Imagine that you’re travelling alone on a noisy train during a dark and stormy night. You’re reading a book; a book you’ve never heard of, written by an author you know nothing about. The book was a gift from your sister’s friend and the cover intrigued you enough to pick it up and give it a go.
There’s a woman in this book. She’s pressed up against the window during a dark and stormy night; her eyes wide, her face thin. She’s scratching at it, begging to be let into the house. Suddenly, she vanishes.
Terrified, you rip yourself away from the pages that have you by the shoulders, pulling you into their depths. You look out of the train window just as it slows. There’s a woman – her eyes wide, her face thin, her hair disheveled from the wind and rain. She’s trying to get in…
That’s exactly how I discovered Sarah Rayne. On a stormy night while travelling home from Central London, confronted by some poor woman that must have thought me absolutely mental when I jumped and squeaked as she came into view (in case anyone wanted to know, she actually gave me a funny look and decided to get a seat very far away from me).
In September 2014, I mustered up the courage to e-mail the creator of such engrossing storylines, mystifying settings and intriguing characters. I all but begged her to let me adapt the book for screen and, to my surprise, her and her team gave me their blessing.
Since then, we’ve exchanged countless e-mails and she’s become not only an inspiration to me but one of my most trusted advisors! So it’s such a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview her for Caffeine Addled Ramblings and introduce her to all of you wonderful readers.
So, without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Sarah Rayne:
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If my math is right, you were 35 years old when your first novel was published but you were writing since you were a teenager so my first question is what was it like to finally have your work out there for the world to see?
Slightly surreal. When you’ve hoped for something and imagined it and daydreamed about it for a long time, when it finally happens you’re not sure if it’s real.
Did you have any odd part time jobs while you were writing or did you dedicate your life to the written word from the onset?
For a great many years I juggled writing with full-time – and often full pelt – jobs. I led a double life for years. While most people were heading for the TV or a wine bar after a day’s work, I would go home to pound an elderly typewriter. I used to listen to Mozart into the small hours while writing, then arrive at the office next morning pink-eyed from lack of sleep.
It wasn’t until the company I was working for decided to make far-reaching redundancies that I finally found the courage to take the leap into becoming a full-time writer.
You and I have been talking about getting an agent a lot recently and you mentioned that it took you a long time before you found one that was prepared to take you on. How did you deal with the rejection and those disheartening feelings that come along with that?
I just kept writing. If I received a rejection – and I received several – I was able to believe that the book I was currently workingon was going to be better, and probably the one to hit the mark. I suspect there aren’t many published authors who haven’t been through that rejection process – it’s just a question of keeping your head down, keeping faith, and trusting that you’ll one day get there. And when you do get there, it makes it so much sweeter.
Last year we were talking about writing schedules and how you work a conventional ‘9-to-5’ day but ignore the existence of weekends. Have you always had the same schedule or is this something you’ve fallen into over time?
During the double life (office/writing in parallel) I had to snatch what time I could to write – evenings and weekends mostly. But for a long time now I’ve had more or less the same pattern – starting work around 8.30 – 9.00 am, with a straight run through to lunch, which can be anything from mid-day if things aren’t going well or 3 pm if they are. Then a couple of hours’ break in the afternoon, and a further stint from 4.30 to 6.30 or 7.00.
And what do you do actually take a day off? Not that writers really have days off – you can’t really shut off the imagination, can you?
I don’t think writers ever really take a day off. Even if you look as if you’re lying on a sofa eating chocolate fudge cake, you’re probably working out a plot. In my office years during meetings I often made furtive notes for plot developments on the back of budget reports.
But if I do manage to shut the current book off, I like music, theatre, and sitting round a dinner table with friends.
When I started adapting The Silence, I asked you for any background information you could give me about the origins of the story and you told me about Great Aunt Emily and Beverley which really stayed with me. What’s the one story that really stayed with you, long after it was used in one of your books?
The Silence came from the never-explained naming of a house that belonged to a couple of much-loved, spinster great-aunts. I never knew why their house was called ‘Beverley’ or who ‘Beverley’ was. But it gave me the idea for houses with names that might have a deeper meaning, and when I was trying to find something for the haunted house in The Silence I found the Dutch word stilte, which means silence. Hence Stilter House.
I think the most memorable inspiration is from A Dark Dividing. The genesis was a TV documentary about conjoined twins. Among the case histories was one about two delightful teenage boys who had been successfully separated several years earlier. But after the operation, they both had virtually identical nightmares in which the original ‘Siamese’ twins – Chang and Eng Bunker – stood at the foot of their beds and threatened to have them re-joined. These dream-figures kept saying, ‘We could never be separated, so why should you?’ By which time I was scrabbling frantically for pen and paper to write it all down, because the idea of two sets of conjoined twins – but a century apart – had dropped into my mind.
I didn’t actually know this until I Googled you, but you’re the daughter of an Irish comedy actor and was involved in amateur theatre of years! How did that experience affect your writing?
My father’s life in the theatre and his outlook certainly had a very great influence. But he dissuaded me – very subtly – from taking up acting professionally. I think he was too aware of the hardships and uncertainties. He did encourage me to become involved in amateur theatre, though, which I loved.
Theatres and actors do find their way into my books – I’ve counted up, and five of my books have the theatre or films and music as settings and backgrounds: Ghost Song, (music halls), Roots of Evil (silent films), Changeling (theatre), The Devil’s Piper (music), Death Notes, (music), and even The Bell Tower (haunted house series) has an amateur festival performance woven in.
You've been approached about reissuing the Wolfking quartet in digital format. That must have been an absolutely mind-blowing experience – how did that come about?
The Wolfking books were written more than 20 years ago – at the time an editor asked my agent if I had ever thought of trying fantasy. I hadn’t, but when I tried it, I found the books tremendous fun to write. By Book 4, though, fantasy was suffering a bit of a decline, so I switched to contemporary horror and then to psychological thrillers. The fantasies gradually went out of print – I didn’t exactly forget about them, but they became books on a shelf that I’d written years earlier. Then at the end of 2015 a fantasy publishing house approached me to ask if the rights might be available for digital re-issue. It’s been marvellous to see them back in circulation.
You’re introducing this series to an audience that now has shows such as Outlander and even Game of Thrones which has this ‘time curtain’ idea – it’s a very talked about subject now, a lot more than it was back when I was a kid in the 90s! How do you think this will affect the way Wolfking is perceived?
I have to confess I haven’t watched Outlander or Game of Thrones. I just about aspired to Dr Who in the David Tennant years, but other than Lord of the Rings (I read the books in the 1970s, and later loved the films), that’s the extent of my acquaintance with fantasy. But it would be nice to think that Game of Thrones etc has brought about a revival of fantasy, and that the Wolfking quartet will reach new readers.
I have to ask you about the Phineas Fox series! Death Notes, the first of the series, is being released very soon! Can you tell us a bit about that?
I’m loving writing this new series. Phineas Fox was real for me, from Page One – in fact from the first exploratory synopsis. In Death Notes, he finds evidence that suggests a scandalous and charismatic 19th century violinist might be innocent of a crime for which he was hanged – the crime was complicity in the murder of the tsar, Alexander II in 1882. The assassination was real, of course, but the 19th violinist is fictional.
Phineas is a music researcher, Nell West from the Haunted House books is an antiques dealer – how do you come up the jobs that your characters have? What inspires them?
It’s usually a question of what’s needed for the plot. Nell’s profession came because I thought that for haunted houses it would be useful to have someone in the world of antiques. I could see her going to old houses to buy or value furniture or paintings, and her work sparking potential storylines. Teaming her up with Michael Flint, the diffident Oxford academic, seemed to work on several levels.
In creating the new series, I wanted at the heart someone fairly knowledgeable about music, as an ongoing character. A musician or a composer could have got too technical and might have been restrictive, but a researcher seemed to provide much wider scope.
Music is one of the things that features heavily in your work. I’m thinking about The Bell Tower and The Silence here… How do you choose the music that goes with your books?
Again, it’s a question of what will fit the plot and the people.
For The Silence piano music was needed, so Chopin was an easy choice, and I used his Nocturne.
In The Bell Tower, the death lament that I called Thaisa’s Song, was inspired by the 13th century death song, The Unquiet Grave. I find it remarkable and quite moving to know that this song can still be heard today, more than 600 years after it was written. It’s been recorded by a number of contemporary musicians and singers, although sadly the original composer’s name has been lost.
With Death Notes, I had a lot of fun letting the fictional 19th violinist play flamboyant music, to suit his extravagant nature. For his final public appearance in 1882, I caused him to perform Paganini’s outrageous Duetto Amoroso, which depicts very explicit sounds of love-making. Apparently, delicately nurtured ladies of the day, sometimes swooned with shock at hearing it.
Writing evolves with time, all writers, I think, have that moment where they turn back to one of their first pieces of ‘professional’ work and they’re wishing they could rewrite it. Do you feel like that with any of your books?
Yes, with all of them. If I have to proof-read a backlist title, perhaps for a foreign or digital edition, I always end up thinking, ‘That part could be better’, or ‘I wish I hadn’t included that scene.
You’ve been publishing books for some 30 years, Sarah. Looking back all on it now, how would you describe this journey you’ve been on? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I’ve travelled along some extraordinary highways and byways. Maybe I could wish I’d started writing seriously earlier than I did, but it doesn’t really matter, because I did start, and I’ve still got so much more to write.
And what kind of advice would you have given to that teenage you that was dreaming about being where you are now?
Keep your eyes on the final goal – and the goal, of course, is publication. If you’re given advice by editors or agents – even if they’re rejecting your work – take the advice on board, because they know what they’re talking about.
Some quick fire questions, before I let you go, Sarah.
- Why did you want to become a writer?
It seemed a natural transition from reading.
- I hate the ‘what’s your favourite book’ question so, instead, if there was one book you wish you could have written, what would it be and why?
Broome Stages by Clemence Dane. In a very general way it’s a family saga, but it’s like no family saga I’ve ever read, before or since. It spans 1715 to 1930, and covers seven generations of a theatrical family. The story begins with travelling players in tavern courtyards, and traces the family’s rise – through the mannered Regency era, and then the years of the fruity Victorian actor managers who cheerfully and unrepentantly re-wrote Shakespeare, tailoring him to their particular talents. The book ends in the 20th century, with the onset of the early movies. It’s about the changing world of the theatre, but it’s also about the Broomes themselves – their loves and hates, feuds and plots, their fortunes in the theatre world, and the evolving of a theatrical dynasty.
The writing is exquisite, and the characters and their world are so vivid the past dissolves when you read.
I probably read this book on average about once every five years. The copy, which wasn’t new to begin with, is in severe danger of falling apart. Recently I scoured secondhand book sellers for a replacement, and was told about a copy that had been part of the late Sir John Mills’ estate. Apparently it was inscribed – although I don’t know who it was inscribed to or from. But I’ve always regretted not buying it.
- If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Can I have two answers for this? Dorothy L Sayers and Oscar Wilde. Imagine the conversation you’d have round a dinner table with those two.
- What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
Try not to put off anything.
- How do you beat writer’s block?
Clean the flat. Then you have a good excuse for not bothering with housework at other times – guests simply come in, see the muddle and say, ‘Oh, I see the current book’s going well.’
- What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when you first started out?
Keep writing. Learn as you go.
- If you could sum up the past 35 years into one word, what would it be?
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Do you have a question for Sarah? Leave it in the comments section below!
Death Notes will be released in hardback on September 30th 2016 and you can preorder it here.
While you wait, grab your copy of Wolfking for here. It’s free for Kindle Unlimited users!