I love a theatrical mystery, so Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song, set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside, has been on my TBR pile for a while. I’ve just finished it and loved all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the can’t-stop-reading suspense. Sarah has kindly agreed to be my guest today. I began by asking her, How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
These days I’m lucky enough to be able to write full-time, which means starting around 8.30 am and finishing at a reasonably civilized hour. But there was a time when I lived a double life, pursuing a fairly hectic nine to five job, writing when and where I could: in the car, on the hoof, during meetings if no one was looking – I used to make furtive plot notes on the back of quarterly sales reports. In the evenings I wrote into the small hours to meet deadlines, so I generally arrived at the office each morning pink-eyed from lack of sleep.
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
It’s usually an idea, and ideas are everywhere. They’re in bits of TV news items or overheard conversations in the supermarket.
But for The Whispering, published in paperback this month, a very particular event sparked the plot…
Some years ago, my brother searched the newly-released Debt of Honour Registry for mention of our father who had died in 1963, but fought in WW1 – he was fifteen when war was declared and he lied about his age to join up.
Disconcertingly, we found that someone with father’s name, age, regiment, and place of birth, was listed as having been killed in action in 1917. His name was even inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
We knew very little about father’s early life – he hadn’t met mother until 1940 and by then he had lost touch with his family, so there was no one we could ask. So who was it who had died in 1917? Who had my father really been?
For me, that was the start of a fascination with the Great War – its causes, its atmosphere, and the many tragic and heroic stories about the individuals caught up in it. Over the years I wrote two books touching on its causes and build-up – Ghost Song and What Lies Beneath. But for The Whispering I was interested in the letter that soldiers wrote for their families, in the event of their death. A last farewell, a final message of – what? Love, regret, courage?
With that question, a plot began to take shape, centring on a young man from a remote house in the fens, writing that letter to the people still living there… But a young man who believed he was going to die in an unexpected way, and who wanted to preserve the heroic legend his family had created.
Often in your novels the present is intertwined with the past. Tell us a bit more about your interest in history.
I think it’s that I like the feeling of the past affecting the present.
Many of my plot inspirations come from buildings. There’s a marvellous theme running through Benjamin Britten’s opera, Owen Wingrave, which is based on the Henry James’ story. It’s – ‘Listen to the house.’
And I do just that. I don’t mean cavorting round the Tower of London thinking you’re seeing Ann Boleyn. I mean ordinary buildings where people have lived and worked. There’s so much to hear from them – their atmospheres, their histories. Homely details like how Winston Churchill stipulated there must always be a ginger cat called Jock in residence at Chartwell. And so there is.
The supernatural figures frequently in your novels, notably in your Michael Flint/Nell West series. Have you had any supernatural experiences yourself?
The nearest I can get is an incident that occurred while writing House of the Lost. I was describing a character’s appearance – it always matters to let readers know what people look like, of course, but this was a special case because he was being eyed with semi-suppressed ardour by a lady who shouldn’t have been eyeing him at all.
I described him as being in his early thirties, with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt. I finished the scene, then went off to collect some shopping. In the supermarket checkout was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie…
I’m glad to say he had bought pasta, wine, cheese and fruit. If he had been buying chicken nuggets and frozen faggots I would have had to re-write the whole of Chapter Six.
By the time I reached the car park he had vanished. I do know the sensible explanation was that I’d seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it. But I would much rather believe that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
My tastes are quite catholic – but I enjoy anything that’s well written. I do love the classic ghost stories from the early 1900s – M.R. James and his brethren. I’m also a huge Dorothy L Sayers admirer. And one of my desert-island books is Broome Stages, written in the 1930s by Clemence Dane. A massive doorstop of a saga about a theatrical family over three centuries.
What are you writing now?
I’m halfway through the sixth in the Michael Flint/Nell West series – which is probably going to be called The Bell Tower. This series has been so good to write – I’d only done stand-alones before, and I’ve loved staying with the same two central characters all through.
Thank you, Sarah. Sarah’s new novel Deadlight Hall is out at the end of December and The Whispering has just been published in paperback. Find out more about Sarah and her books at www.sarahrayne.co.uk