Today sees the long awaited publication of Helen Grant’s The Demons of Ghent, and I decided to grill Helen on a few topics I’d not yet got round to asking her about. It seems she’s not like her heroine Veerle, and all that running around on rooftops is simply fiction. (If not, then the photo of Helen was taken just after her windswept run across the top of Ghent, followed by her abseiling down some old church, or other.)
I give you the Queen of “he’s behind you” fiction: How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book? One. It was called Naming Rupert and it was about the dilemma faced by a young couple in financial difficulties who are offered a fortune in someone’s will if they will agree to name their unborn baby after him – although they don’t like him or the name. I completed the whole book and sent it off to various agents; I had some very positive feedback but no bites. In the meantime I got on with The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, and when that was accepted for publication the earlier manuscript was mothballed. I don’t think it will ever be published. It isn’t like my other books, which are more obviously thrillers, and was mainly an exercise in proving to myself that I could write 100,000 words of a single story. Once I had done that, I sat down and tried to write 100,000 better words.
Best place for inspiration? A room with a large window and a restful view: a hillside, forest or trees. I also find a country walk does wonders if I need to think through a plot issue.
Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do? Yes, I suppose so, if there were a good reason for it. At the moment I’m keen to get my actual name known so I think writing under a pseudonym would just double the work! I sometimes think perhaps I should have selected a pseudonym, because Helen Grant isn’t as memorable a name as, say, Desiree Von Tannenbaum. Also there are rather a lot of Helen Grants around – including a Tory MP – which can be a bit confusing.
What would you never write about? Stuff I don’t know enough about. Politics, for example, or quantum physics.
Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in? I’ve ended up in some very unexpected places while researching my current Forbidden Spaces trilogy, so it would probably be one of those. It’s hard to pick one, though. I have been up more bell towers than I ever wanted to (I hate heights) including one in a little village church in Flanders; that one appeared not to have been climbed for years as it was full of pigeon droppings – very nasty. I also went down the Paris catacombs and the Brussels sewers. Perhaps the most unusual location was a deserted factory in Belgium that was scheduled for demolition. I went around that with some seasoned urban explorers. When it closed down, everyone had just walked out leaving everything lying where it was: files, coffee cups, stuff like that. That was strange and a bit creepy.
Which of your characters would you most like to be? I don’t have to think about that for even half a second. Veerle De Keyser, the heroine of Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent. She has a lot of challenges in her life even without tangling with serial killers, but she’s fearless and compassionate and inquisitive. Also she has really exciting adventures and a very hot boyfriend. And she isn’t afraid of heights, as I am.
Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing? I think it would be fabulous. Mostly, film adaptations of books do tinker about with the plot and characters – after all, the director is fitting the story into a new medium – but I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I’d be interested to see what another creative person would do with the stories. I don’t really think of the characters in my books as ending when the book ends. I imagine them going off without me, the author, and having some more adventures of their own. (Does that sound goofy?!) I guess I’d see a film version with a reworked plot as an extension of that. The only thing I’d be sorry about would be if a film version relocated the action to another country entirely. To me, the characters in Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent are intrinsically Flemish, and if the books were suddenly set in London or New York instead, something would be lost.
What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event? I’m trying to think…I remember talking about “real life” ghost stories at a school visit once so I guess someone had asked me whether I believe in ghosts.
Do you have any unexpected skills? I can do a back flip off a one metre springboard into a swimming pool. I have no other sporty skills at all but I learnt to do that when I was a kid and it stuck. It’s not really about physical prowess, it’s about having the nerve to fling yourself backwards. I like to do this when I’m in a pool and the teenage boys are showing off doing dive bombs. I get up on the springboard and you can see them thinking, yo grandma! And then I do a perfect back flip. Usually.
The Famous Five or Narnia? Oooh…difficult. Narnia, I guess. I did like the Famous Five a lot when I was a kid, especially the fact that Julian’s voice got politer and politer the ruder he was being; I always thought that was very cool. But I think Narnia is a lot deeper. The White Witch is genuinely scary because superficially she seems nice when Edmund first meets her but of course she isn’t at all.
Who is your most favourite Swede? Does everyone say “ABBA” at this point? Well, my favourite Swede (apart from you, dear Bookwitch) is the writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the right one in. I’ve read all his books in translation. My favourite is Handling the undead, which is so brilliant that I think it transcends “horror.” I’ve read it twice and both times I cried at the ending. My favourite fictional Swede has to be Count Magnus De La Gardie from the M.R.James story Count Magnus. He’s not a cuddly count. He’s been on the “Black Pilgrimage” and brought back some kind of nasty servant with tentacles. But he’s, er, unforgettable.
How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically? I don’t arrange them at all. They are stuffed willy-nilly into far too few bookcases and the ones left over are laid horizontally on top of the others. There are always books in subsiding heaps by the side of my bed and on the bathroom floor and tucked into the side pockets of the car.
Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader? A graphic novel. Or perhaps Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I remember when my son first got the Wimpy Kid books. We were living in Germany and he had learnt to read there so he had the German version. We read the bit about the Käsefinger (“cheese touch”) and we all laughed so much that our sides hurt. It’s good to associate holding a book with having fun!
If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be? Writing. This is a truly terrible admission, but since I started writing full time, I have read fewer and fewer new books. It’s as though my brain only has enough room for so many fictional universes and I’m too immersed in my own to concentrate on other ones. I re-read a lot of old favourites instead. If I had to choose between reading and writing, I would choose writing and I would amuse myself by dreaming up new adventures for my characters, rather than reading.
And that’s all from Desiree Von Tannenbaum, and all from me. See you at the Sint-Baafsplein, maybe. But not if it sees you first.