Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Crime and the paranormal - an interview with Sara Bain, part one.

by Bill Kirton
I seem to be spending a lot of time interviewing other authors nowadays. Following on from last month’s chat with Dorothy Johnston, here’s another with a Scottish writer-friend, Sara Bain. Sara’s a journalist and late last year, she published her first novel. I read a beta version of it and wasn’t surprised to find myself drawn into a powerfully conceived, beautifully written story which ticked all the crime boxes I expected to find but also threw a disturbing paranormal element into the mix. Also, The Sleeping Warrior will be the first publication from a new publisher, Ivy Moon Press. And guess what, it’s Sara herself who’s set it up.
I found her answers so interesting that, rather than edit the conversation down, I decided to split it between two postings. Here’s the first chunk.

First, let’s talk about The Sleeping Warrior. Have you written anything like it before? If so, tell us about it and if not, tell us what sort of writing you have done.
I prefer to read and write within the confines of the ‘fantasy’ genre and all its associated subgenres. Epic fantasy, in particular, is a personal favourite and one that I’ve been reading since I was a little child and writing since I was a bigger child. That said, when I started submitting my work to traditional publishing houses, I was often told that my fantasy was not ‘epic’ enough, in that there was not enough magic in the primary plot and not enough magical creatures running around my world.

My problem is that I like real people and put them in real situations, albeit with a long stretch of the imagination. I can’t write about something I don’t believe in. Orcs and dwarves don’t work for me, although the supernatural and a belief system in heaven and hell does.

I wrote The Sleeping Warrior as a challenge to traditional publishers’ fixation for genre classification.  I decided to write a contemporary novel which crossed as many fictional genres as I could cope with; which was populated by as many cliché antiheroes from fashionable fiction that I could stuff into the story without losing the plot, so to speak; and which had an element of fantasy woven into the narrative.

For some reason, it worked for me.

Hmmm, ‘challenging traditional publishers’ fixations’. You obviously know what they, as well as agents and readers for that matter, feel about genres and how they like their authors to fit neatly into them, so isn’t your challenge rather a bold move?
Maybe, but I’ve noticed that, where a couple of years ago publishers would instantly reject novels that failed to fit neatly into the limited library classifications of fiction, they’ve now opened the submission sluice gates to the more speculative or slipstream genres: something that was anathema to them only a little while ago. I believe that, with the coming of the mighty Amazon, publishers are no longer in control of what people read and are genuinely surprised that readers are choosing for themselves. 

So what are you offering readers to counteract any possible resistance to genres being mixed?
I believe that a strong plot and strong characterisation are the true benchmarks of a good story, regardless of setting.

Well, there’s no doubt that the crime aspects of the book in particular are very real, pacey, gripping. Did you have to change gear or somehow change the way you thought as you shifted between that and paranormal/fantasy mode?
Not at all. Gabriel is the fantasy element in the book: the stranger who turns up one day and turns people’s lives into hell before making them better people for having met him. He could happen to anyone.

He’s certainly a striking character (and phenomenon). Do you see the supernatural as being an extension of ordinary reality, some feature of the subconscious perhaps, or is it purely fantastical, an escape?
I believe the supernatural is anything and everything that can’t be explained by science or logical reason, so, syllogistically, it must exist. Just because something can’t be explained or proven doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

When I was a journalist for a local newspaper a few years ago, I ran a regular feature on hauntings in my region. This not only involved interviewing the owners of the allegedly haunted buildings, but also the physical investigation of the sites. I must admit, most of the time, I was absolutely terrified but, mercifully, I saw and experienced nothing other-wordly so I wasn’t haunted by the experience.

I like to think that, if I witness something personally, then I’ll believe it. I do, however, keep an open mind just in case someone or something does come back from the dead and tries to convince me otherwise.

Tell us about your characters. Were some easier to create than others? Are there any with whom you did or didn’t like spending time?
There are a lot of characters to juggle in The Sleeping Warrior but their characteristics are so different from one another that it was quite easy to keep up with them. Carl, Libby’s boss, is the one character I particularly dislike. He has so few redemptive personal qualities that it was difficult for even Gabriel to save him. I did think of killing him off quite early in the plot, but he worked too well.

And how about the difference between males and females? Did you find them equally easy to inhabit?
I don’t think I’m one of those writers who possesses the minds of characters and manipulates them from the inside. I tend to let them get on with life while I take a back seat – a bit like God. All my books involve a vast array of characters – both good and bad, male and female, young and old, poor and rich – they tend to interact better when I’m not trying to control them and the story progresses organically.

It sounds as if you maybe don’t do much plotting beforehand. Is that true? Or do you need to have a fairly rigid idea of where you’re heading?
I start with a character and then a few more come along. I don’t plot and I don’t draw mind maps or make lists. I may have a general inkling as to where I want them to go and what I want them to do once they’ve got there, but sometimes that doesn’t work. I tend to go where my characters lead me and trust that they will get there in the end. Often the end is a surprise, even to me.

OK, time for the intermission. Next time we’ll say a wee bit more about the book, then turn to the new publishing venture and more general thoughts on Sara’s approach to writing.

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