Abigale Hall, by debut author Lauren A Forry is published this week. I love a good creepy tale especially one set in the Welsh countryside and this one is a great read. Abigale Hall is the tale of two sisters who are sent away from post-war London by their aunt to work in an isolated Welsh mansion. Seventeen-year-old Eliza finds evidence of past servants who appear to have come to a sticky end while her sister, Rebecca, comes under the spell of housekeeper Mrs Pollard. It’s deliciously creepy read with a strong sense of menace.
The author, Lauren, has answered some questions about the book as I’m always fascinated how a debut author’s book came into being. Thanks to Lauren for her fascinating and detailed answers.
You’re a debut author. Can you tell me why you decided to write a crime novel?
My dad was a Special Agent for the FBI, so I’ve always been interested in crime. He and I watched all sorts of TV crime and murder mysteries, our two favourites being The X-Files and PBS Masterpiece Mystery!, which had an intro set to animated Edward Gorey drawings and aired British mystery shows like Poirot and Miss Marple, and darker mini-series as well. (PBS is the USA’s main public broadcasting channel.) Both my parents also loved reading mysteries, too. My mom has an autographed copy of an Agatha Christie book that she won for solving the “crime” at a murder-mystery dinner theatre show.
The FBI was definitely my biggest influence growing up, though. I had a toy FBI kit and used to go around fingerprinting my family then dusting for prints in various rooms, trying to see if I could make a match. I also used to walk through the woods around my house, looking for evidence (which usually related to whatever episode of The X-Files aired that week). I probably would have become an FBI agent myself, except I have a compressed disc in my spine that would have prevented me from passing the physical fitness requirements for special agents. But if I couldn’t solve real mysteries, I could at least write my own.
You’ve set most of your book in an isolated Welsh house. What made you choose this location?
I first visited Wales in 2008. I was living in London and working in a pub after graduating university, and I mainly wanted to go to Cardiff to see where they filmed Doctor Who and Torchwood. My mom had never been to Wales, either, so she flew over and came along with me. While I enjoyed seeing Doctor Who filming locations, what really struck me was the beauty of Wales along with its isolation. There was a certain atmosphere there, a different energy, than what I had experienced on previous trips to Ireland and Scotland that really stuck with me.
I never minded isolation because I grew up in a house in a secluded area (though not as secluded as the house in Abigale Hall). I was always amused when my friends from New York and other cities would visit because they would get so scared, just by the silence, as if something was going to jump out of the quiet at any moment. The very first time a close college friend of mine (who lives in the Bronx) visited my house, we were driving back from the bus station, and it was dark and very foggy. When we reached a stop sign, she asked which way we were turning, and I told her we weren’t. My house was straight ahead. She saw the dirt road ahead of us through the fog and shouted, “But we can’t go straight!” To this day, she needs to use a white noise machine when she visits or else she can’t sleep at night.
When I started to brainstorm the idea for Abigale Hall, these two ideas kind of coalesced, and I thought about how difficult it would be for a girl born and bred in London to be suddenly transplanted to such a secluded area, especially in an era without the internet or smart phones that could help her maintain contacts with the familiar. Eliza’s first approach to Abigale Hall definitely has similarities to my friend’s first visit to my house.
The relationship between two sisters is explored in Abigale Hall. Are you interested in writing about family dynamics?
Looking back at previous drafts of novels I’ve written and thinking about the novel I’m finishing now and the one I just started, it looks like am! I hadn’t really thought about it that directly before. I do like exploring what the traditional bonds of family are and if these are natural bonds or ones impressed upon us by society. I also like to see what can happen when those bonds break, or what it will take to make them break.
In Abigale Hall, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be an orphan, but I also wanted her to feel a heavy responsibility towards someone else. Very quickly, the ideas of sisters and how they treated one another came into place. Eliza, the elder one, is the more responsible. She has to do most of the work, and she tries to be a parent as much as she can, even though it’s painfully obvious she is not. Rebecca, the younger, is a bit more sheltered. She’s used to someone taking care of her and doesn’t expect things to be any different. She’s always been the younger sister, while Eliza was once the baby – an only child – who had to adjust to having a sibling.
I’m the youngest of three girls, so I’m very familiar with how sisters interact with one another. There’s a different patter to our conversations when it’s just me and my oldest sister, me and my middle sister, and when all three of us are together. I know they think I was spoiled at times (and I definitely was), which would annoy them but they still always remained very protective of me.
Siblings have an interesting dynamic to write about – how you can both love and dislike this person who has the same parents and the same background, yet remains so different from you. Because my sisters and I have a healthy relationship, it’s fun to explore in fiction what the dark side of those relationships can be.
How much research did you need to do to evoke the post-war period here in the UK?
I didn’t need to do as much as I initially expected, although I did quite a bit. The world has changed quite a lot over the last 70 years but not as much as it has in the last 300-400. In order to help get the period right, I followed two main threads of research – broader historical issues (political attitudes of the public and government, major news incidents of the 1940s, prevailing postwar beliefs) and the day-to-day of everyday life (what people wore, ate, cleaned with, how they got to work).
Most of my research was done through reading. Overall, I read about 50 books total that were research for Abigale Hall. David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 was incredibly valuable to me, as were other historical accounts like Arthur Marwick’s British Society Since 1945. Virginia Nicholson’s Millions Like Us is a remarkable account of women’s lives during WWII, which helped me understand what Eliza and her aunt would have gone through in the preceding years.
I also read many of the edited personal diaries from Mass Observation, like the diaries of Nella Last (Nella Last’s War, Nella Last’s Peace) and Our Hidden Lives, edited by Simon Garfield. Mass Observation was an incredible project for capturing people’s everyday lives, and I’m very fortunate that so many of those entries have been edited and published. I would have liked to go through Mass Observation archives myself, but I didn’t have the time.
About a third of what I read were non-fiction books and the rest were fiction – books written during the time period or close to it (like Mollie Panter-Downes and Patrick Hamilton), other historical fiction (Sarah Waters), or other books of horror/suspense (John Connolly, Patrick McGrath).
I did visit places like the Imperial War Museum, (which before its recent renovation had entire model 1940s house inside), Churchill’s War Rooms, and a few other smaller museums, so I could see items like ration cards and gas masks first hand. It’s one thing to read about Anderson shelters, but it’s another to see how small they really are and imagine yourself laying down inside one while bombs are falling all around.
Who are the authors who have influenced your writing?
The big three are Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Susan Hill. They are masters of suspenseful, psychological terror. I’ve always enjoyed books that toy with the reader’s mind. What is real? What isn’t? Can we trust what our narrator sees or says? They are brilliant at walking that line.
I also love Sarah Waters, especially The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. She captures historical periods so well. I felt like I had no idea how to really write historical fiction until I read her books.
I’m a huge fan of Justin Cronin, too. Reading The Passage is like watching a film. He has such a visual storytelling style. I’m reading The City of Mirrors now (the conclusion to The Passage Trilogy), and I’m torn between wanting to read it as fast as possible and making it last.
And I was a cinema studies major, so film and television often influence me as much as books. The Others, The Orphanage, and Pan’s Labyrinth were big influences as I was writing Abigale Hall.