Q&A with Helen Grant

Bookbabblers caught up with Helen Grant, author of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and The Glass Demon, recently:

From your childhood, what book(s)stand out for you?

One of my favourite books was The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who also created Sherlock Holmes). My father had a paperback copy of it on his bookshelf. It looked really exciting – it had some explorers being threatened by a monstrous dinosaur on the front! I begged and begged to be allowed to read it but my father said that if I read it when I was too young it would “spoil” the book for me. Finally when I was 10 he said that I could read any of his books. I went straight to the bookshelf and got down The Lost World!

I was very fond of adventure stories. I also loved She by H.Rider Haggard, about a lost tribe in Africa ruled by an immortal princess. It’s quite an old book now (it was published in 1887). When I was a child I had a lot of the books my parents had owned in the 1940s and 1950s so I read a lot of old- fashioned adventures!

How did The Glass Demon idea come to you?

The Glass Demon was actually inspired by the fascinating true story of the Steinfeld stained glass.

Steinfeld Abbey in Germany had a fabulous series of sixteenth-century stained glass windows, many of them created by the master craftsman Gerhard Remsich (who is supposed to have created the Allerheiligen glass in the book).

Several times in their history the Steinfeld windows had to be taken out of the window frames and hidden, becausethere was a war on and they could have been damaged, or in one case to let the cloister dry out. When the abbey closed in 1802 they were sold and vanished altogether. For a century nobody knew where they were.

In 1904 the famous ghost-story writer Montague Rhodes James was cataloguing the stained glass in the chapelofAshridge House in Hertfordshire, and realised that most of it came from Steinfeld. The name of the abbey was written on one of the windows in Latin. He was inspired by the glass to write a story called “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” which is set in Steinfeld. A German priest called Father Nikola Reinartz heard about the story and when he was in England for a conference he contacted M.R.James to find out where the glass was. He was then able to visit it at Ashridge. He was thrilled that the lost glass had been found at last.

The Steinfeld glass was auctioned at Sotheby’s in the 1920s and sold for the equivalent of about ?800,000 in today’s money. Most of it is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

I found this story fascinating for several reasons. I would never have believed that something as fragile as stained glass could be taken out of the window frames and transported to another country without being broken. Also, I couldn’t help thinking how amazing it would be if there were another set of similar stained glass windows still hidden somewhere, waiting to be found. It would be rare and almost priceless. That’s what inspired the The Glass Demon.

Why the name Lin Fox, and how do characters take shape?

Lin’s name is actually a shortened version of her full name (which is revealed at the end of the book); I chose to give her that name because it is rather revealing about the relationship between her and Tuesday. Tuesday is quite pretentious (which is why she chose the name) and Lin resents it. I chose the surname Fox because I think it sounds short, sharp and quite cool. Lin’s father Oliver is very concerned with his image; if his surname had been something unglamorous-sounding I think he would have changed it.

It’s hard to explain how the characters take shape. I don’t feel conscious of “thinking them up”. I feel as though they have an existence of their own; I just describe them, the way they are. When I was working on The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (my first novel), one of the first publishers I spoke to suggested some changes to the book which didn’t really fit Pia’s (the heroine’s) character. I had a very clear image in my head of Pia shaking her head and then walking sadly away. It was as though she was speaking for herself.

We know you enjoy having folklore running through your stories – what about it appeals to you?

I like the idea of retelling real folk tales because they are a precious link to the past. Many of them are also brilliantly good stories. “Bonschariant”, the “glass demon” in the book, is based on a legend about Count Sigebodo, who built Steinfeld Abbey. He had a foreign servant whose name was so difficult to pronounce that the Count called him “Bonschariant” (which means “the good servant”) instead. Bonschariant was actually a demon, and Count Sigebodo eventually realised that, after Bonschariant cured his wife of a deadly disease by using magic. He built the abbey and put a large cross on the highest point, to ward the demon off. I liked the name “Bonschariant”. I also thought it would be fun to use if anyone googled the name and found out that it was a real legend – it gives the book authenticity and makes it just that bit more creepy!

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on my third novel. It’s also set in the Eifel region of Germany, like my first two books, and like the others it is inspired by real history and legends, in this case the notorious witch trials that took place in the Eifel. The story is about a group of bored teenagers who decide to try to hex someone using black magic – and the person really dies! At first they are horrified but after a while they start to think that perhaps the person’s death was coincidence so they try again…

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

It’s wonderful being able to work at home. If one of my kids is sick and can’t go to school, I just don’t work that day (or I put a DVD on for them and work anyway!). I can take a day off when I feel like it, and I can take my holidays when I like. I suppose many self-employed people could say the same – but I also love writing itself; I can’t imagine a better job than making up stories! It doesn’t really feel like work.

Which current children/YA authors do you (or your children) most enjoy?

I really like Michelle Magorian’s books. I have read Goodnight, Mr.Tom loads of times. It’s a wonderful book, set during the Second World War, about a crusty old man who manages to find room in his heart for an unhappy child.

My son really likes the Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney and my daughter is completely crazy about the Warrior Cats series by Erin Hunter. I’ve read the first Warrior Cats book and I thought it was good, too – it’s about a domestic cat who feels the call of the wild. But I’m not sure I could read every single book (there are over 20 books plus manga cartoons!).

And finally, let us in on 3 of your passions.

Exploring old buildings is one of them! I love visiting old castles and churches. Sometimes I write articles about them. I once went to the south of France to visit a particularly beautiful old cathedral, and I also went to Jutland in Denmark to look at the old houses in the town of Viborg. I had read some ghost stories which were set in those two places, and I wanted to find out what the locations were really like.

I love to learn foreign languages. French was my second language and I was absolutely terrible at it until, at the age of 13, I went to stay with a French-speaking family in Belgium for a month. When I arrived I could barely understand a word but when I got back I was fluent. I’d heard nothing but French for four weeks! Since then I have also learnt German and am now learning Dutch, because I live in Flanders. I get a tremendous kick out of being able to speak another language. I suppose it’s because I’m a completely compulsive communicator. I put this down to the fact that I come from a family of four children and it was difficult to make myself heard!

My final passion is a totally disreputable one. I absolutely love disaster movies! Don’t ask me why; I’m not a pessimistic person. I couldn’t wait for 2012 to come out in the cinema, and I also loved The Day After Tomorrow and The Core. Perhaps it’s the grand scale of the destruction that appeals – I like a bit of drama.

Who doesn’t, we say?! The Glass Demon is in our shop now, you can find out more about Helen at her website here, and follow her on Twitter here.