“When you have convincing, complex, three-dimensional characters they drive the story forward.”
An Interview with
By B. Lynn Goodwin
Write Honestly and With Conviction
Ever wondered whether the one you should trust is lying to you? Well, of course you have if you’re a parent, a teacher, a boss . . . It’s human nature. These are just some of the issues that Nuala Ellwood explores in her new novel of suspense, My Sister’s Bones: How do you know the truth from a lie? When does it become impossible to tell? And does that say something about you or the person manipulating you? And how do you know?
In addition she looks at the effects of war on one’s perceptions. War is not limited to what’s going on in Syria and in hot spots around the globe. There are personal wars and family wars to contend with as well. Sometimes those can be the hardest battles, because the enemies are so familiar. So easy to forget that sometimes motives change.
Kate Rafter, a troubled war reporter who survived horror in Syria is the narrator of My Sister’s Bones. When her mother dies Kate returns to her childhood home, a place her estranged sister has never left. She becomes convinced there is a crime being committed in the house next door. As Kate struggles with the horrors of her past readers question the validity of her claims. Are the things she sees real or a strange trick of the eye? The ending will amaze you.
Although this interview is a little long, savor the words. There’s a lot of solid advice in here. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience with us Nuala.
BLG: Tell us about your background. Why did you write this book?
NE: I have always loved writing. For as long as I can remember writing stories has been my way of making sense of the world. I studied English and Sociology at Durham University and, while there, won Best Script in the Student Film Awards for my screenplay The Bridge. After university I moved to London and worked as a session singer and songwriter. I met my now husband Nick and, after giving birth to my son Luke, decided to move out of the city in search of fresh air and green space. We settled in Yorkshire and I began an MA in Creative Writing at York St John University. By the time I graduated I had completed my debut novel and found an agent. I now teach Creative Writing there as a guest lecturer.
The inspiration behind My Sister’s Bones stemmed from a lifetime fascination with war reporters, particularly female ones. I grew up in a family of journalists and was exposed to the work of Martha Gellhorn from an early age. However, it was a chance meeting with the Sunday Times foreign correspondent, Marie Colvin when I was in my early twenties that planted the seeds for what would become My Sister’s Bones. She had come to give a talk about her life and work at the Chelsea Arts Club, a private members club in London. The talk was utterly inspiring but it was her final words that particularly resonated with me. She said that ‘bravery was not being afraid to be afraid.’ Those words made me think about the paradox of the female war reporter – that strange mix of vulnerability and strength – and how those qualities enhance their work.
I was reminded of them years later when Marie Colvin was killed covering the siege of Homs in 2012. It was then that I began to shape the character of what would become my war reporter protagonist Kate Rafter.
BLG: Tell us about your experiences with refugees. Could you be a character in this book?
NE: I have always been aware that, in the blink of an eye, any one of us can have that safety taken away from us. From the Jews fleeing persecution during the Second World War to the horrifying scenes of desperate Syrian refugees climbing onto flimsy boats to reach Europe. I can remember seeing images of little Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach, and thinking he could be my son, or any one of our children.
In 2015, while I was writing My Sister’s Bones, my husband Nick ( a reportage artist) went to the Calais refugee camps to document what was happening there. The stories he told me of the refugees and the horrors they had fled as well as the scores of terrified unaccompanied children, will stay with me forever. The sense that ‘this could be any one of us or our children’ helped me to shape the character of Nidal. Through him I wanted to portray the universal child, a boy who only wants to be safe, to play, to go to school, to live without fear; simple things that every child deserves.
Could I be a character in this book? Interestingly, had I been alive in the 1840’s then there is every chance I could have been a refugee fleeing hunger and persecution. Huge swathes of my family on the West Coast of Ireland were decimated during the Famine, with many dying and others fleeing on coffin ships bound for America. I could hear their voices as I wrote the final pages of My Sister’s Bones, when the Statue of Liberty comes into view and thought to myself that the freedom I enjoy now is all due to their courage and resilience.
BLG: How did you convince the Arts Council to fund your book and how did researching PTSD affect you personally?
NE: The Arts Council offers a grant called Time to Write, which allows authors the time and space to immerse themselves in the research and development of their novel. I had to go through a rigorous application process, outlining the ideas for my novel and its potential. I was thrilled when it was accepted.
Researching PTSD and the link between it and war reporting was an enlightening and slightly harrowing experience. During the course of my research I spoke to an amazing man called Dr Anthony Feinstein, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and one of the first to explore the link. He had been referred a patient, a female war reporter, who was displaying clear signs of PTSD. After the consultation he had gone to see if there was any literature exploring the link between PTSD and war reporting and to his amazement found there was nothing.
He has since worked with journalists and newsrooms to raise awareness of PTSD and offer much needed help to those affected by it. For me personally, I found that spending so much time –the book was almost three years in the making – immersed in researching war and conflict and trauma really did have an impact on me. I found myself becoming much more anxious and on edge.
In a strange way I appeared to have acquired PTSD by osmosis. However, it made me think that if I felt like that just by researching the subject imagine how it must feel to be exposed to war and horror day after day as a civilian, war reporter, soldier or aid worker. It was a sobering thought.
BLG: What do you say and what do you withhold when writing from inside a character that’s been lied to?
NE: In this case the reader is as much in the dark as Kate is. In this sense I wanted to create a sense of unease, a sense that Kate’s judgement may well be flawed and therefore the reader can’t quite trust what she is telling them. As a writer you achieve this by constantly altering what we think is happening, playing with perception, letting the reader think they have worked it out and then turning that on its head. The unreliable narrator element was inspired by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which for me is a master class in creating tension and unease through narrative.
BLG: How did you begin organizing your thoughts and material when you first imagined this project? How did your visit to Herne Bay affect the story?
NE: For the first draft, I set myself goals and deadlines throughout the research process. Then when I signed my publishing deal with Penguin, my editor set very clear deadlines to work to.
As a writer I am particularly inspired by landscape so it was wonderful to be able to go to Herne Bay, where the novel is set, for a research trip and really immerse myself in the place. It’s a beautiful but rather neglected town.
The landscape is stunning and is dominated by a set of crumbling towers, known as ‘The Sisters,’ that were once part of a Roman fort. Local folklore says that the towers hide a dark secret – that the Romans buried children alive in the foundations of the fort as human sacrifices and that their cries can be heard on dark and stormy nights. For a thriller writer it was a gift.
But the highlight for me was the mornings I spent walking along the shingle beach. The light on the North Kent coast is spectacular – the artist, Turner used to paint here – there is no distinction between sea and sky and the mist lies heavy on the bay to such an extent that it makes shadows of people. As I was walking I felt certain that there was someone up ahead of me but then they disappeared and it became clear that the landscape was playing tricks on me. This gave me some excellent imagery to work with for my novel and I realised that it was the perfect place to set a story about a woman who could no longer distinguish between what was real and what was just a strange trick of the eye.
BLG: How did you find such an unexpected ending? Any techniques for doing that?
NE: I always knew that there would be a horror to uncover that would be very close to home. The idea being that the war reporter, who has spent years uncovering injustice around the world, would come face to face with a dark secret, almost on her doorstep. However, it took many drafts for what would become the ending to finally emerge. There is no set technique to this.
What I would say is that when it comes to plot, strong characterisation plays a huge part. When you have convincing, complex, three-dimensional characters they drive the story forward. Once I had developed the relationship between Kate and Sally, their dynamic led me towards that conclusion.
BLG: What is the best tip a professional editor ever gave you?
NE: One of the best pieces of advice came from my UK editor Katy Loftus who told to ‘write with passion about what you love.’ I find the process of writing very emotional and I pour my heart and soul into my stories. One of the most difficult scenes I have ever written was the scene where Nidal is killed. As the mother of a ten-year-old boy this was very close to the bone and I had tears running down my cheeks as I wrote it. However, readers often tell me that they found the scene brought them to tears too and it made them connect with the plight of children trapped in conflict zones so I think if you write honestly and with conviction your words and your story will resonate, ring true and hopefully make people think.
BLG: How did you find you agent and is this the first time working with an agent?
NE: I first came across my agent, Maddy Milburn, when I read an interview she had given to a literary blog. In it she said she was looking for new writers and cited Maggie O’Farrell as the kind of writer she enjoyed. Maggie O’Farrell is a huge literary heroine of mine and I thought that my work could fit with Maddy’s client list and vision. I emailed her a cover letter along with a synopsis and the first three chapters of my novel.
She got back to me immediately and said she loved what I had written and could I send her the whole manuscript. I was offered representation the next day and she went on to secure me a dream two-book publishing deal with Penguin as well as selling the film rights of My Sister’s Bones to BK Films.
A writer’s relationship with their agent is based on trust and mutual understanding and I certainly have that with Maddy. As well as being a great agent she is a lovely person and a great sounding board.
BLG: What are you working on at the moment and how can we learn more about you?
NE: My next novel, The Day of the Accident, is a modern gothic suspense novel set in East Sussex, and will be published by Penguin in 2018. Here’s a little taster:
What if your daughter had died and you were to blame?
Moments after she wakes from a coma, Maggie’s world is torn apart. The police tell her that her daughter Elspeth is dead. Drowned when the car Maggie had been driving plunged into the river. Maggie remembers nothing, just the fleeting sense that someone else was there, standing on the river bank.
When Maggie begs to see her husband Sean, they tell her that he has disappeared – he was last seen on the day of her daughter’s funeral.
What really happened that day at the river?
Where is Maggie’s husband?
BLG: Sounds like a mixture of more suspense and more critical questions. I look forward to reading it.
Learn more about author Nuala Ellwood at https://nmellwood.wordpress.com.