Now that Helen Grant has taken up residence in a remote-ish small Scottish town, I have to try and arrange to meet up when I’m already most of the way in that direction myself. The weekend we meet, her daughter has had a birthday sleepover, and I had rather hoped to be invited to inspect the fallout from such a night, being safely past that kind of thing, but Helen needs to dispose of her guest, so drives in my direction, which means my admiring of her famous tartan carpet will have to be put on hold.
We meet instead in the Grandmother’s flat in Stirling. We continue the sleepover indulgences by pouring more Coke down the throats of the young Grants. Never one to let people rest if they can do things for me, I get Miss Grant to take photos, and my own Resident IT Consultant is on kitchen duty, to feed us all more pizza. Master Grant and the Grandmother sensibly sit down; one with laptop and the other without.
I’ve been wanting to challenge Helen on how she knows about being Flemish; ‘Silent Saturday reads like it’s truly about a Flemish girl. But is she really? How can you be sure, pretending to be something you’re not?’
‘Time and again I do have a complete crisis of confidence about this, and think can I possibly know what it’s like to be a Flemish person? I lived in Flanders for three years, and although I learned Dutch, I am not married to a Flemish person. But I discussed this with a couple of Flemish friends and one says he thought that people in Flanders would not be offended by my attempting to do this, but that they would be interested to see how I’d interpreted…’
‘What they appear to be like?’
‘Yeah, so he didn’t think it would be a problem. I have consulted Flemish friends quite a lot, about details. Inevitably there’s the risk that you get something wrong. For example, if this were a British book, and I wanted the heroine out in the street, so she can bump into some key character, I’d send her out for a pint of milk and a newspaper.
In Flanders, you wouldn’t do that, because nearly everybody buys their milk in the supermarket, and they buy longlife and they have a load of it at home. So if I’d had her going out for a pint of fresh milk, that would have been an instant faux pas. I’ve spent hours obsessively checking things, and I hope that people will be sympathetic to my attempts.’ She laughs apologetically.
‘Did you have anyone read through the whole thing at that stage?’
‘No, a friend offered to, but I’m quite protective of my book when I’m writing it, and although there’s a risk that I might get some detail wrong, it wouldn’t be anything huge. I don’t like to show manuscripts to people, until they’re at a fairly advanced stage. The agent has to like it, the publisher has to like it, and the reading public has to like it, and what my friends think is…’ she laughs.
‘Will we get a Flemish glossary?’
‘I don’t think so. People will have to work out for themselves what klootzak is. If I find that a lot of people are commenting that they couldn’t understand it, then I’ll put something up on my website. But I’d like to think that from the context it’s pretty much clear.’
‘There is less Flemish than there was German in my earlier books. But if you have a whole string of English and somebody suddenly says “well, I think he’s an absolute klootzak,” it’s obvious that you’re not saying “he’s a real darling.” The other thing is that having lived as an expat for a long time, I’m used to not understanding a hundred percent of everything that goes on around me, and for me that’s normal. And I think to a certain extent in Flanders that’s probably normal. In Brussels a really high proportion, a quarter or a third of the population, is foreign.’
‘You’ve got half of the country speaking Flemish, then you’ve got the other half speaking French and some that speak German. And even the ones that make an effort to speak the other language, there’s always going to be the odd bit here or there that you are vague on. It’s a fact of life, if you live in a multilingual environment.’
‘I was surprised that the girl’s mother is so isolated through her lack of linguistic skills. Is it the case that French speakers tend to not learn Flemish, where the others learn French?’
‘It’s probably a bit of a generalisation, but in my experience the Flemish speak just about everything. Bus drivers in Flanders definitely speak Flemish, definitely speak English, probably French as well. Quite a few speak German. Then again, they used to think I was German because they couldn’t believe that a Briton would speak Flemish. The Flemish are definitely good with languages. In Wallonia it wasn’t my experience that people would speak Flemish, but having said that, when I went to Dutch classes in my commune, there were French speaking Belgians who were trying to learn Flemish.’
‘I get the feeling that French is seen as better than Flemish?’
‘Traditionally the upper classes in Belgium were French speakers, so yeah, there was a bit more resistance. But it’s an individual thing; the girl’s mother is obviously somebody who’s got big problems.’
‘And that’s relevant too, and I don’t mean to say that by having her as a character that every Wallonian is a hypochondriac neurotic.’ We laugh. ‘It’s just that she is a very isolated, anxious person, and the fact that she doesn’t have a grasp on the local language isolates her more, makes her worse. As somebody who didn’t have Flemish as her first language, living in Flanders, and hadn’t learned Flemish, she wouldn’t be the only one. There’s an awful lot of people that haven’t bothered to learn.’
‘Yes, but it is also a plot device because if she is isolated and can’t cope with the language then…’
‘Yes, she is very dependent. Obviously there is a problem coming up on the horizon. At some point Veerle is going to have to leave home, even if just to go to university. And what’s her mother going to do then? Because in the Dutch speaking commune all official business must be done in Dutch. At the local administrative centre there are notices up saying under the language laws of this country all business must be conducted in Dutch. If you cannot speak Dutch, come back with somebody who can.’ Helen laughs helplessly.
‘Comparing it to bilingual Welsh street signs, and thinking that if you can speak both, you would. I suppose it means that they keep their rights, and they are not controlled by French speakers.’
‘When you think that Flemish is a dialect of Dutch, which is a language not spoken in that many countries, compared to Spanish, they need to be quite fierce about protecting it in order to keep it going. In my experience, it’s a lot more carrot than stick; if you go to Flemish classes it’s cheaper than going to Spanish or Russian classes.’
‘They have a scheme by which, if you go in to a Flemish business, and you try to speak Flemish to them, they will bear with you, they won’t just switch to English. They’ll practise a bit with you and then they stamp a card for you and when you have so many stamps you can enter into a competition to win a prize. So there is a lot of encouragement to integrate.’
‘I like that. I thought it was interesting that you learned Flemish. Is it just because you’re the type to want to?’
‘I guess so,’ she says hesitantly, ‘it worked really well for us in Germany. If you live where we lived, which was quite near Brussels, you could get away without knowing a local language, but it makes such a difference, and it’s never been my experience that people are unfriendly at all. Far from it! For example, last year I went to Ghent, and I went into a shop because I’d seen a scarf that I liked. Before I’d spoken the staff were fine, perhaps a bit distant, and the minute I started on my halting Flemish, their attitude had a complete change, they were so friendly, really welcoming, and I think it’s worth doing it just for that.’
‘Because they are proud of their culture, they’re proud of their language, and they like it when people have made an effort. In Germany people expected us to speak German. In England people expect you to speak English, but in Flanders they are actually grateful if you make the effort.’
‘And you are not likely to have learned Flemish at school, are you?’
‘Mm, I fell in love with Flemish culture, and the funny thing was that I really didn’t want to move from Germany because we were so happy there. We had loads of friends, the kids had grown up there, and it was a terrible terrible wrench and I was actually quite anti learning Dutch before we got there.
It sounds like German, but more guttural, and by the time I’d had the three years there and learned it, listening to music and films and people talking it, thinking this is a beautiful language, it sounds much softer than German. I really liked it,’ she laughs ruefully.
‘So is it going to be Scottish lessons now?’
‘Gaelic?’ Helen laughs.
‘I was thinking a Scottish accent, so you don’t sound quite so English.’
‘This is a real toughie, because that’s one thing I can’t do. I think I’m too old. I have quite a wide Scots vocabulary, being married to a Scot, but I’m never going to lose my English accent. It’s got more neutral, but it’s harder for me to integrate.’
‘Mm, you don’t necessarily pick up the accent.’
‘The thing about learning languages, I do like to integrate, and it’s important for me that people will see that. I like to be liked. But I’m never going to develop the accent.’
‘I’ve read that you picked the names for your characters to make it easier for English readers, but having thought I knew how to pronounce Veerle, that’s not how you’ve said it!’ She laughs. ‘So you pronounce both syllables, Veerle, do you?’
‘Yes, I had a discussion about this with the publisher, because they felt, perfectly correctly, that their British readers would not know how to pronounce it, but I chose the name. I didn’t even really choose it, it just seemed like the right name. There’s an actress with that name, our GP had that name. I always thought it was particularly beautiful. I’s a very Flemish name, and it just seemed to suit her. And I thought, “does it really matter if somebody in London or Edinburgh or Swansea reads it as Virl?” No, it doesn’t.’
‘No. Only I thought I’d got it right. Is it just going to be three Flemish books?’
‘Never say never. At the moment the plan is for three, and I have some other ideas which I will talk to Random about, which aren’t set in Flanders. On the other hand, I’m enjoying writing about these characters, and I really like the environment. If the books were hugely successful, by the end of the trilogy, and we’d want more about that world, then I would happily write more.’
‘You say that part of the world; you’re not saying your characters will survive for more books.’
She laughs. ‘I can’t really say.’
‘I’m just fishing. And amazed that there is anyone left standing after this first book…’ She laughs. ‘I don’t know whether I’m wrong, but I feel these are nowhere near as scary as the German books.’
‘Nowhere near as scary???’
‘OK, the baddie is very threatening as well as intelligent, and you feel you’re up against somebody, rather than just accidentally stumbling across something bad.’
‘Sort of cosy horrible.’
‘Oh, OK,’ (she sounds upbeat) ‘I haven’t been aiming to make it cosy. If anything I thought I was a bit more brutal. In the previous books they’ve tended to be nasty discoveries. In Wish Me Dead there’s one at the end, and in The Vanishing, there’s the bit where she falls down the well, but there’s not so much actual hand-to-hand combat going on.’
‘Mm, this is more direct.’
‘Yeah, and particularly the last bit, which obviously I can’t discuss in an interview without a massive spoiler.’
‘But that last, or penultimate scene, where it is all going on, that’s quite brutal in lots of ways. Perhaps the other ones are more sort of creepy.’
‘This one isn’t, hmm?’
‘There is usually this sort of supernatural feel, whereas here you know what you are up against; someone killing people. You don’t know why, but it happens.’
‘Yeah, I’d be interested to see how you feel about that when you’ve read the other books, because the question of how it can be that the heroine thinks that the killer is who she thinks he is,’ Helen is treading carefully, trying to avoid spoilers, ‘that is an on-going question. I’m trying to think how much I can actually talk about it while avoiding spoilers.’
‘You want to be careful. I felt comfortable [with the book], worried, but comfortable. It could be that the setting feels more like home to me.’
‘It’s a very different sort of setting, because in Germany there are genuinely ancient legends, and buildings, whereas this is more urban, and that is something I set out to do. I wanted the books to be a bit grubbier.’
‘Yeah, they are travelling round on trams, and walking down city streets, and there’s none of that in The Vanishing. That kind of magical ancient atmosphere isn’t there in the city. I wanted it to be grubbier and more urban, and hopefully that’s something that is going to come out quite strongly, particularly in the third book. All the books are set in Flanders, and that one is where there will be a lot more action happening in Brussels.’
‘Is the place where Veerle lives totally separate from Brussels, or is it like a suburb of a suburb?’
‘I guess it is its own commune. It’s difficult to use the word commune.’
‘It’s the same in Swedish.’
‘So you understand what it means. For English people it probably means a hippy commune, which it isn’t. It’s a district, the district of Tervuren, which is where her village would be. It would be one of the satellite ones, administratively separate from the ones that make up Brussels. The other thing is, it’s very close to the linguistic fault line, so you feel the difference more, because it’s very strongly Dutch speaking, whereas you get onto the tram and it’s 30 minutes, you’re in Montgomery Station and everything is definitely Francophone.’
‘When they go into Brussels it feels as if they haven’t gone very far, like from a London suburb.’
‘It is like that. I grew up in Chesham which is on the London underground, but it’s a market town in Buckinghamshire and it takes 45 minutes to get into London, and Tervuren is a bit like that, as well. It doesn’t feel like it’s in the city, but 30 minutes and you are in the city.’
‘And is there going to be a book a year?’
‘Have you finished number two, yet?’
‘Nearly. I’m at about 93,000 words at the moment,
‘So that’s for 2014, and then it will be 2015 for the last one?’
‘Yes, so I’ve got a while, although’ she sounds determined, ‘I shall try and keep up. I don’t want to have a long break, because apart from anything else, I’m trying to hold everything that’s going to happen across all three books, in my head at one go. Breaks are disastrous, and after the summer holidays it takes about three weeks to get back into the zone, so to speak.’
‘With the German books, how much success have you had on the continent? I know you‘ve done German book events.’
‘Well, Germany took the first two books. They didn’t take Wish Me Dead, because they published the first two as adult novels.’
‘Which doesn’t surprise me really, because I feel they can be read by adults as well, very easily. And my experience of German culture is that it is a little more innocent, perhaps. When Wish Me Dead came along, about teenagers going out, getting drunk in the woods and stuff, that was seen as much more of a YA book and quite a departure. So they’ve yet to publish that there, and if it is, it will probably go to a different publisher. Holland took two books, and it’s also published in,’ she thinks aloud, ‘Norway, and the first one’s been published in Spain.
The really massive success story has been Brazil. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden came out there and it’s been a huge hit, and they bought The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead and Silent Saturday. But not only has the publisher been super enthusiastic on my behalf, but the Brazilian government is now going to supply copies of the book under a reading scheme that they have.’
‘Will you do anything in Belgium for Silent Saturday?’
‘I hope so, yes.’ [This has since been organised.] ‘I’ve already talked to Random about it. It will probably be me that organises it. They’re going to organise anything that happens in Britain, which will probably be around May time. I would like to do something in Flanders, because apart from anything else, there’s quite a lot of local interest in it.
There are several English language bookshops, and Flanders Today, which is an English language newspaper, are going to interview me, hopefully. There’s a multi media project called Fans of Flanders, so I’m hoping to get some publicity for that locally. I’d love it if I did, because the reason I wrote the book is I loved living there and I love Flemish culture and I’d be sorry if I couldn’t mark it in some way.’
‘Do you think they’ll translate Silent Saturday?’
‘It’s quite possible, but whether it’d be translated by a Belgian publisher I don’t know, because the market is fairly small. I think it’s about six and a half million [Flemish speakers] or something.’
‘Similar to the Nordic languages, then.’
‘What happened with my other books is that they were sold in Belgium, in French and in Dutch, but they’d been produced by French and Dutch publishers, respectively, who’d done the translation. Because their own markets are that much bigger, it’s cost effective to do.’
‘I really, really hope the book will be picked up and read there. I hope nobody discovers any awful howlers in it!’ She laughs. ‘I don’t think they will! But you never know.’
‘Generally people quite like it if outsiders take an interest in their country. So, it’s not absolutely certain that there will be Scottish horror stories after the Flemish trilogy then?’
Helen laughs, ‘well, I have several more ideas. I’ve talked to both the agent and the publisher about these ideas, and they were well received. But we are talking about 2016 or so…’
‘Quite a long way down the line. I’m probably going to work up several ideas and see who wants what. One of them will be set in Scotland, at least initially, and the other one could be, but wouldn’t need to be. I’m not going to try and do the same thing as with the Flemish ones and try and write it from the inside of the culture, because I can’t feel confident doing that. I also think that as an English person writing about Flanders, people will be quite interested to hear what you have to say; as an English person writing about Scotland, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.’
‘If I do set one in Scotland, one of the things I might do is bring in characters from outside, a German or a Flemish person. The way that I look at the country, given that I’m relatively new here, probably is slightly different anyway.’
‘I was very impressed after you moved here, when you started your ambitious scheme of getting your children into Scottish history and things around your new home. Did you do the same in Belgium?’
‘Yes, I suppose we did. We travelled around a bit, to Ghent and we took them to the zoo and the museums and stuff like that. William joined a Flemish swimming club, and they both picked up a small amount of the language. We went to the local pumpkin festival and to the Christmas tree burning, so we did try to learn a bit about the place.’
‘That’s so impressive. It takes time and effort just to work out what you might look at.’
‘It’s a very odd situation, when you move somewhere new. You’ve got two options, you can try and pretend you’re not there at all, and do all your shopping in the British shop and not really take an interest, or you can go out and try and learn as much as you possibly can about a place. And that works better for me.’
‘When you read for pleasure, is it only horror, or do you read nice, normal stuff as well?’
Helen sounds amused. ‘I don’t read chick-lit. At all. I read and have read lots of Victorian novels. I’m very fond of Anthony Trollope. I like Dickens, as well.’
‘But to be honest, I probably do read quite a lot of stuff that falls into the horror or supernatural or crime or thriller genres. Partly because since I started writing, producing a book a year, I just don’t have time to go and read stuff that’s on some kind of literary prize list. I haven’t got the mental energy left. So I read stuff which I find light and quick and entertaining, and I absolutely LOVE the books of John Ajvide Lindqvist. As well as being interesting, he has a really original way of looking at things. I’ve been working so hard, for so long and doing all this other stuff, moving from one country to another, that I don’t have the intellectual energy,’ she laughs helplessly, ‘for anything else.’
‘Did you start writing because you’d always wanted to, and you suddenly had the time? Or you were a bit stuck living somewhere else with no obvious work outlet? Did Germany force you into the writing?’
‘I don’t know about forcing. It was something I wanted to do for quite a long time, and I never had the time for. Before the children I did a lot of travelling. When I was younger I used to write poetry; some of it good, some of it awful, and short stories. I’d always wanted to write a book but the problem is that to write 100,000 words on one thing requires quite a lot of time and dedication, and when the kids were babies I would have found that very difficult. So I didn’t get anything done when they were tiny. When William was at kindergarten, which was in 2003…’ she has to think, ‘or 2004? William, were you born in 2000? You were, weren’t you?’ Someone giggles. ‘Complete mental block… It was 2001 when we moved, yeah, so he went to kindergarten in 2003.’
‘Glad you worked that out!’
‘At that point, all of a sudden I did have the time to do it. It wasn’t a matter of me sitting and thinking, “I’m not going to be idle, I need to do something.” It was more that by then I was absolutely bursting with ideas.’
‘If you’d been in England, do you think you would have felt the same?’
‘I’m not sure I would, because moving to Germany was very significant for me. This is going to sound really luvvy, but from the creative point of view it was significant, because when I arrived in Germany nobody knew me. So if I said “I’m a writer,” nobody laughed at me. They just accepted it.’
‘So I felt really liberated, and I didn’t feel embarrassed about giving a huge amount of time to it, or telling people “no, I can’t meet for coffee, because I want to finish what I’m working on,” because everybody took it completely seriously. Moving abroad was good for me, from that point of view.
And one of the things that made me nervous about moving back to Britain was I wondered “am I ever going to write anything again, because I’ll be back into the culture I grew up in, and am I going to feel the weight of that, and feel the ideas are not there any more?” Thankfully that hasn’t happened, but it was a bit of a worry.’
‘You reinvented yourself. And at least you didn’t move back to where you were before, but somewhere new. In which case you can probably continue with the new you.’
‘I’m still an expat, sticking out.’ She laughs. ‘But there’s the fact that I do have relatives now, quite close by. And the instant you’re back in Britain, people feel – even if you’re no nearer than in Brussels – that it’s easier to get in touch, and people like to come and stay. Instantly you feel the weight of all these layers of relationships, of being a daughter or being an aunt. I quite liked being abroad,’ she laughs again, ‘just being free, and being able to say “this is who I am and this is what I’m doing,” and nobody has any preconceptions about that.’
‘Do you reckon you’re here to stay?’
‘We’re certainly here for quite a while. We’d like the kids to finish their schooling in Scotland, because you can’t keep uprooting people all the time.’
‘The difference now is that you’re where one of you belongs. Does that makes a difference?’
‘It is a tough one. Interesting that you’re asking me this. I have been wondering whether people would start asking me these things. Because Belgium with its linguistic and cultural fault lines, has quite a lot of parallels with what’s happening with England and Scotland at the moment, and it’s very strange for me, being an English person here. I do think to myself “can I belong, what’s my role here, how do I define what I am? What I can offer to Scotland? And I am never going to sound Scottish.’
‘Even if I tried, it would just be risible. I’m always going to be a bit more outside of my comfort zone than Gordon, who’s Scottish, is. In my wildest dreams, if we were rich enough, when the kids are older we’d have two centres. We’d spend half the year in Scotland, and half the year on the continent. I’ve always fancied living in Antwerp.’
‘At least you know what you want.’
‘I don’t know how you’re going to make an interview out of this…I hope I haven’t said anything rude about anybody.’
‘Not yet.’ Helen laughs. ‘I’ll try to keep things nice and safe; do you do many events now that you’re actually in Britain?’
‘Not a lot at the moment. I’m not actually in-between publishers, but Penguin have got my first three books and with Random my book is not out there yet. I have done some stuff that I organised myself, but to be honest, I’m so involved with writing the trilogy, that I’m not that bothered. Which is bad, because you should be promoting yourself. But I’m really focussed on this and it’s frustrating being dragged away from it at the moment. I love these characters! And there have been moments that haven’t been that easy since we moved.
It’s happened every single time we’ve moved. For the first few months I‘d wake up every day and think “where am I?” Writing has been such an escape for me. Instead of being a 48-year-old with anxieties about settling in a new country, and the aches and pains, and the climate; for six hours a day I can be 17 again, having fun in Ghent, and I get so into it that sometimes when I come out of it at the end of the day, I can’t believe that I haven’t been there.’
‘And there is the handsome young man.’
‘Well, yes, there is,’ she laughs apologetically.
I decide this is probably an appropriate place to stop, before Helen turns into an adolescent with relationship issues.
‘Gosh, I just hope I’ve not insulted anybody,’ she says.
I don’t think so. Helen is far too well behaved for that. ‘Scary writers’ are often the nicest. And there is at least one slice of garlic bread left. The Resident IT Consultant doles out directions on the best way to get out of town fast, and Helen gathers up the junior Grants and some carrier bags full of books and exits.
(Photos by the Grant family)