Last Friday I met the lovely Sarah Perry, author of ‘After Me Comes the Flood’, ‘The Essex Serpent’, and most recently ‘Melmoth’.
I was lucky enough to blag a couple of tickets to the Stylist Live event where Sarah was speaking about how to write horror fiction and the influence of the gothic in her writing.
I was really struck by how down-to-earth and funny Sarah was. She also inspired two of my friends to start writing!
During her talk she gave some great advice for aspiring authors, the main points of which I’ll hope to do justice to here.
Don’t copy other people’s styles
Even if you absolutely adore someone’s writing style, try to avoid copying them as your work will just be a pale imitation. Read lots of different things to broaden your horizons and try and find the style that is uniquely yours.
Accept it’s going to be a bumpy ride
Sarah’s work was turned down several times – as all the best people’s work is. Her advice was to accept that the process is going to invite a few knock backs, but to keep working away at it anyway.
Write to be published
If it’s your goal to be published, write what you want to write and then spend all your time trying to improve it. While creative writing exercises work for some people, they are not Sarah’s preferred way of writing.
You can write a novel in the bath
At least partially! Sarah said she worked out a lot of the thornier bits of her plotline in the bath or staring out of a window. There’s hope for us all.
Set an internet blocker
If you’re prone to procrastination, Sarah recommends using software called ‘Freedom‘ to block the internet for 55 minutes at a time and using noise-cancelling headphones to properly get in the zone. She assured us it was possible to write a huge amount even if we did succumb to the occasional Netflix binge.
A few gothic inspirations
During her talk Sarah recommended reading Andrew Michael Hurley (who I was also delighted to see talk at the recent literature festival in Cheltenham), as his work doesn’t follow your typical gothic tropes but still manages to imbue everything with a real sense of dread. He has written a few gothic novels including ‘The Loney’ and the more recent ‘Devil’s Day’. Hilary Mantel’s gothic work, which predates the historical fiction she is most famous for, also came highly recommended.
A thought on what makes gothic fiction good
According to Sarah, it’s no coincidence that the revival of gothic fiction comes at a time of instability and general unease. It can’t be divorced from the Western world’s recent lurch to the political right and all the fears that naturally accompany it. Secondly, gothic fiction plays on our fears about ourselves and can be an externalisation of our most taboo worries and innermost thoughts.
I caught up with Sarah after the talk to grab a signed copy of ‘Melmoth’. Her latest novel is all about a mysterious figure named Melmoth who is present at moments of humanity’s worst behaviour, always caught just in the corner of your eye.
The protagonist of the story, Helen, is an isolated figure who, having secluded herself from most human company, begins to read the manuscripts describing Melmoth. But could this terrifying figure actually be real?
My question to Sarah
Of course I couldn’t stand in front of Sarah Perry without asking my own question about writing! I was a little bit star-struck but did ask a question that has been bothering me lately in my own writing, which is how to decide whether to go for a first or a third person narration.
If anyone else is having similar issues, Sarah’s advice was that if you want to create quite a restrictive and isolated narrative (but have the freedom to play on that and create intrigue and maybe even distrust between the reader and narrator) pick a first person narrator. If you want to fully emotionally inhabit more than one person and not give more weight to one side of the story than another, use the third person.
However often the best way, she says, is to just try out a section in each and see which feels right.
It was really great to meet Sarah and I hope you find her tips as useful as I did!