Today I’m pleased to welcome Holly Seddon to the blog. Holly is the author of Try Not to Breathe which is published by Corvus on 7 January 2016. Holly kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Try Not to Breathe.
Try Not to Breathe is a psychological thriller that centres on a horrible attack on 15-year-old Amy Stevenson in 1995. Amy has been in a persistent vegetative state ever since, stuck in her own body and all but forgotten until journalist Alex Dale stumbles across her. Alex is barely keeping her head above water. She’s drunk away her marriage, her friendships and a high profile journalism career. She becomes obsessed with Amy’s story, determined to solve the mystery of who hurt her once and for all. It becomes all-consuming and ultimately life-changing.
2. What inspired the book?
I was cooking a roast dinner one Sunday and half-listening to a health programme on Radio 4. The topic was persistent vegetative states. Someone described the condition as “a living death” and my ears pricked up. I started to think about what it must be like to love someone in that condition, to watch them stay the same while everything changes around them and then I started to think about the other side of the coin, what it could feel like for people lying motionless for years while everyone around them moves on. And then I imagined someone being stuck there as a teenager as the result of a vicious crime. And then I started writing.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
I have an outline but I don’t have a chapter plan. I have to know the beginning, middle and the end, and who the main characters are when I start. I have to know ‘whodunit’! But I need to get writing quickly, I can’t stop myself, and find I get to know the characters as I write. New supporting characters will also pop up as I go and that will often take the story into unexpected places.
It’s tricky to say how long it takes because with Try Not to Breathe it was very stop-start. I was fitting writing around work and family, and had to prioritise paid work over daydreams. There were also some big life changes happening at the same time so the manuscript kept taking a back seat. In other words, it took years. But now I’m able to prioritise writing, and I say that knowing how flaming lucky I am, I write fast. It takes about six months for a 85,000 word first draft. But then there’s all that editing… the finished result will be longer, and lots of the original draft will have been cut along the way.
4. Having been through the creative process of writing and publishing a novel what have you learnt that you wish you’d known before you started?
To be ruthless and to trust my gut.
I had to kill my darlings over and over again in the editing process and the book was all the better for it. I also knew deep down when a character wasn’t quite right, or dialogue was a bit unrealistic and laboured, but I left it in that first draft because I was focussed on finishing and having the word count. Obviously it all had to be whipped out, it’s not about the number of words, it’s about the quality of the story.
When I write now, I don’t spend time polishing as I write, I just get it all down so it’s like a big lump of stone and then I chisel and chisel and polish and polish. That works better – and a lot faster! – for me. It also helps the writing flow freely, and I enjoy that a lot. I read an interview last year with Kazuo Ishiguro about how he wrote the first draft of The Remains of the Day in four weeks because he just, basically, thrashed it out. Not planning, stopping, starting but just locking himself away and writing until he was spent, every day. That was so inspiring to me, and so freeing. I have four kids so the thought of locking myself away writing for 12 hours a day is just a pipedream, but I take the same approach with every bit of writing time I can get.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I weightlift. I absolutely love it. I started running and working out in 2010 and from there became a bit obsessed. I love pushing myself to lift heavier and heavier, and the pride that comes with completing a challenging set. Breaking down a big challenge into sets and reps is very relevant to planning and working on a novel, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my fitness journey – if that doesn’t sound too ugh – ran parallel to my writing path.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
Illywhacker by Peter Carey – and not just because it’s really long (569 pages) so that’s a bit of a cheat. This book more than any other opened my eyes to the possibilities of stretching a story, of playing with the reader’s trust and understanding, of taking an incredibly unreliable narrator, with an unbelievable backstory and outlandish characters, and making you feel like you’re really there and these ridiculous people existed. I read it when I was 14 or 15, but I was fascinated by the protagonist – 139-year-old Herbert Badgery – and also found that the life events being wrapped in real life events got my little history-loving heart pumping in a way history lessons at school never had. It’s hilarious and strange and brilliant – I recommend it to anyone whose never read it. All Peter Carey books, actually.
7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
That question would be: “Would you like someone to come to your house and look after the kids and the dog and make dinner so that you can get on with your work in progress?” And the answer would be “YES!”
Thanks very much for answering my questions and for appearing on my blog.
About the book:
“You won’t be able to put it down.
Just remember to breathe.
Alex is sinking. Slowly but surely, she’s cut herself off from everything but her one true love – drink. Until she’s forced to write a piece about a coma ward, where she meets Amy.
Amy is lost. When she was fifteen, she was attacked and left for dead in a park. Her attacker was never found. Since then, she has drifted in a lonely, timeless place. She’s as good as dead, but not even her doctors are sure how much she understands.
Alex and Amy grew up in the same suburbs, played the same music, flirted with the same boys. And as Alex begins to investigate the attack, she opens the door to the same danger that has left Amy in a coma…”