This morning I'm delighted to be interviewing Irish author Helen Moorhouse whose latest novel Sing Me to Sleep has just been published.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Always. It was the one thing that always stood out for me. I was a constant scribbler as a child, making up little stories and dreaming of my book covers! I went on to study journalism in college but my career path veered off in different directions and I ended up working behind the scenes in radio for years, not thinking I’d ever actually be published. I wrote my first novel, The Dead Summer, while on maternity leave with my first daughter and was lucky enough to get a publishing deal and it’s all taken off from there. Subsequently, through fate and circumstance, I was forced to give up full time work a couple of years ago and this has led to my becoming a writer to earn a crust, as well as for pleasure! With all of my various experience, I now work as a speechwriter, newspaper commentator, radio and brochure copywriter and also VO artist from home part time.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book Sing Me to Sleep?
Sing Me To Sleep is quite a sad story about how life turns out because something terrible happened, and how maybe that was the way it was meant to be all along. Jenny Mycroft dies in a car crash in 1997, leaving her husband Ed and baby daughter Bee behind. But Jenny can’t leave, Her spirit lives on in their home, watching helplessly as their lives go on without her. The story spans thirty years – from Ed and Jenny’s first meeting at college, through Ed’s new love with Rowan, through Bee growing to adulthood. We also learn why it is that Jenny can’t leave her family and what drives her to stay on and watch over them. Can she ever find the peace to move on? Or does she really want to?
I love the idea of a ghost hanging around watching over those she loved. I often feel that my own mum is still with me, where did the inspiration come from to write about a ghost?
I love that idea too – I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts and the afterlife. On one hand, it seems so impossible but then on the other, something happens in your daily life and you really can’t help but think there’s a presence still there – by the way as I just typed that, my house alarm went off completely out of the blue! Sign or short wire?! Who knows!
My first two novels, The Dead Summer and The Dark Water were pure ghost stories, telling the tales from the point of view of living people being haunted by the dead and delving into the past to find out why. The stories of the hauntings in both cases were told parallel to the backstory of the people behind them and the reasons why they came back after death. With Sing Me To Sleep, I wanted to explore the story from the other side, however – why someone might feel unable to pass over completely, why they might not want to leave those they’ve loved behind and their helplessness at having to watch their own life unfold without them.
I originally started Sing Me To Sleep a couple of years ago but had shelved the story in favour of another. In the summer of 2012, however, I lost a friend to cancer – someone I very much admired – and it really affected me deeply. She left behind a young family too. Her death came after a period in my life which had been quite traumatic and I thought that the time felt right to revisit the story – I felt I had a lot of sadness that I needed to put somewhere, sadness that just comes from everyday life and loss – but also the feeling that despite it all, life goes on – and it can be good.
I guess there’s not much research you can do about ghosts, so did you do much research for this book?
Sing Me To Sleep was very much a personal story and came from my heart – as cheesy as that sounds! As it spans from 1989 to 2020 I did have to verify a few facts and dates! Jenny becomes obsessed with the death of Princess Diana, for example. And she designs clothes so I had to jog my memory on fashion from the mid nineties. I worked mostly from memory, however - and used emotion as a tool in the book too.
I also had to invent a few futuristic elements – but all within reason and based on fact!
My previous books had required research – they featured ghosthunters so I needed to be accurate about what it was they got up to! Having had a lifelong fascination with the subject,however, I knew a lot of that already having absorbed information over the years through general reading and interest.
Are you currently working on book number 4? If so, are you able to give us a clue as to what it’s about?
I am! Well, I’m supposed to be but there’s a lot of staring at the wall and checking if my fingernails have grown in the past half hour! It gives ghosts a rest for a change, and instead tells the story of sheltered, withdrawn Emily Holden who is a Dublin waitress grieving for her recently deceased father. Her life is directionless and she feels overwhelmed by grief when her mother gives her yet another shock – Emily was adopted secretly and no one knows where she came from. The only link to her past is a distinctive earring which leads her to a famous Irish actress, Eve Kessler Burns. Emily becomes determined to discover her past and the story takes us to a Dorset stately home in the second world war and then back to West Cork in the present day as Emily, with the help of Eve, searches for the links to her mysterious past and the meaning behind vivid nightmares she has suffered since childhood.
How long did it take you to get your first book published?
I was extremely lucky – I got my publishing contract with Poolbeg on the first book I had completed. Having written it in 2008, with the sole intention of proving to myself I could finish it, I sent it off to a lot of publishers and agents and received, by return, the expected rejection letters. I hadn’t expected anything but, by the way. It was in early 2009 that I received the e-mail from Poolbeg looking for the entire finished product and then offering me my three-book deal so it was all very quick and very, very lucky! I’ve just signed my second three book contract with Poolbeg and am really looking forward to what the next three books will bring – the three I’ve published have completely changed my life.
Do you have a set daily writing routine?
In the mornings, I work to pay the bills! That’s when I do the articles, the speeches, the copywriting and the VO’s. My two girls are three and just five, however, so I then have the afternoons with them when they get home from school and Montessori. When a book is due, I then sit down after they’ve gone to bed and the house is quiet and I get cracking on the fiction. I take weekend nights off, however, and maybe try to work on a Sunday afternoon. It’s important to give yourself a break to keep the brain fresh, particularly when you write in a number of different areas like I do and have to keep switching from one thing to another. It’s also good to see my husband – who is often working on one thing or another at the kitchen table while I’m in my study pounding the keyboards! I also try to take a rest between books – I finished Sing Me To Sleep at the start of the summer and while that was going through the publication process, I took a few months to myself to catch up on reading, cinema and TV – all the stuff that inspires me. My brain was then refreshed when I got back to work in the autumn time.
If you could write another style of genre, what would it be and why?
I’d love to write in every genre! Fantasy epic stuff, historical, funny – I think I’d like to try everything – why not?!
Have you ever had writer’s block?
Oh every time I sit down and lay a hand on the keyboard!! It’s never lasted a significant period of time – unless you count the whole period between childhood and my mid thirties – but I often have a little blockage. I deal with it by firstly seeing if I can power through – by writing anything at all and hoping it pulls the stopper out and some good stuff will gush! Failing that, I am a believer in walking away, taking a break, giving the mind a rest and coming back to it later. It was advice my mother gave me when I got stuck with my maths homework in fourth class. It worked then, and it still works now!
When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
I always think it would be lovely to do that but I never quite manage it! I’d pop open a bottle of Prosecco perhaps, and give myself some time off from writing. I don’t think I’ve ever had that ‘ta daaaa!’ moment when I type ‘The End’, however - there’s always a niggling concern, re-write after re-write, that there’s something I’ve missed or that I could have done better or differently, or a gaping plot hole that has completely escaped my attention!
Writing a book is such a long and slow process that I find it quite difficult to disengage from it - even when it’s gone off to the typesetters! Letting it go is an equally slow process and by the time I’ve done that, it’s generally time to start on the next one!
Would you say that any of your characters are like you? If so, which one(s)?
I think every author puts a little bit of themselves in all of their characters. I seem to give my lead characters what I perceive as my flaws. They’ve all got a little bit of fear, anxiety, self-consciousness and naivety – but doesn’t everyone? In Sing Me To Sleep Jenny is a bit like me when I was younger – a bit mouth and no trousers! I gave Rowan some of the characteristics that I think I’ve gained as I’ve grown older – she’s more patient and tolerant - a little world-weary but wiser because of it. In my two ghost hunting stories, I’ve had a little fun with my favourite character, Gabriel, who is a medium. He’s quite cutting and sarcastic, with a quip ready for everything – that’s the fun side of me.
If you weren’t a writer, what career path would you have chosen to follow?
Writing is pretty much the only thing I’m at which I’m vaguely competent! Failing that, however, I think I would have adored acting, even from the earliest nativity plays. It wasn’t the applause that appealed to me either – it was the pretending to be someone else! I completed a number of courses with a prestigious Dublin theatre school, the Gaiety School of Acting, a few years ago and loved every second of it. In the long run, however, my life wasn’t in a place where it was practical career option at the time and I didn’t pursue it. I did find, however, the skills I learned at characterisation, movement, and dialogue come in handy every single time I sit down to write. The greasepaint life isn’t for me just now – but I’ve always been a late developer, so who’s to say it isn’t an option in the future!
Where would be your idyllic location for a writing retreat?
It would have to be a rugged, isolated, seaside outpost! Somewhere like West Cork, Kerry or the Cornish coastline, perhaps. But somewhere warm, with plenty of biscuits, no ghosts, coffee and Sky Plus.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
Exercise your writing muscle by writing regularly. It keeps the wheels oiled – however! Never underestimate the power of leaving the field fallow for a while – and learn to trust your subconscious. You might not be physically writing, but the deepest recesses of your brain are always at work. Just learn to listen out for the signals.
Being a writer appears to be such a solitary lifestyle, especially when you’re in the midst of writing, so do you consider the influence of social Media, Facebook and Twitter, a blessing or a hinderance?
It’s funny – I’m actually in the middle of writing a piece on this very topic for a magazine at the moment! I’ve always loved my own company – I’m not antisocial at all – but I grew up the youngest of six by a ten year gap so I got very used to amusing myself from a young age and have always been comfortable in my own company. I like the speechwriting element of my job because I try to meet all of my clients and it’s lovely having a bit of human interaction! I do miss the buzz of being in an office sometimes, however – and that’s how I see Twitter and Facebook – as a way of engaging in a bit of banter – shouting across the office, as it were! I don’t get distracted by it, however. I’m a frequent user but not obsessive!
If you could invite any three authors, alive or dead, to a dinner party who would you choose and why?
There are so many! And the guest list varies all the time! At the moment, I think it would have to be the late James Herbert – he was one of the first grown up horror authors that I read and I’ve such a fondness for his writing. The Secret of Crickley Hall was a big influence on my first novel, The Dead Summer.
Second on the list would be American writer David Sedaris – his anecdotes and observational style are so clever and witty that I think he’d be fascinating company.
And third, I think, would be Dawn French – I have really enjoyed Dawn’s novels – there’s a simplicity to her writing style that is so effective. Plus, look at the all the writing in her comedy work – The Comic Strip, French and Saunders – all classic, clever stuff. I’d also love to chat to her about her acting – she has made some interesting choices in the past years like Jam and Jerusalem, Psychoville and Roger and Val. And she seems lovely!
Do you prefer to read physical copies of books or e-books?
I don’t own an e-reader so I can’t really compare too much but every book-lover adores a page to turn and ink to sniff, artwork on a cover and somewhere to slot a bookmark! I’d line the walls of my house with books if I could!
Are there any books you’ve read that you wish you’d written?
All of them! There’s a trilogy of books by Paul Hoffman – The Left Hand of God, The Last Four Things and The Beating of His Wings that I think are just genius – he creates a brutal, fictional universe in which to play out a fascinating story with vivid, vivid characters, especially the violent, complex lead character, Cale. I’ve still got the last of the three to read and am almost putting it off because I don’t want the whole journey to be over! I’d love to write something unique but with a real appeal – I’m fascinated by characters – a story is a story but the people in it require a real skill.
What’s the last book you’ve read that has made you cry?
Off the top of my head, I think it was Wolf Hall – Spoiler alert, but When Cromwell’s daughters fell victim to the sweating sickness I was very upset. Mantel had made us love the two little characters, minor as they were, by portraying them in such a human way – she can make you feel for a character in half a sentence. And Cromwell’s humanity and grief at their loss was terribly poignant. I’m the mother of two girls as well so it struck a chord.
If you were going to be stuck on a desert island and could only take 3 books with you, which ones would you choose?
What a difficult question! I think number one would be John Irving’s A Son of The Circus – a difficult but very satisfying read that I’ve always loved. It’s the kind of book that you discover something new in every time you read it.
Number two, I think, Wuthering Heights – dark, spooky, romantic, windswept – it never fails to be a satisfying read
And I think then that I might need something to lighten the mood – maybe any Terry Pratchett Discworld – or could I have an anthology of all of them? Always genius and always re-readable!