Sally Spedding was born in Wales to a Dutch father and Welsh mother. She studied sculpture at Manchester and at St. Martin’s, London, and when still a practicing and exhibiting artist, won an international short story competition. She was approached by an agent who encouraged her to write a novel. She continued writing while teaching full-time, until Wringland, her supernatural crime novel, was published by Macmillan in 2001. Her sixth chiller, Cold Remains, will be published by Sparkling Books, February 1, 2012. Sally is also an award-winning short story writer and poet, and is married to the painter Jeffrey Spedding. They have kept a bolt-hole in the Pyrenees for many years, which, like Wales, continues to inspire her. For relaxation, she enjoys singing and horse-racing.
Last week in this blog I discussed three of Sally Spedding’s chilling thrillers. I am very glad that Sally has now given me the chance to ask her some questions about her work.
DJ. Your novels and short stories stand at the intersections of various genres—mysteries, thrillers, paranormal and more. Where do you see them yourself on the genre spectrum, and is it important to you into what genre other people—readers or publishers—put them?
SS. I think your word ‘intersection’ is apt. My tentacles do indeed touch these other genres, as does much more crime writing today. For me, the most interesting crime novels reflect real life in all its huge variety, which cannot possibly be forced into a neat box. Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room is an excellent example of genre-bending. There are even grainy black and white photographs of his icy setting at the novel’s end.
Mark Z Danieleski’s ghost story, House of Leaves with its varied fonts and quasi-academic footnotes, blew me away. Also Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls.
I’d love to say I didn’t care what genre my work is put in, but when Wringland was marketed as Sci-fi and reviewed by e.g., SF X magazine, I saw then how publishers and retailers felt uncomfortable with such a cross-over ‘product.’ As I’ve said, times are changing . . .
DJ. You have published five novels and in the next two years two more will come out. I believe they are all “chilling thrillers”—novels of suspense in which characters find themselves in appallingly frightening situations and in which terrible acts of violence and cruelty occur. You are a highly skilled writer and could no doubt write other kinds of literature. Have you ever written or been tempted to write fiction of a different kind?
SS. An interesting question. The answer, however, is ‘no.’ Although I did once draw upon humorous real-life situations for two comedy scripts, the fun didn’t last long! I actually believe that my writing so-called ‘fiction’ is a search for what really lies beneath our clever exteriors and those of beguiling places too where – especially in France and Wales, both with compelling histories – one false move can prove deadly. The Whicker Man, set in a remote part of Scotland, perfectly conveys this idea and I have explored it in two of my earlier novels, A Night With No Stars and Prey Silence.
DJ. When I am reading your novels and your short stories, I feel as if I am inhabiting a strange and frightening world, well, not altogether strange, because it is the real world and not a fantasy one, and because of this, the things that happen are even more disturbing. I am very impressed with the artistry with which you handle this content. Do you keep a personal distance from the horror by concentrating on the artistic and technical aspects of writing? Or are you genuinely caught up in the terror yourself? I never feel that you are just playing with the subject matter. Does your own work frighten you too?
SS.Thank you for saying my writing deals with the ‘real world.’ Yet it’s a world many would pretend doesn’t exist. A horse being battered to death with a sledgehammer in Mexico. The more casual cruelties, the ‘lacerations of the spirit.’ No, I don’t keep a distance from the horror I’m dealing with, because I do really empathise with those characters who become unwittingly involved. If I didn’t, then the work would simply be a vehicle for gratuitous evil. I am often so much caught up in their fear that I have to down tools and head for the piano, or the newspaper’s racing page or the garden . . .
DJ. Do you have a strong sense of the kind of audience you want to reach, or are you absorbed in the subject matter and essentially writing for yourself?
SS. Another interesting question. I do have a strong sense of the kind of audience I want to reach. Readers who’ve faced challenging situations, known betrayal, loss and injustice. Who sense there may be more to this life than we are programmed to accept. I’ve met many such inspiring people on my travels. They demand more than the usual police procedural fodder where a young woman is always the victim. Where the ends tie up neatly. Happily. (Especially for, I was told, the American market.) As Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s narrator in the wonderful novel The Pledge, tells his writing students, things don’t happen like that in real life . . .
DJ. Your novels are carefully plotted: Complicated plot threads are introduced early on by various characters, and gradually in the course of the novel, they are woven together so that the mystery into which we are initially launched is only fully revealed at the very end. There is no one person–detective or murderer or victim—who carries the plot, but the several characters gradually reveal where they stand in relation to the central mystery. Do you plot all this out before you start? Or does the story develop through the characters, only revealing itself fully to you, as well as to the reader, by the end?
SS. I don’t begin with what some call ‘a plot cage’ to start with. But I do have the theme I want to deal with. Whether it’s contemporary planning greed on the Fens colliding with a hundred year-old tragedy (Wringland); or a small group of damaged French priests turned terrorists in 1997, the European Year against Racism (Malediction, due out in 2013). I then decide upon the setting/s and weather in some detail. The relevant socio/economic histories. Even the geology. I either know the place/s well or make several visits and write, surrounded by photos and artefacts. The main characters (with their own agendas, who may or may not be unreliable witnesses) will, without too much intervention on my part, reveal themselves. The work inevitably develops through them as if my pen is just a conduit . . .
DJ. The two novels that I wrote about last week in this blog, Prey Silence and A Night with No Stars, take place in very specific geographical locations, one in the French Pyrenees and one in the mountains of Mid-Wales. The settings in each novel are more than scenic background: The life and culture of each of these areas play an important in the plot. You live and have lived in both these places. Why did you choose them as settings? Neither novel is exactly a tourist agent’s dream! Are your novels read in the places where they are set? How do the locals react?
SS. In A Night with No Stars, I wanted a complete contrast with the life in London of the main character Lucy Mitchell, and Rhayader in Mid-Wales offered this, with its almost quaint, old-fashioned character. The sense of the Celtic otherworld too, was palpable, especially around the ruins of the Abbey Cwmhir. Lucy’s house actually exists – we went to view it and my first thought was, ’no-one will hear you scream’ . . . We got away as quickly as possible!
In Prey Silence, set near Cahors, I also wanted that contrast between the familiar and the unknown. Also, the French presidential election was in full swing, with the Far Right gaining ground especially in rural areas. I encountered significant anti-foreigner feeling which resonated with what I’d learnt of my own family’s wartime tragedies in Europe.
Yes, the novels have been read in their settings (except in France) where I’ve had books signings and given talks to either readers’ groups or at library events. Reactions have, to my surprise, been positive. However, I have received letters and emails from French readers who defensively argue that we too, here in the UK, have plenty of BNP thugs. All grist to the mill . . .
DJ. You also write poetry. And each chapter in A Night with No Stars is prefaced by a verse that purports often to be written by a character in the novel, identified only by initials and sometimes in the form of traditional Welsh short poems, englynion. How did readers react to these atmospheric superscripts? And outside the novel, how important is your poetry writing to you? Does it occupy a different place in your work and, if I may so, in your heart, from fiction?
SS. The readers I’ve spoken too felt that these poetic additions added to the Celtic flavour of the novel, and were also quite useful to the plot, where one brother tries to ape the other. As for my own poetry, it’s also very important to me, and although a different discipline, requiring even greater honing and pruning than prose writing, the ideas it deals with are not so far removed. Not separate in my heart, but yes, in my study . . .
DJ. You write short stories. I included your collection of short stories, Strangers Waiting, in my remarks last week, a collection that takes its name from a prize-winning story in the collection. Your novels are on the whole quite long, by standards of modern mystery writing. And yet I thought that the shape of your short stories resembled the shape of your longer works, no small achievement. Do you like writing in the short story form? Do you plan to do more with it, or does your main ambition as a writer lie in the novel?
SS. I always have a short story in progress, because its theme, setting and characters have in the past provided the seed for a full length work and I hope will do so in the future. My second crime novel, Cloven began as the short story, Strangers Waiting, favourably reviewed by The New Writer. Encouragement enough to pursue it further. Clan (in the Strangers Waiting collection) formed the basis for The Yellowhammer’s Cradle – a gothic crime novel which is still under wraps . . .
Both forms are important to me.
DJ. You have said that Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Pledge” is your favorite crime novel. An interesting choice, and, having read your novels, I think I can see why you chose it. But I would like to hear what you have to say about that.
SS. My copy of The Pledge – barely more than a novella – is old and battered now, but it’s my alternative Bible. The almost kitsch, claustrophobic Swiss setting, Inspector Matthäi’s obsession with finding Gritli Moser’s killer, the gradual deterioration of his mind, and the eventual creepy outcome, all make this such a memorable read. In all my Creative Writing teaching (if one can indeed ‘teach’ it) sessions, I use it shamelessly!
DJ. In my review last week, I quoted P. D. James’s well-known comment, “ What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order,” and I said that your work was at the opposite pole of crime-writing. It is about murder and it is not at all about the restoration of order. Would you like to comment on this?
SS. Where, I ask, is the restoration of order? And anyway, for how long? In both my short and long fiction, I like to think there’s a realistic resolution to what’s gone on before, and so far, (touch some wood!) I haven’t had any complaints about this vital aspect. In one crime novel by a best-selling writer that I read recently, the killer’s name just popped up two pages from the end. Until then, there’d been no mention of him. No chance to get inside his head or have other character’s views on him. A real let-down.
My former agent did once suggest an alternative ending to Come and Be Killed before submitting it to publishers, but my characters wouldn’t let it happen. How weird is that?
DJ. I’m not sure that it is weird at all. Characters, if they are real to the writer, take on a life of their own, and are more powerful than any agent. So much to talk about. We’ll have to come back to some of these questions.
But for now, perhaps you can tell us what you are working on now, and where you want to go from here.
SS. I’ve almost finished the long-hand version of Carcass – second in a trilogy featuring an ex- DI from Nottingham who finds himself in the Poitou region, helping to find an abducted eight year-old boy, and his father’s racehorse. The first, The Nighthawk, is set in Roussillon.
As for the future, I just hope to keep having the time to dream, to research and write, and also to create screenplays from these two latest works. As part of the Aesthetica Creative Works poetry prize in 2009, I was offered such a course with Arvon. At last, I’m going!
DJ. Are there any other comments you would like to make.
SS. The French have an expression for what some believe to be our previous lives. ‘La vie antérieure.’ Without, I hope, sounding wacky, I do believe that, as we inherit our ancestors’ genes and physical features, so we inherit some of their memory. I read recently that we are all becoming more ‘spiritual’ as an alternative to organized religion.
An interesting journey, then . . .
Cold Remains will be available February 1, 2012 from www.sparklingbooks.com, Amazon.com, also on Kindle.