Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did The Golden Key evolve?
A. The story emerged, oddly enough, in California while I was attending the Clarion Workshop. It was the story I wrote to be workshopped the week when Catherynne Valente was teaching us. I got a lot of useful feedback there. Then I decided to develop it as a novel for my Cambridge University Creative Writing master degree. It was a slow process, we’re talking years, in which scenes and characters and events fell into place. But I have always known that I wanted to write about Norfolk, a place I have a lot of conflicting emotions about.
Q. The Golden Key is a novel that seems very much inspired by a sense of place, in this case the mysterious fenlands of England. How would you describe your relationship with this particular geography and what spurred you to write about it?
A. I went first to Norfolk in the early 2000s, and the impressions and emotions that the place inspired have been difficult to shake. I have never felt so much that I was in a place that was haunted, where getting lost would be easy. I think that was where I first learnt of the expression “being pixie-led”. As it happens, we almost lost our sense of direction when a cloudy mist descended over the Fens. That first moment of indeterminacy has stayed with me all these years, and I still think of East Anglia as a place that could be a portal to another realms. My husband’s family comes from that part of the world, so we live very nearby, in Cambridgeshire, and it is still a place that occupies a large portion of our imaginary,
Q. Helena Walton-Cisneros was my favorite character in the novel, and her wry observations regarding the sexism of the time really resonated with me as a feminist. Without trying to narrow your range, do you ever find yourself writing with a particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?
A. I write mostly for myself, I write the kind of story that I would like to read as a reader, and that would make me satisfied. I think writing for an audience is probably not a good idea.
Q. The Golden Key draws heavily on the fairy tale works of George MacDonald, even using him as a character in the narrative. What about his stories drew you to him, and to including that cameo?
A. The sense of liminality, his idea of “porous borders” between worlds that dominate his stories, of hidden
thresholds, was for me much more attractive than the idea of crossing a door into another world. I wanted
him to appear at some point, to be crucial in making Eliza and Helena understand. But, at the same time, I
wanted to be respectful. I hope I have managed to strike a good balance. He also has a clear Weird or
uncanny sensibility, which is in my opinion unique to his epoch. No-one was writing about the liminal space
as well as he was.
Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”
A. Crime and Punishment! Although, I know, it’s nothing at all like what I write now.
Q. You’re both a writer and teacher of fiction. How did you learn to write, and what lessons do you wish other writers already knew before they come to you?
A. I have written all my life, so I am not sure I can answer the question of “how” it has happened. Writing is a very slow apprenticeship: I am still learning in fact. And every time I sit down to write a short story I feel as if I am starting anew. But I would recommend the Clarion workshop: the learning curve on those inmersive six weeks was a providential boost to my writing.
Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?
A. Quite simply, I write when I can, and I try to make time to it. I have a job, and children, so there is no other way than willing yourself to make the time.
Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?
A. Definitely a pantser! Although that has brought me problems in the past, and I should change my approach.
Q. Congratulations on your two-book deal with Titan Books! What can you tell us about your next projects?
A. I am finishing a near-future fable set in Andalusia, where I was born and grew up, after a climate catastrophe. It’s an attempt to bring some Gothic tropes to a luscious, hot landscape. I am also planning a new outing for Helena, as I personally would love to see what she is doing next!
Q. What are you reading at the moment?
A. I am lucky enough to be reading Tim Major’s new book in proof.
Q. Are there any new books or authors in speculative fiction that have you excited?
A. The new books by Anne Charnock, M.T. Hill, Tim Major, are top of my list. I have also seen announced this
week new books by Gary Budden and Naomi Booth! I wrote about Sealed in my PhD, so I am a big fan of
Naomi’s writing. Aliya Whitely, of course! And there has been a novella announced by Malcolm Devlin. I
really enjoyed his book of short stories. And I don’t know how speculative it will be, but Piranesi, by Susanna
Clarke, is due this September, and I can’t hardly wait.
Q. What made you choose weird fiction as your means of expression?
A. Frankly, I do not think that realist literature can convey my feelings and anxieties about the world right now. I love the Weird’s ability to create an emotional impact in the reader.
The Golden Key was published in the US on February 18th, 2020 and may be found at all good booksellers. My review of the book itself may be found here.