An interview with Elizabeth Haynes

Elizabeth HaynesI’m very excited about today’s post, which features an interview with one of my favourite authors. Elizabeth Haynes’ first novel, Into the Darkest Corner, featured recently in my top ten books (even if it did convince me I had OCD), and her second, Revenge of the Tide (or Dark Tide in the U.S.), is set largely on the River Medway, really close to where I grew up and went to school, which made it a lot of fun to read and location-spot. Elizabeth’s now published four novels, with more on the way. They’re pretty dark – subjects so far have ranged from domestic abuse to depression – but all equally gripping, and often very revealing of a world I knew very little about before picking up the book. Also, my name’s in one of them. Just saying.

Elizabeth very kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her career, how she got started, and her advice for anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps. I hope what she has to say inspires you as much as it does me.

Thanks, Elizabeth – over to you! 🙂

Did you always want to be a writer?

I always wrote for fun – I think from about the age of 7 or 8 I was constantly writing something or the other. The only time in my life I didn’t write fiction was at university, I think I was just expending all my creative energy on essays. I read a lot too, but I never made a connection between the books I was reading and my own writing – it was as if publishing was something that happened to other people. It never occurred to me to send anything off.

Was there a defining moment in your writing career, when you decided to go for it?

There were quite a few defining moments, looking back. In October 2005, my friend Shelagh told me about NaNoWriMo – the annual challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in November. I love a challenge, and I think I knew straight away that this was a way of getting some proper writing done, instead of just writing bits and pieces to fulfil the writing urge. Joining Kent Police (as a civilian) was another important moment, because I had an inkling that I would have the experience to be able to write crime, which I’d always loved to read but never been brave enough to tackle myself before. Beyond that – finishing my first novel (i.e. getting an actual ending) was another important step, and that didn’t happen until November 2008. After that it was my cousin Michael who asked me when I was going to send it off, what was I waiting for. That was a bit of a lightbulb moment.

When you started writing your novels, you were working and raising a family. How did you find time to do all that and write as well?

I think once you get started on a story and you’re excited about it, it’s quite easy to fit in quick writing sessions whenever you can. I carried notebooks everywhere, and did a few hundred words in my lunch break at work (when I got one). Otherwise it was evenings and weekends – and although that sounds impossible if you’ve got a full life, you know it doesn’t take that long to write 1,666 words (the NaNoWriMo daily target) if you’re enjoying the plot. I can do that in 30 minutes if I’m focussed on it. You can be very productive if your spare time is limited! I find it much harder to write now, because writing is my full time job and I have a little subconsious thought that work should be dull, so I procrastinate about it. I think writing in one month out of the year helps, too – it’s easier to justify writing if you’re only going to prioritise it for 30 days.

You’re a really nice person, but some of the subjects you write about are pretty dark and disturbing. How did that happen?

That’s very kind of you! I have to say every crime writer I’ve ever met is lovely – and the more grim the subjects they tackle, the lovelier they are. Maybe it’s because we get all the nastiness out on the page? Funnily enough I met some members of the Romantic Novelists’ Association at the York Festival of Writing a few years ago, and they were pretty terrifying. It’s not the case for all romance writers though, I should add!

Now that you’re writing full-time, what’s an average day like for you?

I try to write something every day, even if it’s a blog post or some fan fiction. If I’m working on an edit I will be in the shed working for hours at a time. I have a coffee machine in there which keeps me going, and my Spanish stray dog Bea for company. I’ve tried really hard to develop some sort of productive routine but I do spend a lot of time procrastinating and staring into space too. It’s shameful!

What’s been the best moment of your writing career (so far)?

Gosh, there are so many. So many. And each one is better than the last. The whole thing is a dream come true, which is such a cliché but that’s exactly what it is.

It must be quite stressful at times, though – how do you cope with the pressure of deadlines and publishers’ demands?

I think I work best under pressure, so it’s a fine balance between productive stress and illness-inducing panic. I go through the same doubts with every book, there is always a point where I think, ‘this is rubbish, I can’t write, who am I trying to kid?’ and my husband has to remind me that I said exactly the same thing last time, and it turned out all right in the end.

Of the characters you’ve created so far, who’s your favourite and why?

That’s a very good (and difficult) question! I love all of them, even the nasty ones. I think Colin (Human Remains) was one of my favourites, just because he was such a challenge to write, and when I finally got his voice he became so real it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t actually exist. I’d love to write another story for him, but I’m a bit scared about what he might do next.

Your latest book, Under a Silent Moon, is the first in a series featuring recurring character DI Louisa Smith. How is writing a series different to writing a one-off novel?

The challenges aren’t quite the ones I expected. I thought I might find it dull to write about the same characters over several books (I have finished the second book and I’m planning the third), but in fact they are wonderful. Having several series characters is good because I can focus on different ones in each book and find out more about them. It’s like meeting up with old friends and finding out what they’ve been up to.

What is tricky is that I have enjoyed experimenting with structure across all of my books, and I’m now having to rein that in. Each of the standalone books has a different narrative structure and Under a Silent Moon is different again, with multiple narrators and lots of police documents too. In order to provide a unified structure to the series, I really need to keep to that format now. It’s worked well in the second series book, but I find I’m now itching to write a first person present tense narrative, because I haven’t tried that yet, and it would look odd to do that in the series. I think I will just have to write another standalone novel in between to keep me ticking over.

What’s next?

Behind Closed Doors (the second Louisa Smith novel) will probably be out on ebook later this year, and in paperback in the Spring. I have a couple of other standalones that I want to finish, and in November I’m planning the next series book.

If you weren’t an author, what else would you love to do for a living?

I loved my old job as an intelligence analyst, and I miss it. Much as I wouldn’t wish this dream away, I would love to go back to it. I worked with some lovely people, and yes it was stressful at times, but it felt like I was making a difference and that I was good at what I was doing.

What would be your advice for an aspiring author?

Now it’s an interesting thing but there’s a distinction to be made between wanting to be a writer, because writing is fun and you just have to get your ideas down on paper or they won’t leave you alone, and wanting to be published. In order to achieve the second I think you need to be a writer first. And as for being published, two things held me back for most of my life: not finishing anything, and then not sending anything off. It sounds a bit obvious, but if you want to attract an agent or a publisher, you’re really going to need to write a whole novel. Beyond that, my best advice is to write lots. Write all the time. Don’t stop writing. Don’t give up. I’m telling you right now that you can be a writer, I’m totally giving you permission to do it. And try NaNoWriMo – it’s great fun!

If you’d like to know more, or get in touch with Elizabeth (and help her procrastinate!) visit her website at elizabeth-haynes.com, or follow her on Twitter – @Elizjhaynes.

Photo credit: elizabeth-haynes.com

Guest blog: A Pale View of Hills

I’m very excited today because I’ve got my first guest blog post, written by my friend and colleague, Alex. This post was born out of a kitchen conversation during which she tried to persuade me that Kazuo Ishiguro is an amazing author. I’m still not completely convinced, but based on this review, will almost certainly give this book a try.

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A Pale View of Hills is English-born Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel, but the one I read last, having come to his work via his most famous novel (and one of my favourite books of all time), The Remains of the Day. For those of you not familiar with him, I would describe all his writing as ‘quietly brilliant’. If you’re looking for fast-paced action and dense plots, he’s probably not your cup of tea, but if you’re happiest reading a book and thinking 99% of the way that nothing has happened, then realising right at the end how everything comes together, you’re in for a treat.

A Pale View of Hills is no exception to the rule. I read about ¾ of the book before I had any idea about what was going on. Simply put, the story is about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who recalls one summer in Nagasaki after the war whilst thinking about the suicide of her eldest daughter. We know that her Japanese daughter, Keiko, has committed suicide, and that she has another, half-English, daughter, Niki, who visits her in her new home in England. Ishiguro then uses her current situation as a framework through which to delve back into her past and reflect on how things came to be the way they are. Although if this makes you think you’re going to get any answers, then you’re quite wrong!

Ishiguro’s writing is slow-paced, introspective and on the surface, quite simplistic. Characters speak to one another in an incredibly restrained and rather superficial way that often seems stilted to the point of being unrealistic. But to read everything on the surface level would be to completely miss the point of what is actually one of the most intriguing books I’ve read in ages. We see the past through the clouded window of Etsuko’s memory, and her unreliable and possibly inaccurate or distorted perspective on events. What seems to be a simple memory of her friendship with a strange woman and her troubled daughter is littered with tiny clues that something darker and stranger is really happening. What seems like an almost tedious description of banal events and insignificant recollections gradually gives us a picture of something else altogether. Images of nooses, kittens being drowned and references to mysterious deaths of children and to a strange woman who no one seems to think really exists, all start to come together and make you think about whether Etsuko is unconsciously remembering something rather sinister.

Not to spoil the book for you, there are a couple of telling lines towards the end of the book that will allow you to come up with your own interpretation of the story. But you’ll be disappointed if you hope Ishiguro will make it clear for you! He’s the master of writing beautifully simple stories that hide complex mysteries between the lines. Here, he explores the way in which our current situation colours our memories of the past, and the way that people react to changes in the world around them, and painful events in the past.

Alex is a translator, professional language geek and writer of book and music reviews. If you’re into metal (music, I mean, not actual metal) you should check out her blog at littlenumber9.blogspot.co.uk.