In 1950s England, six-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy; she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.
As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations.
But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe's psychopathic behaviour - and how far will it go?
I am delighted to have the opportunity to ask Kerensa Jennings some questions today about her novel Seas of Snow and her writing process. I can't wait to meet Kerensa at my book event in July so this is a real treat to get to ask a few questions beforehand! If you haven't booked your tickets for the event yet, then please do using the link below the interview1
Could you tell me about your novel in a couple of sentences?
SEAS OF SNOW is a story of broken trust and shattered dreams. Of consequences. Of a life lifted and liberated by poetry. Of a life haunted by darkness and lived in fear.
It is a bleak psychological thriller that explores whether evil is born or made…
Your inspiration for your novel has come from real life news or events. What was it about this moment / event / newspaper story that captured you so much that you wanted to write about it?
While in charge of the BBC News coverage of the Soham case, I worked closely with Cambridgeshire Police and was exposed in intimate detail to the evidence that was collected. Seeing with my own eyes what the school caretaker Ian Huntley had done to those two beautiful little girls affected me profoundly. I had been given police evidence tapes to spool through. I was alone in a dark room. I played one, called ‘Deposition Site’, having no idea what might be in store. What I saw burned into my retina and I have never been able to forget it. The remains of the girls found in woodland at RAF Lakenheath.
The Soham case devastated the nation and tore apart the lives of two families and their friends, a whole community. Working closely on it for many months was profoundly emotional, particularly when I had to sit behind the perpetrator in the press section of the Old Bailey day after day during the trial.
I became interested in the psychology and motives of psychopaths, wondering what it was about a person’s psychological make-up that could allow them to commit such monstrous acts. This interest led to me exploring the various disciplines of psychology, and training and qualifying as an Executive Coach and MBTI practitioner. I went on to take my learning further, reading about psychopaths and the neuroplasticity of the mind. Ultimately, this interest in the nature versus nurture debate – trying to understand whether evil is born or made - sparked the inspiration for SEAS OF SNOW.
What has been the biggest challenge about writing a piece of fiction which is either based on fact or has elements of fact within it?
The hardest thing while actually writing it was controlling my emotions. It is a highly charged novel which is designed to make you feel a rollercoaster of emotions and at times I had to stop writing to let myself cry. This is what one recent book blogger (Keeper of Pages) said in her review:
“Seas of Snow is emotionally intense and will take you through a range of emotions; anger, hatred, sadness, pity, sorrow, happiness, and most strongly – the longing to save a child. And that child is Gracie, an innocence so mercilessly destroyed, you heart aches. Even the title of this book is emotionally charged – ‘seas of snow’ is a haunting metaphor and you need to read this book to find out why.”
The hardest technical challenge was working on the authenticity of the language and dialogue of children growing up in North East Tyneside in the 1950s. As you will see when you read the book, we first meet Gracie and her best friend Billy when they are 5 and 7. They grow up through the book so it was important to evolve their vocabulary and conversations to reflect that.
Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process and that transition from taking a ‘real event’ and to it becoming a fictional story?
I was scrupulous to never write anything that would in any way exploit the tragedy of what happened at Soham. My story may have been originally inspired by the case and has some recognisable elements - but I took care to ensure that the story is set in other time and place. Soham is one strand of inspiration, giving me my starting point examining whether evil is born or made. SEAS OF SNOW also has so many strands of other influences from fairy tales to poetry to psychology to academic studies of psychopaths to the symbolism of flowers to synaesthetic influences of colours, to my own life experiences and other stories I have read and news events I have covered - that the original inspiration will always be the burning embers of the story but is far from being the full experience of it.
My writing process for SEAS OF SNOW started by building my scaffolding. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve, so I spent a lot of time mapping out the structure and the plan before writing a word. I have read so much contemporary fiction in the last few years where the ending just peters out, or leaves you feeling let down or disappointed. I was determined to try to ensure readers would feel my book was well worth investing time in, which meant I needed to work hard to structure tightly so that what I wanted to do with the denouement would work. I think I seem to have managed it… reviewers and bloggers seem to be enjoying the twist, with one reviewer saying:
“As you read you begin to realise that the author has plotted your route more meticulously than you could possibly have imagined through the narrative. And the end leaves you wondering how she did it.”
The writing bit was just such a pleasure, notwithstanding the emotional pain at times. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love simply sitting down to write. Once I know what I am doing, where I am going… the words just flow out, almost like automatic writing. It just spills out of my fingers as I type, and I eagerly read as I write to find out what happens next. Characters arrive fully formed in my head with names and attributes… I have never had to agonise over what to call someone because they arrive, ready for action.
I have always had very busy day jobs so novel writing is sadly consigned to holiday time. I wrote SEAS OF SNOW over all my holidays between the years 2009 and 2013, working on the final draft in 2014, getting the publishing deal in 2015, then last year doing the development edit, the structural edit, the formatting edit, the copy-editing queries edit then two rounds of proof reading. The editing process felt a bit like homework to me – but the development edit in particular was just sheer delight.
How does researching a novel based or inspired by real events differ from writing another novel?
I write something every single day, and always have done as long as I can remember. I can’t begin to imagine writing something which is not influenced in some way by real experience or observation.
My first three novels are all psychological thrillers inspired by my time working in the field. The next two are all mapped out – and I am working on the second now.
Some people like to read fiction as a way of escaping from the real world. Some people like to read fiction to help them understand the real world or make sense of something they have experienced in the real world. Can you think of any novels you have read that have either provided some comfort, escapism, and some insight for you at any point in your life?
My guest post focuses on one book in particular which has offered me all three - comfort, escapism and insight – ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rainer Maria Rilke. Although if I had to choose one of ‘comfort, escapism and insight’, I would most definitely say comfort. I’d also cite another two favourites as emblematic of the other two…
For example, ‘Immortality’ by one of my favourite authors, Milan Kundera. I will say upfront that Immortality is a strange book... in many ways it is almost a treatise on the art of the novel. For that I would place it firmly in the ‘insight’ category.
It takes you into flights of fancy, fictionalising imaginary scenes where artists, writers, poets and philosophers of the past meet, debate and banter with one another.
But the core story intertwines several narratives - one an unfolding tale of the protagonist, Agnes, and her family. Another, the authorial voice playing the part of observer of action and bit-part actor depending on what is developing in the book.
There are debates and discussions in this book that I would like to have in real life. In part, I have done.... but not nearly enough. I would love to wake up one day and find myself in a room with Goethe and Ernest Hemingway and pick their brains and find out what they think. And I'd love to spend hours with someone over a drink - lingering over the meaning and metaphor of a gesture, as Kundera does over Agnes's beautiful flourish of the hand.
Another favourite novel is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – which I would say is one of those books you read for escapism. The author’s alter-ego, Levin, is so incredibly earnest, authentic, kind and optimistic, a little bit of me fell in love with him, I think, the first time I read the book. Then of course you have the more famous driving narrative of the story which just grips you with every twist and turn and heartfelt denouement. Anna Karenina is a story with multiple strands and depths that simply sweep you along, trapped in its power, unable to function or do much else while you are reading it. I’d recommend reading it on holiday rather than trying to fit it in around chores, work and the humdrum of normal life.
Having said that, I must admit I first read it while living and working in Japan in the early nineties, so I am afraid I did manage to squeeze it in amongst what passed for my everyday life at the time. It proved the perfect antidote to some very unusual challenges living and working somewhere entirely different. I was up in the mountains of northern Japan, far away from anything I recognized as normal – I had previously lived and worked in Paris, Austria, Germany… this was something else, particularly as I could not speak Japanese when I first went out. Anna Karenina gave me an extraordinary means of escape. I also enjoyed the somewhat delicious irony that my little mountainside house was on the same latitude line as Siberia so I felt a little connected to my Russian story in more ways than one.
Do you have a favourite author or novel that has inspired you as a writer or reader or is there a book that you are excited about reading in 2017 / best book from 2016?
Oh – where to start with this one? In terms of contemporary fiction, I love Alice Sebold, Jon McGregor, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Liz Jensen, SJ Watson, Chris Cleave, Milan Kundera, Julian Barnes, Kim Edwards, Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Mosse, Tracey Chevalier, Haruki Murakami, Gillian Flynn, Colm Tóibín, Liza Dalby, Salman Rushdie… too many to mention!
My classic inspirations come principally from F Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez… again way too many to mention.
This year, the books I am most looking forward to reading are Men without Women by Haruki Murakami, Rattle by Fiona Perry and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I have already bought two of them to add to my #tbr pile, which seems to grow by the day!
If you would like to hear more from Kerensa then come along to my book event! £10 includes a free drink, entry to a raffle, three authors chatting about books and a goody bag!
To book a ticket for this event where you can hear more from Kerensa, please click on the link below:
For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk
For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk