It’s no secret I love Helen Grant’s writing. Ever since the lovely Liz de Jager gave me Helen’s The Glass Demon for Christmas, I’ve been an avid fan and have read all of her published YA books. So when Helen approached me about being part of her blog tour for her latest novel, Demons of Ghent, I immediately started thinking of interview questions to ask her. So much to ask! However. I behaved and only sent her about ten questions, the answers to which you can find below.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Helen Grant?
I’m a London-born writer of YA thrillers and ghost stories for adults. I’m married with two fabulous and occasionally perplexing teenage kids. I fit those things around my servitude to two very spoilt cats.
I love travelling and living abroad. If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t spend it on flat screen TVs, a mansion and a Ferrari: I’d spend it on train, boat and plane tickets. Oh, and dictionaries; I love learning new languages, too.
Some other things I love: the ghost stories of M.R.James, going to the cinema, exploring old churches and castles, wild swimming (I once swam at Arisaig in Scotland in October) and Peterman bessenjenever (berry flavoured Flemish gin).
How would you introduce people to Veerle, the heroine of your current series Forbidden Spaces?
Haha! If she were standing next to me, I’d have to say Dit is Veerle (“This is Veerle”) because she comes from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. And she would say Aangenaam, which means “It’s good to meet you.”
I’d have to think carefully about what I told people about her. She’s a girl with quite a lot of secrets! I’m not sure any one person knows all about her. Her mother doesn’t know what she does in her spare time, which is probably just as well. Her friend Kris doesn’t know about her issues with her mother for a very long time, because Veerle tries to keep them out of her relationship with him. And Veerle doesn’t introduce Kris to any of her schoolfriends!
Veerle is brave – sometimes downright impetuous – but she’s also a kind and empathetic person. Her mother isn’t the easiest person in the world to get along with but Veerle tries to bear with her. She’s also a fantastic rock climber. I wish I had her head for heights!
One of the central elements of the series is Veerle and Kris’ love of UrbEx, or urban exploration. How did you learn about this phenomenon and what drew you to writing about it?
I’ve always loved poking about in ruined or abandoned places so I’ve taken an interest in UrbEx for a while. Perhaps it’s a logical extension of loving travel: it’s a chance to see things that not everyone gets to see. The fact that many of those places are supposed to be off limits is a big part of the attraction. I remember trying to visit a big Gothic church in Flanders when it was closed for repair work; the first two or three times I went, it was shut up. Then I went by and there were workmen carrying scaffolding in and out, so I blagged my way inside for five minutes, just to look. I know this is entirely illogical but I was more pleased about seeing that church than nearly any other I have visited, simply because it was difficult to get into and I wasn’t supposed to be there! So I can totally see the attraction of UrbEx.
Whilst I was researching the Forbidden Spaces trilogy, I went out with some experienced explorers and did some “proper” UrbEx; we went around a huge factory that was awaiting demolition. In fact the front wall had already been knocked down, so the whole thing was open on one side, like a doll’s house. It was a fascinating and eerie place.
The reason I ended up writing about UrbEx in the trilogy came from a different angle, though. When we lived in Belgium, I occasionally visited other expats’ houses to talk to book groups, things like that. I was very struck by how large and opulent some of those houses were. And then I started to think about the fact that during the holidays, when everyone goes back to their “home” country, those same luxurious places are standing empty for weeks at a time. I wondered what might be going on in those empty houses whilst the owners were away – and that is where I got the idea for Silent Saturday, the first book in the trilogy. I used to research the fictional houses by trawling Brussels real estate websites for inspiration. Do you know, you can actually search some of them for “castles and palaces”?! Amazing.
You yourself are more of a church explorer and a creepy places scout, judging from the numerous churches, cathedrals, and graveyard visits I’ve seen you post pictures of on your blog. These also play roles in many of your books. Is this connected to your love of ghost stories and MR James?
I guess so, because a couple of the churches I have visited (the cathedral at St. Bertrand de Comminges and Steinfeld Abbey) took my interest because M.R.James himself had set stories there. It was a real thrill to visit those places, especially Comminges, because MRJ actually visited that (he wrote about Steinfeld without having been there).
The thing that was a bit freaky about the cathedral at Comminges was the acoustics. In MRJ’s story Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book [Ed. note: Available to read online here], there is something nasty haunting the church and whilst the hero is working inside it, he hears various noises including “muffled footfalls and distant talking voices.” But are those sounds coming from outside the church, or from inside, where in theory he has only the sacristan for company? I spent hours in the church and discovered that although you can hear virtually nothing from the street outside, a single footstep on the tiled floor sounds like a gunshot because of the excellent acoustics. So all the sounds the hero heard were from something that was inside the cathedral with him. That gave me a kick but it was also a bit creepy!
I find churches – especially very old ones – interesting even without the M.R.James connection. An ancient church is often the oldest accessible building in a community. There’s a huge amount of history hidden there if you know where to look. During the Reformation, the stained glass windows in many churches were smashed. Now and again you come across one where they weren’t smashed – like Saint Mary’s in Fairford (England) for example, which has a huge, colourful and impressive Last Judgement scene in the west window. You have to wonder how that escaped the smashers when so many other churches were wrecked.
I often draw direct inspiration from old buildings. Sint-Baafs cathedral in Ghent (Belgium) was a big part of the inspiration for my new book, Demons of Ghent. It is an amazing church in itself, with a 95 metre Gothic tower, a large crypt and lots of interesting little side chapels. However the thing that really fascinated me when I visited it was the Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It’s a huge painting covering many panels and with 170 figures in it. It’s very colourful and ornate, and has an incredible photographic quality to it. Nearly all the figures are looking towards the Lamb in the middle although some of them are looking down or away, but a single bishop in the crowd at the bottom right is staring out of the painting at the viewer, with a challenging expression in his eyes. I found that really eerie. Are you supposed to notice him? I’m not sure. I had a bit of an obsession with that painting for a while and it appears in my book!
You’ve been an ex-pat for years, living in Germany and Belgium, and now you’re a Sassenach in Scotland. Having set your novels in both Germany and Belgium, can we now expect books set in Scotland?
Yes, I think so. I’m very influenced by my surroundings, and Perthshire (where I now live) is the perfect setting for my kind of novel – there is so much history here, so much legend, so much mystery too. I spend a lot of my spare time poking about in ruined churches and visiting castles or reading local history books, building up ideas for a future book.
You won’t be seeing a Scottish novel from me for a while though, because Demons of Ghent is going to be followed by the third book in the Flemish trilogy, called Urban Legends. That’s coming out in 2015. It’s actually going to be quite hard for me to disengage from writing about Flanders. I know I can’t carry on setting books there when I live somewhere else entirely; my local knowledge is already getting out of date. But I love Kris and Veerle more than any of my other characters to date, and I just don’t want to say goodbye to them just yet!
How has living abroad and looking in on a community as an outsider, and gradually assimilating, shaped your writing? Can the fact that all of your heroines are either (partial) expats – Lin and Pia – or otherwise outsiders – Veerle and Steffi – be attributed to this?
Well, I think there is an element of that. I loved living abroad (as I’m English and living in Scotland you could argue that I still am!). I love learning new languages, I love discovering new places and ways of doing things. All the same, there are days when it all feels wrong. Someone is a bit brusque with you, or you do something daft because you don’t know how things are supposed to be done in your new home, and then you really feel like an alien. It didn’t happen to me all that often but it was a horrible feeling when it did. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life not being 100% in my own comfort zone. So it’s not surprising that I empathise with characters in that situation.
Also, you know, if Pia Kolvenbach in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden had not been ostracised by her classmates, she might never have teamed up with Stefan nor spent time listening to Herr Schiller telling her creepy stories. If Veerle De Keyser were a very extrovert party girl instead of a rock climber, she would probably never get into any of the adventures she has in Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent. Being an outsider is part of the engine that drives the plot!
You’ve learned to speak both German and Dutch while living abroad. How has learning new languages as an adult changed your outlook on language and what are your favourite German and Dutch words?
I don’t think my outlook on language has changed much because I’ve always loved learning new ones! Sometimes people have asked me why I bother. “Everyone speaks English anyway.” Well, that is true to a certain extent (though you can’t rely on it, especially in rural places). However, you miss so much if you can’t communicate in or understand the local language. I lost any inhibition I had about making a fool of myself a long time ago. With new languages you just have to get stuck in there and try! In a new country I carry a pocket dictionary, and if all else fails I look up the word I can’t remember. I have been laughed at once or twice but mostly people are very patient and supportive, and often you can get an unexpectedly warm welcome just for making the effort.
The one thing that has perhaps surprised me a bit is that I don’t find it any harder to pick up new languages now that I am older. There is this perception that if you don’t learn them when you are a kid it is going to be really difficult. This goes hand in hand with the perception that kids pick up new languages in the twinkling of an eye. Actually my daughter “blocked” German for a while after we moved to Germany, because she was a bit shell-shocked with her new environment. And I found picking up Dutch at the age of 40+ just as much fun as learning Latin when I was 14. (And yes, I have just outed myself as a languages geek.)
My favourite German words are probably compound words, with which the language is peppered. A sloth, for example, is a “Faultier”, which means “lazy animal”, and a platypus is a “Schnabeltier”, which is a “beak animal.” I have a special affection for the name of a local football team my husband once played a match for, called Kinderspielplatzinitiativ Eicherscheid. German reminds me of a high quality jigsaw, whose pieces fit together with a satisfying clunkiness.
There are loads of Dutch words I love. There are some I like just because of the way they sound, such as allemaal (“everything”) and helemaal (“all”, “completely”). I am fascinated by waarschijnlijk (“probably”) because no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot pronounce it properly! I can hear it correctly in my head but when I try to say it, I can’t make that scratchy sound. My all-time favourite Dutch word is a very rude one: klootzak. You don’t really need to know what that means to know that it is a splendidly rude word.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Oh, there are loads of things! There is my family, of course. I love sharing things I love with my children (I recently read Dracula to my daughter for example) and I love seeing them do things that I am never going to be able to do, like jumping off the high board or doing scary mountain bike trails.
I’m not going to say the cats are something I’m passionate about. They are more like a pair of demanding bosses…
I love travelling and exploring new places. At the moment, like many people, we don’t have the funds for foreign travel, so I’m exploring Perthshire instead. If I hear about an interesting site – a church or a castle or something – it’s like an itch I have to scratch. I’m not happy until I’ve been to look for myself! One recent excursion was to see the abandoned village of Tirai in Glen Lochay. We also walked through the canal tunnel at Falkirk a few weeks ago – that was very exciting. I’ve heard about a disused railway tunnel and I’d like to see that too.
One of my other passions is wild swimming. I’m not all that keen on swimming pools but I love swimming outdoors. I’ve swum in a glacial stream in Morocco and in a natural pool under a waterfall in the French Jura. I’m not put off by the cold. Because I spend so much time sitting and writing, I often have backache or stiffness. A swim outdoors always puts that right. When I get out of the water I feel fabulous – it’s like being a kid again. Nothing aches; it all feels like brand new. I love that feeling. When I’m 95 I shall get someone to wheel me down the beach and tip me into the water for a swim!
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Oooh – where to start? There are so many amazing books coming out – or indeed just out! If I stick to YA I’d have to say that Keren David’s Salvage, which has just come out, sounds amazing. That’s about siblings who are parted and end up in entirely different family set ups, then meet up again later.
I’d also love to read Say her name by James Dawson, which is based on the urban legend of “Bloody Mary”. I’m definitely reading that because I love anything creepy!
I’d also like to read the recently-published Now you see me by Emma Haughton, because I love a good mystery!
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Oh woe – I am going to have to tell the truth now and admit that I don’t have any kind of system at all. In fact, I’m not sure you can even describe half of my books as “shelved”. “Piled up in heaps” is nearer the mark. Basically I ran out of shelf space years ago so now most of the shelves are double stacked with books lying on top too. And there is a to-be-read pile next to my bed. And a pile of “handle-with-care” books, including one 18th century one, on top of a bookcase where the cats can’t get at them. There are always a couple of books in the bathroom in case I get bored in the bath, and a couple in the seat pockets in the car, in case I get stuck somewhere. Need I go on?
I’m the bibliophilic version of a mad cat lady. I have far too many of them, my house is a mess because of it, but I love them all so dearly that I can’t bear to let any of them go…
Bio: Helen was born in London in 1964. She showed an early leaning towards the arts, having been told off for writing stories under the desk in maths lessons at school.
Helen went on to read Classics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, and then worked in marketing for ten years to fund her love of travelling. Her two most memorable travelling days were the one spent exploring Damascus in Syria and the day she went to the Raj Mandir cinema in Jaipur to see the romantic blockbuster Beta.
In 2001, she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany. It was exploring the legends of this beautiful old town that inspired her to write her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, which is set there.
After several years living near Brussels, she now lives in Scotland with her husband, her two children and her two cats.