House of Hollow author on ghost doors, googling corpses and advice to aspiring YA authors.
Q: How did the idea for House of Hollow come about?
A: It’s a scrapbook of different ideas that eventually merged together. The first spark came to me when I was out hiking with my sister in the middle of nowhere and I thought, “What if I turned around right now and she was just gone?” If there was no sound, no struggle, no one else around – it was such a horrifying thought. The story really started to percolate after I visited Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and saw “ghost doors” scattered around the forest – ruins where every part of a structure had fallen away except the doorframe. They felt at once inviting and dangerous, like fairy circles. I wanted to walk through one, but found myself afraid that if I did I might end up somewhere . . . else. Those two elements really drew me in and I started to build the story and characters and world around them.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the writing process behind this book?
A: It was a struggle and a joy! The struggle was finding my way into the story. I knew I wanted it to feel like a dark modern fairy tale, but I kept getting swept up in the “fairy tale” part of that. My favourite stories are those where the supernatural brushes up against our world. It’s subtle and somewhat scary. Let’s just say there was nothing subtle about my early drafts! I was really beating readers over the head with the fantasy elements. My agent helped me find a sure footing in reality by suggesting I set the book in London, where I had just moved. Once I had the first third of the book in good shape and firmly rooted in our world, the rest flowed much easier. Less is more, people!
Q: Your previously published books are contemporary. Was it difficult to suddenly switch to a horror/thriller?
A: If anything, my contemporary books were the difficult switch and this is me coming home. I have always read and written about the supernatural; I actually wrote three unpublished manuscripts before Our Chemical Hearts, which were all fantasy and/or thrillers. I’ve never enjoyed creating anything as much as I did House of Hollow, because it’s the kind of book I’ve been trying to write for a decade: lush, dark, scary, supernatural. After publishing two books, I finally felt like I was good enough as a writer – that I had the necessary toolkit – to do the story justice.
Q: The detail in House of Hollow is immersive and incredible. How did you so expertly bring these characters and scenes to life?
A: Oh, it was a delight to luxuriate in the details: The smells, the textures, the creepiness of the sisters and the strange world they inhabit. House of Hollow is very rooted in scent. The milky smell of the girls’ skin, the stink of rot and smoke that seeps from the man that haunts them. Playing in the world of high fashion was also so much fun it didn’t feel like work. I spent a lot of time looking at designs by Alexander McQueen, Rodarte and Elie Saab to get a better idea of what Grey Hollow’s designs might look and feel like. As always, I was concerned that my Google search history might get me into trouble if anyone around me was murdered, because I was constantly looking up things like “What does a dead body smell like?” and “How long does it take to burn a human corpse?” I love my job!
Q: If you had to pick one of the Hollow sisters to spend a day with, who would you choose? What would you get up to?
A: Oh, this is a tough one! Let’s be honest, it’s not going to be Iris (sorry Iris) because she’s going to be at school or studying and generally minding her own business. Now, Vivi would show you a very good time, but you would likely end up in an underground club at 5am with a new tattoo, a stolen jacket and a stomach full of vodka and greasy fast food. So, my choice would probably be Grey – who wouldn’t want to spend a day with the world’s most famous, mysterious supermodel?
Q: What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to aspiring YA authors?
A: I have two: Keep showing up and finish what you start. Both sound easy in theory, but are much harder in practise. Stephen King has a great quote about being at your desk at the same time every day, so the muse knows where to find you. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike; writing is work and therefore needs to be worked on. That ties in nicely to finishing what you start. I hit a wall about 80% of the way into every project where self-doubt begins to bleed in. At first, I thought it was because I wasn’t a very good writer; now I know that every writer experiences this and the pros are just those who’ve learned how to push through it. Oh, and one final piece of advice: Make space in your brain for imagination and inspiration. My writing suffers when I fill every spare moment with podcasts and social media and Netflix. Try to read more books (this is essential for improving your writing anyway) and listen to music in moments when you would otherwise try to stuff your brain with noise. I find I get my best inspiration in the shower and (weirdly) when I’m putting on makeup or stacking the dishwasher.
Q: Did you listen to, watch, or do anything in particular while you were writing House of Hollow? What does your day-to-day writing look like?
A: I listened to the Annihilation soundtrack a lot. Like, an unhealthy amount. Honestly, I’m surprised Spotify didn’t contact me to check on my wellbeing! Music really gets me into a story, so I tend to listen to songs over and over again, noting down the little vignettes that pop into my head. Usually I will set myself a daily writing target (say, 1000 words) but I didn’t do that with House of Hollow. It meant the drafting process took a lot longer, but I think I enjoyed it more. My ideal writing day is getting up at 6am and writing 1,000 words before breakfast, then having the rest of the day to tinker and add more at my leisure. I’m like a vampire; sunshine saps me of my power. By noon, all of my creative energy is generally spent so I have to try and take advantage of the early mornings.
'This dark, deliciously twisted novel has everything you could hope for as a reader – a brilliant concept, glamorous characters with secrets to hide, immersive world-building, and some of the finest writing I’ve seen in YA fiction. I’ll put it like this – I am obsessed with House of Hollow.’ Louise O'Neill, author of Printz Honor Book, Asking For ItBuy now
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