Helen Callaghan is the author of the bestselling novels Dear Amy and Everything is Lies. I’m waiting excitedly to read her new book Night Falls, Still Missing which is set in Orkney and is due out next month. Helen is one of my favourite writers and a dear friend. I first met her in a writing group in London over ten years ago. Here she talks about her next book, learning to scuba dive and jewellery as talismans.
Ally: Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?
Helen: I’m working on the next book, which is tentatively called Undine. In it, Cass and Sid lose their father in a tragic diving accident while exploring the wreck of the HMS Undine, and inherit his diving school on the Cornish coast.
Once Cass returns from university, she discovers Sid is now living in their house with Adam, one of the dive shop’s employees who she has promoted to manager. Cass very quickly realises that he is running the shop, the school, and her sister into the ground.
Things get worse after a student finds something incriminating during a wreck dive at the Undine. Cass begins to wonder now whether her father’s death was an accident or murder…
Undine is a challenging book in a number of ways. As part of the research I had to learn to scuba dive. It is fair to say that I was not, ahem, a natural. In fact I had my first ever panic attack in the flooded quarry in Leicestershire where you go to qualify.
However, there is something I learned about scuba diving that I could take into life – and that is that it requires surrender. There is a point underwater where you are simply too far down to think ’Sod this, this is too scary’ and fire yourself back up to the surface. The pressure changes could kill you.
You’re down there in the cold, with the surface world flickering twenty feet above you like a distorted mirror, and that’s that, for now. You’re staying. That surrender was its own revelation.
Ally: Do you have a favourite adornment? Does it have a story?
Helen: it’s so hard to choose! For years I’d bought and been given beautiful jewellery, which I really loved, but it was always costume jewellery which eventually faded, or, if you like, occult jewellery such as crystals and amber which had specific purposes. It never struck me as wise to buy expensive pieces, as I am forever losing single earrings and breaking thin chains.
But when Dear Amy came out, I wanted to celebrate that milestone – I’d been writing for all of my life and this was my first published novel. I was at a writers retreat on the island of Mull and in the silversmiths there I saw this necklace.
The hare just spoke to me. For years I carried a little quartz hare I bought in Avebury around in my handbag, and I have no idea what happened to it. This seemed a fitting replacement. The first hare I ever saw in real life was in a field just outside of Wayland’s Smithy, and I have always associated them with Spring, freshness, and creativity.
I often wear this necklace and the matching earrings whenever I am in public representing my books – when I need to box clever – and it’s always brought me luck.
Ally: Is there another artist, writer, dancer or maker that you think we should be paying attention to now?
Helen: There are so many fantastic artists and writers around. I have read some wonderful books lately, but the two that really spring to mind are Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy.
Ghost Wall is slender, a novella almost, and is about a young girl, Sylvie, whose father is obsessed with experimental archaeology. He drags his family with him to live in camps reenacting his version of the past in an authoritarian, male-centred way. At the same time, through exposure to university students and villagers, the main character comes into contact with other interpretations of the ancient world and gender roles. I though it was amazingly compact and thoughtful – so much to say in such a short space.
Her latest, Summerwater, is due out in August, and I am counting the days until then.
The Man Who Saw Everything is more difficult to talk about without spoiling the central conceit, but it was just so technically adroit and beautifully imagined, spanning from the 70s to the modern day via Cold War East Germany, and is that wonderful thing – a book that looks vague and bitty initially, but is in fact a precision machine. I also loved Hot Milk and her memoir on writing, Things I Don’t Want To Know is fascinating and thoughtful.