Did I ever mention how great XpoNorth is? And no, I’m not on commission, but that is where I met this week’s Smorgasbord guest, Helen Forbes. I was invited to read from Boyle’s Law at the XpoNorth launch event in 2015 and Helen was hosting the event on behalf of the Highland Literary Salon. We met again at a Lit Salon writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, and again when Barbara Henderson brought us together to get NessBookFest up and running and we’ve stayed in touch since.
Hi Helen, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Tell me about the evolution of the author, Helen Forbes.
I started writing over twenty years ago, when I had this idea for a Scottish story set in two timescales – 18th century and the present day. I worked on it for years and ended up with a massive tome of fairly mediocre writing. I was pretty much a closet writer at that time, but I came out and started going to writing groups, where I wrote some short stories and entered competitions. With the odd success here and there, I was encouraged to keep writing, and to start some new projects. I still tinkered with the tome from time to time, and it’s now two separate novels, which are much better written, but, as yet, unpublished. Meanwhile, I wrote In the Shadow of the Hill, which was published in 2014, and I’ve since completed a sequel, Madness Lies, which is due to be published this year. I’m almost finished a standalone, called And In That Place …
When we first met, you had just brought out your crime thriller, In the Shadow of the Hill. How did the book come about?
I wrote a short story about two young boys living next door to each other on an unidentified island, for the writing group I was going to in Fife, and they seemed to like it. I then shared it at the Edinburgh Writers Club and someone said it would make a good novel – they’d be interested in finding out what happened to the two boys as they grew up. I didn’t really think any more about it at the time, but after the short story was placed in a competition and later published, I began to work on turning it into a novel, which became In the Shadow of the Hill.
How would you describe your writing style?
I’m not sure how to answer that, but I was delighted when a reviewer of In the Shadow of the Hill said her style is smooth and sweet. That’ll do for me.
Nice. What were you like at school?
Quiet and mousy! I was the perfect pupil in primary school, but it all went wrong in secondary. I didn’t really enjoy anything except English, and ended up leaving with only an English Higher. I made up for it many years later, when I studied law as a mature student, and found that I actually enjoyed learning after all. I guess I was ready for it by that time.
Who have been the main influences in your life?
I was lucky to have loving and supportive parents. It really came home to me after working in social welfare law just how fortunate I’ve been. No matter what happened, they were (and my mum still is) always there for me – so many people don’t have that safety net. My late father was incredibly hard working, talented and intelligent, despite leaving school at a young age with no qualifications. He began work as a messenger boy with a retail company and ended up managing the company in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I couldn’t fail to be influenced by him and his belief that anyone could do anything they set their mind to.
I was a single parent for most of my daughter’s life, and she was and is a constant source of inspiration. Even as a small child, she had an ingrained sense of social justice and fairness that would put many adults to shame. As an adult, despite chronic ill-health, she’s continued to inspire me by becoming a talented artist and a wonderful mother.
What influenced you when you were growing up?
Books – I’ve always loved reading. And music.
What is the Helen Forbes writing method?
I’ve tried various methods. When I work with no plan and just keep writing, I have to delete vast numbers of words later on. This happened with Madness Lies, when I felt under pressure to produce a second book, and just kept writing. I then had to delete over 30,000 words of nonsense. With And in that place … I tried very hard to make a detailed plan before starting, but my mind would just go blank. So, I got started, with an idea of where I wanted to go, but without any real idea of how I was going to get there. This time I was more rigorous in planning and checking as I went along, making sure that I wasn’t going down blind alleys. That method seemed to work best for me. I find it hard to let go of a book and have a tendency to keep on editing and tinkering, until I really have to let go.
What has been your best writing moment so far?
The launch in Waterstones of In the Shadow of the Hill. I was a nervous wreck when I met the publisher at lunch that day. I told him he had to stick to the questions we’d agreed as I’d clam up if there was anything unexpected. I got to Waterstones and there was no one there, and I was delighted, until I looked up at the balcony area, and everyone was waiting. All my friends and family were there, including two friends I hadn’t seen for years and some of them had travelled far to get there. As soon as it started, the nerves were gone, and I had a fantastic night. Afterwards, the publisher asked me if I’d been drinking (I hadn’t), as he said I bore no resemblance to the person he’d met earlier in the day! There was one awkward moment, when I signed a copy of the book for my boss’s wife, and dedicated it to my boss and his secretary, rather than his wife. We laughed, but I’m not convinced I’ve been forgiven.
What are you working on right now?
I’m at the end stage of a stand-alone domestic noir thriller set in Edinburgh and Lewis. The main character, Lily Andersen, has been in my head for a long time. This is probably the book I’ve enjoyed writing the most, although I’ve enjoyed them all.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Get started. Join a writers’ group and go on retreats/writing courses. The feedback and friendship of other writers is invaluable. Expect rejection and learn how to deal with it – even the bestselling authors have had numerous rejections – it’s all very subjective.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the young Helen Forbes?
You can do anything. Listen to yourself and stop thinking everyone else has the answers.
Is there any one book you would like to have written?
Neil Gunn’s The Grey Coast.
If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
David I of Scotland. I’d love to write a novel about his reign in 12th century Scotland. I’d spend the day at Edinburgh Castle bending his ear to make sure I got my facts right.
A few short questions to finish. Favourite books?
The Grey Coast, The Poisonwood Bible, Wuthering Heights, The History of Love, Good Times Bad Times.
Neil Gunn, Niall Williams, Morris West, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrew Greig, James Robertson.
The Crucible, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
Roddy Frame/Aztec Camera, Runrig, Eagles, The Jam.
What are you reading right now?
SG MacLean’s The Seeker
Good luck with your domestic noir thriller, Helen and thanks for appearing on the Smorgasbord.