Also this morning, as it’s Saturday, I have another fab Meet the Author interview for you – yay!! Today I’m talking to Helen Matthews, and we’re discussing how researching for her books opened her eyes (and now a percentage of profits from her royalties go to a related charity), her favourite word, what she gets up to in her spare time, who she’d like to thank on her road to becoming and author, and her exciting new news…….
What inspired you to start writing?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up – it just took me longer to grow up than most. From early childhood, throughout my teenage years and into adulthood I was always writing. A first degree in English was a setback because years of reading great literature was a little overwhelming. The urge to write didn’t go away. I wrote short fiction and sent it to women’s magazines but happy endings aren’t my thing and editors found my work too dark. When my children had gone to bed, I wrote late into the night with a glass of wine by my side, after long days in a busy corporate job in the energy industry. My job was taking a toll on my creativity so I started writing articles instead. I had some success with pieces published in family and lifestyle magazines. I even had articles accepted by The Guardian and two columns broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
Finally when my children were almost grown up, I left my job, with no safety net or redundancy package, and went to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes.
How many books have you written and published?
I currently have two suspense novels published by small indie publisher, Hashtag Press. The first ‘After Leaving the Village’ is a suspense thriller about a young woman who leaves her home in a village in Albania, with a man she believes is her boyfriend, to start a new life and career in London. Her life is about to change, but not in the way she expects. The novel delves into the dark world of human trafficking and what goes on behind closed doors on an ordinary London street while the life of neighbours, who have their own experiences of community and isolation, continues as normal. This book won first prize for the opening pages of a novel at Winchester Writers Festival.
My second novel ‘Lies Behind the Ruin’ is about a family whose life in England was falling apart. In an attempt to escape the fallout, they impulse-buy a wreck of a house to renovate in France. But they can’t out run their problems because how can you build a new life on toxic foundations?
Recently, I dabbled in self-publishing on Amazon Kindle and launched a collection of my short stories (most had been shortlisted or previously published) and travel writing called ‘Brief Encounters.’
How long does it take you to write a book?
In the past I’ve been too slow, taking around a year to write a book and another year (or more) to edit and polish it up. I usually do ten rounds of edits before it sees the light of day though I’m now in a couple of excellent critique groups and the other writers help me to sharpen my words as I go along.
I’ve made a serious attempt to speed up my productivity. My latest book, which is currently out on submission, took a year. But this year (partly thanks to lockdown) I’ve produced an ugly first draft in four months.
Which book, out of all the books you have written, is your favourite and why?
‘After Leaving the Village’ will always be my favourite. As this was my debut novel there was the thrill of celebrating the launch with signings, radio interviews and cake. I think many writers suffer from imposter syndrome but seeing my book in shops made me feel like a ‘proper author’. More important was what I learned about the hidden world of human trafficking while researching the book. I’ve since become an ambassador for the anti-slavery charity Unseen and, when I give author talks, I use my platform to raise awareness of this hideous crime. I’ve raised over £1,500 for the charity and donate a percentage from my royalties and my fees from talks.
Other than writing, what else do you enjoy doing?
I sing in a choir and I love cycling and walking. I don’t go in for mass challenges, such as the London to Brighton bike ride but I’ve cycled similar distances in France, where they have miles of flat cycle paths on reclaimed railway tracks. I’ve also cycled from Bath to Reading with my friends along the Kennet and Avon canal and then on to the village where we live (a distance of about 90 miles).
Do you feel it’s more important to have a) strong characters b) a mind-blowing plot or c) amazing settings?
I’d like to answer ‘all of the above’ but I know that’s not always feasible. When writing fiction in a particular genre there are certain reader expectations you have to meet so, if you are writing thrillers, or psychological suspense, for example, you have to make sure the plot is pacy and compelling because readers expect a gripping page turner. That doesn’t mean you neglect developing the characters because they need to be psychologically realistic and interesting enough to encourage the reader to go with them on their journey. But characters in the crime genre might not have quite as complex an inner life as characters in a more literary novel. Settings are vitally important to give a sense of place. Specific locations – a dark wood, a crumbling house, an underpass scrawled with graffiti, can bring atmosphere to the story to enhance pleasure, or create a sense of dread. My first novel opens in Albania and I hope I’ve managed to give a flavour of life in this fascinating country that not many people from the UK have visited. The trick is to sketch details in lightly and not to be heavy-handed with description. It’s probably best not to ramble on for pages about the quality of the sunlight on the ocean!
What is your favourite genre to read and why?
At a writing workshop I was introduced to this quotation:
‘If you have the arrogance to write, you should have the humility to read.’
Unfortunately, I can’t remember who said it and can’t find it in an internet search, but the thought is worth reflecting on.
I read as widely as time permits across many genres. I enjoy reading authors who grapple with contemporary issues and the world we live in, such as Jonathan Coe and John Lanchester. I also read literary fiction, by authors such as Hilary Mantel, but I wouldn’t want to read that all the time. Bernadine Evaristo, who was joint winner of the Man Booker prize last year with ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ was a guest lecturer on my MA Creative Writing course and it was great to see her achieve recognition. In my own genre, I read psychological suspense and thrillers to help me better understand the tropes and hone my skills.
I belong to two book clubs and through these I have read books I might never have discovered. Most recently we read ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker – a stunning retelling of the Iliad from the point of view of a captive Trojan princess who was given to Achilles as his ‘bed woman’ as part of the spoils of war.
What is the funniest typo you have ever written?
I once sent out a work email introducing myself as the new ‘tea leader’. Mind you a male colleague went one better when he was giving a presentation and put up a slide entitled ‘Equal Opportunitities’.
What is your favourite word and why?
I love the word ‘diaspora’ which means people who are scattered from their original country to other countries. I like the soft, mysterious sound of the word, which originates from a Greek word meaning ‘dispersion’. The images it creates for me are of communities moving to different countries over generations, bringing their stories with them. I’m Welsh but I’ve lived most of my adult life in England so I guess I’m part of a diaspora too.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank for helping you on the road to becoming an author?
I know it’s customary to thank your family but I really want to say a heartfelt thanks to my late, lovely parents for a childhood filled with books and for inspiring my love of reading. When I was a tiny child I remember my mum giving me book quizzes to distract me as she rinsed the shampoo out of my hair. My dad was a frustrated author and mixed with some of the great science fiction writers of the day, including Arthur C Clarke (who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey), in London after the Second World, but he put his ambition on hold until his retirement. Dad had several short stories broadcast on BBC radio but he didn’t leave himself enough time to develop as an author of full length works. Neither of my parents lived to see my first novel published (my mum missed out by just three months) but I’m sure they’d both have been proud.
And finally, tell us about your most recent book and where we can find it?
‘Lies Behind the Ruin’ published by Hashtag Press is suspense and domestic noir set in France.
Here’s the blurb.
How can you build a new life on toxic foundations?
Emma Willshire has overcome plenty of obstacles in her life, from student bride to single mum of a son, Owen, but she has found happiness with her second husband, Paul and has another child, Mollie. Emma’s dark days seem far behind her until a fatal accident happens at Paul’s work and he is held responsible.
On holiday in France, trying to leave his problems behind, Paul’s behaviour turns erratic. On impulse, he buys a cheap, dilapidated property and, to Emma’s dismay, persuades her they can restore it into a holiday home. As the couple strive to renovate their marriage, and their French ruin and to open a small business, shadows from the past threaten their happiness and safety.
Escape to a new life in France seemed like the only solution, but leads to heart-breaking loss for Emma. As new secrets and deception are unearthed, danger erupts and Emma must fight to protect Mollie and to save herself.
It can be ordered from all good bookshops and is available from Amazon.
I donate a percentage of royalties from my books to the charity Unseen UK.
new exciting update from helen
final words from chelle…
Thank you so much for this wonderful interview Helen! It gives us a fantastic insight into you and your journey to becoming an author. Firstly congratulations on signing with Darkstroke, this is fantastic news and I can’t wait to hear all about Facade. It’s very clear from your interview what a lovely and caring person you are; from take time out to say thank you to your parents to donating a percentage of your royalties to Unseen UK, this is such a wonderful thing to do. Lies Behind the Ruin sounds fantastic, I love a psychological thriller so will make sure I check this out!
If you have any questions or comments for Helen then either get in touch through the links above, or drop a comment below.
Have a wonderful day all, and I’ll be back tomorrow.