Helen Mathews on Storycrafting, Singing & Wine
Another interview with an author, this time with Helen Mathews. author of Façade. Helen happens to be the 17th author I have the privilege to showcase. And, this fantastic author became a bestseller yesterday! I am so excited to share insights into her life and writing, so without further ado, here's Helen!
What is the first story you remember telling (not necessarily writing)?
When I was about five years old and my sister Fran was two, I made up a story game called ‘Walking Along’ and forced our long-suffering dad to play it before we’d go to bed. So, every evening when he said ‘Wash, brush teeth, bed,’ Fran and I ran upstairs, crouched down on the landing and shouted out: ‘Play Walking Along’. Dad had to pretend he was on a walk and had stumbled on something new. I’d tell him what he’d discovered that day, usually a compound like ‘snapdragon’ or two words like ‘snow drop’. There was a script Dad had to follow and it went like this:
I was walking along the road one day when, suddenly, I looked down and saw … a snow drop! So I picked up the snow [he had to pick up one of us] and it went pitter pat – Dad then had to wave whichever one of us he was holding around in the air and act out the pitter pat motion of falling snow. And I picked up the drop – he’d then pick up the other one of us and pretend to drop – then catch – her.
We loved this game and found it hilarious. Our dad not so much. It carried on for at least a year, as we grew heavier for him to pick up.
But what a workout for him! What an imagination. What was your favorite game to play as a child?
On the board games front, I guess I enjoyed Monopoly because it went on for so long and forced adults in the family to give their time and attention. My dad (who seems to be featuring in this interview quite a bit) was colour blind so games where you used red, green or brown counters were hopeless because he’d always be moving the wrong piece. Initially I was a bad loser and hated to be beaten in games but, gradually, games taught me to overcome the need to always win – a great lesson for life and, especially, for writing because you have to be stoic in the face of rejection.
When I saw the word ‘games’, my first thought was of games and activities my friends and I used to invent when we were around 7-9 years old. We were highly creative in money-making schemes. We’d handwrite story magazines and sell them to neighbours in our street – who actually would give us a few coins. We graduated to selling other stuff, including picking flowers from people’s gardens, making them into ‘bouquets’ and selling them at the neighbours’ front doors. We were lucky to live in an area where the neighbours indulged us.
What nice neighbors. My neighbors show up for a visit and find us boiling skulls or painting skulls or sanding horns. I should mention they are animal skulls. Hmm, we might have a skull problem.
How many languages do you speak? Which is your favorite?
I studied quite a few languages at school – French, German, Latin (!) and Welsh – and I’ve since dabbled with Spanish, but I’m not really a linguist and can only really cope with speaking one other language. This has had to be French.
When our children were young, we were on a camping holiday in France and my husband and I impulse-bought a ruined farm building on the west coast, thinking it would be easy to convert it into a holiday home. It wasn’t. We had to wade through so much French bureaucracy to sort out the paperwork and get planning permission for our project. I went to an evening class at college to rapidly upskill my French and, over the next three years, I improved my French to first year undergraduate level and spent a week at a summer school at the University of Caen. Turning our former cowshed into a small house took years and we spent all our family holidays in a caravan on a building site. The house is finished now – simple but perfect for us and we’ve spent many happy times there. I can now chat in French with builders, tradesmen and neighbours and sort out most of the problems we have with French bureaucracy. We’re about 15 minutes from the coast and it’s hard to explain the magic of sitting outside a restaurant, eating moules frites, while watching the sun set slowly over the Atlantic.
Sweet, when can I come to visit? I speak fluent dog, cat, and horse but can only ask for a beer or "where is the bathroom" in Spanish.
Everyone asks authors about inspiration, including me. Who inspired you to write your debut novel?
My dad was a frustrated (and gifted) writer who put his ambition on hold until he retired so he didn’t have enough years to fulfil his dreams. Dad won several prizes for stories and some were broadcast on radio and included in anthologies, but he never produced a novel or a full length work of fiction. When he was young (and he was quite a bit older than my mum) he lived in London and mixed with a group of sci-fi writers, including Arthur C Clarke who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wish he’d had more time to achieve his writing ambitions and lived long enough to see his daughter win a few fiction prizes and have three novels published.
I am sure he is proud. He obviously had a huge impact on your decision to get into writing.
You are asked what your least favorite color is knowing that it will forever be erased from existence. Would you give your answer?
Mine is grey – a colour that’s been incredibly popular in interior décor for the past 5-10 years but the thought of using it in a house makes me deeply depressed. I know designers dress it up and give paint shades evocative names, like Elephant’s Breath, but it does nothing for me. Imagine if there was no grey – no gloomy weather, the sky would always be blue (or white on cloudy days), our hair colour would stay forever young and our moods would be sunny and optimistic.
Okay, fine. I asked the question. But, you should meet my dog. A gunmetal blue dog, ahem, grey. Although he would be cool if he was brown, I guess. :)
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Star Wars – the original trilogy, not so much the recent ones. And I love the theme music.
The theme music...I have it as an alarm. I also like, "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
I've some (possibly) crazy weird hobbies. See above for the skull decorating. Anyway, I also like quilting and raising rabbits. What are your hobbies (besides reading and writing)?
I’m a keen cyclist and during our first UK lockdown (March to May) we weren’t allowed to see anyone outside our household even to go for a walk outside. I cycled solo almost every day. My typical daily routes were between 10-22 miles but by the end of the summer I’d clocked up around 1,500 miles.
I also sing in a choir. I hadn’t sung since childhood, apart from a few Karaoke sessions where someone suggested to me I should join a choir. It was quite intimidating at first because the one I joined isn’t a rock choir but a full-on choral society where we sing and perform amazing works like Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem. I couldn’t sight read music when I joined (I can now) and had to learn by ear, so I was very dependent on the singers standing next to me. Making fantastic music with others is incredibly uplifting and good for your mental health. A highlight was when some of us travelled to New York in 2016 to sing in a massed choir event at Carnegie Hall.
How cool is that? 1,500 miles? And a singer? You, Helen, are cool.
What is your favorite sport to play? To watch? Or, what is your least favorite to play or watch?
As well as cycling, I love swimming. I used to play tennis but a couple of years ago I broke my ankle and, although it’s healed and the metal’s been removed, I think it’s safer to watch! I enjoy the grand slams: Wimbledon, and the US, French and Australian Opens.
I’m also a fan of rugby and football (soccer) but I’m tribal in this and tend to watch to support my teams. So, because I’m Welsh, I support Wales in rugby and, in football, I support Liverpool FC because I went to university there and started going to football matches as a student.
The zombie apocalypse will happen in two days. You are fully stocked with food, water, and toilet paper (who isn't these days??). What is the one thing you will have stocked up on as your guilty pleasure?
Wine for me. French white – Chablis, Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé. They’re a bit expensive for everyday drinking but – come the apocalypse – who cares?
I would have to have those sponge cakes filled with creamy white sweetness. No, I didn't copy Tallahassee from a certain movie called Zombieland. He just reinforced my cravings.
Speaking of movies, what movie sequel would you erase from history and why?
This is tricky because there’s a not-very-good sequel in one of my favourite ever trilogies: The Godfather. Parts I and II are movie masterpieces but Godfather III is somewhat clunky and doesn’t live up to the quality of the earlier parts. I wouldn’t really want it erased but perhaps it could be remade? Though, come to think of it, that would be no good without Al Pacino and he’s a bit too old for that role now. Despite my quibble, the finale of The Godfather III is amazing and I love how it’s set in the opera house in Palermo, where multiple assassinations are carried out, to the music of the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, which also chronicles a feud and revenge killing. Every couple of years I have an urge to rewatch the Godfather trilogy and, even though I own the boxset, if I can’t find it, I pay to download it.
Will you think poorly of me if I admit to not ever seeing those movies?
Don't answer that.
What is one food you could never bring yourself to eat and why?
Offal. Or anything with eyes staring up at me such as trout.
Offal sounds completely awful.
Tell us your favorite "dad joke."
This one’s a bit rude, sorry. In the UK we have this satirical nonsense game show on the radio called ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ where writers and comedians are asked to do silly things. One round is based on jokey name combinations as if people were being formally announced at a social event, for example, ‘Welcome to the ball, Mr and Mrs Meanour and their daughter, Miss D Meanour’. Here’s the Dad joke:
‘Welcome to the psychiatrists’ ball – Doctor and Mrs Bates and their son Master Bates.’
*snort* I like paging my friend Amanda at the bar. "Is there an Amanda here? Amanda Hugnkiss?"
Cake or pie?
Trying to give them both up so chocolate.
Tell us about your latest novel.
My latest novel Façade is psychological suspense and has been described as ‘a dark and gripping family mystery you won’t be able to put down’ and, by a reviewer who used to own an independent bookshop ‘family noir: a novel for anyone who is interested in people and the complex, twisted lives we often weave for ourselves.’
Façade has been a long time in the making. I started it when I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes university and used part of it for my dissertation. I tried sending it to a few agents but I felt it wasn’t good enough and wasn’t sure how to improve it so I hid it away in my author’s ‘drawer of forgotten manuscripts’ while I wrote two more novels After Leaving the Village and Lies Behind the Ruin. Both of those were published.
A while ago I abandoned a novel-in-progress at 30,000 words and hit a period of writer’s block. I took Façade out of its drawer to see if I could rewrite it and make it work. I kept most of the characters and settings but completely rewrote the plot to bring it more in line with the psychological suspense genre. My writers’ groups and critique partners encouraged me and after masses of edits, it was ready to submit. I’m thrilled it was accepted by Darkstroke Books and published in September.
I’d love to tell you reading it would change your life but I’m not that arrogant! What I would say is that there’s more to Façade than the page turner with twists and turns. It’s not an accident that the main character has a property business and the novel is teeming with houses and properties, including an Old Rectory, a narrowboat, a gamekeeper’s cottage, a student house in London and an apartment in Spain. The Old Rectory (like Manderley in Rebecca or the house in Wuthering Heights,) is a character in the story. I’ve tried to explore some complexities in family relationships and a major themes is the meaning of home. What is home? Is it a place? Or other people? Is home inside us? How easily can we neglect and destroy it? And when we find home, do we recognise it?
A drowned child. Estranged sisters. A once-perfect home. Silence echoes louder than truth. When seventeen-year-old Rachel’s baby brother drowns and her older sister, Imogen, escapes to live abroad with Simon, her musician boyfriend, Rachel must face the family’s grief and disintegration alone. Twenty years later, Rachel is a successful businesswoman, with a daughter of her own, supporting her parents and their elegant Georgian home, The Old Rectory, that shackles them to the past. Simon’s sudden death in Ibiza brings Imogen back, impoverished and resentful. Her family owes her, and she will stop at nothing to reclaim what she believes is rightly hers. The rift between the sisters seems permanent. While Imogen has lived a nomadic life, filled with intrigue, in Spain and Tunisia, Rachel’s has appeared stable and successful but, behind the veneer, cracks are appearing. Now, she is vulnerable. As the wall of silence and secrecy crumbles, danger stalks Rachel’s family. She must re-examine her baby brother’s death, find out what happened in Tunisia, and fight to hold onto everything she’s achieved –or risk losing it all. Façade is a gripping tale of loss, guilt and danger.
It sounds excellent and I downloaded it already. Can't wait to read it. I wish you the very best of luck in your career and am so happy to be in the Darkstroke family with you!
You can find more of Helen's activities and such at:
Available from Amazon at https://mybook.to/facade