Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Author Interview: Michelle Harrison (Unrest)

Today is a good day because I have another interview with the lovely Michelle Harrison! In case you don't know, Michelle is, in my opinion, one of the UK's best authors, and her new book and first for teenagers, Unrest, is published this week. Her previous series for slightly younger readers, The 13 series, is one of my all-time favourites and is a brilliant mix of fairies and fantasy. Give them a read if you haven't already!

Anyway, on with the interview, which I believe is the third Michelle has done for me over the years. Thank you!


What was your writing process like for Unrest? Were there lots of drafts and re-writes?

Looking back over all of my books, it almost seems that Unrest was the most straightforward to write. While there were three drafts, the rewriting was minimal. The main problem was the length, and from the first draft to the last I cut twenty thousand words. I deleted ten before it went to my editor, and with her help cut another ten and made things much tighter, omitting superfluous scenes and even a character. Unrest wasn’t straightforward, though. Some things about writing get easier with experience, but I struggled with it just as much as my earlier books. Maybe more, because with each book I set new standards and try to learn from past mistakes. I had days when I couldn’t write a thing because I felt overwhelmed by the story and didn’t know how to move it on, and not being able to do that when you have a deadline is incredibly frustrating. Getting stuck has its benefits, though. I spent more time researching and came across things that became really important to the storyline – things I would have otherwise missed.

What kind of research did you do into ghosts and hauntings?

I feel as if I’ve been researching ghosts and hauntings my whole life. Anyone who knew me as a kid could tell you that I was fascinated by the idea of an afterlife even then. If there’s a film about ghosts, I’ll watch it. If there’s a book or a news story I’ll read it, even if it scares me – and I admit that the thought of ghosts terrifies me. By the time I started Unrest I considered myself prepared on the supernatural angle, so most of my research was geared towards sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences. However, a couple of years ago, just after 13 Treasures was published, I visited Chambercombe Manor in Devon and took a guided tour. In addition to the general history of the house, there were several ghost stories. One of them, the tale of a hanged servant, really disturbed me and was one of the first things I thought about when I got the initial idea for Unrest. I’ve since been on a ghost walk in Bath and visited other historical places but none of them affected me in the same way.

I know you're a big fan of horror stories, whether it be in books or films. Did you find that your interest in the genre made a big difference to how you approached Unrest?

I think it must have. I suppose it’s like any kind of story; as a reader you know what works for you and what doesn’t, and likewise, what scares you and what doesn’t. As with every genre there are so many tired old clich├ęs – my biggest eye rolls usually go to the false scare: character closes bathroom cabinet to a jab of eerie music and a face in the mirror behind them, only to realise it’s their dad/boyfriend etc. I find those things a bit cheap and try to avoid doing it. That said, I can’t stand relentless scares from the start, either. Getting tension and suspense right can be tough. Films such as The Sixth Sense and The Gift handle this perfectly – good plots, lots of creepy, uneasy parts plus a handful of terrifying, gruesome scenes designed to shock and resonate. And most importantly, you care about the characters. This is what I’ve aimed to create in Unrest.

Unrest is your first novel for teenagers, after the 13 Treasures series which was aimed at slightly younger readers. How has your style changed for this book?

Well firstly, I gave my characters permission to swear! While this is nothing new in the YA market, and is neither excessive nor at the higher end of the bleep-o-meter (my one use of the f-bomb never even made it to my editor) it was new for me and I felt a certain liberation in that. I guess it really ties in with my next point about style: the voice being that of a contemporary seventeen-year-old boy. My previous series was written from a third person, female perspective in a classic fantasy setting, so to complete the differentiation I knew from the start that I’d write Unrest in first person. My biggest challenge was to nail Elliott’s voice and make it authentic and believable. I don’t know any seventeen year-old boys, but I remember sneakily listening to them when I was at college and I don’t think the basics have changed much. I tried to see through Elliott’s eyes and to view and react to situations more practically, and less emotionally. This isn’t to say I think women lack practicality, or that men aren’t in touch with their emotions – just that men and boys are generally more guarded, in my experience. As a result Elliott’s language, and therefore the tone of the book, is sparser and more direct than anything I’ve written previously.

I always have to ask about covers, and this one is lovely. What are your thoughts? 

It’s everything I wanted. Classic, eerie, and iconic - a simple idea brilliantly executed. In my opinion it doesn’t conform to any of the YA cover trends and I think it stands out because of that. I also think it has equal boy/girl appeal, and extending my readership to include more boys is something I hope for.

Going from fairies to ghosts means you're still very much in the supernatural realm. Which creature or phenomenon do you plan to tackle next?

The next book is being negotiated right now and it’s about my other favourite supernatural subject: witchcraft. There will be elements of spirits and entities being invoked, so I think it’ll follow on nicely from Unrest.

Lastly, if you had to choose three songs that remind you of Unrest, which would you choose and why?

Unrest is the first book I created a play list for, although actually it’s more soundtrack than play list (I’m rubbish at listening to music while writing). The full list will be featured later this week on So Many Books, So Little Time, but my three favourites are: Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon – Elliott’s older brother, Adam, is in a band and there’s a scene where Elliott and Ophelia watch them play. Elliott describes Adam singing well-chosen lines to pretty girls in the audience, despite his girlfriend being present. I know that if I was one of those girls, this is the song that would make my knees buckle – which is essentially Adam’s speciality! Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush – I played this a lot while I wrote Unrest. The more I listened to it, the more I felt that Ophelia would be a Kate Bush fan. That’s not typical of most seventeen-year-olds, but neither is Ophelia. The song is referenced in the book in the same scene as above, and although it’s not exactly current I felt it could work as Adam would be familiar with the newer Placebo version. A Historic Love by Trevor Morris – this is an instrumental piece, and history fans may recognise it from a somewhat raunchy scene in The Tudors. When I hear this I think of Elliott and Ophelia in the orchard at Past Lives. The title says it all.


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Vivienne said...

Such a fabulous interview. Well done ladies.

SusanKMann said...

Great interview. x

Cliona said...

Amazing interview! I NEED Unrest!