Helen Callaghan is the author of the Sunday Times best-selling psychological thriller, Dear Amy.
Before her writing career took off, she worked as a student nurse, a bookseller and went to Cambridge University to study Archaeology as a mature student. She enjoys medieval cookery and lives in Cambridge.
How did you start writing? Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a published writer?
I’d been writing since I was teenager - the first draft of Dear Amy was completed when I was 21 years old! It was something I always did, but about ten years ago I joined a writing group. That galvanised me, and after that I never looked back.
Do you carry a notebook around with you to jot down ideas and storylines?
I do carry a notebook, which I’ll sometimes use if I’m out on the road. For story ideas and snippets I’m more likely to use my phone (because I always have my phone, but don’t always have my bag!) There’s an app called Evernote which is just fantastic - not only can I type in bits and pieces, but I can record my voice and take photos too.
Why did you choose to write crime fiction and psychological thrillers?
I love writing the thrillers particularly because they are an opportunity for me to examine my own fears - fears of the dark, of strangers, of being alone or betrayed. It’s very cathartic.
Which authors do you most admire?
So many! I’m a big fangirl of the Gothic. I love Iain Banks Angela Carter, the Brontes. The best book from last year wasThe Girls by Emma Cline, which I read because I was writing about a cult, and it’s about a cult. It was also so much more - I thought it was amazing.
Do you sketch out a character description before you start writing?
Oh yes, for all the good it does! But the only thing you can guarantee is that the descriptions will radically change. When I write a chapter breakdown the same thing happens - no way will it resemble the finished book, but it’s a place to start.
To quote Eisenhower: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Where did the inspiration come from for Dear Amy?
Dear Amy was unusual in that the idea of it appeared whole cloth in my head - I think, in retrospect, I was young when the Yorkshire Ripper was stalking the North of England and it’s hard to overstate the fear and dread in those years. I wrote a draft in about two months and not much changed over the years. It’s very peculiar, as that almost never happens for me. Normally there are bits and pieces - a single scene at the heart of the book, a sense of a character and the central dilemma of their life, and I build the book out of that.
How did you research it?
Reading, the internet, and also, for the Grove, the house at the heart of the novel, I drove out and visited some Jacobean houses, such as Gravetye Manor and Felbrigg Hall. There is nothing quite like being in the place to get your imagination firing.
How often do you write? Do you set yourself a word target or do you just write when you feel inspired?
I set a target of a thousand words a day. Inspiration is something you plough forwards towards - it rarely appears on demand.
What do you most enjoy about writing?
Losing yourself in it. There are times when hours pass by in the blink of an eye, and when you look back over the words you don’t remember putting them down.
How has the success of Dear Amy affected your life?
It’s transformed it in that I get to do what I love first and foremost, instead of trying to fit it into the cracks of everything else. But it’s also scary, because previously there were no consequences for failure, and your failures are how you grow as a writer. That said, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Can you tell us about your next book?
Yes, I can! It’s called Everything Is Lies and it’s the story of Sophia, a young architect who lives in London, who returns home to Suffolk to find her mum dead and dad mortally wounded in what looks like an attempted murder-suicide. She’s astounded and devastated by this as she had no idea anything was wrong. As she digs deeper, she discovers that her mum, Nina, was involved with a cult in her youth - and furthermore was about to publish her experiences…
It’s coming out in February next year, and I couldn’t be more excited.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, I’m working on the third thriller now (no title yet), which is set in Orkney, and about Fiona, an archaeologist that hates digging, that agrees to go up there to help out a friend and gets much more than she bargained for.
I’m really enjoying it as Orkney is a fantastic setting, full of the sea and sky, and the book speaks to a lot of the things that fascinate me - secrets that people keep, even from themselves, and the front that we put out to the world.
Dear Amy is out in large print this month. Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna.