‘My hiding place is not a cave. It is a shrine.’
When the Dead Come Calling
By Helen Sedgwick
Published by Point Blank
After writing two stand-alone novels, what made you decide to embark on a crime series?
I have two completely different answers for this question, both of which are true!
The first one is that I didn’t really decide to do it at all, it just happened. I was visiting St Ninian’s cave (a wonderfully atmospheric place) and a ghostly crime story started growing up around me, with the setting and voice and characters all there, so I started writing. There’s an element of trusting my subconscious and writing the story that wants to be written, for me. And then as I wrote, it became clear that it was more than just one novel – the place and the people in it needed more time than they could have in one book and so it became a trilogy.
The second, more practical answer is that I started writing When The Dead Come Calling while I was pregnant and I needed to know how much money I was going to have coming in, and when. I remember sending the first draft to my agent and saying that I thought it wanted to be a trilogy but that, if I was going to keep writing with a young baby, I needed the financial security of a three book deal. Thankfully, and amazingly, she got me one.
In starting a series, what impact does that have on the writing process of the individual book? Do you have a sense of how the series will continue?
I’m approaching the three books together as a single complete story – so in a way it’s the same as writing one book, just bigger. I know the overall arc of the whole trilogy, I know how the circumstances will change, I know the key events, and I know the ending of the third book. But other than that, I tend to allow myself a lot of freedom, and the details of the plot and the development of the characters tends to happen quite organically for me. But the overall shape of it is a trilogy – the three books are needed to create the whole.
Since Book 1 is now published, Book 2 is at the second draft stage and I’ve not yet started writing Book 3, that does mean I occasionally have panic attacks about whether I’m actually going to be able to tie everything up!
You’re slaying quite the sacred cow in When the Dead Come Calling, that of the lone, damaged maverick detective. How did DI Strachan come to you, and how are you getting on with your new creation? You’ll be spending a lot of time with her!
I was at a great event at Wigtown Book Festival with three crime authors a few years ago, and I can remember them talking about how a detective needs to be damaged in some way to be engrossing – and, being me, I immediately wanted to try and write the exact opposite of that. I wanted to know, is it possible to write a novel in which your detective is a really decent, kind person who loves her husband and spends her spare time gardening?
The answer is that I’m not actually sure yet because truthfully, as the book goes on, Georgie gets her fair share of problems to deal with. She does have a history that increasingly haunts her. But she is a different sort of detective, I think, and I do often feel she’s out in the garden with me, tending to the vegetables.
Rural crime mysteries are becoming increasingly popular. Why did you decide to set your series in a small village?
I live in a small village – in fact, not even that, I live in a strip of houses with woodland behind and fields in front, a few miles from the nearest village. I think the setting and landscape rose up from where I am, and also from the atmosphere I wanted to create and the sense of isolation that I wanted the story to have. Setting it in a village on the northwest coast of England tied in with the politics that seeps into the story as well. I’m very interested in the urban / rural divide, what that can mean for people, the different social problems and also strong communities that can arise. Although I must stress that I love the area where I live – and the fictional village of Burrowhead became a haunted place unlike any other!
When the Dead Come Calling tackles the subject of ‘false memory syndrome’. Can you explain what that is and why you decided to feature it in your novel.
False memory syndrome is a condition in which people have or develop very strong memories that are incorrect. I’ve always been fascinated by memory and how nebulous it can be – the brain rewrites our memories continuously, emphasising aspects that we think about more than others, and potentially recreating older memories after other more recent experiences we have had. I started researching it years ago for a novel that I wrote some time before by debut came out, and although that novel itself was never published (and never will be) some of the ideas and research stayed with me and found their way into my crime series. When The Dead Come Calling is about the past and how the crimes of our past, even when long buried, can colour our present – those layers of buried history seemed to fit with the idea of layered memories as well, and so the themes naturally came together.
Which writers, crime or otherwise, have you turned to for inspiration for When the Dead Come Calling?
It’s a rather unusual crime series and I’m trying not to be influenced by any writers in particular… I’d say my influences have ranged from The Wicker Man to Kate Atkinson! The nightmarish feel of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was a big inspiration I think, and the ghostly haunting of Sarah Waters.
What are you looking forward to reading in 2020?
My to-be-read pile is overflowing from my double-stacked bookcases, so there’s rather a lot! In terms of new releases, I’m really looking forward to the new Carys Bray, When the Lights Go Out, and to Chris Whitaker’s We Begin At The End. BRIT(ish) by Afua Hirsch and Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan have been calling out to me for some time. I’m currently reading Claire Askew’s What You Pay For (Claire and I have an event together in Edinburgh on 29th January that I’m really looking forward to). And I also want to read / re-read everything by Naomi Mitchison and Ursula Le Guin!
When the Dead Come Calling by Helen Sedgwick is published by Point Blank, priced £14.99