Author Confessions: Helen Grant
Helen Grant’s first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the CILIP Carnegie Medal in 2010, and she’s been on a roll ever since. Now, on the eve of publishing her sixth book, Urban Legends, the final title in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy, she takes a moment to tell us which book let her down, what foods best fuel her creativity, and much more…
Where do you stand on spinebreaking?
Guilty as charged. One of my sisters once remarked of me that I read books like a combine harvester, and afterwards the books look as though they have been through one! I turn corners down too, but I never write notes in them. Also, I do have mercy on special books, particularly antique ones. I have an eighteenth century volume of Virgil’s Aeneid and I would never mishandle that in any way, nor would I crack the spine or turn down the corners of any of my Victorian fairy story collections or academic books. It’s the paperbacks that get the abuse.My favourite ones have crinkly pages, too, from being dropped in the bath.
What’s your guiltiest reading pleasure?
Apocalypse fiction. I’m a Jekyll and Hyde character when it comes to reading matter. On the one hand, I love classic Victorian literature – I’ve read most of Dickens, Austen and Trollope – but I also love a cataclysmic end-of-the-world story. World War Z is a great favourite of mine, as is Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed, which features Edinburgh being destroyed by a pyroclastic flow! I feel terribly guilty about loving this stuff, because apocalypse fiction is really about the deaths of millions of people and the destruction of natural environments, but it’s just so compulsive.
How do you arrange your bookshelf?
Oh the shame. I don’t arrange them at all. We have four large bookcases in our house, not including the ones in the kids’ rooms, and they are all crammed with books in no particular order. The two biggest bookcases have books shelved two deep, so you can’t actually see the ones at the back without moving the others. There are also books stuffed in horizontally on top of the others. There are additionally books stacked up at the side of my bed, and books on the bathroom floor. I also have a small pile of “special books” on top of the bookcase in the dining room – antiquarian ones mostly, who think they are a cut above the paperbacks and won’t share a shelf with them.
I read books like a combine harvester, and afterwards the books look as though they have been through one!
Do you use your local library?
Yes! My local library is Strathearn Community Library in Crieff and I am a huge fan of it. I was an Author Ambassador for Book Week Scotland 2014 and had to write a love letter to my favourite library; I chose that one. It’s a super modern library with internet access and all the rest, but the thing I love above all else and consult most often is the local history section. There are some real treasures in there, including local newspapers dating right back to the 1860s. The other truly amazing thing is a book in several volumes with graveyard inscriptions from all the really old churches in Perthshire. Someone went around in the 1970s and made plans of the kirkyards and all the inscriptions on the gravestones. I’ve visited a number of those places now and the lettering is entirely obscured by moss, lichen and weathering of the stone. So if those books didn’t exist, all that history would be lost.
What’s your most extreme research story?
My Forbidden Spaces trilogy, of which Urban Legends (out on March 26th) is the final book, is all about urbex (urban exploration). During research for the first two books I’d been up some of the highest buildings in the Belgian city of Ghent and toured a torture museum in a mediaeval castle, but for the last book I wanted to use some locations that would outdo all the others in thrills and creepiness. So I went out with some experienced urban explorers and toured a huge abandoned factory that was about to be demolished. That was amazing; it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck! They’d already started knocking the place down so the entire side of the building was off and you could see into it, as though it was a gigantic dolls’ house. We went inside and everything was covered in a fine layer of dust, but it looked as though on the day the place was shut down, the workers had just walked out, leaving everything exactly as it was. There were empty coke cans and coffee cups on the workbenches, and pin-ups on the walls. There were other people flitting in and out too but we didn’t speak to them, and it was slightly unsettling seeing these figures moving about in the dim light. A few days later, they knocked the factory down, so everything we saw is gone now…except in the book, where it is perfectly preserved.
What would your dream job be if you weren’t an author?
I’ve always loved travelling, so I think I’d like to do something related to that – maybe run tours of interesting places. Recently I took a group of high school students around the city of Ghent, showing them all the locations from my last book, and I really enjoyed that. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to be an explorer when I grew up.I was really disappointed when I realised that most of the world had been mapped by then! I suppose if we are talking absolutely wildest dreams, I’d go for the ultimate travelling thrill and be an astronaut, visiting the moon or Mars, or maybe even going further afield.
Do you ever mentally edit someone else’s work while you read?
Oh dear, yes. It’s a compulsion. I even mentally edit other people’s Facebook posts and Tweets! I think the trouble is that once you have been through the editing process with your own books, you can’t help noticing the things your own editor points out in other people’s work. It reminds me of when I was at school and did work experience at a TV station. We went to see a TV drama being filmed and once you have seen that, you become acutely aware of the cameras zooming in and out, and the fact that in stage sets of interiors there are certain parts of the house you never see, because that is where the cameras are. I feel the same about prose – I can’t read it now without noticing if the writer has put the same word twice in one sentence and so on! As I mentioned earlier, I read a lot of Victorian fiction and I can’t help imagining what a modern editor would do with it. George Eliot would never get away with starting The Mill on the Floss with a great long description of the river Floss! There’d be an editorial comment saying, “Do we really need this? Why not start directly with Mr. Tulliver’s speech in chapter two?”
Which book has the most disappointing ending?
Edwin Drood, because there isn’t one. I had a craze on Dickens a few years ago, and once I’d read most of the better known books I decided to tackle Edwin Drood, even though I knew it was unfinished. When the paperback arrived, it was reasonably thick so I assumed most of the story had been completed. Wrong! (I should have read the contents page more carefully.) The story was just getting into its stride when I turned the page and…there was nothing else. The rest of the book was made up of other stories. I was so frustrated – I’d thought there would be enough to make some kind of guess at what would happen in the rest of the book, but there really wasn’t. One of my great hopes for the Afterlife is that the library will have a completed copy of Edwin Drood.
Have you ever cried in public because of a book?
I can’t recall ever crying from sadness in public because of a book, though I almost certainly have – I’m a terrible softie. But I’ve certainly cried with laughter. I can remember which book it was, and where I was, too: it was Cold Comfort Farm and I was reading it on Berkhamsted railway station while waiting for the Bletchley train. I got to the bit where the very sensible heroine Flora Poste is sewing and her dark and brooding cousin Seth lounges into the kitchen and speaks to her. He asks her insinuatingly what she is sewing and “Flora knew that he hoped it was a pair of knickers.” That caught me on the funny bone and I laughed and laughed until the tears were running down my face and other commuters were edging away from me…
What is your worst writing habit?
Snacking while writing. My books are fuelled by unhealthy snack foods. For a while it was mint Viscount biscuits. I also had a phase of stuffing Raspberry Ruffles, and I once ate a whole six pack of Freddo Frogs in one morning. I have tried to snack on healthier things such as grapes but I can never stay on the straight and narrow for very long. I also consume prodigious amounts of very strong sweet tea, which is almost as bad because it gives me headaches in the end. I know I ought to stick to healthy things but a nice glass of water and an apple just don’t cut it like a mug of builder’s tea and a packet of chocolate buttons.
Competition: Win a signed copy of Urban Legends
Thanks to Penguin Random House and Helen Grant we have five signed copies of Urban Legends to give away.
All you have to do to enter is answer this simple question in the comments below or email your answer to email@example.com marked 'Helen Grant Competition':
- What was the name of Helen Grant's debut novel?
Closing date: 17:00, Wednesday 22 April 2015. Open to UK entrants only. Full terms and conditions.