Author interview — Helen Maslin

Darkmere Castle smallHelen Maslin’s debut novel, Darkmere, is one of my favourite reads so far this year (you can read my review here). Spooky, fast-paced and with amazing characters, as soon as I had finished reading it I wanted to tell people about it – always a sign of a great book. I was also really interested in what inspired Helen to write Darkmere and particularly how she had managed a dual-timeline so skilfully, so I am delighted that she agreed to answer my questions.

Darkmere brought to mind so many of my favourite books (Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Secret History). Which books inspire your writing?

Wow, that’s so flattering – those are some of my favourite books!  When I was a teenager (a really, really long time ago!) there wasn’t a lot of light, bright YA around, so I read Daphne du Maurier and the Brontes and Jane Austen. I suppose I ended up with the impression that romance generally involves a gigantic, spooky old house like Manderley, Thornfield Hall or Northanger Abbey and perhaps a wife who’s been murdered or locked in the attic. Those stories definitely inspired my historical scenes.

As far as the contemporary chapters are concerned, I think The Secret History and The Beach are my favourite examples of teenagers having lots of riotous, drunken fun which gradually spirals out of control. I also love the very real and very messy teenagers written by Non Pratt and my fellow Chicken Housers, Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen.

I loved all the little evocative details in the 1825 timeline. How did you research that period? 

Hmm, that’s a tricky one…I don’t have much of an answer because I didn’t really do any research. I suppose you could call it sloppiness, but I genuinely believe that if I’d done any formal research and tried to jam it into the book, the story would’ve sounded like a history lesson. Obviously Google is great for checking facts, but apart from that, I used whatever had stayed in my head from all the historical novels I’ve read. I love old houses, vintage clothes, faded letters and sepia photographs – anything that looks like it belongs in a junk shop or a granny’s attic.

Of course, it helps that history is never all that far in the past. For example, I always hated the powerlessness of the wives in historical novels, but what really upsets me is that in some countries this is still happening today. In Yemen or remote Mexican villages, girl children are still being sold to much older men – often with horrendous consequences. Sadly this makes historical characters all too easy to imagine and write!

All of the female characters in Darkmere are wonderfully strong. How important do you think literary role models are for teenage girls and who were yours? 

I knew from the moment I started writing that the heroes of my story would be female – and that the girls would rescue the boys rather than the other way round. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to create strong role models – I just knew I preferred reading about girls being brave and independent. And I honestly couldn’t have written strong female characters if they hadn’t felt real – I think teenage girls are getting tougher all the time and that books and films are beginning to reflect that. Frankly, it makes me want to clap and cheer – hurrah for the Katnisses and the Hermiones!

I also think it’s important for young people to recognise themselves in books, which means characters who have moments of weakness or fear – because God knows, I did – (still do!) – and that’s absolutely how it should be. No one can be a Katniss all the time.

I have to mention my favourite pre-teen role model – George from The Famous Five – because most of my earliest ideals: bravery, loyalty and unwavering honesty, came from her. She also showed me that a girl could be surly, bad-tempered and shy, but still a heroine. She was just so damn good at everything too! Later, I admired Elizabeth Bennet for refusing to settle for Mr Collins – or even Darcy until he’d learned better manners. Jane Eyre may’ve been small but she was thoroughly determined; Catherine Earnshaw was a great heroine too – part-gentlewoman and part-savage.

I imagine that using a dual timeline as a literary device must be quite tricky in terms of plotting.  How do you manage that as you write?

Ha! It’s very easily managed. At first. I write one story after the other – using the same setting as a starting point. Then I alternate the chapters and send them to my agent. She replies with a million changes – anything from a word change to entire chapters or characters being written out. Which takes a LONG time and a lot of pacing around, muttering: ‘I don’t think I can make this work.’

After that, the editors at Chicken House get involved with a gazillion more changes and characters to be killed off. They do offer lots of encouragement and ideas which are better than my own, though. That makes it possible for me to keep going until Barry Cunningham (MD at Chicken House Books) is satisfied that the stories are ‘entwined’ or ‘interwoven’ rather than crammed together.

What are you writing now? When can we hope to read it?

After Darkmere, I wrote another story with contemporary chapters about a young girl searching for her father; and historical chapters set in pre-revolutionary France. I wanted to describe all those fancy chateaux and the kinds of costumes Marie Antoinette would’ve worn, and towers of coloured macarons. I had a lot of fun writing it, but I’m still waiting to find out whether it’ll be published – which is every bit as nail-biting as it was the first time around!

By Geraldine

Darkmere by Helen Maslin will be published by Chicken House Books on 6th August 2015.

The photo that accompanies this interview is an old photograph of the castle in Devon that Helen based Darkmere Castle on.

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