February 2012


Journalist Helen Moorhouse is the author of The Dead Summer - its sequel The Dark Water is out later this year. She lives in Dublin with her husband and two daughters. (Interview by Shirley Benton-Bailey)

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  1. 1. What inspired you to write The Dead Summer?

    A whole lifetime spent being slightly jumpy and scared of things that go bump in the night! I had been interested in the paranormal since childhood which was also the length of time that I had wanted to be a writer. I could just never seem to find the right voice so when I was on maternity leave with my first daughter, something in me just clicked and I switched off daytime TV and sat down in the garden with a pen and paper one afternoon - she was a napper, and I'd always been moaning about not having the time to write yet here it was. My husband had also said something once that really resonated with me - that having a child made you want to be the best you could possibly be and I felt that I owed it to her as much as to me to fulfil my potential. The Dead Summer happened itself from there. I wanted to write a pure ghost story and becoming a mum inspired me to finally get on and do it but it also opened me up to what would make my lead character vulnerable and for the first time, something that I was writing actually came together enough for me to go 'hang on, let's finish this one'.

  2. 2. How do you feel about the chick lit label and would you consider your books to be in that genre?

    I think people get terribly sniffy about the idea of chick lit, that it's somehow insubstantial or not worthy or whatever. Popular fiction is popular for a reason! How can something that brings joy and enjoyment to millions of readers worldwide not be worthy? It's an incredible power for a writer to have to create characters that are warm, funny, slightly flawed; to give them jobs and homes and desires; to put them in situations where we laugh and cry with them and really care what happens. Chick lit is very difficult to do right and I know, I've tried! My chick lit characters were so sad and loathsome that had I kept writing them I could have killed the genre with a single chapter. I don't count my books as conventional chick lit but they do centre around female characters and I hope that all of my characters are strong enough for readers to care about them. I've had a lot of feedback from readers since The Dead Summer was published - it's interesting that men and women have responded in a different way - I find that men tend to write to me to say they've been scared while women write to say that they cried at the end. Clearly I have a massive cruel streak in that either/both response makes me feel proud!

  3. 3. Which comes first for you - characters or plot?

    A little bit of both - with The Dead Summer I had the idea for the basic plot first and then created Martha as my heroine - within the first couple of pages she had a vile ex, some shallow frenemies and had found a cottage on the internet - she sort of did that herself! Then Gabriel appeared in my head saying pithy things while I was hanging out the washing and so on. The plot and the characters grew together as the story went along and then when I had a whole world with Gabriel, Will, Martha and Ruby in it I began to think more about Lily and Marion and created their little world for them as well and just got the two timelines to rub along together. With The Dark Water, which is due out later this year, the team were already in place - it's a follow-up to The Dead Summer - so the plot took precedence and that was so much more difficult. Needless to say I got it horribly wrong and had to go back to the midway point and start again. I hope that it's ready to go now - there are some new characters in there that I hope readers will be sympathetic to, characters who funnily enough made themselves happen as well. In the initial draft there was one who was a middle-aged man but it never felt right the whole way through. Then I realised that he wasn't middle-aged, he was much younger, and a whole new element to the story was able to grow from there. I sound nuts, don't I?!!

  4. 4. Do you plan your books meticulously, or just start with an idea and see where it takes you?

    I start with an idea and if it excites me, and I feel it's plausible (relatively!) and can be developed then I think about it until I have a plotline, or at least part of a plotline. I write that down as a guide before I start writing and then as I go along I tend to ignore it because things happen as I go! There's so much of writing has nothing to do with putting pen on paper, I've found. As Agatha Christie said 'The best time to plan a book is when you're doing the dishes'. Or stacking the dishwasher in my case. Delicate hands...(!)

  5. 5. What's the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

    Just do it. Writing is like a muscle and you have to keep exercising it with a little use each day - I try to write every day but it's not always possible with two tiddlers but I really find that you need to just face the page and write something, anything, to warm up. The more you do, the better it gets. Plus, keep reading, always. I read constantly although I don't get as much time as I'd like. I also read a mix of styles - mystery, historical, classics, chick lit, comedy - because there's so much to be learned out there. So many books, so little time syndrome.

  6. 6. If you ever experience writer's block, how do you deal with it?

    There are two levels, I find. With a mild case, I just go at it like a bull in a china shop. I write, regardless, hoping to break through the brick wall and come through smoothly on the other side. The beauty of writing is that you can always rewrite later and writing anything is better than nothing. With Level Two Writer's Block however, there's only one thing for it and that's to take a piece of advice that my mother gave me years ago when I was having terrible problems with my maths homework - just walk away for a while and come back to it later. Give your mind a chance to refresh itself and let it all go blank. It works.

  7. 7. Is there any contemporary women’s fiction book you wish you’d written yourself?

    I think it would be a superbook with a mix of Marian Keyes' humour, Sarah Dunant's eye for historical detail, Joanne Harris' injection of magic and maybe Sophie Hannah's 'holy cow, didn't see that coming' factor. In truth I think The Woman In Black by Susan Hill is just a perfect book and I'm so glad that I didn't read it until long after The Dead Summer came out. Otherwise I just wouldn't have bothered writing anything!

  8. 8. If you could co-write a book with any author, who would it be?

    Is Dawn French straying too far from the pure writing path?! I loved her autobiography and her style really resonated with me - although her novel is still on my to-read pile which is the same size as my toddler, and growing accordingly. Plus she would be huge fun to work with. Or Mark Gatiss who is known more for his TV work than his novels which are also camp and fun. I think working with him would be an enormous challenge for creativity, like a brain bootcamp!

  9. 9. What's the best and worst thing about being an author?

    The best thing is that it's the absolute fulfilment of my childhood dream. I've never wanted to be anything else and writing gives me a sense of happiness and satisfaction that no other job has ever given me. It feels fantastic to finally do what I was meant to do, (pass the sick bag, although I'm sure other writers know how that feels?!) and in practical terms it's also handy for working round the creche run, doctors appointments etc. The worst thing is the money! Unless you're a Rowling then you're pretty much living up to the image of the starving artist in a garret. If you could afford a garret, of course.

  10. 10. What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?

    Nothing but positive stuff. How good it feels to see your cover for the first time, the excitement of seeing your book - your work - on a shelf, out there by itself. And the possibilities - to know that every day you wake up this could be the day that something brilliant happens because you finally sat down and wrote your book. How lovely people are to bother to get in touch to say that they liked your work. And the satisfaction of reaching your potential and knowing that this is what you do now, and trying to make it better each time.

  11. 11. What's your view on e-publishing?

    It's necessary, I guess. Technology moves onwards all the time and we have to move with it. As long as there are always stories, then that's the most important thing, but I do think that there needs to be strict guidelines for making sure that writers are remunerated properly. We only love it so much, after all.

  12. 12. What's next for you?

    Well, The Dark Water is due for publication later this year so I think it will make an excellent Christmas present for absolutely everybody in 2012! I'm then taking a rest from Martha, Will etc. with my as-yet-untitled third book. I've got a completely new leading lady and while I have a rough idea what happens to her, there's still a world of possibilities out there for her. On the fiction front I then have rough plotlines for a further two novels so I hope that I can continue being published and getting them out there. On a personal front I have just launched myself as a freelance writer - my website is and it features book news as well, and the plan is to go it independently so I can balance my work with a writer with being a mum and a wife and a TV addict. If I can achieve that, then life will be absolutely perfect!

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