Author of The Girl in the Red Coat and The Doll Funeral, Kate Hamer, speaks to Virago Deputy Publisher Sarah Savitt about her experiences of writing and reading crime fiction.
Both of your novels feature a child’s voice. What makes a young person a particularly interesting narrator for a mystery story?
What I’m interested in with characters is meeting them at a point of change. In a sense, this is easy with young people as they face a kind of accelerated change by the very nature of growing up. That liminal state is wonderful in fiction. I’ve also been of the opinion that children and young people experience strong emotions and have rich inner lives that are not always acknowledged. I won’t always stick to that point of view necessarily though. I have the crazy idea that I might work my way upward through the ages with each book – a bit like shedding skins – although if I’ll actually stick to that I don’t know!
You write beautifully about houses and landscape. Why is a strong sense of place important in a novel?
Place played a particularly crucial role in my second novel The Doll Funeral. The story itself and the main character – thirteen-year-old Ruby – had been obsessing me for some while but every time I tried to write it the story seemed to be off kilter. I began to realise that this was absolutely a matter of setting – it was a story in search of a location! On a day in Monmouth we happened to cross the little stone bridge that leads into the Forest of Dean and I could’ve cried! I knew the story had found its place in this strange, mystical little pocket of Britain where people live and work under the forest canopy. I think the environment, whether it’s a house, a landscape, a ship, is more than just a backdrop for your characters. At a recent event with there was a question about the important elements of storytelling and we started going through them all – plot, dialogue and so on, and I realised that both as a reader and a writer the really crucial one for me is atmosphere. It’s what yanks me by the ear into reading a novel and it’s what I’m really trying to create when I’m writing. Of course, sense of place isn’t the only contributing factor to creating this but it really helps. I always think of Ian McEwan when I’m considering sense of place. There’s the huge country estate in ‘Atonement’ and the run down house marooned in a street on its own in ‘The Cement Garden’ and both are drawn so completely and so beautifully I can practically breathe the atmosphere of both locations as a reader.
Do you know how your story will end before you begin, or is this something you discover as you write?
I seem to have developed a particular way of working. I write the beginning of the book, maybe the first couple of chapters, then shortly after I write the last page or the last paragraph. The final sentence in both of my novels remained unchanged from the first time of writing. That last line feels like a lighthouse that I’m rowing towards throughout writing the whole novel and I’ve already written it for the book I’m currently working on. I certainly don’t plot minutely and I think if I did I would have a sense of having finished the work even before beginning to write. I love that the story can surprise me still in the writing, for example there are twins in The Girl in the Red Coat that I hadn’t expected to pop up at all although they wouldn’t leave once they had! I tend to start out with the beginning, the ending and maybe three of four big story arcs along the way. The more I write the more I’m beginning to realise that each time is starting out afresh. Each book is like opening the door to a house where I’ve never been before and where each room, every cranny will need exploring for the first time.
What advice would you give to someone starting to write their first novel?
I think the biggest and most important thing for a writer is finding and keeping faith in their own voice. Although I’ve got a really dreadful singing voice I imagine it to be similar to singing a note that sounds right; it sounds in tune, it resonates. Especially at the beginning when you first start writing it’s very easy to dismiss that feeling through lack of confidence. Of course any piece will change, hopefully it will be edited many, many times and grow in strength through that process but remember to pay heed to that gut instinct, however small, of ‘I think I may have something here.’ Often it’s the piece you felt was a bit ‘out there,’ or has a certain strangeness, a particularity – that’s generally the one that’s going to have that distinctive voice that readers love. So be fearless in your writing and write the story that’s burning inside you rather than the one you think people want to hear. I have to say entering competitions can be enormously helpful! Quite early on I won a short story competition and it encouraged my confidence hugely.
What’s a crime/thriller novel that you’ve particularly enjoyed recently?
I tend to like crime and thrillers that stray into quite unusual territory rather than classic whodunnits or procedural novels. I’ve just started Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister that was recommended by a reader on twitter who had liked ‘The Doll Funeral.’ I’m loving it already – set in a derelict country house in the North of England and full of atmosphere. I absolutely loved See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt due out this May. It’s based on the Lizzie Borden story and is an exceptional piece of writing. Also lined up is The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson which has been described to me by someone as ‘the most perfect thriller I’ve ever read’ by someone who really loves thrillers. I can’t wait!
Kate Hamer’s first novel The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber & Faber, 2015) was shortlisted for The Costa First Novel Prize, the British Book Industry Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger and the Wales Book of the Year. It was a Sunday Times bestseller and has been translated into 16 different languages. Kate won the Rhys Davies Short Story Prize and she has had short stories published in anthologies such A Fiction Map of Wales, New Welsh Short Stories and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She’s written articles and reviews for The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and The New York Times. Kate grew up in the West country and rural Pembrokeshire and now lives with her husband in Cardiff. Her second novel, recently published by Faber & Faber, is The Doll Funeral.
@kate_hamer | katehamer.co.uk
With the Virago/The Pool New Crime Writer Award, we want to discover an exciting new female writer for the Virago list who is writing a suspenseful, intelligent, original crime or thriller novel. Find out more, and how to enter here.