I first heard about HELEN GRANT from her 2013 Swan River Press collection, The Sea Change & Other Stories. Known mainly as a popular novelist for the Young Adult range, her latest - Ghost (Fledgling Press) - cleverly defies reader expectation, with its young protagonist of the title and the resonant echoes of a historical past.
What inspired the plot and choice of setting for Ghost?
Helen Grant: I've always found real life locations a great source of inspiration; all my novels and most of my short stories are set in real places that I have visited. I think an atmospheric location is not only a rich backdrop to a story, it can also suggest elements of the plot. For me, an interesting setting is like an empty stage set, waiting for the characters to appear, and the details of the stage scenery suggest to me what kind of action might take place.
Ghost is set in Perthshire, Scotland, where we have lived since 2011. One aspect of living here that I've always found fascinating is being able to see the traces of the past in the landscape. I'm fascinated by the vanished country houses of Scotland – many of them built in the 1800s and then abandoned in the mid twentieth century when they became impractical to maintain. Langlands House, the setting for the book, is not a real place, but it is inspired by some of the derelict houses I've visited. Most of them are ruinous because when they were abandoned they were unroofed, and the weather has got in. I thought: supposing there was a house like this, but someone had just locked the door and walked away, leaving all the contents inside? Who would be living in a place like that, and why? And that is where the story of Ghost came from.
Innerpeffray Library, an antiquarian library near Crieff, was also a source of inspiration for the fictional library at Langlands House. I liked the idea of a library that has so many interesting and beautiful books on such a wide range of topics, but all of them outdated. My heroine does her best to interpret the world around her with nothing to rely on but that.
Without wishing to give away any plot elements, did you decide at the outset of Ghost's writing that the old adage of what-goes-around-comes-around would be a key part of the climax?
HG: I knew from the outset what the ending of the book would be. The final scenes were very clear in my mind even before I started writing. But I don't really see the ending as being all about what-goes-around-comes-around. I think it's more about the difficulty of escaping who we are, and the history that has shaped us. It's very hard to say any more about this topic without offering any massive spoilers!
A real strength of the novel's first half are the tropes of supernatural fiction being at first suggested, then changed. Was this always your intention, during the drafting, or did you change your mind and decide to defy the reader's expectations?
HG: This was one hundred per cent intentional. I wanted the reader to ask themselves what was really happening, and perhaps to make some assumptions before more of the truth of the situation was revealed. Ghost was a very difficult book to write, and I did more rewriting and editing on it than I have done on any of my other novels. But the rewriting was largely about the characterisation and some plot details. I was very clear about the supernatural tropes and their role in the novel throughout the writing process.
The feel of the novel reminded me of Nina Bawden's Carrie's War. The house, the lone girl protagonist, the family feud and consequence for which she feels profound guilt, etc. Were such novels for older children, and / or their TV adaptations, a major influence on your writing?
HG: No. I recall Carrie's War being on television when I was a child but I have never read it, and I can't think of any other novel for older children which was an influence here. I would say that a big influence was Gothic literature, which also favours tropes such as the isolated heroine and the intriguingly dilapidated ruin, and often has a supernatural element. I've always loved classic Gothic fiction, ever since I was a teenager myself, devouring The Mysteries of Udolpho and Dracula. Combining my Gothic tastes with my environment of rural Scotland was what produced Ghost.
While the novel form has long been considered – by agents and publishers - as more commercial than collections of short tales, still might we hope for a follow-up to The Sea Change (Swan River Press (2013)) in the future?
HG: Yes, definitely. I have now written more than enough new stories to create a new collection, and I really hope to see one come out in future. However, a few readers did comment after reading The Sea Change, that they would like to have seen some completely new fiction in it. It would be ideal if a future collection included some totally unseen work - and I haven't had time to sit down and write anything!
I agree that collections of short stories are seen as a harder sell than a novel. All the same, ghost stories remain perennially popular. Personally, I love writing them. A novel of 120,000 words is a big undertaking, whereas a story of 5,000 words gives a sense of satisfaction and completion but takes a comparatively short amount of time to write. I think also that as a novelist there is always this pressure to produce something similar to the thing you wrote last time, probably because it's confusing for the readership if you write a crime thriller and then follow it up with a Gothic romance. But there isn't the same pressure with short stories. You can experiment a bit more. I sometimes write ghost stories with quite traditional settings but just recently I've been experimenting with more existential stuff and I really enjoy doing that.
For me, the traditional ghost-in-a-haunted-house type tale is way past its use-by date. What is your own view of the ghost in modern literature?
HG: This is an interesting question. My daughter, who loves classic ghost stories, admits that some of the traditional tropes are now clichés but says that to a certain extent she reads the stories for those clichés. And I think that the traditional setting of the decaying old house or dank mossy churchyard is used for a reason: those places genuinely are creepy. I should know – I spend my spare time exploring places like that! In the hands of a really good writer, I think they can still come to full and creepy life. An excellent example in my mind is Neil Gaiman's short story October in the Chair, which features both haunted house and graveyard. It's a story which fills me with tension and dread – and also sadness - every single time I read it.
I think though that when we say "traditional ghost…" we are thinking of a very specific type of ghost: the lingering spirit of the recently dead. For me, a ghost can be very different from that. In a recent interview, I was asked (as I often am) whether I believe in ghosts myself, to which I answered: Yes. I don't believe in things in white sheets and chains hanging around a graveyard going "Wooooo….!" But I think it's possible to be haunted. I've occasionally seen someone in a crowd and thought that it was someone I know to be dead, and I've dreamed very vividly about people who have died. Now, I know that I am not really seeing a ghost when I "see" people in this way, but I think these experiences are a kind of haunting, because they show that the lost person is still very present in my mind. I think Ghost is a book in which the past very much haunts the present, and the dead reach out of their graves to exert their influence on the living. Isn't that the definition of a ghost story?
Huge thanks to Helen for her contribution.
Helen's official website is at: http://www.helengrantbooks.com/