03 May 2013

Interview with Bestselling UK Author, Sarah Rayne

I must admit, I was a little star-struck interviewing my next author.  She's an international success, I've read 6 of her novels, and couldn't believe my good fortune when UK based author Sarah Rayne readily agreed to an interview with Carpe Librum.  What a joy!

Interview Questions
Sarah, welcome, and thanks so much for joining us.  You've written and published an astonishing 20 novels, when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Writing always seemed a natural progression from reading.  Everyone in my family read – going along to the local library every week was part of the routine.  
Bestselling author, Sarah Rayne
At school, I was the one who loved it when we were set essays.  When I was 13 I wrote a play for the Lower Fourth to perform.  That was great fun and it was the era of angry young men, so I had visions of a glittering career alongside Harold Pinter and Peter Shaffer.   By the age of 16, however, I switched to poetry – the role models then were 18th Century aesthetes dying romantically in garrets.  (My apartment is on the upper floor of the building, which is the nearest I’ve got to a garret so far).

I've read six of your novels, and each of them features an old, menacing, often derelict or run down building with a creepy and colourful past.  Is it a love for architecture or a love of history that drives you to create these eerie buildings around which the central plot unfolds?
I think it’s about 75% history, and 25% architecture.  

In your essay Where I Like To Write, you wrote: "I love houses – all houses. I love their memories and their histories and their atmospheres and their quirks."  Do you believe every house has a story?
Yes, certainly.  There’s a marvellous theme running through Benjamin Britten’s opera, Owen Wingrave, which is based on the Henry James’ story.  And it’s – ‘Listen to the house.’ 
And I do just that.  I don’t mean yomping round the Tower of London and thinking you’re seeing Ann Boleyn floating towards you.  I mean ordinary buildings where people have lived and worked.  There’s so much to hear from them – their atmospheres, their histories, their useage, present and past.  (I love the word yomping, must use that!)

In What Lies Beneath, there was a haunting piece of music called The Deserted Village written by an Irish composer in the mid-to-late 1800s that played an important role for several characters in the story.  Was there any particular music that inspired this piece, does it exist, or is it purely fictional?  (I'd love to hear it!)
It’s actually a real piece, which I found by the purest good luck.  What Lies Beneath had an odd genesis.  I originally wanted to make the village a drowned village – quite near to where I live is a beautiful and mostly unspoilt village.  On the outskirts is a massive reservoir, and there’s an elusive but wonderfully eerie legend that says the reservoir’s creation drowned a number of buildings that are still down there.

Drowned buildings…   Even an entire drowned village.  For a long time the concept fascinated me. The trouble was that it had fascinated a number of other writers as well, and it had been used in plots several times.  There’s even a term for the genre – reservoir noir.  
But the idea stayed with me, and I delved a bit deeper into the tradition of lost villages.  The UK has a remarkable number of them – I’m sure most countries have.   Remote pockets that once were thriving communities, but that, for widely different reasons, now lie dead and silent.  In the main, they were lost to natural enemies  such as coastal erosion.  In Europe many were wiped out by disease – the Black Death in particular.   
Then I found a poem by Oliver Goldsmith called The Deserted Village, written in 1770.   One of the lines is –
Could any writer be given a better image?   That was when I came up with the idea of – not a drowned village, but a poisoned village.  An ordinary English village that had been the subject of an experiment during the Cold War.  But an experiment that went wrong, so that the place had to be sealed up for the next fifty years.  What secrets can you hide inside a place closed to everyone for half a century?  At that point, my lost village, with all its long-reaching secrets, suddenly became possible again.  And What Lies Beneath could be written. 

It was during the actual writing of the book that I found the reference to the music of The Deserted Village.  It seemed to echo the poem so beautifully, and to fit with that particular plot-strand, that I seized on it and incorporated it into the narrative.   But I wasn’t able to track down a recording, although like you, I would love to hear it.  So if anyone reading this happens to have a recording or a disc or even the sheet music, I would be hugely grateful to know. 

Do you listen to music yourself when you write or do you prefer silence?
I very often listen to music, usually Classic FM which is a terrific radio station we have in the UK.  I’m a massive fan of Mozart and also Bach – those two gentlemen have helped me through many a difficult patch of writing – in fact through many a difficult patch of life as well.  I also have a particular piece of music by Berlioz – an overture called Rakoczy March, which has never yet failed to kick-start a sluggish writing mood.  I do think music can conjure up so many marvellous images.

Do you plan your novels in advance or does it unfold as you go?
I usually start with an idea, which I scribble down on any odd bits of paper or backs of envelopes or whatever’s to hand at the time.  Then I start to build a story around that.  The ideas can come from anywhere.  

One instance is when, some years ago, I saw a TV documentary about conjoined twins.  Among the case histories presented was one about two teenage boys who had been successfully separated a few years earlier.  But after the surgery they both had identical near-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.
‘We could never be separated,’ said these dream figures.  ‘So why should you?’
The idea of a plot based on two sets of conjoined twins – but a hundred years apart – dropped straight into my mind, and on the premise of that I wrote A Dark Dividing. (Another fabulous book!)

Can you tell us about the research required for your novels?  What is some of the more unusual resource material you've consulted or research you've undertaken?
Research is often a bit fragmented, and I usually do it as I go along.  It’s generally a question of scouring books and storming appropriate libraries and, of course, using the internet – although I’m careful to remember that not everything on the internet can be entirely trusted. 

Field research can be huge fun.  For What Lies Beneath, (by that time firmly based on a poisoned village rather than a drowned one), I needed to know if a church organ could make any kind of sound after it had been abandoned for fifty years.  I managed to track down someone who held the daunting title of Music Director of something-or-other for several counties, and he arranged a meeting at a fourteenth-century church with a firm of organ tuners and restorers.  

It turned into quite a party.  The organ-builders had come in a force of three (grandfather, father and son), the Music Director came along to unlock the church, my partner elected to act as chauffeur on the grounds that I would never find the church by myself, and my brother joined in with the idea of photographing the proceedings.  When we got there, a couple of grave-diggers were leaning on their spades, exchanging epigrammatical wit like the last act of Hamlet.
Sarah Rayne blowing through an
organ pipe in 14th Century Weston Church
I explained the problem in more detail.  The book I was working on had as part of its story a desolate and eerie old church.  So I needed to know if the organ, abandoned for half a century and most likely half-rotting, would be still capable of creating music.  This was greeted with silence, so I said, ‘I don’t mean a Bach fugue needs to be bashed out, just a few chords.  Or,’ I said hopefully, as the silence lengthened, ‘a single note.  Any note would do.’

By this time I was ready to abandon the plot of What Lies Beneath, write a totally different book in the hope that my editor would have forgotten the original synopsis, and beat it out of the Saxon arch door. 

But incredibly, stops were pulled out (literally and metaphorically), and the trio of organ-makers nodded solemnly, and said, yes, it could be done.  A wooden organ-frame would rot, but metal wind pipes were indestructible.  You might drop a set of metal organ pipes in the Atlantic ocean if you were so minded, and leave them there for a hundred years.  They would still be capable of producing sound.  The trio proceeded to dismantle part of the organ there and then – cheerfully calling down to one another as they did so to mind your toe, silly clot, the E-flat’s coming down. 

They spread the metal wind pipes before my feet, and said I could have whatever sound I wanted.  Thin reedy sounds from the small pipes, booming sonerous ones from the large ones.  It was just a question of blowing into each pipe – 2 or 3 together if it could be managed.  It was pretty much the same principle as a flute or a recorder.

They demonstrated.  The smallest pipe gave a happy tootle and at the other end of the scale was a massive giant’s-drainpipe structure, which took all 3 men to lift it.  That sounded like the QE2 coming in to dock.  The grave-diggers came in at this point and helped by trying to play Three Blind Mice.  Try it for yourself,’ said the senior organ tuner, so I did.  I tried them all, in turn, from falsetto to bass. It was more fun than I had anticipated and my brother took a series of photographs, insisting that they might come in handy for publicity on publication or handing round at Christmas parties that needed livening up.

But the sounds were exactly what I wanted.  The musically-knowledgeable hero in the book could very easily prowl through the shadowy desolation of the old church, and try to re-create a fragment of its plainchant history with several of the dispersed pipes. The villain, up to no good in the grounds outside, could be very satisfactorily spooked by the sounds. (Wow! I bet no other author has blown into an organ pipe in a 14th Century Church in the name of research).

Sometimes, though, field research isn’t quite so easy as driving a few miles.  Several years ago I wrote a book – contemporary horror – based on the 17th Century Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  She used to bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and beauty.  (I should say at this point to readers, don’t try this at home.)

Blood Ritual by
Sarah Rayne
The Countess lived in the Carpathian Mountains, but she also had a town house in Vienna.  At the time I couldn’t afford to travel to either place, but a few years later I did go to Vienna, and I found her house in a place called the Blutgasse – Blood Alley.  I was very glad to discover that the Blutgasse was fully as creepy and ancient as I had described.  One of those really eerie pockets in Old Vienna.  

What I didn’t expect was that a neighbour of Elizabeth Bathory’s was Mozart – about a 150 years later he had lived a few houses along from her.  They could have waved to one another, or discussed the weather when putting out the milk bottles – if it wasn’t for the century and a half that separated them.  They certainly weren’t 2 people I would have associated with each other on any level at all. 

I do wonder if I would have written parts of that book slightly differently if I’d been able to travel to Vienna at the time.  (That book isn’t in print now, but it is available in digital form, and the title is Blood Ritual).

Atmosphere is such a big part of your writing, do you ever like to write outside or in public?  (Sometimes I imagine you with a notebook in an old church for What Lies Beneath, or in a run down boat house in House of the Lost).
I have tried the ruined church/deserted manor house setting, but it always seems beset with difficulties.  Either a party of tourists wanders in and stares at me suspiciously (or reports to the vicar that there’s a peculiar person on the premises, behaving very oddly), or papers get blown away and resist all efforts to recapture them from inaccessible corners or muddy river banks.  Inquisitive spiders crawl across the page, plumbers arrive to clean out drains, or builders start cheerfully hammering at roofs.   Or I’m faced with a black, blank screen, because I’ve forgotten to charge the laptop’s battery.  So I usually just make notes or mutter furtively into a portable tape recorder, and take photographs.  Then I beat it back to the comfort of my study, where I have a view across fields, and a tree just beyond my window which houses an owl who emerges at dusk and glides silently across the sky.
Is her writing
 style gothic?

Would you describe your writing as gothic?
I’m never sure about that.  It’s been described by other people as gothic, and I suppose there are gothic elements in it – particularly in the series of ghost-themed books I’m currently working on.  

Do you have any literary influences?
I think I’ve probably been influenced by some of the great gothic writers – Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, Wilkie Collins.  The wonderful short stories of M.R. James which delight me every time I read them.  And modern gothicists such as Susan Hill and a writer called Jonathan Aycliffe. I’m also a massive fan of Dorothy L Sayers.  

As well as that, I’ve recently gone back to the classics, and I’ve been working my way through Charles Dickens. While I was writing The Sin Eater I became engrossed in Bleak House.  I do love Dickens’ humour, and I have to say that some of his marvellous descriptions of London in the mid-1800s were extremely useful – The Sin Eater has several sections set in 1890s London, so reading fiction of that era was tremendously helpful.  

Sarah's all-time fav book
Broome Stages by
Clemence Dane
One of my all-time favourite books is a huge tome called Broome Stages by Clemence Dane.  I discovered it about 30 years ago and I think it probably influenced the plot of Ghost Song, which is a book I wrote a few years ago and is still very close to my heart.
I probably read Broome Stages on average about once every 4 years.  The copy, which wasn’t new to begin with, is in severe danger of falling apart these days.  In a very general way the book is a family saga, but it’s like no family saga I’ve ever read, before or since.  It spans 1715 - 1930, and it covers 7 generations of a theatrical family.  The story begins with travelling players in tavern courtyards, and traces the family’s rise – through the Victorian actor managers, those lovely fruity characters who re-wrote Shakespeare to suit themselves – and on into the early years of the 20th century, with the onset of the first movies.  It’s about the changing world of the theatre, but it’s also about the Broomes themselves – their loves and hates, and feuds and plots.  It’s about their fortunes in the theatre world – the buying of theatres, the building of a theatrical dynasty.  The writing is exquisite – polished and lovely, and the characters and their backgrounds are so vivid that the present-day dissolves as you read.

If, one day, I could write a book of that calibre, I think I would believe I had achieved something really great.  But I know it’s not going to happen.

What's next?  What are you working on at the moment?
I’m still immersed in the ghost-themed books, which started with Property of a Lady.  
The third in the series, The Silence, is just out, and I’m two-thirds of the way through the fourth.  (If my editor or my agent happens to be reading this, make that three-quarters of the way through…)  It features the same two central characters each time – Michael Flint, an Oxford don, and Nell West, an antiques dealer.  I’d only written stand-alones before this series, so it’s new territory for me to develop relationships from book to book, and I’m enjoying it very much.
(Brilliant, Property of a Lady is on my to-be-read list). 

What would you like to tell your readers?
I’d thank them for reading my books. 

Anything else you'd like to add?
Only that writing books is probably the best job on the planet.

Thank you so much Sarah, it's been such an honour to host you on Carpe Librum! You've been so gracious, and I've thoroughly enjoyed interviewing one of my favourite authors.

What Lies Beneath - 5 stars*
House of the Lost - 4 stars
A Dark Dividing - 3.5 stars
Spider Light - 4 stars
Tower of Silence - 4 stars
The Death Chamber - 4 stars

*Reverse order of books read

Would you like to comment?

  1. Since this interview was posted, Tracey Allen has very generously searched for, and found, a copy of the music for 'The Deserted Village', which she has emailed to me. I'm hugely grateful to actually see it, and have photographed the cover, framed it, and now have it hanging in my study.
    Sarah Rayne

  2. What an excellent interview Tracey, I am intrigued by Raynes novel now,

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  3. Thanks Sarah, what can I say? I love a challenge and wanted to track down the music as a bit of a thank you for the interview. To find it and for you to have it hanging in your study? Well it doesn't get any better than that!

    Thanks Shelleyrae, you should definitely check them out.

  4. How lovely to read this. Sarah is a friend of my parents and I have met her on many occasions. (Although I live in Spain now.)

    Her book, The House of the Lost, has an acknowledgment to them, which is very touching whenever I see it, as my father died last year.

  5. Brigitte & Eddie, I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview, and how lucky you are to have met her in person, and have such a special family connection.

    I've read House of the Lost, and was actually discussing it with Sarah in my email correspondence. It's a fabulous novel, and the best thing about an acknowledgement in a book is that it lives forever. I will be sure to think of your Dad the next time I see it on my shelf.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I loved your latest blog too. That was amazing about the piece of music and I think that author answered your questions beautifully! Naomi

  7. Thanks Naomi, I agree on both counts!


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