Here to talk psychological thrillers, good reads and book covers is Testament of Vida Tremayne and The Gingerbread Wife author Sarah Vincent. Welcome Sarah!
Thanks so much for including me in this great blog series, Jennie!
Let's start with an obvious one. Do you think you judge books by their covers?
Yes, definitely, although this isn’t always fair to the author. Covers which depict a girl’s legs, a pair of shoes, or rolled down socks tend to be an instant turn-off for me. I think the leg-thing has been done to death. This is a shame, because I may be passing up on some great novels this way.
Equally I’ve been attracted by beautiful covers only to be disappointed by what lies between them. Naming no names, some recent covers have been so lip-smackingly gorgeous I’ve wanted to wallpaper my bedroom with them! It’s a real let-down when the story inside falls flat, but that happens quite a lot. Some covers have no relation to what lies inside, and I think that’s a bit deceptive.
So, for this interview I decided to choose book covers which are not only stunning to look at but also seem to capture the heart or essence of the story. Every one of these four books has been a joy to look at and equally a pleasure to read.
Book One: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (Faber)
To be fair, I’d already enjoyed Jane’s previous novel ‘The Observations’ so I knew I was in for an outstanding read. That said, the cover would have attracted me in any case. The woman with the birdcage clearly indicates a historical novel, and there’s something proud and defiant in her look that suggests an intriguing heroine. I really like the style of the drawing on the red background. There’s a quirky element to the drawing, which fits beautifully with the subject matter of an unreliable narrator – a story that continually plays with the reader.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading ‘The Muse’ by Jessie Burton. It was a birthday gift from someone. The cover is drop dead gorgeous, but it’s not one of my choices here for the reasons I’ve just given.
Who are your main influences?
That’s difficult. Different authors speak for different times. Fay Weldon’s feminist novels influenced me a lot when I was a young housewife and mother in the seventies. I liked her crisp ironic voice, and the way she spoke to her readers like a friend. Much needed in my case. I also loved the way she mixed the everyday with the supernatural. ‘Puffball’ was one of my favourites.
A decade later and it was Angela Carter’s magic realist novels that set my pulse racing. That lush prose, laden with adjectives, so different to Weldon’s sharp succinct turns of phrase. I loved ‘The Magic Toyshop.’ It would be hard to name my influences now. I think every single thing you read feeds into the writing almost without you noticing.
Name a book/author that had a significant impact on you when you were growing up?
Oh dear. So many. The spooky atmospheric works of Daphne du Maurier struck a chord; lonely heroines in wild and romantic landscapes. Jamaica Inn and Rebecca were great favourites, and her spooky short stories like ‘Don’t Look Now’ really hit the spot. I spent some happy weeks curled up on the sofa with Lord of the Rings but strangely perhaps it never tempted me to write pure fantasy, although I do occasionally read it as you see here.
Where do you write?
I write in my converted coal-shed office tucked behind the sitting room. It’s so long and narrow, I daren’t put on any weight or I’d get stuck. I’ve described it as an anchorite’s cell in the past, that’s what it feels like when the writing doesn’t go well. I also edit and write reports for my job as a consultant at Writers’ Workshop. This is all done in the office, so it feels very much like work there. Sometimes, if I’m stuck and need to get creative juices flowing, I’ll scribble longhand curled up on the sofa, much more comfy.
Book Two: The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)
Now this was one case where the book cover attracted me so much I couldn’t resist downloading a sample on my Kindle. I’d never heard of the author before, so it was all down to that magical cover. Something about that combination of indigo background and the silver tree. But then I do love winter trees on book covers. Trees and ravens, I suppose appeal to my interest in gothic. As for the book it was one of those rare cases where the story more than lives up to the enticing cover. Such a treat. I’ve now discovered a new author all thanks to the cover artist.
Your stories have dark themes often centred around women in the grip of psychological struggle. Where do you look for your inspiration for these characters and who is your favourite character to date?
It’s interesting because my teenage books were mainly comic, but there’s always that hint of darkness which creeps in. As a reader I like that sense of a supernatural undercurrent echoing everyday events.
When it comes to the characters, especially in my short stories, I don’t consciously look to others for inspiration. Most of these women are based on myself in part. I’m always interested in the subtle psychological power-play between the weak and strong. It’s all about exploring your own fears and struggles I suppose. Mysterious, powerful, manipulative women have always fascinated me. This type seems to pop up a lot in my fiction. The sinister Elsa in ‘The Centipede’ (The Gingerbread Wife) and Rhiannon in The Testament of Vida Tremayne are prime examples.
Book Three: The House at the Edge of The World by Julia Rochester (Penguin)
Well who could resist that cover? I love the stylized waves, their flamboyance and energy and the way the figure in the midst of this great force looks so tiny and vulnerable. Again, it’s another one where the artist has caught the essence of this extraordinary read so perfectly. It’s a fantastic read. This I think is what a good cover should do.
What are you writing about at the moment?
It’s another psychological thriller, called ‘The Good Listener.’ It’s about a hospital volunteer/visitor who sits by the bed of a coma patient and confesses to a crime she committed in her childhood, a crime which has haunted her all her life. When the patient recovers unexpectedly, Janice is terrified that she’ll remember her confession. I still have a fair bit of work to do on this one. It takes time, because I have to fit in writing with my editing work these days.
What is your best cure for writer's block?
Hmm…I’m not sure there is a cure! It’s easy to lose confidence, to wonder what the point of it all is, especially given the demands of today’s publishing industry. I had a period for four years when I put down the pen and picked up a paintbrush. That was sheer joy. But the stories never went away, so I went back to writing. It helps I think to turn to other forms of creativity, something more visual or tactile than writing. Knitting, sewing quilts, gardening, painting, whatever appeals. Sometimes you just need a rest from words.
What elements of a WIP do you tend to find hardest to write?
Depends on the WIP. My first three novels (the teen trilogy) wrote themselves. I was writing longhand then, and those notebooks just filled up as if the elves had written them. Often though it’s a more tortured process. I find dialogue easy, but I’m not a ‘Plotter’ more of a ‘Pantser.’ Mostly it’s a case of praying the characters will lead you somewhere interesting.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment as a published author so for?
Hmm. Probably seeing my very first published book ‘The Henry Game’ (which I wrote under my own name Susan Davis,) piled up in the 3 for 2’s at the bookshop chain, Ottakars. This wasn’t just any old branch, but in Wood Green, the suburb of north London where I grew up. The book was partly autobiographical and pretty much set around that area so it felt special. Sadly my mum wasn’t around to witness me signing those books by that time. And Ottakars is no longer with us either – a great loss to the book trade.
Book 4: The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig (Harper Voyager)
This one is so imaginative, original and enticing. I actually won The Fire Sermon on Goodreads. Again, I hadn’t heard of the author, but was attracted by the cover so put in a bid. I love the typography, those cut out trees with the flames licking around the base of the trunks, set against an indigo sky. The cut out figures are racing across a landscape of torn paper and print. If you turn the cover upside down you can read some of the text on the tree trunks. An extraordinary cover for an extraordinary book. About the design
Do you have a favourite motivational quote and what is it?
I don’t really have one. However I really like Paul Beatty, booker prize winner’s remark that: ‘I’ve been writing for 30 years and I’m slowly getting there.’
That just about sums up the fact that you need plenty of patience in this game!