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Interview with Helen Giltrow

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Helen Giltrow published her debut novel, The Distance, in 2001 having been shortlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger the previous year. Here, Helen talks to Chris High about the novel and how The Debut Dagger impacted upon her writing career.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the detail involved in the novel. How much research did you undertake before starting the novel?

Very little at the outset. It’s tempting to get immersed in research early on, but whenever I’ve succumbed, I’ve always found later that I don’t need or can’t use a lot of the research I’ve done. Instead I try to do just enough to make sure the plot can work, then focus on getting the story on to the page.  I started detailed research for The Distance only when I was confident of the plot, the characters and the structure – which must have been about three drafts in.

The Program is a pretty scary, dystopian view of incarceration. How did you develop the imagery behind its creation and inmate “running”?

I wanted to put my male lead, the hit-man Simon Johanssen, into the toughest, most challenging environment possible. He’s a consummate professional whose M.O. involves killing quickly and cleanly, and then walking away; but underneath that he does have a moral code, and I wanted the conditions within the Program to force that code out into the open, by confronting him with people and situations he can’t walk away from. Pretty much every aspect of that environment – including Johanssen’s encounters with the psychopath Brice – spring out of that impulse to expose his morality.

Later I did a lot of reading about conditions within UK and US prisons – US prisons are culturally and socially very different places to their UK equivalents, and that definitely fed into my ideas for the Program. But essentially the place is designed around Johanssen’s character.

The pace of the novel is relentless with several story strands running through consistently. How do you go about planning your story arcs so that everything ties together so well as The Distance does?

I can’t plan. I’ve tried, but the resulting plots never work. Instead I’ll get a couple of characters I’m interested in, write a first draft to explore what might happen to them, then back off, read it through, cut what doesn’t work, and develop what does into the next draft. I can work through several drafts that way. Also, as a book progresses I’ll start to work on scenes out of running order; so I might skip forward to write a pivotal scene between two characters, then double back in the book to fill in an earlier scene between them. Or I might shuttle between two linked scenes, developing both at the same time. I’m always looking at the way scenes fit together, or impact on each other. As a process it’s very trial-and-error. Time-consuming too, but I haven’t found another way that works.

The pace of The Distance is pretty relentless, even in the quietest moments (to paraphrase Supertramp). Is this intentional or is the pace dictated by the story you are telling?

It’s very much intentional. I remember reading the first draft, which was hugely flawed; afterwards I sat down and wrote on a sheet of paper the key elements I wanted to tackle in the next draft, and right at the top were the words PACE PACE PACE. Some of that was addressed through tightening the plot, but I did a lot of work on language as well, in terms of both sentence structure and vocabulary. There were definitely times when it felt like I’d built myself a Formula One car; I kept thinking, ‘If I do this, will it go faster? Or this?’

How did being shortlisted for the Debut Dagger affect your career as a writer?

I can’t stress enough how much it did for my confidence. Stephen King’s UK editor, Philippa Pride, was on the judging panel and she wrote a wonderfully encouraging letter to me afterwards. I had approaches from agents as well. It was the first time I’d submitted anything as an adult, so to get that sort of response had a big impact. It carried me through a tough few years when I had to pretty much stop writing in order to care for family members. And when The Distance was finally finished, I could email my enquiry out to agents with ‘CWA Debut Dagger shortlisted’ in the subject line. No agent worth their salt will take on a writer on the strength of a shortlisting alone, but I’m sure it got the submissions read that bit faster.  

How has being a former bookseller and editor been of benefit to your career?

In my early 20s I worked in a mini-chain in London, where I was buyer for the crime section. I still love bookshops (I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Real Books person) but I’m not sure it’s had a huge bearing on my career.

As for being an editor ... Well, I was in educational publishing; it’s a world away from trade fiction, with no points of overlap, so when it came to approaching agents I didn’t have a healthy list of contacts to call upon. In fact I knew nobody. I think there’s an idea that a career as an editor gives you an advantage when it comes to getting a book deal; that may be true if you work in trade fiction, but otherwise, no.

What I do have is a good knowledge of publishing processes, and an understanding of how publishing houses work. I’m a decent proofreader too. But I’m still finding things I didn’t know.

Which part of being a writer do you both enjoy and dislike most?

I love the writing. And most of all, the moment when you suddenly start ‘getting’ a book. Just once in a while the ideas will come so quickly, it’s almost like a download: you just have to grab a pen and some paper and try to keep up. That can last up to five days, and when it happens it’s extraordinary.

The part I dislike most? I have to say, I found the move from editor to contracted author tough in that as an editorial manager, you know everything and you run the show. As an author, you don’t, unless you self-publish, so you have to make a judgement on how much you need or want that information and how much you should push for it. It’s a balancing act that I haven’t got right yet. I know it’s not for me to manage the process of publishing my own book ... and yet, hand on heart, I still find it difficult not to be heavily involved. But my editor’s very good, and very supportive, so I’m pretty sure that between us we’ll find a compromise that works for me.

When and why did you decide that this was the “job” for you?

I started churning out stories as soon as I could write. I’ve still got my first book – I must have been five or six when I wrote it. So it’s something I’ve always done. I can’t imagine not doing it.

If you had the choice, who would you like to see playing Johanssen and Karla on the big screen?

I have no idea. Though people keep suggesting Hayley Atwell for Karla.

What’s next?

Finishing the sequel has to be top of the list. In fact, finishing the sequel is probably the only item on the list right now.

If you would like to comment on this interview with Helen Giltrow in 2015, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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