I’m delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for Lily’s House by Cassandra Parkin. Lily’s House was published by Legend Press on 15th October 2016 and is available for purchase in e-book and paperback from Amazon.
I’m thrilled to have an interview with Cassandra Parkin today as well as my review of Lily’s House.
When Jen goes to her grandmother’s house for the last time, she’s determined not to dwell on the past. As a child, Jen adored Lily and suspected she might be a witch; but the spell was broken long ago, and now her death means there won’t be any reconciliation.
Lily’s gone, but the enchantments she wove and the secrets she kept still remain. In Lily’s house, Jen and her daughter Marianne reluctantly confront the secrets of the past and present – and discover how dangerous we become when we’re trying to protect the ones we love.
An Interview with Cassandra Parkin
Hi Cassandra. Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I live in the East Riding of Yorkshire with my husband, two children, and two cats. I grew up between Hull and Cornwall – my dad’s parents owned a hotel in Falmouth, and we used to spend every school holiday down there – and a lot of my writing is influenced by the memories of those amazing summers.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
Most people who know me would say I cottoned on ridiculously late! I always loved to write when I was little, and I used to think I might write professionally one day. Then I grew up a bit and heard lots of stories about how tough it was, and thought, Nah. Never going to be good enough. Forget that one. So after university, I got a job in marketing, because it paid well and student loans are terrifying.
I spent the next ten or fifteen years writing in more or less in secret, occasionally giving my short stories or novels to friends or family as birthday presents, and pretending this wasn’t what I really wanted to do with my life. Meanwhile everyone who knew me best was saying, “Look, you do know you want to be a writer, yes? You are aware of this about yourself, right?” And to my shame, I completely ignored them. In hindsight, I can see this must have been annoying.
Then one year I wrote a series of short stories – each based on one person’s favourite fairy-tale – for six very dear friends, as Christmas presents. In the New Year they all ganged up on me and said I had to try and get them published. So I entered the collection for Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize, and was astounded and very honoured to win. The prize was a publishing contract. That was when I finally took a deep breath and said “Please don’t laugh but I think I want to be a writer I know it’s stupid but I do”, and my husband (and subsequently, everyone who knew me) “Well, DUH” and that was that.
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
I would have carried on writing, just in private! I can’t imagine not writing. It would just feel wrong.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
Lots and lots of reading and conversations! Of course, the internet has revolutionised how much information we can get hold of, so this isn’t anything like the mountainous chore it used to be. Blogs are the most amazing resource because they give you the chance to dip into the life experiences of lots of people.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
The most difficult part is showing people my work in progress. Some writers thrive on sharing with others. I most definitely do not. I’d rather hide away in a cave and deny all knowledge until it’s finished. However, as my career’s progressed, I’m having to share books at an earlier stage. Sending an unpolished first draft to my editor makes me want to hide under a duvet. Sometimes I have to get a friend to press “send” for me.
The easiest parts are the beginnings, and the endings. I always know these two parts right from the start.
You’ve written both short stories and longer novels. Which do you feel is more challenging and rewarding?
I honestly couldn’t choose between them! I love short stories because they force you to distil what you want to say – a really important discipline for me, since my natural tendency is to ramble. And I love writing novels because of the challenge of holding the whole narrative together in my head, and keeping the pacing right throughout. I don’t think I could ever choose between them.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I mostly write in the mornings, at the dining table. When I’m working on a first draft, I aim for at least 2,000 words a day, every day, with no days off and no stopping until it’s finished. Editing is always a separate process for me, and I don’t have a daily target for that – I just keep going until I can’t stand to spend another minute looking at the screen.
Your writing reflects a modern mysticism. What draws you to this type of narrative?
What a brilliant question! I think it’s because I find writing fiction such a strange process to undertake. Like a lot of writers, I have a very clear sense that I’m discovering rather than creating. I have a variety of mental images for it – excavating a fossil, fishing in a lake, my characters standing at my shoulder and speaking “through” me, walking into a sunlit room filled with shelves and “finding” my book, already written, on the shelf.
I feel these things absolutely, and yet I know they’re not true. There is no fossil. There is no lake. My characters are not guiding me. My book does not exist until I write it. It all comes out of complex nerve impulses happening in the three pounds of squishy stuff inside my skull – the product of billions of years of evolution. And that’s equally amazing to me! So amazing that I find it easier to believe in the fossil, the lake, the character guides and the pre-existing book.
So, yeah; I think I’m drawn to the fantastical in my writing because I’m in thrall to a belief that I know isn’t true, but that also feels true. I love exploring that tension between what I know and what I feel – what I think I understand, and what I can’t possibly explain. Writing is weird (man). The more I do it, the less I understand it.
Your style has been described as ‘dreamlike’, ‘haunting’ and ‘spell-binding’. How do you react to those descriptions?
I’m absolutely blown away! I couldn’t ask for a nicer, more beautiful compliment to my work. I’m absolutely honoured that people feel that way about my writing.
You seem very drawn to the past. If you could go back in time in your own past, where would you go to and why?
I’d go back to The Croft Hotel in Falmouth, in the last summer before my grandparents sold it and retired, to have a last look round and say goodbye to it. I last saw the inside of it when I was five years old, but I often visit it in my dreams. I’d love to have a clear picture of it, because it’s influenced everything I’ve written since.
I know you’re active in promoting writing in the community. Could you tell us a bit about that too please?
This year I was lucky enough to work with the Hull Freedom Festival, leading a series of workshops for local people to write to the prompt “Knowledge is Freedom”. It was the most incredible experience – I was blown away by the quality and clarity of the work that the participants created.
I’m also one of the co-editors for the National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD) project FlashFloodJournal, created by the brilliant Calum Kerr. Each year, we send out a call for entries – 500 word flashes, on any theme. On NFFD itself, we post a new story every fifteen minutes. The standard is going up every time we run it, and it’s an absolute privilege to help curate the amazing stories people share with us. It’s one of my favourite projects of the whole year.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
Anything I can get my hands on. I did a degree in English Literature, so unsurprisingly I still often go back to the writers I studied – especially Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll and William Thackeray. I also have a huge passion for the great genre writers, past and present. I cherish every glorious, trashy, exciting word Virginia Andrews and Jacqueline Susann ever wrote, and Stephen King takes up an entire shelf in my library. And children’s books – I read them a lot, especially Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, which have a beautiful lyrical darkness about them.
The cover of Lily’s House has a feeling of age that I think links with the past in the book. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
The house that Lily’s home is part of is based on a real place – Grovehill House in Falmouth, which is just up the road from where my parents live. When it was time to talk about the cover, I sent some photos of the house over to Legend Press as inspiration for their designer. I think she must have liked the house as much as I do, because she used it as the central image of the final cover.
The other key visual element is, of course, the lilies. I think most people associate the name “Lily” with Calla lilies, but the designer chose tiger-lilies, which I absolutely loved. Jen’s grandmother is definitely a tigerish sort of person.
Lily’s House is written in the first person. Why did you choose that and do you feel yourself becoming your character or do you remain detached as you write?
I think I wanted the immediacy, and also the restrictiveness, of first-person narration. Nothing can happen “off-screen” – the reader discovers everything along with Jen, and if Jen doesn’t see something, we don’t get to know about it. I chose to write in the present tense for the same reason.
I also like the potential for unreliability and self-deception. I was absolutely 100% sucker-punched by Agatha Christie’s “The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd” when I first read it, and I’ve never forgotten the shock (or the delight) of realising the narrator of a book could lie to me.
If you could choose to be a character from Lily’s House, who would you be and why?
I think I would be Jen, because she’s much stronger than me but also much more amoral in many ways. I think it would be interesting to spend some time being her.
If Lily’s House became a film, who would you like to play Jen?
I think it would have to be Sophie Lee Stone. Her performances are fantastic – strong and emotional – and she looks very much the way I imagined Jen to look. And of course, she speaks both English and Sign.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Lily’s House should be their next read, what would you say?
Oh dear – I’m terrible at this! But I’ll have a go: It’s about the things we’ll do to protect the people we love the most.
Thanks so much for your really fascinating answers Cassandra.
My Review of Lily’s House
Returning to her estranged grandmother Lily’s house to arrange Lily’s funeral, Jen finds the past isn’t as far away as she thought.
I absolutely loved Lily’s House by Cassandra Parkin. I thought there was a lyrical, dreamlike quality to the writing underpinned by a touch of magic. The necromancy of Lily’s presence is never fully uncovered so that there is a layer of mystery that pervades both Jen and Marianne’s dreams and imaginations and draws in the reader like a spell of enchantment. There are recognisable elements of fairy tales that feel at once familiar and fresh. The cat, the herbs and flowers, all draw on a rich tradition and yet are represented in an utterly unique style. Cassandra Parkin’s prose is delightful.
I was so touched by the relationships as they ebbed and flowed along with the narrative, especially the one that develops between Jen, Marianne and James as it provided light and shade to the story. As Jen and Daniel communicated by text I thought that extra layer of distance and difficulty in communicating was perfect in underpinning their fragile marriage.
Cassandra Parkin has the ability to evoke such strong responses in me. I wanted to shake Daniel until his teeth rattled and hug James tightly. I would have liked to have met Lily in real life, but more than that I would have liked to BE Lily. She is a magnificent creation; witch-like, insightful, humane and utterly dangerous in protecting those she loves.
The story itself was brilliantly plotted. In the same way Lily’s photograph album reveals Jen’s past to Marianne, and Lily’s past to Jen, so Cassandra Parkin reveals that past, and the present, to the reader. A couple of times I had a real jolt in the reading, about which I can’t say more as I don’t want to spoil the story, but it felt as if I was opening opaque layers of tissue in a memory box so that I could better understand those I was reading about. Lily, Jen and Marianne were not characters in a story to me, but people I cared about and for whom my heart thudded as the denouement approached.
Lily’s House is a perfect book. I loved every word and simply want to go right back and read it all again.
About Cassandra Parkin
Cassandra Parkin grew up in Hull, and now lives in East Yorkshire. Her short story collection, New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011), won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies.
The Summer We All Ran Away (Legend Press, 2013) was Cassandra’s debut novel and nominated for the Amazon Rising Stars 2014. The Beach Hut (Legend Press, 2015) is her second novel.