Alex Mullarky interviews Helen Grant, author of ‘The Vanishing of Katharina Linden’, ‘The Glass Demon’ and ‘Wish Me Dead’.
How long have you been writing?
I have always written – stories, articles, poems, travel diaries – since I was at school, but my “serious” writing career started when my youngest child went to kindergarten, in 2004. Before that I was too busy travelling, working and then bringing up small children to devote the time to writing a full length novel. When my youngest started kindergarten we were living in Germany and the career options for an expat mother are a bit limited, so I took the opportunity to use my newly-acquired free time to start writing in earnest! I cut my teeth on articles and short stories for small press magazines, and then took the plunge and started working on my first book.
What were the inspirations behind your book, ‘The Glass Demon’?
The biggest inspiration was the astounding true-life story of the Steinfeld abbey stained glass. When I was a child, my father used to re-tell the ghost stories of the great Montague Rhodes James to us to while away long journeys. One of M.R. James’ stories, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, is partly set in a German abbey called Steinfeld. When we moved to Germany in 2001 I found to my surprise and delight that we were living about 10km from Steinfeld abbey itself! Of course, I had to go and visit. I was curious to see whether the real abbey corresponds to the one in the story. Actually, in some major points, it doesn’t; M.R. James never actually visited Steinfeld.
The story features a set of stained glass windows, supposedly from the abbey church; in fact the windows were from the cloister. A key feature of the tale is an ornate well-head, and that doesn’t exist either, although there are several wells in the grounds of the abbey. Anyway, I began to research the whole subject of the Steinfeld glass for a series of articles in the small press journal, The M.R. James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter. It seems that the Steinfeld stained glass, which was very fine and extensive, was removed from the windows of the cloister several times in its history, and when the abbey was dissolved in 1802 the glass vanished altogether. For a century, no-one at Steinfeld had any idea where it was, or indeed if it was still in existence.
Then in 1904 M.R. James, who was a renowned mediaeval scholar, was asked by Lord Brownlow to catalogue the stained glass in the chapel of Ashridge House. James recognised some of the windows in the chapel as originating from Steinfeld, and he was so impressed with them that he wrote his ghost story about it. After the story was published in a collection of M.R. James’ ghost stories, it was mentioned in the German press and a local priest and historian, Father Nikola Reinartz, contacted M.R. James and eventually visited Ashridge House and saw the glass. It was the first time in over a hundred years that anyone connected with Steinfeld had laid eyes on it! The glass was eventually sold in the 1920s for the equivalent of about 800,000 pounds in modern money, and now belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The history of the Steinfeld glass fascinated me for several reasons. Firstly, I could scarcely believe that such a delicate thing as stained glass could be removed from its window frames, packed and sent abroad without being broken into smithereens; and secondly, I was stunned by the value of it! I began to think, supposing there were another set of stained glass windows, made by the same master craftsman, still lost somewhere? They would be almost priceless. Imagine what someone would do to possess them! And that was the starting point of The Glass Demon.
How have the places you have lived influenced your work?
My first three books are all set in the Eifel region of Germany, where we lived from 2001 until 2008. They were inspired not only by the physical location – the beautiful town of Bad Münstereifel – but by the legends and history of the region. My first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, has many folk tales woven into the narrative. These are genuine local folk stories from Bad Münstereifel; I didn’t make them up. My third book, Wish me dead, was inspired by the witch trials which took place in the Eifel.
In 2008 we moved from Germany to Flanders (Belgium) and I am currently working on a trilogy set there. The first book, Silent Saturday, will be published in 2013 by RHCH under the Bodley Head imprint. Again, the book uses real locations. The hero and heroine are Flemish.
It’s not just a matter of being inspired by my environment; there’s a certain amount of necessity here too. From 2001 until 2011 I lived outside Britain. I’m so out of touch with British life that I can’t see myself setting a book in the UK until I have lived here for a while again. When we lived abroad I couldn’t have told you the price of a loaf of bread or a pint of milk in Britain. I’ve never watched Strictly Come Dancing or Britain’s Got Talent or TOWIE (a fact which seems to horrify a lot of British schoolkids when I do school visits, judging by the gasps when I tell them this fact!). I am writing about Flanders because that is what I know.
Do you try to write for a particular age group?
Truthfully: no. When I wrote my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I wrote the book I wanted to write. It was picked up by Puffin and published as a Penguin young adult title because they saw the potential for it as a young adult novel. Interestingly, in some other countries (for example Germany) it was published as an adult title. I don’t consciously try to write teen fiction. I do however like to have a young hero and heroine. I’m middle aged myself (47) and I really don’t want to write about that. It’s much more fun writing about younger characters who are open to all sorts of adventures! In the case of The Vanishing the heroine Pia Kolvenbach had to be young (10-11 years) because a key plot element was the fact that she believed things which an older person wouldn’t.
Which of your books have you most enjoyed writing?
Eeek! I’m really not sure. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden was a real labour of love because when I wrote it I had no idea whether it would ever find a publisher. So I wrote that book out of the sheer desire to tell that particular story. The downside perhaps was that it can be a bit dispiriting, wondering whether anyone will ever read your work! The Glass Demon – the finished book – is my favourite of the three that have already been published, but writing it was quite stressful because we were moving from Germany to Belgium at the time. Wish me dead was perhaps the easiest to write in some ways because by the time that you as a writer are working on your third book, you have relaxed a bit about creating something that long (100,000 words). I think though that The Glass Demon is particularly close to my heart. When I finished writing it, I slept with the finished manuscript by my bed for ages. I guess that sounds a bit crazy! But I really loved the main characters, Lin and Michel, and I didn’t quite want to let them go.
For more information about Helen and her books visit www.helengrantbooks.com.
Images – Gordon Grant