I think Helen and I have been trying to get this interview on Chouett for months but life kept getting in the way so it is a real pleasure to have her on today. Her debut novel came out in August 2015 and you can read my thoughts on it here.
Now, back to the interview and when Helen shares with us below.
1. It’s been a long 4 year journey since you started your blog to the amazing achievement of not only writing a book but also getting it published. Did you always know you would get there?
No – absolutely not! It’s notoriously difficult to get published and the more I found out about the process (and the statistics) the more unlikely it seemed. I also had the sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t the type of person to be published. It seemed to be for glitzy, well-connected, hard-drinking, F. Scott FitzGerald-types who all hung out at the Groucho Club. Whereas I hadn’t been to university, didn’t know anyone in publishing and wasn’t remotely glamorous.
Now of course, I firmly believe anyone can do it. Really! Anyone reading this – right now – can be published if they have enough perseverance. And I’m prepared to keep on saying it until you beg me to shush.
2. Was Darkmere your first novel?
It was my first published novel, but I did write a practise novel first (now known as The-Novel-that-shall-not-be-Named). It was over 130,000 words and had very little plot, but I kept on going because I needed to prove to myself that I actually could finish a full-length novel. I loved writing it and by the time I’d finished, I could hardly wait to get started on a better one!
3. In terms of characters, who came to you first? Elinor or Kate? And do you have a favourite?
I started with Kate, but I think Elinor was in my head right from the start too. It’s hard to choose a favourite because I wrote all their dialogue, so they’re both different versions of me. One of my biggest fears was that readers would prefer one timeline to the other and the book would feel unbalanced, so I tried hard to make both characters equally sympathetic. If I had to pick one, I’d say that Kate’s a slightly more recognisable version of me – because of the chip on her shoulder!
4. Why was it important to expose the reader to 2 time periods in your novel? And how did you come up with this idea for the structure?
I love the way that historical stories can hint at what will happen in the future; while contemporary stories provide clues as to what happened in the past. It makes reading feel like solving a puzzle. A dual timeline meant I didn’t have to choose between historical and contemporary stories, but I had no idea how tricky they would be to keep track of when I started writing! The structure evolved as I went along – half-planning and half-luck – and my editor and copy-editors at Chicken House should get a lot of the credit for the way it turned out.
I think the first time-slip story I ever read was The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier, which is fabulously gothic and mysterious with the kind of ambiguous ending that I adore (Du Maurier admitted she didn’t know whether the narrator survived or not!). Another of my favourite writers is JK Rowling and of course I love the historical pensieve scenes in the Harry Potter series, which show exactly why Snape is so unhappy or why Tom Riddle is so unhinged. I can also recommend Rhian Ivory’s The Boy Who Drew the Future, which entwines two dark, mysterious and poignant stories. And Lauren James’s The Next Together – a love story told in four different time periods. Seriously, you have to read it to see how clever that is!
5. Was Elinor always meant to have such an important role in Darkmere or was she meant to have a cameo appearance only?
Her role was slightly smaller in the first few drafts – although I’m not sure how you knew that! She was written in the third person and her story was told through diary entries, but my editor, Rachel Leyshon, suggested a first person narrative would make her more relatable to readers. I think the most dramatic change was that both Elinor and Nell Scathlock had children by the same father when I first wrote their chapters. Darkmere had a nursery, nurse-maids, schoolroom, rocking-horse – the lot. It was a bit of a wrench to take it all out, but I can see the story didn’t really need any of it.
6. Since you give the reader the opportunity to decide the ending for Elinor’s fate, I was wondering if you knew what happens to her. Are you considering re-visiting her story maybe in the future?
Nope – no plans for Elinor. I can’t be sure what happened to her and I like not knowing! Whenever I try to research a real-life historical story, I can never know for sure what really happened – that’s the way history works. Besides, if Elinor’s sister never found out what happened to her, I couldn’t make it too obvious. There are lots of clues in the story (the prologue hints that she made it safely into the water and there’s a card in the museum that suggests Elinor and Nick went on to give evidence against Ned Scathlock), but I didn’t want to spell it out for anyone. I have an absolute horror of dumbing-down a story for teenage readers – I believe they’re perfectly capable of using their imaginations. I wrote several different endings and everyone at Chicken House argued about which worked best, so when I finally decided, I was certain it was the right one.
7. Do you see yourself living in a castle?
Oh God – YES! I’d love it. Imagine having all that space and grandeur. Huge roaring fires in the winter, floor-to-ceiling windows open to the terrace in the summer, a gilded ballroom and a writing turret. And I could wear roller-skates to get around. Who wouldn’t want that?
When my children were younger, we spent lots of summer holidays at Watermouth Castle in Devon, (the inspiration for Darkmere). The first time we drove up the sweeping driveway towards an actual CASTLE – where we were going to be living for a week – was one of the grandest moments of my life! Of course the inside has been divided into holiday apartments and weird tourist attractions – and isn’t actually grand at all, but it made me want to find out who’d built it and lived there before us. When it was impossible to find out everything I wanted to know, I was forced to make up my own history of the castle.
8. You not only love eating cakes, but you love baking too, what is the cake you are best known for at home and are we likely to see you on the next series of “The Great British Bake Off”?
Hang on – there’s a big difference between loving cake and being a good cook. My cooking pretty much sucks. My husband’s the one who watches all the cooking shows – and he’s the one who does the Christmas dinner or Sunday roasts. I stick to birthday cakes and cupcakes because I like messing about with coloured icing and sprinkles. But that’s not cooking, that’s arts and crafts!
9. Can you tell us “10 things” we don’t know about Helen Maslin?
• My hair is so red that small children often stare and point. I like it when they do that.
• I am the only one in my family who has green eyes. Clearly I am very special.
• I have a tattoo shaped like a typewriter and a birthmark shaped like a tiny heart. Just in case you ever need to, you know, identify my dead body or anything.
• In my spare time, I try to teach ten-year-olds how to paint and model with clay. Cleaning-up afterwards always takes twice as long as the actual lesson.
• I’m pretty sure my daemon/patronus would be a red panda. I love red pandas.
• My first fictional crush was Barney from Enid Blyton’s Barney mysteries. He was tall, tanned and fair-haired with wide apart eyes and a deeply tragic back-story.
• My first animated crush was Drak from The Drak Pack (he looked like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) although he’s long since been eclipsed by Flynn Rider from Tangled.
• I once suffered from a virus that paralysed half my face. I could barely speak for three months and I am still slightly wonky to look at.
• My favourite place is Burgh Island in Devon. It has an amazing art deco hotel with rooms named after celebrities from the 1930s who’ve stayed there. I spent a weekend in Josephine Baker.
• Although I didn’t know it at the time, I first encountered my husband on Halloween. I was dressed as a pall bearer, trick-or-treating with some friends and my husband was among a group of boys who emptied a bucket of water over us from an upstairs window. The corpse we were carrying caught the worst of it, but it could be said that my husband has been paying for that bucket of water for the last 25 years. Halloween is indeed a night of dark magicks.
10. What’s in store for you in 2016 that you might want to share with us?
The most exciting thing on the horizon is that Darkmere is being launched as a beautiful hardback called ‘Darkmere Summer’ in Germany. My German publishers are flying me to Leipzig to visit the bookfair in March. I’ll be interviewed by bloggers and excerpts of my book will be read out by German actresses. So that’ll be both exciting and terrifying!
Similarly exciting and terrifying, will be my first school visit for World Book Day. The school librarian has reassured me that there won’t be more than 120 students in the audience, so that’s all right then. *Faints*
11. Did you ever get your “secret den”?
Haha – I genuinely had no idea what this question was referring to, although it sounded like the sort of thing I’d say. A secret den would be amazing!
But after looking way back through old blogposts, I think you mean the treehouse that I included in a list of things I wanted to buy when I was a ‘real’ writer. And my answer has to be – no – sadly, I still don’t have a treehouse. Or even a tree big enough to hold one.
I did get the fancy dressing gown that was on the list, though. Not real silk – like I’d described it, but close enough for me. I also bought the new glasses and a few fancy dresses with my first advance. It’s sad to realise that tree house was an impossible dream, but then, so was being a published writer back then. So maybe I’ll keep on hoping!
Thank you Helen