By Leslie Lindsay
Stunning, psychologically complex atmospheric tale about mothers and daughters, inner demons, and piecing back the shards of a fragile psyche. Emma Healey pops by to chat about her favorite podcasts, how her teenage breakdown–and subsequent depression–informed Lana’s character, and so much more.
I am overwhelmed with the subtle absorption of WHISTLE IN THE DARK (July 2018, Harper), which explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, with a wry, poignant, sharply observed style. Emma Healey’s prose is both taut and lush and I was immediately drawn into her atmospheric underworld of 15-year-old Lana Maddox’s teenage depression, unaccountable days, and her eventual reappearance.
Plus, that cover!
Told in a unique noir style in which we begin with the end, delve into a murky (in a good way) middle ground, and then reemerge on a brighter, more hopeful side, WHISTLE IN THE DARK is written in titled sections that aren’t exactly chapters, but present-day vignettes/memories/back flashes, while also propelling the narrative forward. I have to say, I loved this! I found the smaller sections easier to read (as opposed to an entire chapter), offered just enough information to leave me happily brooding in the past while also forcing me forward. I wanted to savor WHISTLE IN THE DARK.
Ultimately, WHISTLE IN THE DARK sets out to discover: 1) Where was Lana during those four days? and 2) Does she really want to be saved?
But there is so much more. The psychological complexities, the emotional depth and the astute observations from Healey made my jaw drop. Plus, there’s a slight religious/spiritual/mystical aspect to the narrative twining through as if a glimmering thread.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Emma Healey to the author interview series.
Emma, I am in awe. Your storytelling in A WHISTLE IN THE DARK is brilliant and yet dark, and so well done. I’m curious what the original seed was that propelled you into this particular world?
Firstly, thank you very much indeed for your lovely comments about the book. I’m ever so glad you enjoyed it.
The initial inspiration for the plot came when I was in Australia in 2015 and I heard about a woman who had gone missing in the rainforest in Queensland for 17 days. She was found, not far from where she’d disappeared, suffering from sunburn and heatstroke, but essentially okay. She said she’d just got lost and had quickly become too weak to alert searchers to her whereabouts. The part of the story that really interested me though, was that the press seemed suspicious of her, hinting that she had deliberately gone off, hadn’t really been lost, was lying. I didn’t know what to do with that for about 10 months, but I knew I wanted to use the elements of that story in a smaller way. So eventually Australia became England, 17 days became 4, the media became a mother. Once I had those parameters I realized it was also going to be a book about teenage depression.
‘…a psychological thriller that meshes the homely with the gothic… Healey broadens the remit of the thriller.’
~ Literary Review
There is a slight ‘underworld’ theme, which can be interpreted on several levels. The title, of course, plays on this, too. Can you share how WHISTLE IN THE DARK is both an interior and exterior read?
Without giving anything away, I knew that a kind of underworld was the solution to the book very early on, so that physical detail was one layer. And then other features of the book suggested others – it’s about a mother who is afraid of losing her daughter, which of course made me think of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The book focuses briefly on social media and internet research – something that we describe as being like a rabbit hole (especially when we’re procrastinating writers!). Jen is worried about her daughter physically and emotionally, and the action is about reacting to a physical absence, but really the book is about a mother trying to excavate her daughter’s mind – so there’s a tension between exterior and interior there.
I also love adding a hint of the uncanny to my writing. I think most of us find ourselves spooked or chilled by strange things at various times – an unidentified noise in an empty house, a shape that seems to change in the dark, etc. Those moments are a kind of pure drama and are full of possibilities. And they all suggest another kind of underworld. I’m hugely influenced in this by my teenage obsession with Ann Radcliffe’s books – her eighteenth century gothic novels are full of the possibility of something supernaturally dark, but always have frighteningly real-world solutions.
I want to talk about structure a bit. WHISTLE IN THE DARK is told in told in sections ranging from a few lines to a few pages, a technique that really propels the narration, whilest, giving readers plenty to think about. How did this structure evolve? Was it conscious on your part? I fond it very effective.
I write in unconnected sections, often only 500 words at a time, and then when I have collected a good number I try to see how these might fit into a narrative. And then I repeat the process – writing another set of unconnected scenes, but with a more definite voice, or perspective, and with a knowledge of the purpose of the story / narrator. And then I carry on like that till I have a first draft. So, in some ways the structure was unconscious, but when I was halfway through I started thinking of Evan S Connell’s novel Mrs Bridge. I love that book, which is written in very short, titled chapters and gives the reader a series of glimpses into the life of Mrs Bridge and her family. It works because Mrs Bridge, her inner life, is kept at arms length, but we get enough (clever, surprising, funny) details to make us think we know her. In fact the overlapping stories act like a series of private jokes – bringing us closer, making us feel like part of the community. I wanted to do something similar, and realized I could formalize my short sections, reduce the span of the novel to include just a few months (rather than a whole life), and also add in a kind of mystery.
Many authors (and writing instructors) suggest that you should always know the end [of your story] before even beginning. Where do you stand on this? Did you know how WHISTLE IN THE DARK would end ahead of time?
I knew the very very end image and the final bit of dialogue, but actually the plot changed several times while I was writing it. I wrote my first novel in the same way. I’ve only once fully worked out the end of a novel and I ended up abandoning that project after thirty thousand words! I have to feel there is something for me to explore, something to discover, to make the process worthwhile. If I know too much I lose interest. I’m not a ‘pantster’ because I keep a very detailed plan, but I let that plan develop with my book, rather than dictate the content.
I also really admire the psychological complexity and depth presented in WHISTLE IN THE DARK. Lana is fifteen and is struggling with depression and anxiety. She has a therapist and also some self-injurious behavior. Can you talk about how this piece found its way into the story? And did you have to do any research?
I had a breakdown when I was 15 and was suicidally depressed. I dropped some of my exams at 16, and didn’t go on to sixth form college (for 17 & 18 year olds). Instead I spent a year barely leaving the house and reading romance novels, one after another, in order to shut out the real world. I didn’t think I would ever explore that time in my life through fiction, and I still wouldn’t write about it in straightforward detail, but approaching the subject from a parent’s point of view (using my mother as a very very rough template) made it possible to find something new and useful and even entertaining in it.
Having gone through that experience, I was really keen to pose rather than answer questions – I wasn’t interested in providing a reason for Lana’s depression, because I know there isn’t always a reason. The book hints at exam pressure and body issues, and difficulties within friendship groups, but doesn’t use any of them as a solution. Similarly I wanted Jen and her husband Hugh to have a good relationship so the reader couldn’t mistake my purpose and think that I was trying to show how divorce leads to depression, etc. I’m also quite hard on Lana – I don’t paint her as an angel! But was always acutely aware of her suffering while I was writing the book.
Emma, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? What you’re binge-watching, if you’re working on something else, if you have a guilty pleasure, what’s on your TBR pile? Something else?
Thank you so much for your questions!
I’m unfortunately not binge-watching anything at the moment as I have 16 month old, so we only ever have CBeebies playing on the television. I do listen to lots of podcasts though, my favourite about books and writing are: Slate’s Audio Bookclub, Death of 1000 Cuts, Backlisted, and of course the New Yorker Fiction podcast. I’m also keen on true crime podcasts, especially: Death in Ice Valley, The Doorstep Murder, In the Dark, and Trace.
I’m working on the beginning of a new book, with lots of chapters set in woodland. At least I think I’m working on a new book, I might just be using that as an excuse to get out into the countryside now that autumn is here (I love the autumn).
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHISTLE IN THE DARK, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma Healey grew up in London and is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel, Elizabeth is Missing, was published to critical acclaim in 2014, sold over a million copies, and won the Costa First Novel Award. Her second novel, Whistle in the Dark was published in 2018. She lives in Norwich with her husband, daughter and cat.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
LOVE IT? SHARE IT!
#amreading #fiction #literaryfiction #authorinterviews #bookreviews
[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins and used with permission.]