Having so loved Lily’s House by Cassandra Parkin, my review of which you can read here with an interview with Cassandra, and which was one of my favourite reads last year, I was thrilled to be asked to join in the launch celebrations for The Winter’s Child too. I also met Cassandra Parkin at a wonderful event you can read about here, Oceans of Words. Today, I’m re-interviewing her to find out more about her latest book The Winter’s Child and am delighted to share this latest Q+A as well as my review. As not all blog followers will know Cassandra I’m repeating a couple of questions!
The Winter’s Child was published by Legend Press on 15th October 2017 and is available for purchase here.
The Winter’s Child
Five years ago, Susannah Harper’s son Joel went missing without trace. Bereft of her son and then of her husband, Susannah tries to accept that she may never know for certain what has happened to her lost loved ones. She has rebuilt her life around a simple selfless mission: to help others who, like her, must learn to live without hope.
But then, on the last night of Hull Fair, a fortune-teller makes an eerie prediction. She tells her that this Christmas Eve, Joel will finally come back to her.
As her carefully-constructed life begins to unravel, Susannah is drawn into a world of psychics and charlatans, half-truths and hauntings, friendships and betrayals, forcing her to confront the buried truths of her family’s past, where nothing and no one are quite as they seem.
A ghostly winter read with a modern gothic flavour. A tale of twisted love, family secrets and hauntings.
An Interview with Cassandra Parkin
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Cassandra. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Winter’s Child in particular. I know you’ve been on the blog before but not all readers will know that so firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I’m a Yorkshire-based writer with Cornish roots and a passion for fairy-tales. I write contemporary fiction with a strong magical flavour. The Winter’s Child is my fourth novel, and it’s set in my home city of Hull, in our City of Culture year.
Why do you write?
It’s the thing that makes me happiest. Even on the days it’s like wading through treacle and I know that every word I write will end up being deleted later, I still love it. I’d still be writing even if I hadn’t found a publisher.
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
I think most people who know me feel quite strongly that I took a stupidly long time to catch on! I spent literally years writing novels in secret, and short stories as Christmas presents, and volunteering for every single work-related writing project I could find. Everyone around me kept saying, “You’re supposed to be writing for a living. You are aware of this about yourself, right? Why are you still messing around pretending you want to be in marketing?” And to my shame, I completely ignored them for about fifteen years. (Sorry, everyone. I know I was annoying.)
I finally caught on when all my friends ganged up on me and made me enter a collection of unpublished short stories for Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize. I found out I’d won and my book was going to be published when I was unpacking yoghurts in the kitchen. I burst into tears, and called my mother and told her I was going to be a writer.
(I suspect you were a ‘writer’ long before that moment actually!)
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
I love all of it, so it’s difficult to say! I love writing beginnings, and endings. I love the moment when I start to find my way through the strange blank darkness of the middle section. I love editing – that feeling of taking the shambling mess of the first draft and starting to turn it into something worthwhile. I love talking to readers, and meeting other writers. I love it when my author copies arrive in the post and I open the wrapping and there’s that beautiful new-book smell and I can hold it in my hand and know it’s real. I love the friendliness and generosity of the writing and blogging community, and the support that everyone offers whenever someone needs it.
In fact, I think the only part I don’t like is pressing “send” when turning in a manuscript to my editor. It seems so final and terrifying. Sometimes I have to get someone else to do it for me while I hide under the duvet. Then I spend hours fantasising about how I might invent a way to climb inside my computer and somehow claw the email back again.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I tend to write in the mornings, at my dining-table. Left to myself, I prefer to write in my pyjamas, but my kids’ friends call for them on the way to the bus-stop and I don’t think it’s fair to make them look at me in all my scruffy un-brushed un-showered glory just before a long day at school, so I only do the pyjama thing at weekends. I have a sort of little tray-table thingy that balances on the table so I can write standing up, and the cats come in and out and yell for cat-treats / for attention / to tell me it’s raining / because they want me to look at a dead bird. The window looks out onto the village main street, so I still feel connected to the outside world.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about The Winter’s Child?
On the last night of Hull Fair, Susannah Harper visits a fortune-teller who gives her an unusually specific prediction: her son Joel, who has been missing without trace for five years, will come back to her by Christmas Eve. Haunted by this prediction, Susannah is gradually drawn back into a world she’d sworn to leave long ago – the world of psychics and mediums, who claim their supernatural powers will help her to bring her son home again.
I thought the way you portrayed what happens when teenage child goes missing was so absorbing and realistic. How did you go about researching detail and ensuring The Winter’s Child was realistic?
To start with, I read as many true-crime accounts of missing person investigations as I could get my hands on. (I think most writers probably have internet search histories that makes us look like serial killers.) I’m also lucky enough to have a close friend who’s a police officer, so she very kindly lent me her expertise whenever I needed it. It was the hardest part to get right, because of course every investigation is different, and technology and police work are changing all the time.
Of course, once you’ve done your research, you then have to bury it as well as possible, because fiction is never improved by the author standing in the corner yelling THINGS I KNOW ABOUT POLICE WORK LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THEM. I hope I’ve got the balance right. And of course, any mistakes about the procedural aspects of the book are totally my own.
(You most certainly have got that balance spot on.)
Having read Lily’s House, I found The Winter’s Child was quite a bit darker. How do you think your writing has developed over time and to what extent did you set out to create a more disturbing read.
I absolutely love the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story. One of my favourite Christmas memories is being scared to death by a creepy film about a man who sold seven years of his life to the Devil, which my dad let my brother and I watch on Christmas Eve. I wanted The Winter’s Child to be worthy of that tradition. So it was important to me that it was a really dark and unsettling story.
As for the way my writing has developed over time…I’d love to say I’ve got more confident and skilled, but I think the main thing I notice is that I’ve discovered new and different things to worry about! For my first novel, I was thinking the whole time, Can I even do this? What if I get halfway through and dry up? What if I get to the end and hate it? What if I’m just fooling myself that this is ever going anywhere? What if it’s all a colossal waste of time? These days, I worry just as much, but about different things – Is this too similar? Too different? Am I challenging myself enough? Am I challenging myself too much? Is it okay for me to write about this subject? Oh my God how will I ever hit my deadline? Which I suppose is progress, in a way.
The Winter’s Child contains some very weighty themes including mental health issues, spiritualism and marriage. How far did you plan to write about them and how far did they arise naturally as the plot progressed?
That’s a great question! I knew from the start that the theme of spiritualism was going to be central, but I think all the others just naturally came out of the process of writing.
I was overwhelmed at times by the emotion of The Winter’s Child. How were you affected by writing about Susannah and Jackie’s situations?
It was very, very hard to write, because the idea of anything happening to my son – the idea that he could just vanish without trace, and I’d never know what had happened to him – was so close to the bone for me. I honestly felt as if I was tempting fate just by letting myself think about it. And I was really aware that there are many families who are still living through this experience. I wanted to do justice to the reality of their experiences, and not exploit them.
(You have done so magnificently.)
My view of John changed dramatically several times as I read. How do you create your characters when you’re writing?
This is going to sound so unbearably pretentious, but it’s true – at the start of a project, all I know about my characters is what they’re called, and a little bit about what’s going to happen to them. Everything else emerges as I write.
With the relationship between John and Susannah, I think my breakthrough moment was through one of those would-you-rather questions. If your spouse and child were drowning, who would you save first? I realised that this was the problem at the heart of John and Susannah’s relationship: Susannah would save Joel, but John would save Susannah.
There’s often an exploration or undercurrent of the supernatural in your writing. Why is this?
I think it’s because I’m fascinated by the possibilities. Like most people, I’ve had events in my life that I experienced at the time as supernatural. I’ve dreamed the future. I’ve encountered ghosts. I’ve known in advance when close family members were going to be in danger. I once saw a family of black panthers – a mother and her litter of cubs – in broad daylight, in a field next to the M5 motorway.
Of course, I do know that “I saw them” isn’t the same as “so that means they were definitely there”. But nonetheless…
I honestly don’t know what I find more exciting – the idea that there might actually be ghosts, telepathy, Alien Big Cats, predictive dreams and psychics who can make contact with the dead, or the idea that we can be fooled by our own minds into seeing these things when they aren’t there. If we can’t trust what we experience, how can we ever know what’s real? I love playing with that ambiguity in my writing.
I was enthralled when I came to hear you read and answer questions at the Oceans of Word event. How important are events where you work with other writers and get to meet readers for your work?
I absolutely love them and I feel so lucky whenever I have the chance to take part. Writing can be quite a lonely job, so it’s lovely to make contact with other writers and share stories and experiences. And talking to readers is just a huge joy. There’s nothing more special to me than finding that people have read what I’ve written and enjoyed it.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
Whatever I can get my hands on! I love recommendations from bloggers, and I’ve discovered so many books I’ve loved and would never have found otherwise. I’m usually reading at least two books that are new to me (currently The White City by Karolina Ramkvist and A Boy Made Of Blocks by Keith Stewart) and then a couple that I’ve loved for years (at the moment that’s Persuasion by Jane Austen and The Summer Book by Tove Jansson).
If you could choose to be a character from The Winter’s Child, who would you be and why?
It’s quite a dark story, so I don’t know that I’d want to be any of them really! I’d be one of the minor characters – probably one of the customers in the book shop.
If The Winter’s Child became a film, who would you like to play Susannah and why would you choose them?
It would have to be Joely Richardson. I’ve loved her in everything I’ve seen her in.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Winter’s Child should be their next read, what would you say?
It’s a darkly gothic story, written to make a cold night feel a little colder.
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.
My Review of The Winter’s Child
Susannah’s grief when her teenage son, Joel, goes missing is all consuming.
Oh! The Winter’s Child really took me by surprise. I was expecting gorgeous writing with a magical element. I got it. I was expecting deep emotion. I got that too, but I wasn’t expecting the darker side of the narrative which took me by surprise and held me enthralled.
The Winter’s Child is a darkly disturbing tale of what happens when a child goes missing. It is an insightful and hugely affecting look inside the mind of a grief stricken mother whose life has been utterly devastated and who can no longer separate truth from fiction. It is also a psychological tale and a thriller so that it is multi-layered , intricate and a fabulous read.
The quality of the writing is such that I was brought up short on several occasions by the plot and found that sometimes I was as much deluded as Susannah is by the so-called psychics she visits in her desperate bid to find Joel. I couldn’t always separate fact and fiction. Indeed, Susannah is a triumphant creation. I felt every moment of her grief with her. She’s selfish, single minded and frequently quite unpleasant or unreasonable and yet she had every ounce of my sympathy and empathy. All the characters in The Winter’s Child are incredibly realistic.
I love the use of the senses in Cassandra Parkin’s writing to create setting and atmosphere but also to convey emotion. Her writing is textured and affecting so that reading The Winter’s Child was like being immersed in an experience I couldn’t control. The depth of research that has gone in to The Winter’s Child is also totally impressive. I felt as if Cassandra Parkin must have experienced the same events as Susannah to be able to translate them onto the page so magnificently.
I loved The Winter’s Child. I found it puzzling, complex and totally absorbing. It’s a wonderful read.
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) was her second novel, followed by Lily’s House.
You’ll find all Cassandra Parkin’s books here.
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