I have a piece of news which I have been keeping to myself with great difficulty, until today! I am delighted to say that Swan River Press in Dublin is publishing a collection of my strange stories, entitled The Sea Change & other stories. This is an entirely separate project from my novel writing and one that has largely come about through the energy of editor Brian J. Showers, who previously published my chapbook The Red House at Münstereifel as part of Swan River's Haunted History series.
I have been writing short supernatural fiction for some years; the earliest of the stories included in this collection appeared in 2005 in All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society. I'm a massive fan of ghost stories - my bookshelves are lined with everything from crumbling old Fontana anthologies to Koji Suzuki's Ring. I sometimes run workshops on ghost story writing too, which I usually introduce by explaining my pet theory that writing them is a fabulous training ground for writing in general: it is easy to write a story that is simply gross or disgusting, but it requires skill to make the flesh creep. I very much hope that the readers of The Sea Change & other stories will find their flesh creeping pleasantly!
These seven tales are set in locations as diverse as the French Pyrenees, rural Slovakia, the German Eifel and the seabed, ten fathoms down off the south coast of England. I am particularly pleased to say that the collection includes my ending to M.R.James's unfinished story The Game of Bear; this appeared in print in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter in 2009 but has never been available to a wider audience until now. It is now republished with the kind permission of N.R.J.James and Rosemary Pardoe.
For more details, and to pre-order the book, see: Swan River Press - The Sea Change
The cover art above is by Jason Zerrillo.
"Enticingly horrid" is the reaction of one of my Twitter friends!
Sunday, November 18, 2012
In brief: the Abbey had a set of fabulous 16th century stained glass windows which vanished in 1802 and were presumed lost or destroyed until 1904, when the English ghost story writer M.R.James was asked to catalogue the windows in the chapel of Ashridge House in Hertfordshire and realised that most of them came from Steinfeld. He was inspired by the windows to write a story entitled The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, which is partly set at Steinfeld Abbey, although he himself never visited it. The windows were auctioned at Sotheby's in the 1920s and now reside in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where a small selection of them can currently be seen in room 64.
In 2004 I wrote an article about Steinfeld Abbey for the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, comparing the Abbey as it is described in M.R.James' story with the real location. At the time I was living in Bad Münstereifel, which is only about 20km from Steinfeld, so I visited the Abbey on a number of occasions. You can read that article online here: The Treasure of Steinfeld Abbey
At the end of the article I mentioned an small exhibition in the cloister at Steinfeld Abbey, which mentioned M.R.James' role in the rediscovery of the glass, and also referred to Father Nikola Reinartz, a local Catholic priest who corresponded with M.R.J. and eventually viewed the glass at Ashridge. The Steinfeld Abbey website included details of several articles written by Father Reinartz himself about the Steinfeld glass and published in the Eifel Club Newsletter, and since these sounded rather intriguing I subsequently visited the offices of the Eifel Club in Düren and read them.
This was a distinct labour of love because they were (obviously) written in rather old-fashioned German but also printed in the difficult-to-read Gothic type used in Germany in the early 1900s! However, the story they related is fascinating. For a while I became somewhat obsessed with the Steinfeld glass and Father Reinartz's connection with it. I visited his former parish of Kreuzweingarten and obtained a booklet from the church that included some anecdotes about him, and visited his grave (photo above) by the parish church of the Holy Cross (photo above).
I subsequently wrote an article which was published by the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter in 2008. That issue of the Newsletter is now out of print and there are no plans to publish its contents online, so I am posting it here with the kind agreement of editor Rosemary Pardoe. At the end of the article I have added some photographs of the Abbey and the glass itself.
“Lingering memories of the treasure”
- How the lost stained glass of Steinfeld was discovered
By Helen Grant
On an autumn day in 1908, a thirty-three year old Roman Catholic priest named Nikola Reinartz stepped out of the bright sunshine of an Indian summer and into the vaulted interior of Ashridge Park chapel, the private chapel of Earl Brownlow in Hertfordshire. His heart thumping, he gazed in awe at the stained glass which filled the chapel’s eleven gothic windows. As he was to relate many years later, “With a stroke of magic I felt myself transported home to the Rheinland!” Gazing at the glass, “fabulous work in beautiful subtle colours”, he was able to pick out the name of Steinfeld abbey in the Eifel, the abbey itself in the background of one of the scenes, and the familiar figures of white-robed Premonstratensian brothers. There could be no doubt about it: Steinfeld’s greatest treasure, its magnificent stained glass, had been rediscovered after a hundred years of obscurity. The road to this discovery was paved with strange coincidences, and at the heart of the story lay a remarkable correspondence between Father Reinartz and M.R.James, then the Provost of King’s College, Cambridge. This is the story of that correspondence.
The Steinfeld glass adorned the cloister[i] of the abbey and is thought to have been installed between 1522 and 1557; Abbot Johann VI von Ahrweiler initiated the work but did not live to see its completion, which was achieved under his successors Abbot Simon Diepenbach von Hasselt and Abbot Jakob II von Panhausen[ii]. The content of the windows is now known from two handwritten catalogues, the first, created by Prior Johann Latz, dating to 1632[iii], and the second, by Canon Heinrich Hochkirchen, created in 1719. These catalogues were sad necessities – owing to the repeated threat of war the stained glass had to be removed from the windows and hidden no less than five times, and a guide was required to ensure that they were correctly re-installed. The catalogues detail an ambitious cycle of magnificent pictures guaranteed to make any mediaevalist’s mouth water: a Biblia pauperum starting with the Fall of the Angels and the Fall of Man, covering both Old and New Testament stories and culminating in the Last Judgement, with a glimpse into God’s kingdom in Heaven and Lucifer’s kingdom in Hell. There were additional pictures of local significance including representations of the clerics and patron saints of parishes affiliated to Steinfeld, the most famous being St. Norbert, founder of the Premonstratensian order. The damage which inevitably occurred during the removal and re-installation of the glass – no matter how carefully it was done - is appalling to contemplate. In 1785 the glass was removed for the last time[iv] and at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the abbey itself was closed[v] it vanished completely from Steinfeld, making its way across the Channel to England through the agency of John Christopher Hampp, a German dealer living in Norwich. For all those connected with Steinfeld, the fate of the glass passed into a deep obscurity that would last for over a century.
In 1904, M.R.James went to Ashridge Park to inventory the stained glass in the chapel there for Lord Brownlow. Noticing the inscription “Abbas Steinfeldensis” on one of the panes, he deduced that its origin was the abbey church at Steinfeld.[vi] The glass proved to be the inspiration for a story written to complete his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, published later that same year. In March 1907 a Dr. Förster noted in a column entitled Literarisches und Verwandtes[vii] in the Eifelvereinsblatt (Newsletter of the Eifel Club): “The Englishman M.R.James from Cambridge tells a ghost story from Steinfeld in his agreeably-written book ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’, London 1904, Arnold, 270 pages, pages 229-270 (“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”).” Förster remarked that MRJ had correctly attributed Steinfeld to the Eifel, whereas others had misplaced it to the Ardennes; however he gave no further description of the story before passing on to other topics. This very brief notice piqued the interest of Nikola Reinartz, a young priest with a strong interest in local history, but it was not until the following year that he was able to satisfy his curiosity, when church business took him to England.
Nikola Reinartz himself was an intriguing character. He was born on 6th December 1874[viii] to Adam Heinrich Reinartz of Kall-Heistert and his wife Gertrud, née Pünder. His mother died when he was only three years old, and his older brothers not long afterwards; his father never remarried, devoting himself instead to bringing up his young son. Something of a prodigy, young Nikola is said to have been able to read the newspaper before he started school and later to have shone at Gymnasium (grammar school). After studying at Cologne he became a priest in 1899, an event his father did not live to see. The first two decades of his ecclesiastical career were spent as curate and rector at various locations in the Rhineland; it was during this period that he visited Ashridge Park. In 1920 he became the Pfarrer (parish priest) of Kreuzweingarten near Euskirchen, in the Eifel, and remained there until 1949, in which year he celebrated the golden anniversary of his ordination. He died in 1954, a few months short of his eightieth birthday.
The majority of published photographs of Nikola Reinartz date from the last decade of his life, and show a kindly-looking, composed, bespectacled elderly man faintly reminiscent of Donald Pleasence. A photograph from the district picture archive, thought to date from 1932, shows Father Reinartz in middle age, standing next to the remains of the Roman canal in Kreuzweingarten, clad in bowler hat, a rather natty coat and boots, and carrying a walking stick. His expression is good-humoured but unsmiling; unusually, he is looking straight at the camera.[ix] The location is significant: Father Reinartz was renowned for his passion for local history and culture.
Reminiscences of Father Reinartz in the Chronik und Kirchenführer[x] of the parish church at Kreuzweingarten describe him as an upright and god-fearing man. Twelve years younger than M.R.James, he lived to see the horrors of the Second World War, and was a fearless and outspoken opponent of Nazism. In an autobiographical essay provocatively entitled Mein Kampf he described his personal struggle against Nazism, which led him into confrontations with local party members and the Gestapo[xi]. “How often proceedings were taken against me, I do not know myself,” he wrote. On one occasion he was said to have been warned by the verger that two strangers, probably party spies, were amongst his Sunday congregation, but, undeterred, he proceeded to denounce Nazism in no uncertain terms. The result of his efforts was that the state contribution to parish funds was slashed, but Father Reinartz was undaunted, especially since rampant inflation of the tax paid to the church took the sting out of the gesture. He considered the especially good harvest that year to be a sign of the Almighty’s support.
Following his visit to Ashridge Park in 1908, Nikola Reinartz wrote several articles about the Steinfeld stained glass. The first appeared in the Eifelvereinsblatt number 10, in 1909. A little under 3,000 words in length, it was written when the visit to England was still fresh in his mind, and contains the fullest description of his correspondence with M.R.James. This document is, sadly, very difficult to come by nowadays.[xii] After the sale of the Ashridge glass in 1928[xiii], Father Reinartz wrote a further, but shorter account of his visit to England, prompted no doubt by the renewed interest in the fate of the glass. This article appeared in the Eifel Kalendar of 1930. From these two articles, written in rather archaic German and printed in the crabbed Gothic script of the period, it is possible to follow Father Reinartz’ journey from the point at which he read Dr. Förster’s brief notice about The Treasure of Abbot Thomas to the moment he stepped into Ashridge Park chapel and feasted his eyes upon the Steinfeld stained glass. As we shall discover, none of this would happened at all, if it were not for the tale of hidden treasure which M.R.James hastily added to his collection of stories in 1904. Let us take up the story in Father Reinartz’ own words, from the point at which he read Dr. Förster’s notice.
“In the year 1906, a book was published – already in its third edition – by Edward Arnold, ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’, of which Dr. James, the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, was the author. Amongst these ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ was one tale entitled, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas of Steinfeld” (sic). The book, which was mentioned in the Eifel Club newsletter without any further details about the content, caught my attention.” Nikola Reinartz was instantly intrigued. “What did this Englishman know of a treasure of Abbot Thomas? How on earth had he come across Steinfeld, which nowadays lies forgotten by the world, away from the main tourist routes and the railway, on its lonely Eifel heights? The thought had continually dogged me.”
In 1908 he went to London for a number of weeks in order to attend the Eucharistic Conference, and thought that he would take the opportunity to travel up to Norwich and see the stained glass of Mariawald at St. Stephen’s. For this he required a travel guide, and accordingly visited the bookstalls in Charing Cross, which were, he remarked, “No modern antiquarian bookshops with well-ordered stock and catalogues, but where the books lie in jumbled heaps and the booklover simply steps up, to look for and purchase what he pleases.” He began to search for a Bädeker guide to Great Britain. “At the same time, however”, he writes, “I had another book written in English in mind, which I had once made a note of years before: ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’, in which there was supposed to be a tale, ‘The treasure of Abbot Thomas of Steinfeld.’….and so I wondered, after I had sought in vain for a Bädeker, whether this book was perhaps known or available. The bookseller shrugged his shoulders: he didn’t know himself. So I decide to take my leave; then, as I lift my hand from the pile of books by which I had been standing, my gaze falls upon the book which my hand had happened to rest upon, and – in large black type on a coarse white clothbound volume there starts out at me: ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.’” Father Reinartz was not the only one to be astounded by this coincidence: “The bookseller himself is flabbergasted, and is happy to let me have the desired volume for a few shillings. It would set me on the trail of much more significant remnants of Rhenish glass painting than the ones which are in Norwich.” Eagerly devouring the story, Father Reinartz was sufficiently convinced by M.R.James’ scholarly style that he at first assumed that the “Sertum Steinfeldense Norbertinum” quoted at the beginning was a real book. “My first thought,” he relates, “when I read of this historical source, previously unknown to me, was that I should perhaps track down the remains of the old Steinfeld library.” But where to start? “Since I did not personally know the author, Dr.M.R.James of Cambridge University, I approached him in writing with a request for information about the material which his story mentioned. I received the following reply: ‘The story of Abbot Thomas including the Sertum Steinfeldense, which you have asked me about, is, as I must unfortunately confess, completely and utterly my own invention…however there really are some stained glass windows from Steinfeld in the castle[xiv] chapel of Earl Brownlow in Ashridge Park near Berkhamstead, although they, too, in no way ressemble those described by me.’” Echoing the words of the narrator of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, MRJ added, “I must also confess, that I have never been to Steinfeld, and therefore also do not know what of the splendour of the old abbey of St. Potentinus is to be found there.”[xv]
In Father Reinartz’ later article of 1930, he somewhat romantically conjectures that MRJ was “so drawn under the magic influence of the windows…that he created this ghost story out of them”, in spite of never having been at Steinfeld itself. This is not the only reference made by Father Reinartz to some special spiritual influence exerted by the glass. In the same article he refers extensively to the catalogue of the windows created by Prior Johann Latz. Coincidentally, this document was discovered in the Trier library by Dr. H.Oidtman and published almost contemporaneously with Father Reinartz’ visit to Ashridge. Father Reinartz writes of Prior Latz, that he was the son of the abbey’s lay helper, Peter Latz of Heistert, one of Reinartz’ own forefathers. “This personal association is so very extraordinary,” he writes, “that I had to mention it here. Was it the ghost of the good Prior who, at the same time as his little book was resurrected from the dust of the library and summoned up the image of former Steinfeld glories, himself set his descendant upon the trail of their remains?”
At any rate, Nikola Reinartz was galvanised by the letter from M.R.James. “I knew enough,” he declared resolutely. A glance at the map quickly located Ashridge Park for him, but he almost immediately ran into an obstacle. “My request to view the Earl’s private chapel was at first roundly turned down by the estate management, who guarded their treasure jealously from others.”[xvi] Nikola Reinartz was not, however, one to be easily discouraged, as his later life showed. He obtained a letter of reference from M.R.James, and thus armed presented himself at the gates of Ashridge Park. “On production of my papers the gates were opened to me with no further difficulties,” he relates. “Barely glancing at the other exquisite works of art, I had myself directed straight to the chapel.” Stepping inside, he felt that “stroke of magic” which transported him back to the Rhineland, “as though I were standing in the great cathedral in Cologne engrossed in gazing at the dazzling splendour of the mediaeval art in the windows of the north aisle; only the impression is now more self-contained, clearer.” With the help of an index supplied by M.R.James, he quickly orientated himself, picking out figures and inscriptions from his Rhenish homeland. Awe was quickly succeeded by melancholy and even the first stirrings of anger.
“Admittedly my joy was not unclouded. It was more and more mixed with sadness, sadness not only over the injustice, that had stolen these magnificent treasures of my homeland, but above all at the absolute crime against art, perpetrated when they were thrown together and jammed in as fillers for their current places with total ignorance. At least I must describe it thus today, since I have obtained a picture of their whole former magnificence from the the notes of the old Steinfeld prior[xvii]. From this colossal artistic creation, the great cycle of pictures in the cloister at Steinfeld, now only a glittering ruin remains. There are fragments from nearly all the windows described, but they are just fragments – in total there is probably only about a third remaining.” Years later, when Father Reinartz penned his article of 1930, the injustice still rankled. “So London has its stained glass from Steinfeld’s former glory, just as Paris has the shrine of holy Potentinus,” he remarked with bitter regret. “The archive and library, once widely famed, are strewn to the four winds. Also vanished from the wide halls are the white-clad monks, who nurtured all that wonderful human knowledge and expertise. The best of them still live on in the thoughts of the local population,” he mused, concluding: “Their life and striving, also Christian virtue and perfection, in the favourite saints of the people of the Eifel, the holy Hermann Joseph[xviii], whose bones, the most precious treasure of Steinfeld, still lie up there in their sarcophagus of Eifel marble, “grande decus patriae” – an expression which could equally apply to Hermann Joseph as to Steinfeld itself: the Eifel’s illustrious ornament.”
Nikola Reinartz died on 4th August 1954, outliving M.R.James by eighteen years. Several streets are named after him: Pfarrer Reinartz Straße in Kall-Heistert, where his parents’ house (bombed flat in World War II) once stood, and Nikola Reinartz Straße in Kreuzweingarten, where he served as parish priest so many years. His name is inextricably entwined with that of Steinfeld in local remembrance. At Steinfeld abbey, taken over by the Salvatorian order in 1923, his name has a place of honour in the literature and small exhibition about the Steinfeld glass, as does the name of M.R.James. His mortal remains lie close by the south wall of the parish church, the church of the Holy Cross, in Kreuzweingarten. A very simple gravestone bears the words:
Pfarrer in Kreuzweingarten
It is a curious sensation to stand by this grave, and contemplate the connection between this Roman Catholic Father from the Rhineland and the English ghost-story writer who sleeps under a similarly modest memorial in the cemetery at Eton. Curious, too, to think that in spite of the great body of academic work produced by M.R.James, it was his fictitious Abbot Thomas who at last pointed the way to Steinfeld’s lost treasure.
[i] The north wing was completed around 1517 and glazing began shortly afterwards.
[ii] Abbot Johann VI von Ahrweiler 1517-1538 was succeeded by Abbot Simon Diepenbach von Hasselt 1538-1540 and Abbot Jakob II von Panhausen 1540-1582.
[iii] Sad to relate, this document in the Trier town archive was destroyed in World War II; however a copy resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
[iv] It is thought that this was not done due to the threat of war but to allow the damp cloister to dry out more efficiently, since the sunshine would then fall through clear glass.
[v] The abbey was dissolved in 1802 under secularisation.
[vi] In an article entitled The Mariawald-Ashridge Glass in The Burlington Magazine (November 1944) Bernard Rackham says that MRJ mistakenly assumed that all the stained glass at Ashridge was from Steinfeld, whereas in fact some of the glass was from Mariawald. David King’s article The Steinfeld cloister glazing in GESTA (1998) says that Lord Brownlow acquired thirty eight panels of the Steinfeld glass, which were installed at Ashridge. Father Reinartz raises the question of whether all the Ashridge glass came from Steinfeld in his 1909 article, but leaves it open to debate.
[vii] Literary and related matters.
[viii] St. Nicholas’ Day in the Roman Catholic calendar; Nikola is short for Nikolaus.
[ix] In an undated studio portrait apparently also from his middle age, his eyes seem to gaze at something to the photographer’s left, as though he is deep in thought.
[x] Chronicle and church guide; the full title is 200 Jahre Pfarrei Hl. Kreuz “Kreuz”-Weingarten 1804-2004 Chronik und Kirchenführer (ed. Hermann Josef Kesternich).
[xi] Father Reinartz remarks in Mein Kampf that the Gestapo even visited him on the day of his 40th Jubilee!
[xii] I obtained a copy from the Eifel club’s headquarters in Düren. There is apparently another copy in the Eifelbibliothek in Mayen, near Koblenz. The other local libraries and archives in the area do not appear to have copies. Since researching this article, I have presented copies of this and the 1930 article to the district archive in Euskirchen and to the Nikola Reinartz website.
[xiii] By auction at Sotheby’s.
[xiv] Ashridge Park, built in the Gothic style, does indeed present the aspect of a castle rather than a manor house.
[xv] This is a translation back into English of MRJ’s letter, which was rendered in German in Father Reinartz’ article; the substance is therefore correct but the wording may not be exactly as per the original.
[xvi] In his article of 1909 Reinartz says that he was turned down, but in the later article he says (perhaps for tact’s sake) that his letter went unanswered.
[xvii] i.e. The catalogue of Prior Latz, from 1632.
[xviii] St. Hermann-Josef (born and died between 1150 and 1250) was a choir master at Steinfeld. A fine Baroque tomb with effigy of the saint created in 1702 and located in the central aisle of the abbey church houses the shrine containing his bones.
Above: the cloister (photo: William Bond)
Above: the Abbey church, interior
Above: detail, the Fall of the Rebel Angels
Above: Abbot Johann von Ahrweiler and Saint Norbert
Above: Peter Blanckenheim and his patron St. George
Thursday, November 15, 2012
I'm pleased to say that Jenna's blog post is now up; you can read it here:
Jenna's Next Big Thing
Susy will be posting soon, and I'll post a link to her blog too in due course.
Meanwhile I'm beetling away at the sequel to Silent Saturday, whose title is The Demons of Ghent (no prizes for guessing where that one is set!). I'll also be blogging soon with some interesting news about a separate project I am working on - one with a ghostly theme! - and once I get an hour or two to sort through the relevant photos I shall be posting the long-promised article about the Steinfeld glass.
Busy, busy, busy! :-)
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Last week fellow writer Lari Don kindly invited me to take part in a theme currently going around on authors’ blogs: The Next Big Thing. Each featured author answers a set of questions about their next book, and then invites five other authors (whose work they like, and who they think might be The Next Big Thing) to answer the same ones the following week.
This project has already spread like wildfire, so I am afraid I have not managed to find five new authors (I’ve found two, blush) because nearly everyone I asked is already taking part! I’ve nominated my two at the end of this post. Anyway, here goes!
What is the title of your next book?
Silent Saturday – it’s the first book in a trilogy with the theme Forbidden Spaces.
Well, the book is set in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) where I lived from 2008 to 2011. Throughout my three years there I took Flemish classes; as well as teaching the actual language, the teacher used to tell us a bit about Flemish culture and traditions. One particular tradition really stuck in my mind, and that was the acorn that grew into the mighty oak of a trilogy! In Britain, Easter eggs are supposedly brought by the Easter Bunny; in Flanders, children are told that the church bells fly away to Rome on the Saturday before Easter, and come back full of eggs. No church bells are rung that day (which is why it is known as “Silent Saturday”). When I heard this story, I immediately thought, well, if I were a Flemish child I would be dying to get into the belfry to see whether the bells had really flown away or not! And that is how Silent Saturday begins. The heroine, Veerle, and her childhood friend Kris, climb the bell-tower of their village church to see whether the bells have flown away. They are disappointed and a bit disgusted to find that the bells are where they usually are! So they decide to look out of the belfry window – and that is when they see something terrible taking place in the village. That is the beginning of the book.
Eek! I don’t really think of myself as writing to a particular genre. I would call Silent Saturday a thriller but it is at the literary end of the spectrum. Also, because of the Flemish setting I think it fits into the “European Crime” stable. Having said that, I don’t do “crime” in the sense of police procedures, except insofar as those have to be mentioned, because if there is a serial killer on the loose obviously the police are going to be involved. I’m not really interested in that (procedure), though. I’m interested in how my characters feel about what is going on!
Argh! Another tricky question! I haven’t ever really asked myself that, because Veerle, at least her outward appearance, was inspired by someone I saw in passing in Flanders, and I can’t think of an actress who looks exactly like her. I think however that in my ideal film version the Flemish characters (there are Walloon – French-speaking Belgian – characters too) would be played by Flemish/Dutch actors. The book is essentially Flemish – much of the plot depends on the location and the type of population you have in Belgium. You couldn’t relocate it to the US or the UK without ripping the heart out of it.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Dark doings in expat houses!
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Silent Saturday will be published in the UK in April 2013 by Bodley Head, an imprint of Random House. I am represented by the Darley Anderson Literary Agency.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took me roughly one year. This is about normal for me!
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I find it quite hard to compare it to anyone else’s work – apart from anything else, that sounds quite presumptuous! But the team at Bodley Head have described it as “Jo Nesbo meets Marcus Sedgwick” on the back of the proof copies. Penguin, who published my first three novels, once compared me to Stieg Larsson, who is dead(!).
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I really wanted to write a book about Flanders. My first three books were all set in Germany, and were very much inspired by the little German town of Bad Münstereifel, where we lived from 2011 to 2008. At the end of the third book, Wish me dead, I felt I had said what I wanted to say about Germany. Also, by the time that book came out we had moved to Belgium and I wanted to move on with my work too. It was a strange experience living in Belgium; in Bad Münstereifel there were very few English-speaking expats and we basically tried to blend into German culture as much as we could, but in Brussels there is a really high proportion of expats amongst the population. Also the affluence amongst some of them is astounding. That was definitely a factor in the development of the plot of Silent Saturday: the thought of all these incredibly luxurious villas inhabited by expats. What might be going on in those villas when the owners have all gone back to their home countries for the holidays?!
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I hope that readers will enjoy exploring the setting (Brussels and Flanders) because I think it is quite unusual. There’s also a mystery at the heart of the trilogy – I won’t say what, but it’s to do with the terrible event Veerle and Kris see from the top of the bell-tower – and I hope that that will keep them guessing! The other thing which may strike a chord in these difficult economic times is the opulence of the houses that Veerle and Kris visit. They are so much more luxurious than anything either of them has ever experienced that they don’t take breaking into them as seriously as they might normally have done – the houses don’t seem real, because the lifestyle they represent is so unimaginable to them. I think there is a certain appeal in imagining what one would do if one had access to a lifestyle like that, even for a while. Also it’s understandable that Veerle can’t really see the owners of those houses as real people – their lives are so removed from hers.
Those were my Next Big Thing questions! Here are my two “Next Big Things”:
Jenna burst onto the scene in 2010 with her first fantasy novel, Wintercraft, since followed by Wintercraft: Blackwatch and Wintercraft: Legacy. Her work has been described as “Huge fun, and deliciously shivery” (Amanda Craig, The Times).
The irrepressible Susy McPhee is the author of Husbands and Lies and The Runaway Wife. Susy’s books are full of lively wit but she is not afraid to tackle the darkest of subjects, including terminal illness and the death of a loved one.
As I said at the beginning, I was really supposed to recommend five authors, so I should like to mention Che Golden and Gillian Philip who were unfortunately snaffled by other participants in The Next Big Thing before I asked them, and also Inbali Iserles and Leila Rasheed who are both smashing authors but aren’t currently blogging. Do check them out!