An Interview with Helen Matthews

Today author Helen Matthews joins me to talk about her writing journey. Thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule to chat with me, Helen.

Hi Val and thanks for hosting me. When I started to explore the Darkstroke catalogue I identified your Hunter series as the kind of crime novels my husband enjoys reading so I bought him the first in series. I’m happy to tell you he is now hooked. He read book two in a single day and is now onto the third one.

 1 Please tell my readers a little about yourself?

I’m originally from Cardiff, I studied English at Liverpool University, went travelling, moved to London, worked in international development, consultancy and HR. I always worked full-time even after having my two children and, when we moved out of London to Hampshire with my job, my husband looked after them and ran a small business that he fitted in around their school hours. I wrote fiction and journalism in any spare time and some of it was published. A highlight was writing a few columns about family life for a BBC radio programme called Home Truths and being invited to Broadcasting House to record them, with the presenter, the late, lovely John Peel. When my children went to university I decided to quit my job and go back to uni, too. I took an MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes, still working part-time in consultancy but gradually shifting to copy writing which fitted in better with writing fiction. My first novel After Leaving the Village was published in 2017.

2 What inspired you to become a writer/author?

My parents encouraged my love of reading and it was a short step from there to writing stories and other juvenilia. While I was at school, I won some short story competitions and had a few pieces published in teen magazines, such as Jackie, which some of your readers might remember.

3 What is the best thing about being a writer/author?

I’m one of those weird people who is both an introvert and an extrovert depending on how I’m feeling on any particular day. I enjoy my own company and I’m perfectly happy to withdraw from life to live vicariously in the fictional world of my characters. But once my book is out in the world, there’s nothing I love more than getting out to do library talks, book signings and chatting to people about writing. I have a supportive family and some long-suffering friends, who seem to understand why I might not be available to meet up if I have a deadline. I’m never bored. In fact, I’ve never been happier. I enjoy every day.

4 What is your writing routine like?

I’m more of an owl than a lark so for the years when I had to fit writing around corporate life I  wrote late into the night with a glass of wine by my side. Once I became freelance I found it easier to juggle my time between work projects and creative projects. Life is short and it’s important we follow our passions so now I mostly turn down offers of paid work to prioritise writing fiction. I keep to a normal working day and head to my laptop each morning. It’s not always to do creative work – there’s so much admin and social media to attend to – but when I’m working on a new book, I’ll write until inspiration dries up –  or when my back aches and it’s time to go out for a walk or a bike ride.

5 How much time is spent on research?

I work on research alongside planning a new novel so there’s probably a three or four month period when I’m developing ideas, exploring the themes and researching the places where the book will be set. If I have a chance to travel to check out a location in detail, I’m up for it. The more exotic the better. The opening chapters of my first published novel After Leaving the Village were set in rural Albania. I’d done masses of research using guide books, maps and Google Earth, and watching films on YouTube but, when I got my book deal, I decided I had better go on a fact checking mission. I took my journalist son with me and it turned out to be an inspired partnership because, being different generations, everyone would talk to us. We quickly got under the skin of the country and some of the people we met shared fascinating information about Albania’s checkered past. I’ll be writing more about Albania in the novel I’m currently working on. Although it’s not set in Albania but in London and West Wales which gave me the perfect excuse for a minibreak to Tenby when lockdown ended.

6 How much of the book is planned out before you start writing it?

My management roles in large companies made planning and organising second nature to me. I’m still 70 per cent planner, 20 per cent pantser and 10 per cent just generally confused. Once I get stuck into the writing, I ease up on planning and let the characters take over and show me how their journey is going to pan out.

7 What do you think is most important when writing a book? Characters, plot, setting, etc

I’d like to answer ‘all of the above’ but I know that’s not always feasible. When writing fiction in a particular genre there are certain reader expectations you have to meet so, if you are writing thrillers, or psychological suspense, for example, you have to make sure the plot is pacy and compelling because readers expect a gripping page turner. That doesn’t mean you neglect the characters because they need to be psychologically realistic and interesting. But not all characters in the crime genre will have the complex inner lives you’d expect in a more literary novel. Settings are vitally important to give a sense of place.  Specific locations – a dark wood, a crumbling house, an underpass scrawled with graffiti, can bring atmosphere to the story to enhance pleasure, or create a sense of dread. The trick is to sketch details in lightly without being heavy-handed with description and not to ramble on for pages about the quality of the sunlight on the ocean!

8 What is your latest book about?

My current book is called Façade and it’s due to be published by Darkstroke tomorrow so I’m very excited. It’s a twisty story that opens with a scene set in 1999 when a young child drowns at the family home, an elegant but crumbling Georgian House called The Old Rectory. The circumstances around the death are hazy and the family disintegrates. Teenage sisters, Imogen and Rachel hardly see each other for twenty years but when Imogen returns from Spain, bitter and vengeful, after her husband’s mysterious death, the buried secrets unravel and danger stalks Rachel and her family.    

9 What inspired it?

Everything hinges on the title ‘Façade’ – the Old Rectory hides multiple secrets. It looks grand from a distance but is decaying from the inside along with its owners (Rachel and Imogen’s parents) who have succumbed to grief, denial and dementia. Rachel runs a property business that has a superficial gloss of success but its true financial position is quite different. It’s not a career she loves but she must soldier on so she can support her parents in the elegant home they refuse to leave. Silence about events in the past forms a barrier between Rachel and her partner Jack and daughter, Hannah. While Imogen, who was married to a once-famous boy band musician, has lost touch with reality and no longer recognises truth or the value in anything. Houses and property (including a narrowboat) contribute to the mystery and there’s an underlying theme about the meaning of home.     

10 Why did you pick the genre or genres that you write in?

To begin with, I wasn’t very savvy about the importance of genre. I often write about secrets, lies, betrayals and family so when a Little Brown editor I had a one-to-one with told me my novel was ‘high end women’s fiction with book club potential’ that’s what I said in my submission letters to agents. Imagine my surprise when my eventual publisher categorised my novel as a suspense thriller! In bookshops it lives on the crime shelves.

11 How did you go about getting a publishing deal? Or how did you become self-published?

With great difficulty. Getting an agent seems to be quite a barrier and I understand how hard it is for them, receiving thousands of manuscripts each year and only able to take on two or three new authors. The Little Brown editor I mentioned above liked my book and read several chapters but Hachette publishers don’t accept direct submissions from authors. So she told me to go and find an agent and ask my agent to resubmit. I wasted a good two years, during which I had five requests from agents for the full manuscript and pages of positive feedback about the novel but didn’t succeed in finding representation. My first novel was published by a small indie, just starting out. Mine was the second book they signed and they have developed and become successful over the years in a couple of niches, especially  BAME authors, YA and middle grade, and self help books with a human story at the centre. They have a few other novelists aren’t primarily focused on adult fiction so not the best home for my future books. I was thrilled when Darkstroke offered me a contract for Façade, my third novel, because it’s a perfect fit.     

12 Any new books or plans for the future?

I’m close to finishing the first draft of a new novel with the working title The Girl in the Van, set in Wales and London. My first drafts are always very rough and ugly so it will go through many revisions before it sees the light of day. This book is turning out darker than Façade or Lies Behind the Ruin and I think it will end up as a suspense thriller with some challenging content like After Leaving the Village.

13What authors have been an influence on your writing?

Because I read English literature at university, many of the authors I admired belonged to a different era, like Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and George Eliot. Omniscient narrators don’t work for today’s reader of suspense fiction. More recent authors who’ve inspired me are Eleanor Ferrante (the Neapolitan novels) for her sense of place and pulling the reader in so you’re really there in the moment; Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) for fiendish plotting; Hilary Mantel for being so intellectually brilliant and Donna Tartt for the precision of her language.

14 What writing advice would you have given yourself when you started?

Study the craft of writing. I gave myself this advice and then followed it by doing the MA in Creative Writing, but others don’t have to. I had a specific need to cleanse my brain of all the business speak that polluted it from my day job. I thought the course would help me get back to thinking and writing creatively. There are plenty of short courses – sometimes free ones online – or books, like Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. Writers’ groups that critique one another’s work are also invaluable.

Without some form of rigorous development it can be hard to improve your writing and you run the risk of repeating the same mistakes and not producing work of publishable standard.

15 What writing advice would you give to an aspiring writer or a new author to the block?

Find your writer tribe. Writing can be lonely so writers’ groups – local ones that meet in person and online groups on Facebook – can give new authors the support they need. Close friends probably won’t understand our angst if a character isn’t working or when we’ve deleted 40k of painfully crafted words by mistake only to discover the cloud back up wasn’t on. Other writers share our frustrations and can advise on how to fix it.

16 What has been your favourite book so far this year?

I’ve read quite a few good ones. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker was a retelling of the siege of Troy from the point of view of a captured Trojan princess who was given to Achilles to be his bed woman. A harrowing insightful read. Also The Wych Elm by Tana French. It’s a gripping suspense thriller set in Ireland and the quality of the writing is stunning. I’d love to write like her.  

17 What is your all-time favourite book and why?

I find this question impossible to answer. The books I’ve reread most often are by Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. A book I often recommend to other people  or buy as a gift is My Name is Leon by my friend, Kit de Waal, an incredibly moving story of two young brothers, one white, one not, whose mother can’t look after them, separated by an uncaring care system. I’ll go for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels starting with My Brilliant Friend because it’s the book that reawakened in me that sensation of loving reading I first experienced as a child.

18 What genre do you read most often?

I read widely across a number of genres. To keep myself abreast of the developments of my own psychological suspense genre, I read crime and psychological thrillers and have discovered some excellent authors (Sarah Vaughan, Harriet Tyce, Tana French). I’m a fan of literary fiction, such as Mantel, Attwood, Barnes, McEwan as well as those from the US, Commonwealth and elsewhere such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Toni Morrison and Khaled Hosseini. I love a state of the nation novel by authors such as John Lanchester (Capital) and Jonathan Coe and I used to be a fan of Jonathan Franzen (but no more).

19 What are you currently reading?

I’m halfway through Tipping Point by Michelle Cook. It’s an action-packed dystopian novel set in the near future and some of the detail is so recent and realistic it really feels as if our society could spiral down into the restrictive, coercive, climate-denying regime, she so chillingly describes. After that, I need to fit in a collection of short stories called Property by Lionel Shriver for my book group and then I have more Darkstroke authors in my TBR pile. 

20 Anything else you would like to add?

Just to say I’m delighted to be part of the Darkstroke community and I’ve found it a very welcoming and supportive place. Thanks so much for hosting me.

The Author

I have exciting news. I’ve just signed a deal with Darkstroke (an imprint of Crooked Cat) and my next novel ‘Facade’ will be out by the autumn of 2020.

If you can’t wait till then, why not try ‘Lies Behind the Ruin’ my psychological suspense novel published in April 2019 by Hashtag Press. It’s about a family who try to escape their problems and start a new life in France but secrets and lies from the past pursue them and life takes a darker turn. After all, how can you build a new life on toxic foundations?

My debut novel ‘After Leaving the Village’ was published in October 2017. It won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers’ Festival. It’s a gritty contemporary suspense thriller so won’t suit all tastes but it’s been hailed by reviewers as ‘very much a novel of our times’ and ‘powerful’…one of the reasons ‘why it has been endorsed by anti-slavery charity, Unseen.’

I’m now an ambassador for the charity and available to give talks at festivals, author events and to local groups about writing and the themes in my novel.

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