The Paisley Piranhas have been interviewing YA authors in our monthly newsletter, Book Bites, for a while now. We’ve decided to give these interviews a wider audience by sharing them on the blog.
First up for our Tuesday interview slot is Helen Maslin, author of Darkmere (click for our review).
PP: Welcome to the Paisley Piranhas’ aquarium, Helen, make yourself at home. Don’t stick your fingers in the tank, we’re not sure how well trained the piranhas are. Can I get you a cup of tea? Would you like some chocolate? Silly question; you’re a writer – let me know what sort of chocolate you like and I’ll see what I can find.
HM: Hello, it’s lovely to be here. No tea for me thanks – I’d rather drink the water with the piranhas in. During a recent trip to Germany to promote my book, all the German interviewers thought it was hilarious that I was an English person who hated tea! So our tea-drinking reputation abroad has apparently rampaged right out of control. Coffee, on the other hand, practically does the writing for me. It also goes well with all that chocolate you’re offering.
PP: Okay, well, a big thank you for coming. We loved Darkmere and wanted to find out more about it and you.
First of all, what made you decide you wanted to be a writer?
HM: Reading of course! Isn’t that everyone’s answer? I spent my childhood escaping into books full of adventure and romance and mystery – the kind of books that gave me almost more feelings than I could contain. It seemed to me that anyone who could make other people feel so much must have the best job in the world. I still love the excitement that comes from pre-ordering a new Laini Taylor book or sitting down to watch a new season of Game of Thrones (yes, I’ve read the books!) or queuing to hear Neil Gaiman talk about his writing. Authors are rock stars as far as I’m concerned. So when the lift doors opened on my first visit to YALC and a certain Paisley Piranha strolled right past me, I went full fangirl and did the whole ‘OMG – I know who you are and I’ve read all your books!’ (I’m usually very shy – so I’m still blushing over that one!)
(Er, I think you made the Paisley Piranha in question blush too – thank you! :-D)
PP: Your book is a mixture of Gothic tale, time slip and romance – where did the inspiration for this come from? And was the castle based on a real one?
HM: When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Gothic ‘big house’ stories – I loved Daphne du Maurier, the Brontes and Jane Austen, so my idea of romance was pretty dark and spooky. More recently though, I’ve been reading about contemporary teens in books by Non Pratt, Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen – they’re fast and funny and hugely accessible, so the time slip was the result of me trying to cram everything I loved into one book. I should probably say here that my publisher hates me using the word ‘cram’ – he prefers ‘skilfully interwoven’. So – yes – the time slip was the result of me skilfully interweaving everything I loved into one book!
The castle was based on Watermouth Castle (in Devon) which has been converted into a theme park with talking mannequins, old-fashioned carousels, mazes and dancing fountains. We had some fantastic holidays there when my children were little. It’s a unique mix of weird and spooky and mad and charming – recommend!
PP: Do you often find inspiration in particular places that appeal to you? Or do you prefer to make them up?
HM: A question that lots of authors seem to get asked is: ‘Do you start with characters or plot?’ and I struggle to answer it because most of my stories start with a place. Maybe it’s because of all the ‘big house’ stories I mentioned earlier. I love castles, secret tunnels, dark woods and hidden houses. No matter how much I research a place like Watermouth Castle, it’s impossible to find out what the people who lived there were really like. Whether they were happy or sad. Who they fell in love with. How they lost all their money and let the castle fall into ruin. The only solution is to make up a story – and characters – of my own.
PP: There is a curse in the story – do you believe in curses? The supernatural?
HM: Nope – sorry – I’m perfectly happy to smash any number of mirrors, and I’ll even walk back and forwards under a ladder while I’m doing it! When I was younger, I would’ve loved to have seen a ghost or two, but I’ve pretty much given up hope now.
That said, I’m a lot less sceptical when it’s late at night and I’m on my own. There’s a chapter in my book when the narrator is left alone in the castle and I put off writing it until late at night, after I’d watched the scariest films I could find. So the narrator’s nervousness was quite real!
PP: The heroine was a really strong, independent female character, something we at Paisley Piranhas love – was it a conscious decision on your part to make her that way or did she develop as you wrote the story?
HM: I knew from the moment I started writing that the heroes of my story would be female – and that the girls would rescue the boys rather than the other way round. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to create strong role models; I just knew I preferred reading about girls being brave and independent. And I honestly couldn’t have written strong female characters if they hadn’t felt real – teenage girls so often have to be strong.
I also think it’s important for young people to recognise themselves in books, which means characters who have moments of weakness or fear – because God knows, I did – (still do!) – and that’s absolutely how it should be. No one can be a Katniss or a Hermione all the time.
PP: Which of your characters would you most like to be stuck in a lift with? (This can either be from Darkmere or feel free to introduce us to another character we haven’t met yet).
HM: I’m going to opt for the ghost, of course! My teenage self would be thrilled and my current self would learn to be less sceptical – right after she’d left a human-shaped hole in the door of the lift!
PP: If we suddenly descended into a totalitarian police state where the writing of fiction was banned, what would you do instead?
HM: I love painting and drawing – arting in general! The police wouldn’t be able stop me making up stories, I’d just have to tell them through pictures, that’s all. I run an afterschool art club at my youngest son’s school and we’ve done marbling, clay-modelling, liquid fantasy film, collages, steampunk silhouettes, pop art and op art – anything I can think of really. It’s loads of fun and usually messy – I can spend as long cleaning up as I spend teaching! And by ‘teaching’ I mean preventing the nine year olds from destroying the classroom.
PP: What one thing that you know now do you wish you’d known when you were sixteen?
HM: Ugh – I left this question until last because I wish I’d known everything! My brain has just overloaded with options and I don’t think I can narrow them down. One of the hardest things about being a teenager was knowing almost nothing, but having to pretend to be worldly and knowledgeable – cynical even. I was in constant fear of being found out. Maybe that’s why teenage girls are often such avid readers – they’re desperately looking for answers! Even now, I’m probably writing books for my sixteen year old self in an attempt to explain it all. But if you really want me to condense all that into only one piece of advice, I’m going with…’Calm down, it’ll be okay!’
PP: In three words, why do you love books?
HM: Escape. Excitement. Safety.
PP: What are you working on now – and what stage is it at?
HM: I’m working on the dreaded second book and I’m wrestling with a gigantic rewrite because WRITING IS HARD! Like Darkmere, it’s a time slip with romance and spookiness. The historical scenes are set in pre-revolutionary France, when the hairstyles were at their highest, the dresses were at their biggest and terrible bloodshed is in the air …
PP: And finally, the Paisley Piranhas like to share the love because we know how wonderful it is to find a new book or author to fall in love with. Can you recommend a (YA) book or a writer we might not have heard of that we really should try?
HM: I’m always surprised by how few people have read Chime by Franny Billingsley. It says on the cover that it’s ‘A fabulously wicked fairytale’ – and it’s one of my favourite books. It’s a dark YA fantasy about a teenage girl who is about to be hanged as a witch and who’s battling with her own patchy memories. It’s set in Swampsea where the elemental spirits are also battling against the innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Even as I’m writing this, I can see how weird it sounds! But if you don’t mind weirdness and you like books by Laini Taylor, Sally Gardner or Erin Morgenstern then I recommend Chime. The writing is funny and clever and quite blindingly beautiful.
We’ll check it out. Thank you so much for joining us, Helen!
No, thank you!
You can win a copy of Darkmere, signed by Helen Maslin her very self! Check out our Rafflecopter giveaway. Ends July 31st.
If you are a YA author and you’d like to feature in our Tuesday interviews, please get in touch – details are on the Contact Us tab at the top of the page.