, and it was exploring the legends of this beautiful town that inspired her to write her first novel. She then moved to Brussels for three years, and now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two cats.
You have published six young adult thrillers. What appeals to you most about this genre?
It’s quite hard to define YA as one thing anyway – there are so many different types and styles of books written for the YA audience, and many of them are read with pleasure by adults too.
I’d say it’s more that I am a thriller writer, but I am naturally drawn to writing from the point of view of young adult characters. In some ways, it uncomplicates things.
My last three books were about urbex (urban exploration) and all the heroine had to do was give her parents the slip and go off adventuring. It would have slowed things down quite a bit if she’d had three kids and had to hire a babysitter first! In fact, she probably wouldn’t have done all the reckless things she does in the books, if she had those kinds of responsibilities.
Where do you take your inspiration from?
My first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, spontaneously grew from my experiences living in the small German town where the book is set.
I’ve never lived anywhere with such a wealth of local folklore, and the town is also very picturesque – the perfect backdrop, really.
The gorgeousness of the ancient town sets off the grimness of the story very nicely, and the local legends are woven into the plot.
I was very struck by the opulence of the houses rented by the wealthiest expats living in Brussels, and that was how I came by the idea of a group of young people breaking into these houses when they were empty. They don’t do it to vandalise, they do it for the fun of experiencing such luxurious places.
Now I live in Scotland, so I’ve been working on a book set here, and again it is very much inspired by what I see around me: the hills and forests, the country estates with grand old houses mouldering away in the middle of them.
You’ve also published ghost stories in a number of anthologies. What do you think a good ghost story can teach us?
I’m a huge fan of ghost stories. I have probably read hundreds of them, and I think it is a very difficult form to write well.
Because it’s an old form, many things have been done before, so it’s a challenge to think of something new, some new angle. A story that is all atmosphere and very little plot development can feel aimless.
It’s also very important for the reader to empathise with the characters – it’s not enough for them to be threatened by the supernatural, we have to care about what happens to them.
I think the toughest thing of all is making the reader’s flesh creep without resorting to full-on gore.
A story about zombies can have brains splattering everywhere, but ghosts have to be more subtle. I think there is a real art to creating a good ghost story.
I love the work of M.R.James – there is something so unnatural and disturbing about his monsters, such as the unspecified white hopping thing in Casting the Runes. Brrrr. I also think Thurnley Abbey by Perceval Landon is an extremely fine ghost story. The descriptions of fear in that story are just as terrifying as the actual apparition.
Please can you describe your process of going from a blank page to a finished book. What steps do you go through? Are there many revisions?
I never start writing without some idea of where the book is going.
I like to have a synopsis of some kind written down. The more I write, the keener on synopses I become. A book is a big undertaking (mine are usually between 100,000 and 120,000 words long) and if you don’t have a plan, it’s all too easy to write yourself into a corner.
I mull the ideas over for quite a while before attempting the synopsis.
I might do some research, but more often it isn’t desk research, it’s things like going to the location where the book is set, and soaking up the atmosphere – thinking about what might happen in such a place.
If there is some critical bit of background such as the main character’s past, or a piece of historical information, I will jot that down too.
For The Glass Demon, I created an entire fictitious history for an invented German abbey – I didn’t use any of the details in the story, but it was important to me to have that history at the back of my mind.
When I’m ready to start writing, I try to be as disciplined as possible. I have a daily word count target and I try to reach that. If I meet my target for the week by Thursday, then in theory I can take Friday off, though I rarely do.
It’s a painful necessity though. When I was writing Demons of Ghent, I cut an entire 10,000 words from the ending and rewrote them from scratch.
The first draft wasn’t working at all so it had to be done.
I try to be honest with myself. If I don’t change things that aren’t working, the editor will ask me to do it later anyway!
I also try to produce as clean a manuscript as possible, even on a first draft, because it’s bad enough having to do structural edits without having to correct my own grammar and typos as well…
How important do you think it is for authors to undertake their own marketing efforts and what has been most effective for you?
Only a small proportion of authors get actual advertising support etc from their publishers.
I think the onus is thrown back on a lot of authors to market themselves, and it makes sense to do this, but you also have to be realistic about what can be achieved.
Before I was a writer (and a mum!) I worked in Marketing, and the lowest annual marketing spend I ever had for a product range was £30,000. That was the spend for a brand that was considered low priority – it was getting just enough to keep it ticking over.
As a writer with an uncertain and not very large income, I’m lucky if I spend a couple of hundred pounds a year on basics like keeping my author website going, and ordering promotional postcards! So I have to be sensible about what I am going to achieve with that.
The things that have really made a difference to my book sales in the past are things organised by my publishers, not by me: being shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal really boosted sales of my first book, and I’ve seen a marked effect from broadsheet newspaper reviews too.
However, there are things that I can do. I have a professionally designed website and I’m on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) pretty much every day. I think it’s important for readers to be able to find out about my books easily, and to be able to interact with me if they want to.
As a book lover myself, I feel disappointed and a bit put out if I like another author’s work and there is nowhere online to find out a bit more about their books other than selling sites like Amazon.
Social media also helps authors to create “brand values” for themselves. My Instagram account reflects all the things that interest me – urbex, history, Gothic stuff, travel. I don’t think someone would look at those pictures and then rush off and buy all my books (though it would be nice if they did…), but it helps to reinforce the idea of me in people’s heads as a Gothic thriller writer.
What have you been working on recently and can we look forward to a new book any time soon?
I don’t want to give away too much, because my latest book is currently out on submission, but it has many of the elements of other Helen Grant novels – it’s distinctly Gothic in nature, with ancient buildings, a central mystery and some grisly deaths! As I mentioned earlier, it’s set in Scotland, and in fact, in Perthshire, where I now live.
As well as the new novel, I’ve continued to write occasional ghost stories for adults. The most recently-published is The Watchmaker, which appeared in the ghostly anthology Shadows At The Door. I’ve also got a story called Gold coming out in Supernatural Tales later this year.
When you get to the end of the working day/week, how do most like to relax?
Haha, I don’t really relax. Even when I’m asleep, I grind my teeth! I’m a firm believer in “a change is as good as a rest.”
My favourite occupation at the end of a long week is to go off and explore an abandoned building somewhere – a church or country house. Rural Scotland is peppered with them. The creepier, the better!
I recently went to look at the Elphinstone Tower, which is a ruined tower house near the famous Dunmore Pineapple. (If you are wondering what the Dunmore Pineapple is, it’s an 18th century building topped with an enormous stone pineapple.) The tower has a crypt in the basement, which had to be emptied in the 1990s after vandals broke in. There are still broken coffin boards lying around.
While we were there, we spotted a beautiful white barn owl perched high in the ruins. As we stared at it, it took off and flew away into the trees. This was in broad daylight.
It was a wonderfully Gothic moment.
I enjoyed that trip immensely; I couldn’t stop talking about it and thinking about it for days afterwards. I was fizzing with excitement! That’s probably my equivalent of “relaxing.” It makes me feel marvellous, anyway.
Thanks Helen. That was fantastic and good luck with the new book!
Buy Helen’s books
All Helen’s books are available at Amazon. Click on a book cover to buy in Kindle or paperback.
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