Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: fiction

The Chicken Soup Murder – an interview with Maria Donovan

I came across Maria Donovan’s debut novel while hanging around on an amazing supportive, wound licking and all around fabulous Facebook Group where readers, writers and bloggers share their milestones, tell stories, seek reviews and exchange bookish information. Under a post about my newly released The Tides Between, Maria wrote: ‘Your book sounds fascinating.’

‘Thanks,’ I wrote back. ‘I’m terrible at asking this question but…would you like a reviewing copy?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Would you like one of my book?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course! Was there any other possible response? Though, for all I knew, her book was a seven-hundred page tome on the joys of knitting with dog’s hair.

Turns out, Maria’s book was a novel (phew) called The Chicken Soup Murder and, quite frankly, I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime. I settled down for a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. The Chicken Soup Murder is the most surprisingly, whimsical, laugh-aloud, yet deeply affecting, family, come cosy crime novel, I’ve read in ages. Here’s how it begins:

‘The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’

After the first chapter, I expected the narrative to switch to an adult viewpoint. It didn’t – though The Chicken Soup Murder is certainly not a children’s story. It paints a poignant picture of three households affected by a health tragedy and then by a second sudden unexpected death. Young Michael is convinced the latter is suspicious. But his Nan won’t listen because, running beneath the possibility of a murder next door is a family secret which she refuses talk about – a secret which can be traced back to that little country to the west of England of which I’m rather fond. Published by Seren Books The Chicken Soup Murder is a startlingly original debut – so startling I’ve asked Maria Donovan to answer a few questions for my blog.

You’ve written poetry and plays and loads of short stories and now this amazing novel, can you tell how/why you began to write?

I began scribbling young and by the time I was eight had decided I wanted no other career than to be a writer. Since I did not want to go into journalism I just had to get on with it by myself. Life did a bit too much getting in the way and I only made writing the focus of my energies when I was in my thirties. It feels like it’s the only thing I really ought to be doing, other than trying to act with kindness. I’m competent enough at some other things to have been waylaid by alternative careers including nursing, gardening, being a magician’s assistant, and teaching. Thing is that I feel scratchy and unhappy if I haven’t been writing. So now I just think it’s a must.

So in my thirties I faced up to my own ambition, rather worried that I would find out I wasn’t much good after all. Looking back that’s one of the things that was stopping me. Until I tested myself I could carry on with the dream that I’d do it ‘one day’.

I don’t have too much trouble having ideas and making a start. What I’ve had to learn to do is finish something and make it as good as possible and then move on to the next project. Getting my first computer made a huge difference to the way I was able to organise my writing and keep going until it reached a finished state. Before that I was just swamped by paper and ‘alternative versions’. My publishing history shows I was more comfortable at first with short stories and flash fiction. But now I’ve completed a novel (having had a few half-baked attempts), I find I’ve developed a taste for the longer form.

What was the catalyst for The Chicken Soup Murder?

The title comes directly from an incident in which my husband’s dodgy DIY nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. Like the character in my story, I laughed it off, but it set me thinking about a crime novel and I promised him I’d come up with something with that title one day. I had no idea what that would be and years passed. Things became much more complicated because my husband died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos in 2010. I abandoned the novel I was writing before and while he was ill – and had to find something new. The idea of writing a novel dedicated to Mike, which has his warmth and humour appealed to me. The novel also has its realistic and serious side: how different people cope or don’t cope with living in a state of grief.

Did you always intend it to be written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?

Yes. After Mike died, I wrote various short stories from the point of view of a grieving woman of about my age and I knew I needed to create some distance from my own perspective. An eleven year old boy seemed far enough!

If yes, why? If no, how did you arrive at Michael’s voice?

I needed to create a completely new perspective and to see everything I had experienced in terms of grieving as if it was all new. It really helped me to seal the story into that one channel of the boy’s experience – though he observes and reveals more than he understands and his own sense of what the adults around him are going through grows over the course of the novel. As for the voice, he just seemed to speak in my mind. I did transfer myself back to my eleven-year-old self: I still feel close to that inner child! I also listened – a lot – to girls and boys of that age and how they speak in the 21st century. Michael has been a good deal in the company of adults too – I make that clear – and has picked up all kinds of things from listening to his nan and her friend Irma, the cricket commentary and Nan’s beloved BBC Radio 4. I did have one go at writing the novel in the third person but Michael was quite insistent that I should restrict myself to his point of view without any means of knowing more than he could know. In the end I just couldn’t escape him: he was a voice in my mind and I just wrote it down.

Tell me about your Welsh connections? Your adventures with the language?

I went to University in South Wales and heard and saw Welsh there for the first time properly. I thought it fascinating and felt a lot more comfortable once I knew how to pronounce the words. Some of my good friends in Wales speak Welsh as their first language, and the University did offer Welsh courses, but I was so busy teaching (after graduating I did an MPhil in Writing and taught creative writing there for nine years) that my progress was patchy at best. When I moved back to Dorset I started to feel a sense of homesickness for Wales and its people and culture. In the last year I have practised nearly every day and at last begin to feel I am making some progress. I have now made friends here in West Dorset with other people who for various reasons regret missing out on knowing or speaking Welsh and are trying to put that right. Some are fluent and some are stumbling beginners but we’re helping each other.

And another curious thing happened. As I moved back to my native Dorset and learned more about the marks of ancient settlement in the landscape I thought about my ancestors who might have lived here a couple of thousand years ago and I longed to know how they might have spoken. I reasoned that this would originally have been a language common with the one that developed into Welsh. It would have been changed somewhat by the coming of the Romans and then obliterated by the Anglo-Saxons who demoted the value of the culture and language of the indigenous people until it all but disappeared except in Wales and to some extent in Cornwall. It’s an odd but satisfying feeling that I’m regaining something that has been lost – even though I know that the language would have changed a great deal over time. It is starting to feel natural and part of me. Which is very exciting! When I saw you were also learning, that felt like a great connection between us – as well as being novelists and writers.

What are you writing now?

While my debut novel was going through its pre-publication hoops I kept on writing short stories and flash fiction and was composting some ideas for a new novel, about a woman who goes missing. It’s partly set in the south of the Netherlands (I also speak Dutch and feel I can bear witness to the culture in a way that will seem satisfying) and partly in the UK.

When I met the famous writer Fay Weldon, who gave me such a lovely endorsement for The Chicken Soup Murder, she pointed out that if I were able to call it a psychological thriller this would help sales more than the label literary novel. Her wise words gave me a great way to approach the material I was working on for the new book: working title The Miller’s Wife. I thought, if I see it as a novel of psychological suspense from the start, I will know exactly what to call it when someone asks! It follows a search for someone who is perhaps missing, perhaps dead, perhaps murdered. There’s also an underlying theme of how people fall through the cracks and into homelessness. Once again, I hope to employ humour and pace – I need to maintain my own interest in order to be able to keep going to the end!

More about Maria Donovan and where to buy The Chicken Soup Murder can be found on Maria’s blog.

The Cabin Sessions – an interview with dark fiction writer Isobel Blackthorn

Set in a fictional Australian setting akin to that found in Melbourne’s Dandenong Mountains, this deeply atmospheric novel starts with an astrological omen of death. As Adam crosses the river guitar in hand a storm is brewing one that could see him trapped in The Cabin for hours. Struggling against a rising sense of panic he continues his journey to The Cabin Music Session unwilling to let his mentor Benny Muir down. But bad news awaits him and as the story unfolds it is not the worst his fateful Christmas Eve will hold.

Told from the third person viewpoints of Adam and Philip, the town’s plumber, the evening is mapped out in slow eerie detail that at once manages to evoke Burton’s fanatical cult history while also acting as a harbinger of the disaster to come. In between the two male viewpoints, is the delicate first-person voice of Eva, the breath holder, whose recollections shed an unsettling light on the characters in The Cabin.

The Cabin Sessions is a delicately balanced psychological novel, its horror not so much in the events of the evening (as shocking as they are) but in the sinister histories and disturbed mental states of its characters. I don’t normally ready such dark fiction but found myself gripped in horrified fascination by Blackthorn’s subtle storytelling and accomplished prose. This is a must read for all who like to be profoundly disturbed by their reading. Or for others, like me, who are simply keen to see the best of what this genre can hold.

What was the catalyst for this story?

There were several catalysts, but initially the idea was to set a novel in an open mic. Back in 2011 I was attending an open mic hosted by my then partner, Scottish troubadour Alex Legg. Every week we’d travel up the mountain to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. I’d help him set up and pack away at the end of what was usually a very long night. Alex was a superb songwriter and musician keen to support other artists in the area and they all came up to play. I watched, listened and absorbed the ins and outs of what made an open mic. The sorts of musicians who went. The setting seemed compelling and I had Alex to hand to provide me with all the technical details. A plot emerged and Alex helped me craft some characters. They are all exaggerated to the point of the grotesque and the humorous but together they represent the array of musicians who attend a regular open mic.

I was about four chapters in when Alex and I split up. I was devastated. I lost inspiration for the story. Two years later, in December 2014, Alex suddenly passed away. It came as a shock to everyone. I had moved interstate by then and had put the past behind me, but it came flooding back. He came flooding back. He was right there with me, in my living room. I couldn’t look at his photos and I couldn’t listen to his songs, especially the one he wrote for me. But a strange thing happened. I’d written a short story based on his life in Australia. It is called ‘All Because of You’, named after a title of one of Alex’s songs. The character in the story is Benny Muir, who is really Alex, and it is written in Scottish dialect. Sitting alone feeling Alex’s presence, it came to me in a flash what I needed to do with The Cabin Sessions to make it work. I made use of Benny Muir.

You call The Cabin Sessions dark fiction, rather than horror. What is the difference?

Some would say they are one and the same. With horror the keynote is dread. Horror often involves the supernatural or paranormal. Vampires and ghosts. Then there’s horror that revolts as much as horrifies, such as splatterpunk or slasher horror, which speak for themselves. There are other forms of terror and revulsion. Creature horror, for example, giant insects or alien predators. There’s no end to it and the human appetite for horror is boundless.

Dark fiction is more likely to veer in the direction of the disturbing. The themes are dark and often psychological. That is not to say that scenes of horror are not present. The dark fiction label serves to distinguish, in my mind at least, between stories that might be more akin to thrillers or literary fiction, and those that sit squarely in horror, such as the aforementioned slasher and splatterpunk styles.

What made The Cabin Sessions fit into horror was the emergence of a minor character, Eva Stone, who hijacked the narrative and, in a strange way, me as well. She isn’t at the open mic. She writes a diary and what she has to say about the town of Burton is chilling and adds psychological complexity. The novel sets out to disturb and revolt. In my mind was the issue of whose side do you take and who do you believe? The Cabin Sessions has Gothic elements, the cabin in the woods trope, the dark and stormy night, even the Blood Moon. In a sense the novel plays at the edges of horror.

What draws you to write dark fiction?

I have so far lived 55 years on this planet and right from birth I entered a situation that was horror and torture and there was no escaping it. I have experienced more than my share of domestic violence, and psychological and sexual abuse and have studied, so to speak, perpetrators at close range. I know what it feels like to be trapped. I know what it feels like to live with the illusion that things are okay when they are not, and what that ends up doing to your mind and your body. People can put on a smiling face and be toxic to the point of being lethal, even without raising a fist.

Dark fiction allows me to explore such themes in depth and with raw realism. I can be graphic if I want to. Dark fiction confronts the reader with themes they would rather not think about. I like to explore what lurks beneath the facade. I also like to stretch things to the absurd. Horror shades into comedy very easily; there is such a fine line between the two. It is the comedy aspect, the stretching to the absurd that appeals to me most.

I come out of the British dark comedy/horror bag. One of my favourite films is ‘Sightseers’ directed by Ben Wheatley, concerning a couple who go on a caravan holiday that turns out to be a murder spree. I like the ordinariness of the settings and the characters, the matter-of-fact way they go about what they do and justify it to themselves. The whole mad and horrific unfolding triggered by someone failing to pick up a piece of rubbish.

Why do you think people should read dark fiction?

I read a lot of novels these days as I write book reviews. There is fiction out there for every taste and every type of reader. There are straight ahead feel-good books. Stories that take the reader into realms of fantasy and science fictional realities. There are those that delve into history, serving to educate or enlighten. There are page turners, books that are light and race along to the finish line. Novels that pull on the emotions. Romance tugs at the heart, crime has us puzzling as armchair sleuths, thrillers have us on the edge of our seats. Horror readers love to be scared or shocked or confronted by the macabre. All the genres and the books in them serve a purpose.

Literary fiction sets out to stimulate deep questioning and to enlighten in a fashion that is far more complex and challenging. Quite a lot of literary fiction is dark. Toni Morrison’s Beloved springs to mind.

While the horror genre exists to entertain in its own unique fashion, dark fiction, if the hair split is permissible, has that literary element that invites reflection of the questioning mind. It challenges as much as instils dread or revulsion. By dwelling in the dark places, we come to understand motives otherwise obscured. We wrestle with morality. Better to expose than repress, in my view. It is denial that twists and distorts. Bring the darkness into the full light of day and something sensible can be done with it.

We can too easily exist in a false reality where everything is fresh milk and roses in full bloom. Dark fiction is the counter-balance to all that is sunny and warm. We all have darkness in us, we all have shadowy realms.

Milk sours. Roses wither and rot.

I’ve heard you say this is a mirror book to A Perfect Square. Can you tell me how? Why?

I wrote The Cabin Sessions and A Perfect Square at the same time, in the space of two years. I also chose to write both in a very old-school dense and strong style. I don’t always write like that. I was in a very lonely and difficult phase of my life, I’d returned to a place I should never have gone back to, and I was carrying a lot of hurt. I had to sell up and move again to put distance between myself and that phase of my life.  I think both stories emerged out of all that hurt I was feeling, but not in any direct way. More that I buried myself in both novels to shut out the world around me.  I call it my crab shell phase.

Yet buried deep in both novels are elements of my own history. A Perfect Square leans more towards the occult, and in some senses it is a lighter book, but it is a dark mystery, and that darkness unfolds slowly. I think of the two novels as my dark twins.

I am working on two horror/thriller novels. Another set of twins! They are both fast paced and great fun to write. One is almost finished, the other well on the way.  I shall say no more about them. Don’t want to spoil the surprise!

Buying links to Isobel Blackthorn’s books can be found on her website. 

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

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