I like to play with my nightmares. Whenever I have a bad dream – something strange or unnerving – I write it down, sometimes in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping. The idea for Coma House was one such nightmare – one that fascinated me for months – and I soon felt compelled to develop it into a weaving narrative that delves into the contradictions of human nature and the mysteries of consciousness itself. The book poses a gripping question: what would we do if we were suddenly faced with a terribly difficult choice?
With Coma House, the aim was to create an elegant, emotionally-charged storyline with realistic relationships and believable personal conflicts. I drew on my fears and also personal experience to create something truly authentic. I decided to take readers on a journey deep into the mind of a person who becomes lost in the most frightening place possible – her own mind – and where her family, the very people who are meant to love and protect her, begin deciding her future without her.
The sight of my first dead body really affected me. The unforgettable touch of freshly expired skin under my fingertips. I’d been volunteering at a hospital (I studied biology and physics at University) and I was asked if I wanted to participate in supervising the morgue. To a lot of people, including my friends (who thought I was plain crazy), the idea of being somewhere like that either scared or disgusted them, but I realised, deep down, that we are all dead bodies; it’s just that ours are filled with fleeting consciousness, emotions and memories. Needless to say, I accepted the offer of stepping downstairs to where they kept the dead. It was too great an opportunity to miss both for my science career and my secret life as a fiction writer. I wanted to discover more about the morgue and how the place worked – but even more to understand myself and my own emotions and reactions to death.
I was scared. I was disturbed, but I also found peace in the nonexistence below the bustling hospital. I found calm inside the silence and questions instead of answers. I learned by watching carefully what went on, noticing how the professionals cope with circumstances most of us would struggle with and taking copious streams of notes. As unobtrusively as possible, I observed the living relatives back upstairs on the wards to see how death can test relationships. Some are made stronger; some fade away – and this fascinating interplay is one of many interesting contradictions that features in my story. I also sat for hours with the dead and just listened to the people working around them. Other times, I helped prepare them for the next stage in their journey.
But one day, a real opportunity to do what I do best came along: the incredible moment when I found myself alone with all those lifeless souls. With no one else around, I let my mind take control. I knew I only had a moment, so I stood still, closed my eyes and carefully imagined gently opening one of the body drawers and finding a person inside who was still warm. Still breathing. Still conscious. A life not yet extinguished….
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Read the start of Coma House at Goodreads or on Amazon UK, Amazon US or Kobo. You can also enjoy many free quotes from the book at Goodreads.
As a fan of genre-defining, gritty books about urban life based on urban legends – the incredible Trainspotting being my all-time favourite – I’ve always wanted to put into words my own experiences of living in a tough area. I grew up on the outskirts of a major city at a time when gang violence ripped through the centre to the sound of gun blasts and petty crime filtered out into the surrounding communities. Semi-rural, protected in some ways from the worst, our town was relatively unscathed, but poverty was rife and people were desperate. The older brothers of my friends stole to survive. Some fought for money. Some enrolled and left for the army or navy and there’d be big parties when they came back home. Some people never got out of the gutter, falling prey to drug-toters and liars and some took advantage of those lonely souls to line their filthy pockets or even just to see those less fortunate take one extra, barely noticeable step down the slippery ladder of life. One of those people was a crooked social worker. To protect his identity, because I’m nice that way, I renamed him Geoff Tallow….
Disorder, disobedience and rule breaking are features of many of my stories. My best writing surfaces out of the need to rebel, the desire to end emotional chaos and the importance I place on embracing that independent streak inside us all that makes us want to break free of limits put on us by those who are prisoners of their own fear. Sleeping with the Sun is one of those stories.
I loved exploring unusual, interesting, even dangerous places as a child. I was lucky. I had freedom from a young age. I roamed the streets, rode my bike, visited friend’s houses or took the bus to school. The walk to the bus stop, twisting and turning through the alleyways near my home, was sometimes the most exciting part. I used that early independence and the skills and knowledge that came with it to my advantage many times, especially when faced with challenges some kids found really hard to deal with. Teachers and family said I had a strong head on young shoulders. I didn’t know what that meant until later. Certain friends did come to me when they needed help fighting their corner, but I didn’t feel that strong. There were still things I felt self-conscious about – and one of them was my creative impulse. Art and english meant more to me than most subjects because they seemed so personal and so it was harder to let people read what I wrote, judge what I painted and, potentially, criticise it. My mother was supportive of me as a student and worked hard, as a single parent, to secure funding so I could go to a good college. She even encouraged me to wear the clothes I liked and listen to the music I was passionate about, but she wasn’t as keen on the idea that I wanted to explore my inner self through art or literature and eventually began to see that side of my personality as a weakness. As she pushed harder for academic success, I pushed back the other way.
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In Sleeping with the Sun, I take that turmoil and let it breed, developing a deeply uneasy atmosphere surrounding young, impressionable Katie, the main protagonist. I don’t really think of her as being anything like me, but through her, I address my own struggle to unmask ‘the artist’ within, to fight against the external controls that tried to restrict some elements of my growing freedom and to finally unmask those precious roots of discovery, risk and rebellion using the most powerful art form I know – fiction.
I used to work in an office – a bog-standard, grey-walled, blinds-drawn, flickery-strobe lit, open-plan coffin for seventy people. No breath of real air penetrated those walls. It didn’t help that the windows had no locks. It’s true, we couldn’t open the windows – they didn’t open. They literally DIDN’T OPEN! It’s ok. I’ve got my inhaler.
If you wanted to leave (or “escape screaming” as the nervous joke went) you had one, electronically-tagged exit door to outwit. After that, you were on your own. You had to scurry, hamster-like, red eyes blinking, along a windowless warren of disturbingly odourless corridors often marked with mysterious, slightly intimidating words like ‘accounts’ , ‘sales’ or ‘cleaner’s cupboard’ only to emerge, breathless and confused, right back where you started, slumped against a wall, wondering where you made the wrong turn. Some might argue the wrong turn was made when deciding to work there in the first place. Surely I’m exaggerating, you ask. Yeah. It wasn’t that bad. (Unless you take into account that there’s a gun pressed against my forehead and my manager is with me now whispering, “type the nicest things you can remember and leave out the emotional torture stuff….”). Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating. Most of the people I worked with were pretty cool. We used to go out drinking after lights out and the less pleasant members of staff would be the topic of our pub discussions. We had a laugh. Nothing too damning. No one called anyone a cunt or anything, even behind their backs. We let off steam because it helped us deal with the fact that it was Monday and we’d still got four days of that shit left before our Saturday morning visits to the psychiatrist. One after the other…. same warm, leather seat.
It was the nasty, twisted, grinning, weirdly excitable, bitter, competitive, downright cruel individuals I met during my job that inspired me to turn experience into fictional fuck-up. Conniving managers and the spineless staff who sucked up to them. People who think they’re so important they own souls….
The idea for Slaughterhouse came to me on a cold November day back in 2011. I was walking alone in a desolate place close to home and I stumbled upon an eerie, silent building – a disused slaughterhouse. It had been cleared of debris, but still retained that abandoned, malevolent feeling, like it held a secret, but couldn’t let it out. A rusted metal frame hung on the wall containing a smeared ink-on-paper description of the age-old process of rearing cattle for slaughter to provide food for large households in hungry, rural communities. The place felt wild, was shrouded in secrecy and ripe for hijacking as my madhouse. When I went home and wrote Slaughterhouse that night, I wanted to express that sense of isolation. I wanted chilling – and I think chilling is exactly what we got.
I don’t want to produce cliché after cliché in my books. I work tirelessly to give readers something they haven’t seen or heard before and never just a subtle variation on a theme. It’s too much of a cop-out. How many thrillers describe gangs of violent men attacking defenceless, weak women? It’s been done to death, literally. In Slaughterhouse, I challenge assumptions about control and then I go one step further: I tip the balance the other way. Cringeworthy social stereotypes are torn up and destroyed and I think readers will appreciate that, but I always make sure people’s expectations of the genre are still met. The book is completely recognisable as a suspense thriller, with all the build-up you expect of a psychological conflict. Events are subtly crafted to draw readers into a relaxed sense of security, then to lead them gradually astray to a place where safety is not a given and self-control starts to wane. By the end of the book, many of the people I’ve tried it out on report feelings of surprise, uncertainty, fear, excitement and of being desperately on edge. Call me cruel, but that was the idea. And don’t say you don’t love the thrill of the chase. Every suspense lover I’ve met wants to test their boundaries, feel a bit scared and generally enjoy the ride.
Three words. Challenge. Create. Communicate.
Writing gives me the freedom to say and do what I want, to be inventive and to express the different sides of my personality through my work. I want to challenge myself, see what I’m capable of, but I also want to challenge others – their beliefs, prejudices and fears. I want to question societal norms, encourage people to think in new ways. I want to solve mysteries inside myself and in the world around me. I want to be different. I want to rebel. I want to entertain, provoke, scare or just make people laugh.
When I write, I try to shake off my existing preconceptions, beliefs and assumptions. I like to try to discover something new each day, to interpret the world in a way others might not, almost like a child might approach new experiences. Most adults learn to suppress this desire to explore and be ‘unknowing’ and naive, but I didn’t let the pressures of adulthood overwhelm me too much. I held onto that youthful freedom, that sense of discovery, and now I use it to communicate what excites and intrigues me for the benefit and enjoyment of my readers.
Burn The Safety Nets
Writing is a risk, a game of contrasts – and that’s why I love it.