In my first interview for 2019 I am joined by Helen Marshall as she discusses how she came to publish her new novel The Migration.
Can you introduce yourself in one sentence?
I like the weird stuff.
Can you give an introduction to your writing?
My writing is a mash-up of horror, fantasy and the surreal—with some other bits thrown in from time to time. I have published two collections of short stories and my debut novel The Migration is coming out from Random House Canada and Titan in the UK in 2019. It follows a seventeen-year-old girl named Sophie who relocates with her family to Oxford after her younger sister becomes infected with a dangerous new condition that seems to trigger some sort of change after the host dies. The novel deals with themes of loss and transformation at a deeply personal level.
Can you tell me about your journey from writing the first novel through to publication?
I began writing the novel in 2014 just after I finished my PhD, which studied medieval literature written during the time of the Black Death. Much of that research seeped into my consciousness as I was writing, and so The Migration connects contemporary ideas of apocalypse with much earlier situations in which humanity faced catastrophe. The novel took me about a year to draft, but I then went through an extensive editing process over the next three years. What I found was that the first draft of the novel was quite bleak, but each subsequent draft became increasingly hopeful. The final version encapsulates my idea of a “beautiful apocalypse”—one in which radical change is possible, but not without risk.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I teach creative writing and publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, where I also run the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Almost everything I do feeds into my writing in some form or another, but when I’m really looking for down time I love to go walking or to play board games.
Where do you write?
When I lived in Oxford I used to write in the Pitts River Museum, simply because it was one of the strangest buildings I’ve ever been into. It is filled with countless drawers you can open at random to discover odd artefacts, such as voodoo dolls or love charms. It feels like the inside of my head. Now that I live in Cambridge I confess I largely write from my bed. I’m a pyjama writer at heart.
Which is your favourite aspect of authoring a novel?
Mostly I joke that my favourite bit is having written. But that’s not always true. I love when I’m in the groove of writing and it seems to be effortless. I can tell the writing is going well when I start cackling madly to myself. Most of my short stories have a black humour to them and I can tell I’ve got something I like if it makes me laugh. But my sense of humour can be perverse so those tend to be the bits that make other people squirm.
I like writing beginnings and endings. The stuff in between I call the “scary middles”, a term I first heard used by the science fiction writer Karl Schroeder. Because I have an improvisational writing style, beginnings can be hugely exciting. I don’t know where the story is going and so it doesn’t feel as if I can put a step wrong. There, the horizon of the story seems to get wider and wider. I normally freeze up at about the half-way point because I realise I need to find a way to sensibly reconcile all the elements of the story I have put into play.
Then the horizon begins to contract as I decide what the story is really about. Often the ending is easy for me because it flows naturally from whatever decision I make at that mid-point. It’s like hurtling down a hill. The story has its own momentum and it goes where it goes.
How do you write?
Definitely a pantser!
Do you have a first reader?
My first reader is my partner, the writer Malcolm Devlin. Others would disagree, but I love living with a writer. It means we bounce ideas off each other endlessly. Most of our weekends consist of going for long walks through the countryside while we try to work out the nuances of our plots. Plus our wedding vows claim we’ll read each others’ stories within two working days. I love getting quick feedback.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
There is no one else in the world that can write quite like you. The shape of a story will emerge organically from who you are in that moment. So follow your instincts, your interests and your kinks. If you find something utterly fascinating, you will be the best person to make others feel the same way about it. Also try to be the best version of yourself that you can be. It will make your writing better.
Thank you Helen for joining me today. Helen’s new novel The Migration is released on 5th March 2019 and is available to pre-order now. You can keep up with Helen via her Twitter and website, helen-marshall.com.
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