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Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Author interview Helen Sedgwick / Book review 'What doesn't break us'

 

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

I’m delighted to welcome Helen Sedgwick to Tweetables. This is a double first for the blog as the book isn’t even released yet and Helen’s a traditionally published author. I asked Helen to introduce herself and she says,

‘I’m a multi-genre author of crime fiction, literary fiction and sci-fi, and I’ve recently started writing poetry too. Before I became a writer, I was a research scientist working in the field of bioengineering (though my PhD is in Physics) and my background in science often inspires my writing, in one way or another. I live in the Scottish Highlands where I grow my own vegetables and keep chickens.’

I asked Helen for a tweetable quote and she says (tweet here), ‘I write about ghosts and connection and time and the unsettling space where what we know meets what we imagine, blending science with magic, crime with the supernatural, and the past with the future.’

Helen writes in the genres of literary fiction, crime fiction, folk horror, science fiction and was first published in 2016. 

She has published five novels (The Comet Seekers, The Growing Season, When the Dead Come Calling, Where the Missing Gather, and What Doesn’t Break Us) and we’re discussing the fifth, ‘What doesn’t break us’. It’s the third and final book in her folk horror crime trilogy, ‘The Burrowhead Mysteries’. I asked what inspired her to write this series and she says, 

‘The trilogy was originally inspired by the unexpected combination of a visit to St Ninian’s Cave, my life-long interest in history and archaeology, and the fracturing of our present-day society through Brexit, racism, class inequalities and the urban rural divide.

Books don’t arrive with a single idea, for me, they arrive with questions, and juxtapositions, and atmosphere, and at the heart of this trilogy of crime novels is the belief that we can’t build a better future until we acknowledge the crimes of the past.’

So did she know it was going to be a series before she started, or did the story become so complex it needed several books to resolve all the plots?

‘My idea was for a trilogy right from the start. Before I even knew the characters, I had a sense of the place, and I knew I wanted to build up the history and community there as a sort of tapestry - to show how the past was influencing the present, how all the people were a part of something larger around them, and how the individuals themselves were always more complicated than at first sight.

With each of the books I wanted to subvert what had come before, in a way, to show characters in a different light, to take expectations or judgements and then upturn them. And with the history too - which goes back generations (in terms of the present day plot) and also thousands of years (in terms of the history of the village) - I knew I'd need three books to build up those different timelines.’

I have to say, if this is what Helen wanted then she’s achieved it in bucket loads!

So when she’s plotting out such complex stories, does she have an arc for the entire series, or just for each book? And how does she decide when to resolve a plot line or if it should be carried forward to another book?

‘I did have a series arc when I first started writing, though I must admit that the ending of What Doesn't Break Us (the third and final book of the trilogy) turned out to be very different to what I thought it was going to be!

I write using a combination of plotting and organic creativity. I usually know the shape of the story, where it's heading, and I often write the ending of my books first, but then there is a component of exploration for me. The plot changes as I write, and I quite enjoy that!

The foreshadowing and release of information is mostly instinct for me, and is character driven as much as anything - I get interested in the people I'm writing about, and as I explore their characters, they do things that perhaps don't immediately make sense but that turn out to be important in later books. Because I have a whole community of people, it felt fairly natural to me for some of them to be up to something (no spoilers!) in the background at first, that only starts to make sense later in the series, as they move more into the light.’

It seems to me that controlling all the data for 3 books must be a logistical nightmare, so how does Helen manage it?

‘Haha! Yes, it was a bit of a challenge. Mostly I hold it all in my head! Though I do have a handwritten timeline of dates - who was born when, key events, deaths, that kind of thing - and a family tree for some of the main characters. I don't use any fancy software for writing, I feel like it just gets in the way. For me it's just about instinct, imagination, and getting words from my head onto the page as directly as possible. That and having an excellent copy-editor. Sarah Terry - thank you πŸ˜ƒ

So what does Helen enjoy the most and least about writing?

‘When the writing is flowing really well, I completely forget my own life and where I am and who I am, and I become totally immersed in the world I’m creating. That’s my favourite bit. But at the other end of the scale, I also really enjoy editing! It can be very satisfying to realise how all the pieces should fit together.

I find the publishing process itself quite hard, and it feels sometimes like it’s pulling me in the opposite direction to creativity. I don’t enjoy the business side of being published, and I don’t really like feeling visible either. The writing is what I love. All the rest feels like what we have to get through for our books to be out in the world.’

I suspect many authors feel the same about becoming well-known (for example, John Russo, my last interviewee, admitted to being a hermit!), but what does Helen feel about receiving feedback– does she read her reviews?

‘Yes, I read them. The good ones mean a lot to me, especially when a reviewer has really understood what I was trying to achieve. The bad ones, thankfully, I no longer care about. Nothing can be liked by everyone. That’s okay.’

That’s good to know! As Helen is my first traditionally-published author, I imagined her experience is quite different from the indie authors I’ve featured so far, so I asked what the publishing process has been like for her?

‘My publishers design the beautiful covers, so I don't have to worry about that at all. It is amazing to have a team of professionals doing their best for my books. But it does of course mean that I have less control over things, and it can be hard to let go. I sometimes feel quite powerless in the process.

When it comes to publicity though, I think all authors have to do as much as they can, whether traditionally published or indie. It's hard to get visibility so it takes a team effort in every sense, and it's hard work!

I've found that traditional publishers are great at getting traditional press and reviews, but I also do a lot myself - organising events, local signings, pitching to book festivals, social media, and so on. This is a hard industry I think, regardless of what route to publication you choose, so the more we can all work together the better.’

Hear hear! So as this series has finished, what is she working on now?

‘I suppose I could mention that I’m writing science fiction next! I’m working on a four-book sci-fi quartet about climate change, quantum entanglement, human connection across time and space, and how to rebuild after an apocalypse.’

I love the idea that she’s so diverse that she can completely change direction (although I’m going to have to google ‘quantum entanglement’!). So do the rules change, when writing different genres?

‘It is quite different - though all my books seem to end up being quite different from each other! It's set on several different planets, so there is a lot of world building and research going into the sci-fi.

The language will be quite different too. In one of the worlds there is no gender, in another they have rejected all technology; these are very different societies that I'm writing about next. It's keeping me on my toes! That's the joy of writing though, for me - I get to imagine something completely new every time.’

I can’t wait to read it! So, as she’s such a diverse author, what about her reading choices? I asked Helen for her favourite novel and why she liked it?

‘Oh, there are too many. Right now I’ll go with Piranesi by Susanna Clarke because I read it recently and can’t stop thinking about it, and for the magic, and sadness, and humanity.

To Be Taught if Fortunate by Becky Chambers deserves a mention, because it reminded me of how much I believe in science, and how beautiful curiosity can be.

And I love Ursula K. Le Guin; I love her ideas.’

So I now have more books to add to my TBR list!

I finished off by asking if there was anything she’d like to say to her readers and she says, ‘I hope you enjoy the book. I hope it means something to you.’

Before we move onto the book review, I asked Helen for a tweetable sized synopsis of the book: (tweet here)

‘In an isolated village, broken by the guilt of the crimes it has buried, can a group of outsiders find connection with the past before it destroys them all?’

I also asked for an extract of a favourite part as a taster and she says (tweet here), ‘…and she leans her head back and the air sighs slowly and a butterfly lands, unobserved, on the top of the menhir then flutters away.’

BOOK REVIEW

I agreed to review Helen’s third book in her ‘Burrowhead Mysteries’ series but as the stories build on each other, Helen suggested I read them all. 

First is ‘When the Dead come calling’ and it’s followed by ‘Where the missing gather’, and ends with ‘What doesn’t break us’.

To give a quick overview of the series, the stories are seated in the crime/ supernatural genre and take place in the northern coastal village of Burrowhead.

The village has its own shady past (and by past, we’re talking millennia) and the actions of the villagers’ ancestors still resonate within the community today, leading to rituals and macabre undertakings.

The series begins with DI Georgie Strachan and her team dealing with a murder. This soon escalates with more murder and hate crimes splattering the pages - it’s riveting, claustrophobic, and I was more than ready for book 2! 

This continues with more horrors unfurling as Georgie and her team investigate. Other familiar characters reappear, such as her husband Fergus and old Walt, but the unsettling environment of closed-off villagers and dark secrets is still present, with an archaeological dig uncovering a terrible history. This novel includes human remains surfacing and pagan sacrifices – yikes!

In both books the characters are fleshed out which adds to the stories, and I was glad that Helen had finished book 3, as I was itching to read more!

‘What doesn’t break us’ continues from where we left off and the first chapter is a flashback to one year ago, when misfit Pauly and Rachel meet up:

‘… he reaches forwards, gently places a blackcurrant into her open mouth, and moves round to sit behind her. She leans her head back against his chest.’

Aahh, young love! Romance is in the air but there is something odd, somewhat jarring about the scene.  

SPOILER ALERT (Move to next line if you don't want to see a tiny bit of the plot released!) I was shocked at the outcome.

Then we move to the present day where friends of the couple are travelling down a similar road to them. They’re suffering from a bad reaction to locally-sourced drugs and the description of Lee, who is making that gurgling noise as blood bubbles out his mouth’ was so realistic that I was cringing in the caravan beside them! This is because Helen has a wonderful way of putting you in the middle of a scene, from the caravan and rundown housing estate full of racism, homophobia and hatred (it’s certainly not somewhere I’d want to live!) to the magnificent backdrop of stunning local scenery and dramatic weather.

Ambulance crews rush the kids to hospital and the police become involved. Unfortunately Georgie, who is still reeling from events in book 2, is not at her best and I really empathised with her. She’s resilient though and battles on, despite ever-increasing problems such as the crimes she needs to solve, the upcoming closure of the police station and the chaos in her personal life.

I don’t want to reveal any more as it’s too good, you need to read it for yourself! What I will say is the team follow the drugs (and don’t get me started on what’s in them!) and there were some big surprises there.

The story darts back and forth in time, filling in gaps and switching point-of-views regularly which I liked. I also enjoyed the mystical elements and the eerie atmosphere, although I suspect some crime readers will find this an unusual departure. For me, it greatly enhanced the story and I loved how crimes could be fuelled by ancient lore.

Helen’s dialogue is very realistic, so expect swearing, but the story wasn’t predictable which was great. The short chapters made me read far too late into the night… you know the drill, I’ll just read one more and then half-an-hour/ ten chapters later!

The characters are flawed but they change over the series and I was left feeling satisfied with the outcomes. The whole series felt well-planned and it wrapped up as I’d hoped, which is another plus for me.

I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys crime or supernatural thrillers. Buy the first book in the series and see whether you enjoy the eerie atmosphere Helen weaves. Then you can move onto book 2 and finish with this wonderful conclusion. As for me, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

Why not take a look or visit the author's pages for more information:

Website: https://www.helensedgwick.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/helensedgwick

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HelenSedgwickAuthor

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/helensedgwickauthor/

I'd love your feedback, so please leave me a comment (some browsers might not work, Google Chrome works best!) Thank you πŸ˜ƒ 

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6 comments:

  1. OMG, I read the first book not knowing there was a 2nd. And now there's a 3rd? I'm mega excited! Off to buy πŸ’–πŸ˜πŸ₯³
    Thanks for letting us know, brilliant interview, great blog, will be coming back.

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    1. Thanks so much Amy, I love your enthusiasm and yes, get those books and enjoy (you will!)!

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  2. Love, love, love this interview!!!
    Will buy the whole series as anything supernatural is my thing, but put that with my other fav (crime) and I'm sold. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

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    1. Thanks so much Julie and I'm sure you'll enjoy them as much as I did!

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  3. What a fascinating interview. It's interesting how the mind of an accomplished writer works and I appreciated the insight. Will try the first book in the series and see whether I like her writing as much, suspect I will.
    Thanks to Tweetables and Helen for a great post.

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    1. Thank you so much Harry and I'm delighted to hear you'll try the first of Helen's books in this series. Do let us know what you think!

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