This month I had the privilege of interviewing the lovely Helen Callaghan, author of bestselling psychological crime thriller Dear Amy. You can read my review of Dear Amy here:http://ow.ly/NeVl30aMdEI
Not only has Helen been kind enough to share her experiences as an author, she is also giving away a signed copy of Dear Amy to one lucky reader of this interview. All you need to do is retweet this post to be in with a chance to win.
1) What was your background and how did you get into writing?
I’ve always written, is the short answer. I started doing it in a sustained way from my early teens onwards – by the time I left secondary school, the plan was that I was going to be a writer, and I’ve pretty much kept to it. The first draft of “Dear Amy” was completed nearly thirty years ago. For most of my life I was a bookseller, specialising in fiction, which is a fantastic job for a booklover, albeit not very well paid. But while I loved it, as time passed I started to get a little restless. I thought I’d like to get a degree, and so I studied for my A-levels at night school and ended up graduating in Archaeology (which has proven very useful, as the third book is going to be about archaeologists).
After I graduated, I got into technical writing – producing software documentation, which is every bit as interesting as it sounds. For years I would write that during the day and during my commute and evenings I would write the novels. It was all very hard work, but great in a way, because I joined writing groups and made great friends who shared my passion for fiction.
2) What are your ambitions for your writing?
I’d like to keep writing the psychological thrillers which I really enjoy. The process of creating them is very cathartic, because it’s about exploring what scares me – I find crime infinitely more frightening than the supernatural, for instance. At the moment I’m concentrating on the psychological thrillers because “Dear Amy” has been so well-received and my energy is there at the moment.
But that said, for years I wrote more speculative fiction. At some point I do have projects there I would love to revisit…
3) Which writers inspire you?
Oh, there’s so many! I love the Brontes, Jane Austen, and every weird and obscure Gothic novel ever. When I was a teenager I was a huge fan of Angela Carter and my favourite guilty pleasure was Anne Rice. The writer that most inspired me was probably Iain Banks – I admired him hugely. He always took bold narrative risks in his books and at signings and events he was always the writer I most aspired to emulate.
4) How much research went into writing Dear Amy? Where did the idea come from?
It was really strange, as other things I’ve written have come together in bits and pieces, but the idea for Dear Amy appeared wholesale – I knew the heroine’s name, her dilemma, and its resolution. I wrote the first draft in a white heat, in just over two months.
This, of course, was pre-internet and the research was practically non-existent. When I wrote the new draft, the need to do the research was part of what made it take so long. Some of that research was quite harrowing, such as the oversight that girls in care get compared to other girls, but some of it was very enjoyable. I got to do a lot of fun stuff, like visit houses that I would base the Grove upon.
5) Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I am! Well, two new things. Book Two went off to my editor a week ago, and I’ve started work on Book Three. Book Two is hopefully going to appear later this year – it’s the story of Sophia, who comes home from London to find that her mother appears to have committed suicide. As she tries to process this, she learns that her mother had been in a cult in her youth, and had recently been trying to publish a book on her experiences; a book that other ex-members of the cult would prefer not to exist. It doesn’t have a name yet, but the working title is “Morningstar”.
Book Three is about an archaeologist, Fiona, who is invited up to join her friend Madison on her dig in the Orkney Islands (and also to emotionally support her as she’s split up after a tempestuous relationship with her long-distance boyfriend). But once she arrives, she discovers that not only has Madison vanished, but she appears to have been on online dating sites using Fiona’s picture and details… and beyond that, I don’t think I’ll say too much more!
6) What do you use to do your writing? Pen+paper, computer, typewriter etc.
Mostly I work on my computer, but sometimes, if something is giving me trouble, I’ll take a notebook and a pen out with me and tackle it on the page. I like the freedom that paper and pen gives me to get things wrong, and the way that it shows my working – I can cross things out, move them round, and see the process in a way that you can’t do with the computer. It also gives me permission to get things wrong, which is so important.
8) How often do you write? Do you set yourself a word target or just go with it when inspiration strikes?
I do set myself a daily target – a thousand words. One of the most peculiar things that I learned about myself when I started writing full time is that the fact that I have so much more time does not, in any way, shape, or form, translate into more writing.
However, when it is on fire, I can burn through it – and then you raise your head and it’s two, three in the morning, and it’s all passed by in the blink of an eye. That is the best feeling in the world – when you are so immersed in it you can’t feel the time pass.
9) What sort of publishing route did you choose and why?
I didn’t really choose – or rather, circumstances had chosen for me. In 2009, I wrote a novel called Mephistophela – it was an SF thriller.
2009 was what they called “interesting times” in the publishing world. Back then, indie publishing was still very much a developing field but had exploded outwards, as Amazon had opened the floodgates. Accordingly, a lot of the early stuff was of very variable quality – people were still feeling their way in terms of the importance of copy-editing, professional covers, etc. Nobody was quite sure what the marketing channels would be, what would work, how the good stuff would distinguish itself in the face of the sheer quantity of self-published books that were now appearing.
Traditional publishing was also panicking, I remember – people weren’t sure if print publishing (and print publishers) would go the way of the dinosaur. It was nearly impossible to sell anything to a traditional publisher at the time.
Mephistophela didn’t sell ultimately, but it generated a lot of interest from agents, and Judith Murray at Greene and Heaton, who took me on, stuck with me while it and then my next novel also didn’t take. When you’re represented by an agent, you’re nearly always looking at a traditional publishing deal – and that’s what I was submitted for. The second novel was a big, complicated epic based in multiple parallel universes, and the feedback was that it was quite a difficult project for a debut. They weren’t sure about it, but they liked me, apparently.
So in late 2013, Judith asked me what else I had on my plate. I’d mentioned that years ago I’d completed a psychological thriller and she suggested dusting that off, giving it a light edit, and then running it past publishers that had liked the previous work, but hadn’t bitten. It was a job that would take perhaps eight weeks, at most.
Of course, the minute I opened the old files, I realised it would take a lot longer than that – the more you write, the more you develop, and I was gazing into a snapshot of how I wrote thirty years ago! In the end it took thirteen months to prepare the new draft, but when I did, there was an auction and it sold in ten days.
I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t, in many ways. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
10) How do you market your books? What have been your marketing successes and failures?
I’m lucky in that Michael Joseph handle the marketing and PR side of things, and they are astonishingly creative people. They have amazing ideas – for instance, when the proofs for Dear Amy came out, they mocked up copies of letters from the book and tied them to the proofs with twine. They got me media appearances and blog opportunities and took me around to meet booksellers, which is easily the nicest way to spend a day when you’re a writer, as it involves being in bookstores.
For my own part, I have a website with a blog, and a Twitter and Facebook page. Easily the biggest marketing hit for me is Twitter, as I can interact with people who liked the book, retweet reviews and event news, etc. It’s quite time-consuming to do properly, and it means I can’t use Twitter as the same timewasting opportunity that I used to, but it does reward the time I spend on it.
On the other hand, I’ve not updated the blog in a while, and nobody’s crying out for it. I think that running a blog is its own specialist and very demanding thing, and readers are more likely to frequent review blogs or aggregate blogs than author blogs (I’m exactly the same myself). I keep wanting to relaunch it, as I do enjoy writing the articles for it, but the last nine months have just been mental and it’s not really justifying how timeconsuming maintaining it would be. Perhaps when Morningstar comes out I’ll relaunch it.
11) If you could be the original author of any book what would it have been and why?
Ooh, that’s a tough one! I could guarantee I would give you different answers from one day to the next! Tonight though, I feel like it’s ‘The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. There is something very cold, clever and cruel in it – it is a perfect meditation on crime and punishment.
12) What are your views on good and bad reviews? How much do you think the success of books relies on reviews?
I was thinking about this recently, funnily enough. I worked out that my own book purchasing justifications break down as roughly:
40% drifting through the bookstore/browsing a publisher’s email newsletters and thinking “Oh, that sounds like a cool thing to read”
40% personal recommendations
As a writer, however, my relationship with my reviews is naturally a bit more complicated. I remember reading my first bad review and it was as though a complete stranger had come up to me and slapped me. But of course, nobody writes a book that everybody loves – anything with any texture is going to rub at least one person up the wrong way.
Like everyone else, I’ve read books that I don’t reckon are much cop, and yet they become massive international bestsellers regardless. But in all of those instances (and there aren’t that many of them), the book hasn’t succeeded because it is a good book, but rather because it is offering some unfiltered, unadulterated experience that readers can’t get elsewhere. It’s worth being attentive to what that offering is, and why it is so popular. There’s always a tension between what we enjoy reading and what is good for us, or rather, what we publicly admit to, and studying the gap between those things is often instructive.
You can buy Helen’s debut novel Dear Amy on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B019DD8CPE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
You can also find Helen on the following social media pages:
Facebook (author page not personal): [https://www.facebook.com/hecallaghanauthor/]
Amazon author page: [https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B001KE8XFY]
Thank you so much Helen for taking part in my monthly author interview and sharing your experience as a bestselling author!