What prompted you to first start writing? What was the first thing you wrote?
There’s a quote I especially like from author, Neil Gaiman. Apparently, someone asked him: I want to be an author when I grow up, am I insane?
To which Gaiman is reported to have replied: Growing up is highly over-rated. Just be an author.
I’m someone who has achieved my author dream after serving a ridiculously long apprenticeship. Many of us say we’ve been writing from the moment we picked up a pen, and I’m one of them. In childhood, I had some successes in competitions and fillers published in teen magazines. Then I went on to study English at university and was a bit overwhelmed by reading the works of great literary masters. In the early days of my business career, I wrote late at night with a glass of wine by my side, mainly short stories that were judged ‘too dark for our readers’ by the magazine editors I submitted to.
As the family’s main breadwinner, after my children were born I continued working full-time in a career that used the analytical side of my brain. I noticed my writing was deteriorating – impacted by turgid quasi-legal and financial business speak I had to use in reports and documents. The creative spark left me. Writing fiction was hard, so I began dabbling in freelance journalism and had some articles published in family and lifestyle magazines. Ironically, in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the internet expected content for free, even hobbyists like me were well-paid, typically £70-£200 and once as much as £1,000. My highlight was pieces published in The Guardian and broadcast on BBC Radio (in a programme called Home Truths presented by the late and lovely John Peel).
During those wilderness years, I wrote a couple of deeply-flawed novels and put them in a drawer. Finally, when my children were heading for university, I decided I’d never be happy if I stayed on the treadmill of my well-paid career. I fled corporate life, putting our family finances at risk, and went back to university to do an MA in Creative Writing. You absolutely don’t have to do an MA, or any qualification, to become a novelist. I did it because I needed to make a break from the business world and rediscover my creativity. For my dissertation, I wrote another novel. It can’t have been too terrible because I did pass my MA, but I knew it wasn’t good enough so it went into the drawer with the others.
My breakthrough novel was After Leaving the Village. The opening pages won first prize at Winchester Writers’ Festival and I spent two years querying. Five agents requested the full manuscript; many gave positive, personalised feedback but didn’t make an offer. In the end I signed a deal with a small indie publisher and the book came out in 2017.
It’s been a long journey to becoming a published author, but I’m sure Neil Gaiman would be pleased to hear I still haven’t grown up.
Can you summarise your latest work in just a few words?
The strapline does quite a good job: A tormented mother, an abandoned girl, a deadly game of survival.
One of the problems with writing suspense is trying to entice the right readers in without giving too much away.
What was the inspiration for this book?
Inspiration for each novel comes in different ways. It could be a snatch of overheard conversation, an incident that happened to someone else or a random ‘what if?’ idea. For this book, the inspiration arrived in visual form. I had an image of a frightened girl, who turned into Miriana, hiding in the back of a campervan. The mental picture was so vivid if felt as if she’d tapped me on the arm and asked me to tell her story. Immediately I wanted to know what that story was. Why was she hiding? What had happened to her? And how was this stranger linked to the central character, Laura.
What’s your writing process? Did you do any research for the book?
Authors are often asked, ‘Are you a plotter or a pantser?’ Due to my long years in management, my planning skills are over-developed so I’m about seventy percent plotter; twenty per cent pantser, and the other ten per cent is just generally confused.
My starting point for a novel is a broad plot outline and some ideas about my main characters. I do some initial research, then write a few chapters to test out whether the characters will live and breathe on the page. Not all stories have legs and some plots fizzle out. Once I’m confident an idea will work, I get stuck into more extensive research. For The Girl in the Van, I had to research, among other things, an aspect of modern slavery known as ‘county lines’ where young people are lured by criminal gangs into transporting drugs from cities into rural areas. I’m an ambassador for the anti-slavery charity Unseen so I’m lucky to have access to their materials and resources. I can also ask my contacts questions about anything I’m not sure of. There’s quite a bit of police involvement in this book, and for that I used the services of Graham Bartlett, a former senior police officer who offers a consultancy service to authors.
As I’m originally from Wales and many scenes in the book are set in Cardiff, Penarth, and Tenby, this was a great excuse to return to some fabulous places to research the book and take photos to illustrate future blogs.
What does a typical writing day involve for you?
Alongside writing fiction, I’m an occasional freelance copywriter though I’m turning down most commissions just now – mainly because the agencies and contacts I work with want me to do project management as well as the writing and this sucks up too much time. Self-employment is a joy. If you meet deadlines, you can work whenever and wherever you please. Unless I have a conference call or Zoom meeting, I set my alarm for a very civilised 8.15 am. My lovely husband, an early riser, brings me a cup of tea. If he forgets, I might send him a WhatsApp message: Tea, please. I once sent the Tea, please message, in error, to my daughter’s partner – presumably, the last person I’d messaged the night before. This caused some consternation as they live half an hour’s drive away and the tea would have been cold before it reached me.
Enough confessions. You probably think I’m slothful, but this working-from-home life became the norm for many of us in lockdown. I shovel down a bowl of cereal and I can be at my computer soon after nine.
I wish I could devote my whole working day to novel writing but the demands of social media, writing newsletter and blog content and searching out new promotional opportunities take time. I do talks for book clubs and women’s groups, and occasional library or literary festival events. All of these I really enjoy but they need planning. For example, yesterday I spent the morning with an author I’m due to interview at a local literary festival soon. We met over coffee in an indie bookshop, worked out the structure of the event, brainstormed the questions, answers and the messages she wants to give. I still need to write up the interview brief and we’ll discuss it again. All this preparation work is for a one-hour event.
Once I’ve cleared the business end of my inbox, I’m back to work on my novel-in-progress. Late morning, I take Homer, our rescue dog out for a short walk then have a fifteen-minute lunch break. I write through the afternoon with Homer snoozing at my feet. Around four, he’ll start pestering me for another walk and we’ll go for a long one. I’m trying to average three miles a day to get a proper break from the keyboard.
In the evenings I’m often out. I belong to two book clubs and a choir. I meet friends or family for a film or a meal. If I’m in, I might carry on writing until 10 pm then watch the News and maybe a film or read and do a Sudoku or Wordle. I’m rarely in bed before twelve-thirty.
Writing can be solitary, but I take days off when I need to. You can never spend too much time with fellow writers. I belong to three critique groups. I call them my Hotel California – you can go there, but you can never leave.
Which writers have influenced your own writing?
Two authors at the literary end of my psychological suspense genre, who I hugely admire are Louise Doughty (Platform Seven and Appletree Yard) and Emma Donoghue (Room). I would love to write like them, but my books aren’t written with literary prizes in mind. I’m targeting high-end commercial/book club crossover, and I think I’ve got this right as one book club has already hosted me twice and has already invited me back in June to talk about The Girl in the Van. The invitation came in as soon as they saw the cover reveal for the book, and I was so surprised I asked the organiser: Are you sure they really want to hear me again?
In psychological suspense and thrillers, I enjoy Lisa Jewell (The Family Upstairs) Gillian McAllister (How to Disappear), Clare Mackintosh (I Let You Go), Louise Candlish (Our House), Emma Curtis (That Night), and Katharine Johnson (The Suspects). The list is endless.
Does your new book have a message for the reader?
I’ve already mentioned the modern slavery ‘county lines’ theme in the book.
This is the second time I’ve written about human trafficking and I’ve become dedicated to the anti-slavery cause and raising awareness of this hideous crime. Once lured into ‘county lines’ gangs it can be very hard for victims to break free. Recent survey research shows public awareness of this crime is lower than of other forms of human trafficking and slavery. Sometimes parents don’t realise their own child is involved because they don’t spot the signs. So as well as writing a gripping page-turner, I wanted to bring the plight of these young people to wider attention.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Find your writer tribe. Writing can be lonely, so writers’ groups – local ones that meet in person and online groups on Facebook – can give us the support we need.
You don’t have to write what you know. Draw on it, by all means, but give your imagination a free rein to be creative. Books would be very boring if we only wrote about our lives.
Read, read, read – sounds obvious, doesn’t it, especially if you’ve been a reader all your life. But I’ve been surprised to learn (from a friend who lectures on a creative writing degree course) that many of her writing students don’t read! I once heard a quote (and I’ve searched online but couldn't find who said it), something like:
If you have the arrogance to write, have the humility to read.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think the above quote about reading just about sums it up. We’re nothing without readers.
MORE ABOUT THE GIRL IN THE VAN:
A tormented mother. An abandoned girl. A deadly game of survival.
What happened to Ellie?
Traumatised by events, Ellie's mother Laura can't bear to stay in the Welsh seaside town where she lives with her partner Gareth. She escapes to London, breaking all ties with him and refusing to tell anyone her new address.
After two years of living alone and working in a mundane job, Laura buys an old campervan and joins a singles holiday. Here she meets Miriana, a teenage girl who bears a chilling resemblance to Ellie. As Laura uncovers Miriana's story, she's shocked by the parallels to her own life.
But stories can be dangerous, and someone out there will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about Ellie from coming out...
MORE ABOUT HELEN:
Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant. Her latest novel The Girl in the Van was published on 17 March 2022 by Darkstroke Books. Previous novels include suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, which won first prize in the Opening Pages Category at Winchester Writers' Festival. This was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, a domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press. Her third novel Façade was published by Darkstroke Books in 2020.
Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flas 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday Magazine.
She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren't any hills, sings in a choir, and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York, in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an ambassador for the charity Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery, and donates her author talk fees and a percentage of her royalties to the charity.
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Sincere thanks to Rachel's Random Resources for the opportunity to take part in this blog tour. Do check out the other stops!