The candles were lit, the bats were dangling, the cobwebs strewn across the walls…only the very brave had dared venture out for our spooky writers’ fright night on Thursday 12th October.
In keeping with our haunted, Halloween theme, we had selected five debut authors whose first books were written specifically to thrill your nerves and chill your bones. With our cosy room at Brixton's Effra Social packed out yet again, it was time to dive in.
The first author to the stage was Amanda Reynolds, author of the superb Close to Me. We had it pegged as a psychological thriller but, as Amanda told us with a wink, is actually ‘amnesiac domestic noir’.
Before she read, Amanda shared some of her publishing journey and dispelled one of the great myths about writing a book: that you must start immediately. “It’s not always the right time,” she said. Instead, “Enjoying life will enrich your writing.”
Amanda came to writing later in life herself and her book is all the richer for it: her opening passage sees protagonist Jo falling down the stairs and waking up sure of nothing but that her husband is a sinister presence. Our audience was hooked.
More advice was to come. “You are a writer; you don't need permission to write,” said Amanda, acknowledging that writing can also wrack up the guilt. Her solution? “Be a little bit selfish.”
And in terms of ramping up the excitement: “Add in a robot.”
What story can’t be improved by the addition of a robot?
Our next author was Xan Brooks, whose first novel The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times, takes its premise from an idea seeded by his grandmother. She had once admitted to seeing ‘funny men’ in the woods as a child, which Xan surmised to be soldiers who had returned from the war severely disfigured. Unsurprisingly, it was a concept he couldn’t get out of his head.
Xan also described how he became an author, having left journalism without another job to go to. Writing a book was a natural progression – and Xan is a natural writer.
The audience was bursting with questions for Xan, and zeroed in on his research process – “Don’t overdo it, you can end up with a research shopping list” – and some of the more sensitive elements of his story, such as abuse.
Again, Xan urged restraint, suggesting that anything too sensationalist neither rings true nor benefits the narrative.
Our third author for the night was Elodie Harper, author of the marvellously creepy The Binding Song. We are thrilled to announce that it has been shortlisted for the tenth annual East Anglian Book Awards – a worthy winner in our eyes!
The Binding Song is set in East Anglia where Elodie works as a journalist presenter and she talked about the importance of setting. “East Anglia is deeply creepy. I spend a lot of time driving around in the dark and the flat, bleak landscape just leant itself to the story.”
As a journalist, Elodie faced another hurdle: to overcome her instinct to present the facts. She carried out research in a prison (where The Binding Song is set), partially basing her narrative on what she saw and did but “it took me a long time to accept I could make things up.”
In the extract that Elodie read, her heroine psychologist Dr Janet Palmer meets convicted rapist Michael Donovan. Elodie has mastered dialogue and the chilling back and forth between the two characters sent shivers down our spine.
Her final tip was for authors that are keen to write magical realism. “I was told to tone it down!” she confessed.
After a short break at the bar, we were back with the brilliant Rebecca F John. Rebecca’s deubt, The Haunting of Henry Twist, has a backstory almost as good as the book itself: the idea came to her, fully formed, in a dream.
“I never believed I’d be anything but a writer at 10-years old,” Rebecca told us, eliciting nods of empathy from almost all the crowd.
It seemed like writing comes easier for Rebecca than the rest of us, but she assured us she faced just the same frustrations. Her solution was to take breaks by writing short stories, a ‘procrastination’ technique that led to her being shortlisted for The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.
Apart from in her dreams, where else does Rebecca get inspiration? “Everywhere and everything,” she told us. “Eavesdropping, looking…on the train up here, I made up backstories for everyone.”
Did we mention that Rebecca had travelled from Wales to join us? What a hero!
Before we let her leave, she had one more gem for anyone looking to write frightening fiction. “Death it up.”
Bringing us home was debut author Laura Purcell, the talent behind The Silent Companions. She explained that a ‘silent companion’ was the Victorian equivalent of a cardboard cut out, but made of wood and a thousand times scarier.
In Laura’s extract, a group of silent companions started to move. We were minutes away from hiding behind the sofa.
Laura started writing at 14 and, like a lot of writers, hers has been a long but totally worthwhile journey to publication. Her advice was to try new things, to keep going and be committed. She relayed the strange experience of mentally retreating to a cold, dark, decaying mansion in the height of summer…
As ever, we are so incredibly grateful to our five incredible authors, as well as our fantabulous audience – each month we are blown away by your enthusiasm and energy.
We can’t wait to do the whole thing again on Thursday November 9th; sadly no cobwebs this time but just as much incredible new writing and inspirational advice coming your way from:
Winnie M Li, Dark Chapter
Matthew Richardson, My Name is Nobody
David Barker, Blue Gold
Chloe Seager, Editing Emma
Fiona Cummins, Rattle
See you there!
Buy tickets for The Riff Raff on Thursday 9th November>>