Q&A: Helen Slavin’s The Stopping Place

Bestselling author of Mr Make Believe and Keeping My Sisters’ Secrets, Beezy Marsh, sits down with Helen Slavin to discuss the release of Slavin’s slow burning thriller, The Stopping Place, published by Ipso Books earlier this month.

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What is your writing process like? Do you plot out beginning, middle, and end or does it develop more organically?

It’s organic. Something opens up in my head, the characters arrive in a particular scene and I start to ask questions and scribble things down about who they are, what they are doing. The kernels of ideas come from all different sources; a dream sometimes, or visiting a place and feeling a connection to it, overhearing a conversation, or just hearing a name, there’s sometimes a ping about a name. I don’t plot out the whole thing in order, the pieces arrive and I think ‘oh yes,that’s for the middle’ and then sometimes there’s an ending first and I work towards that. I wrote a book called ‘From a Distance’ where I had the ending all planned out and was working towards it and suddenly the character of Clem, the hero, just did his own thing and I followed him. He didn’t behave the way I had planned. That’s the best process of all.

How did you get started writing novels? You have a background in scriptwriting, was the transition from script to book a difficult one?

I’d had a particularly stupid and horrible time on a tv show and they just fired me, the way they usually do in tv which is, they don’t bother to tell you you’ve been fired. Genius. All I got was an email from a burnt out script editor with the words ‘I am going home. My brain is melting’ and that was that. She’d clearly had enough and so had I. I was unemployed again. I’d always wanted to write books and one evening whilst sorting the kids out for school the next day I had a vision of this really angry woman banging on a door in what appeared to be a bland white waiting room and then there were wings flapping, vast angel wings. That was Annie and I started to write The Extra Large Medium the next day. It was very freeing. The transition wasn’t difficult at all in terms of process. I prefer writing books because you can put all the thoughts and feelings in and create a proper landscape and the true characters from inside your head. In scripts it’s the bare bones of stuff, a different process altogether and not as satisfying. Also you write for ages and then they bring in a different actor and everything has to change around that. Mad. There aren’t the same constraints in books, you can do anything.

This is such a unique book, it doesn’t seem to conform to a single genre. Did you set out to write a particular kind of book?

I don’t tend to think about genre. I just have the story and the characters and they are who they are which is difficult in a genre led world. The Stopping Place arrived on my way back from the school run. I had a nodding acquaintance with a woman I saw in the park each day, going in the opposite direction. This particular day it was raining and one of  her shopping bags had burst and she was in tears, having a stressful morning. I helped her with the shopping and said I’d walk home with her. She invited me in for coffee. We introduced ourselves and she gave her name, it was unusual, a name I’d always liked and I said as much and she said, quite matter of fact ‘Well when I had to change my name I thought I might as well change it to something I liked’. My brain did a comedy rewind on this, I thought ‘What did she just say?’ so, because I’m essentially nosey I said ‘You had to change your name?” and she handed me the coffee and said ‘Yes. There is a man and if he finds me he will do me harm.’ My writer brain just switched to Def Con 1 and she told me some of her story. This tallied in with a documentary I’d heard on Radio 4 about domestic abuse in the Church of England which had also stopped me in my tracks and as I walked home I thought about the idea of almost being destroyed, about changing yourself, leaving yourself behind in order to escape and how difficult that would be, what would that make you feel like? As I opened my own front door Ruby just stepped out from behind a library stack in my head. I saw the library like a maze almost and Ruby a mouse in it, hiding, but also knowing her way around.  Her fortress of solitude!

Like you, I write in multiple genres, so I’m always interested in what leads you to write different books at different times. Do you know what kind of book it’s going to be and whether or not there will be magic or ghosts or menacing men at the beginning or does that become clear as you go?

It depends on who  shows up in my head.  For instance I’ve been writing The Witch Ways, about three novice witch sisters and out of the blue I had a character arrive, all bashed up and checking into a caravan park in South Wales. He’s hiding out. That book is not supernatural at all. He’s a criminal and the book is going to be about the history that brought him, stitched and broken, to the caravan park. It’s about revenge and vengeance and there’s a touch of black comedy too, because of other characters who have landed and joined him. I just rely on the characters I suppose, whoever turns up in my head. There are a lot of people roaming around in there.

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I love Ruby and think of her as a kind of avenging librarian. I’m dying to know… is she in some ways your alter ego after so many years working in libraries?

Caught out at last! A little bit of her is, the bit of me that has bitten my tongue or stretched out my customer service smile when actually I needed to punch the person I had to deal with and have them given a lifetime ban from the library. That’s the joy of writing, you can make the characters do the things that you can’t. Libraries are very quiet and people associate them with books and stories and loveliness I think, but the reality is very different. You’d be surprised how many times the police have to be called. Or possibly I’ve been working in the wrong libraries.

You have a wonderful way with dialogue. It flows beautifully, feels so natural and is full of really well-tuned humour. What’s your secret? Do you think it’s a skill developed in your time as a scriptwriter or is it more derived from everyday life?

Thank you. I think it’s an everyday thing. I’m basically horrendously nosey and so I listen to people, even when they are not speaking to me and I can’t resist the way they talk, the turns of phrase. I think that’ s the key, not trying to turn everything into iambic pentameter or soundbites, just listen to how people talk. The poetry and the song of it is already in there, it’s a kind of folk music of chat I suppose. Just listen and people watch, that’s the secret.

There’s a thread of male menace and violence in this book and as I reader I can really feel the fear and the rage coming through. I deal with similar issues in my book Keeping My Sisters Secrets and find it’s a difficult but very powerful thing to write. Are those passages difficult for you to write?

I spent more time crying over Ruby than I’d care to admit. There were hours where my hands were flying with words just desperate to get it all down and then I’d have to walk away for an hour and calm myself down, my hands would be shaking. I wanted to help her and that was how I reasoned it out, these things were happening but she was going to be alright, she was going to work it out. There were some points when I wasn’t sure how she was going to do that and that made me anxious for her. You might say ‘well why write it then?’ but that’s the thing, the characters just give you the story and it has to be written, like an obsession. I wanted to empower her and that was the engine of it all. The hardest parts of Ruby’s story just poured out, but in the way of getting them out like poison.

On the flipside there’s an amazing sense of female camaraderie in the book and it’s full of wonderful comedic moment that keep you going through the darkness. How do you weave the two together?

On the loom of doom! This is a hard question. The female camaraderie comes from my mum I think. She was a teacher and a very caring person and took a lot of people under her wing.  I’ve always written things with a bit of comedy in them, often quite dark. I can’t write something that is unrelenting. You just have to choose the moments. I like the phrase ‘gallows humour’, the idea that you can find the humour in a terrible situation. Humour is a good coping mechanism and like any writing, if its wrong it will sound a wrong note in your head.

And like all guilty writers I must know, what kind of writer are you? Are you disciplined? Do you have rituals? What’s your system for getting the book written?

Disciplined is probably a good word. Obsessed is also appropriate. I have to sit down and get on with it and I also have to get dressed, I can’t sit around in my pjs  at all. Some writers like whisky with their words, I prefer tea.  I have two or three notebooks on the go for each project, one for character stuff, one for plot stuff and one for random madness. I have Parker pens because those were the first pens I ever wrote with as a kid so they are a ritual. I also like very fat notebooks which are increasingly hard to find. My system for getting the book written is to write most of the first draft in longhand and then, as I type up I can rewrite and rethink. If I find a day is not going well then I re-read the previous days jottings and then I find that the editing and rewriting of that jump starts the process again. Also break it up with housework stuff, I’ve had a lot of moments of clarity picking out onions in Tesco. If you are struggling then get away from the accusing blankness of the page for a bit by going for a walk. My key thing is to keep going through a first draft, just get something down on paper, then you’ve got something concrete to work with, the fun can begin.

Marsh MrMakeBelievekeeping my sisters secrets

Have more questions about #writinglife for Helen and Beezy? Catch them on twitter @HelenSlavinBook and @BeezyMarsh or join the conversation @IpsoBooks.