Helen Grant is one of my favourite YA writers. Her work is a mixture of crime, thriller, and supernatural elements coming together in a blend that is uniquely her own. She combines this with interesting settings—small towns in Germany for her first three books and a number of Flemish cities in her trilogy Forbidden Spaces. The trilogy ends with her latest book Urban Legends, for which I’ll post a review tomorrow. To celebrate the publication of Urban Legends, today Helen drops by the blog to talk about the hint of the supernatural that pervades her work and what draws her to write it.
Helen Grant talks about what draws her to writing thrillers that always contain a hint of the supernatural.
Someone (I forget who) once described my books as having “Scooby Doo endings,” that is to say, that whatever mystery lies at the heart of the story appears to be supernatural in origin until the denouement, when you discover it was actually the work of a human criminal. The killer is then dragged off or otherwise despatched, uttering a far less polite version of “If it hadn’t been for you pesky kids…”
When, this unnamed someone asked, was I going to write a book with a proper supernatural ending?
As a matter of fact, I have written quite a few supernatural tales. As well as writing YA thrillers, I write ghost stories for adult readers. One of them, an M.R.James sequel entitled The Third Time, is appearing in Best British Horror 2015. So I’m not averse to a bit of the spooky stuff.
I feel that my novels stand a little closer to the blurred line between real and unreal.
My very first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, incorporated a series of genuine folk tales from the German town where I lived for seven years. The tales I found most compelling were the ones about local folk hero Unshockable Hans, the man who faced down most of the town ghosts and a coven of witches without turning a hair. Although Hans is not a living person at the time of the action of the book, his presence hangs over it. The heroine, Pia, admires him and makes some of her risky decisions on the basis of asking herself what Hans would do. And in a way, it is Hans who comes to her rescue in her hour of direst need. Supernatural intervention – or psychological aid?
Likewise in The Glass Demon, the heroine’s father Oliver Fox is “possessed” by the demon of his own ambition. Arguably this is a psychological flaw rather than a supernatural one, but that also rather depends on what you believe a demon to be. The legendary demon of the title, Bonschariant, is the traditional type with horns and a forked tail. If, however, you see a “demon” as a destructive, negative force that works evil all around it, then Oliver very certainly has one.
I guess one of the reasons this type of question interests me is that I have long been fascinated by the way that people interpret the world through their own beliefs. What we don’t understand or can’t explain becomes “supernatural” or “divine.” Sometimes these things can be explained away in the light of better scientific knowledge. For example, ergot poisoning (from eating rye bread made from ergot infected grains) could cause hallucinations as well as other symptoms: supposedly supernatural experiences in past centuries could be put down to that. Hypnagogic sleep hallucinations (which I have experienced) are also incredibly realistic, and anyone who did not know why they were happening might well assume that they had seen a ghost.
I’m particularly fascinated by those “real life” experiences which can’t be explained – where it simply comes down to the word of the person who claimed to have had them, against the rational assertion that it can’t have happened. I don’t come down on one side or the other. I don’t believe something just because someone is prepared to claim that it happened, but I’m fascinated to hear how people think they experienced something. I’d describe myself as sceptical but I don’t necessarily think that people are lying either when they talk about supernatural experiences. There may be something going on that we just don’t understand – a rational explanation that has yet to be discovered. I’m intensely curious about the why. I’ve visited the torture museum in the Gravensteen in Ghent and stayed in a cottage in a remote Scottish village, and if I had to spend the night alone in one of them I’d choose the torture museum. The cottage gave me the skin crawling creeps from the moment I walked in. Why?
My current Forbidden Spaces trilogy (Silent Saturday, Demons of Ghent and now Urban Legends) goes far closer to the borderline between what can and can’t be explained away than any of my previous novels.
There is one obvious and very big mystery at the heart of the trilogy, and it’s about the heroine seeing something which she knows cannot be true. But out of everyone in the universe of the books, she’s probably the best person to recognise what she sees. She knows she’s not imagining it – but how can she be seeing something that’s impossible? Finding out the truth is central to understanding a series of events that spans over a decade.
There’s a second mystery in the trilogy (and I’m not going to say what it is), which is not entirely solved. All the “facts” are laid out, and they point a certain way. As Sherlock Holmes famously said, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. But how improbable does that “truth” have to be before we just don’t believe it?
I’ve already been asked by one or two people about that second mystery. Is there a rational explanation or are we supposed to believe the supernatural one? To which I have to reply: if I’d wanted to say which of those two options it was, I would have done so in the book. We can’t explain everything. We don’t know exactly what happened on the Marie Celeste, though there are plenty of plausible suggestions. That’s what fascinates me – the fact that there is no concrete answer, that there are still mysteries.
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.