Wednesday 23 August 2017

A Conversation with Nuala Ellwood

Photo courtesy of Justine Stoddart
Nuala Ellwood moved to London in her twenties to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter but ended up writing novels instead.

She comes from a family of journalists and they inspired her to get Arts Council funding to research and write a novel dealing with psychological trauma in the industry.

Her debut thriller My Sister’s Bones was a Top Ten Bestseller and will be published in paperback by Penguin on 7th September 2017. Nuala was named as one of the Guardian’s New Faces of Fiction 2017.

If you can't trust your sister, then who can you trust?

Kate Rafter has spent her life running from her past. But when her mother dies, she's forced to return to Herne Bay - a place her sister Sally never left.

But something isn't right in the old family home. On her first night Kate is woken by terrifying screams. And then she sees a shadowy figure in the garden... Who is crying for help? What does it have to do with Kate's past? And why does no one - not even her sister - believe her?

'Rivals the Girl on the Train (and beats it for style)' - The Guardian

'Memorable, jaw-dropping ... harrowing fiction that skilfully draws parallels between the effects of civil war and domestic violence' - Sunday Times

Review of My Sister's Bones can be read via

We thank Nuala for taking part in our conversation and wish her lots of success in her literary career.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I’ve always loved writing; it’s how I make sense of the world. I grew up in a very creative household full of singing and storytelling and music and being the youngest of five I had a wealth of material to draw on from the comings and goings and dramas of my elder siblings. As time went by my writing came out ‘song-shaped- and I spent several years working as a session singer/ songwriter. But writing novels is what I love and so a few years ago I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing at York St John University. It was an amazing experience and it helped to hone my writing in so many ways. Soon after graduating I signed with my agent Madeleine Milburn and she secured me a two-book deal with Penguin. The first of those novels, My Sister’s Bones, was published this year and tells the story of a troubled female war reporter who returns from Syria to her childhood home and fears that something deeply disturbing is taking place in the house next door. The novel took three years to write and I was awarded Arts Council England funding for the research phase, which explored the link between Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and war reporting.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I have always been fascinated by people, their quirks, their motivations. As a writer I like to see how ordinary people cope in extraordinary circumstances. I’m a lifelong people-watcher and I get most of my ideas from sitting on the train or bus. I see my role primarily as a storyteller. There is something ancient about the need both to tell and to hear stories – they help us make sense of the world and of our place within it. I’ve always felt that the last page of a novel is really the beginning as a good story should leave the reader with more questions, about themselves, about life, the world, and that is what I hope I have achieved with My Sister’s Bones.

What do I like most about being a writer? 

The sense of equilibrium I feel when a novel comes together. It’s a wonderful feeling and also rather addictive. I think it is the pursuit of this feeling that keeps me wanting to write more and more, despite the rejections and uncertainty that come with being a writer, there is still magic to be found.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes. In My Sister’s Bones, the character of Sally, my protagonist’s sister, is a pretty dislikeable character, but once I set about fleshing her out and delving into her background it was clear that there was more to her than the hard, brittle persona she presented to the world. By the end of the novel Sally redeems herself both with her sister Kate and the readers.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

In My Sister’s Bones the characters range from a female war reporter to an ordinary suburban dad to a Syrian child trapped in a war zone and an alcoholic woman living in a new build estate in Kent, so there were many diverse voices to tackle. As a writer I find the best way to capture the essence of a character is to spend time in their habitat. For the Kent part of the story that was simple – I travelled to Herne Bay and spent two weeks immersing myself in the setting, listening to the voices and stories of the people who live there, walking the same streets and seeing the same views that my characters would. The Syrian part of the story was more challenging. I spent a lot of time researching Aleppo, the war, the culture, but I’d always intended the character of Nidal, the Syrian child, to be a universal child, someone we could all relate to. During the time I was writing the novel my husband Nick, a reportage artist, travelled to the Calais refugee camps to document what was happening there. The stories he told me, particularly those from of the children who had fled Syria, chilled my blood. And it was from those stories and my own experience of being a mother to a ten year old boy that shaped the character of Nidal, a little boy who, though trapped in a war zone, just wants to play football, to go to school, to laugh and sing and, most importantly, to be safe; something every child deserves.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Oh gosh, that’s a hard question – there are so many! I guess it would have to be Tolly from The Children of Green Knowe. Tolly is a shy, bookish young boy who goes to stay with his grandmother in an ancient moated house called Green Knowe. Once there he befriends three seventeenth century ghosts and travels back in time to explore the history of the house and the ghosts that haunt it. I loved this book when I was a child and there is a lot of me in Tolly. Like him I was a bit of an introvert but I also have a fascination with ghosts and haunted houses – something that comes through a lot in my work.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I think that depends on my mood at any given moment. Right now I would like to be sitting on a roof terrace in the beautiful Moorish hilltop town of Vejer de la Frontera in Southern Spain. I would work all morning then have lunch of gazpacho, salted tomatoes and a glass of rioja in the town square before retiring for a well-earned siesta. There are certain places that really capture your soul and this is one of them. It was also where, many years ago, I jotted down the opening lines of what would go on to be my first novel.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Any Human Heart by William Boyd. This novel, a beautiful evocation of an ordinary life played out against the pivotal moments of the twentieth century, had such an impact on me when I read it and it has inspired my writing in so many ways. The title is taken from a Henry James line - ‘never say you know the last word about any human heart’ - and that quote pretty much sums up what novel writing is all about for me.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Try to write every day. Read, read and read some more. Get plenty of sleep and a good accountant!

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m currently working on my next novel which tells the story of Maggie Ashford, a woman who wakes from a coma to find her world 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 riverbank. When Maggie begs to see her husband Sean, they tell her that he has disappeared and was last seen on the day of her daughter’s funeral. And so Maggie must piece together what happened that day at the river and why her husband has gone. But she can’t shake the suspicion that somewhere, somehow, her daughter is still alive.

Like My Sister’s Bones, it is a haunting psychological thriller, this time set in the watery marshlands of East Sussex. It will be published by Penguin in 2018.

Follow Nuala on Twitter: @NualaWrites

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