Last week we announced the winner of our Stephen King short story competition, Elodie Harper and her chilling story ‘Wild Swimming’. We asked her a few questions about the inspiration behind her story, and her love for Stephen King. Read Elodie’s winning story at the Guardian here.
In The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King gives readers a fascinating introduction to each story with autobiographical comments on their origins and motivation. What was the inspiration behind your own story?
Like Chrissy, I have always found the idea of drowned villages interesting, whether they are sunk deliberately like the reservoir at Haweswater or whether they’re villages that have been reclaimed by the sea. It’s the idea of ruined empty streets and homes underwater which fascinates me. Dunwich is also in the part of the world I report on for ITV Anglia, though I’ve never been diving to take a look at it!
Stephen King, who judged the winning story, said ‘The central plot element – wild swimming – is new and novel, something I’d never encountered before.’ Tell us a little bit about wild swimming:
People who go wild swimming enjoy exploring open water such as lakes, rivers or reservoirs. Some, like Chrissy, are fanatical about it and will travel all over the world to find new places to swim. It can be quite a dangerous activity, so not something I’d recommend anyone take up unless supervised by an expert. I’ve been wild swimming in the Lake District (Chrissy’s memory of seeing Helm Crag in Grasmere is mine) but never unaccompanied – I went with another swimmer who was not only a veteran of that particular lake but also a qualified life guard. The cold can take you unawares very quickly, and the sense of space below can be quite frightening. Unlike Chrissy, I wasn’t so keen on the feeling of bottomless blackness beneath.
As King observes, ‘Wild Swimming’ is told via email, making it part of a small but interesting genre: the 21st century epistolary tale.’ What inspired you to tell your story via email?
I spend a lot of my life writing emails – not just for work but also to stay in touch with friends. I think it can be a very intimate form of writing. I also hoped it would not only give the story pace – i.e. Chrissy is only going to write about the more interesting things that happen – but also leave mysterious gaps. We don’t actually see her get chased into the water by the lake people, the reader has to work that out from the final email.
Finally I must confess that I chose this form because the first story in Stephen King’s collection Night Shift, ‘Jerusalem‘s Lot’ is an epistolary tale, so it was a way for me to acknowledge the influence of his storytelling.
The judges unanimously warmed to your lead character with whom they could immediately associate themselves. Stephen King said he ‘loved Chrissy’s voice’. Was it important for you to engage emotionally with your reader through your lead character?
Yes, I really wanted readers to find Chrissy likable, believable and hopefully humorous. I think creepy stories mean so much more if you care about the character who comes to a bad end.
Most of all I wanted her to be an ordinary person who gets caught up in something horrible – the way any of us can. By making her not only a first person narrator but also somebody who is talking to her best friend, I hoped it would give her a particularly intimate voice, and make the reader feel she was their friend too.
Stephen King is renowned for getting to know the locations of his stories and novels – he spent several seasons in Florida before writing his novel DUMA KEY or his short story ‘The Dune’. How did you get a flavour of the landscape and people of Lithuania?
After I left university I worked for a couple of years as an actress and spent several weeks in Vilnius on a Working Title production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I got to know some of the local crew very well, and also on my days off met some local university students who later took me to see a few places outside the capital, including Trakai where there’s a lake. We even spent one afternoon in a forest cemetery – which could be another creepy tale in itself! I really loved the time I spent in Lithuania, I found it a fascinating country.
You are a presenter and reporter for ITV News Anglia. Was it those skills which made you curious about the (fictional) idea of the Russians flooding a town in Lithuania?
I think as a journalist you are always aware of the dark side of how people can behave towards each other, so the idea of a political atrocity behind a supernatural tale perhaps came more naturally to me. The main inspiration though, was the many conversations I had with people in Lithuania. The idea of the Soviet Union drowning a town is completely invented, but I was told so many stories of the oppression people suffered during that time, it’s something that has always stayed with me.
You have been a fan of Stephen King’s short stories and novels for a long time. Which are your favourite stories and novels and how have they influenced you?
I love so many of his stories it’s really hard to chose! Sorry to pick such a famous novel, but I do think The Shining is an exceptional book. Not only terrifying but also unique for the way Stephen King uses the supernatural to give the reader an insight into alcoholism. I think it tells us much more about the impact alcohol can have on a family than a thousand misery memoirs. Jack is such a tragic figure, somebody the reader really likes, and what happens to him is not just frightening but heartbreaking. I find the way some remnant of his true character remains, even at the end, extremely moving.
Night Shift is my favourite collection of short stories by any writer. They are so diverse – some like ‘The Lawnmower Man’ are outrageously grotesque, and others like ‘Quitters. Inc.’ give a creepy picture of self–help culture taken to extremes. Each one is a self contained world, it’s a joy to read.
If I’m allowed to say Stephen King has influenced me it would be because all his work shows the importance of the story – it has to be enjoyable – and also that the supernatural can be used in so many different ways. It can either be a way of letting the imagination run riot,like ‘The Lawnmower Man’, or tell deeper truths about the ‘real’ world, like The Shining.