Book Birthday Interview – Urban Legends author Helen Grant talks to Emma Pass
Hi Helen. Happy book birthday and welcome to Author Allsorts! Can you tell us a bit about Urban Legends?
Thank you Emma!
Urban Legends is an urbex (urban exploration) themed thriller set in and around Brussels. It follows my previous books Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent, featuring Veerle De Keyser, a girl whose stifling upbringing has given her a taste for danger. This is the book where all the chickens come home to roost! Veerle has crossed the path of a brutal serial killer, and lived to tell the tale; now he’s on a personal vendetta to get her.
I think this is my scariest book yet! Blogger The Bookwitch said of it, “I am scared witless, and I’m only on p 24”!
What inspired you to write this book?
Two things really. The first is the setting. I lived in Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) for three years and I really wanted to write something set there. We’ve moved around quite a lot over the years – we’ve lived in Spain, Germany and Flanders – and it’s been like a series of love affairs; I fall in love with the place I’m in and it’s a heartbreaking wrench when we have to leave. Writing a book, or books, about the place is like creating a real memento of my time there. Though obviously I didn’t spend my time being chased by serial killers!!
The other thing is the whole idea of urban exploration. I find it impossibly intriguing! I’ve always enjoyed visiting old places – ancient churches and castles, things like that. Visiting modern ones in a state of dereliction is maybe an extension of that. The feeling of decay is chilling but also exciting. And then there is the thrill of seeing something most people don’t see. It gives you a real sense of discovery. I’m actually pretty envious of Veerle’s adventures!
Urban Legends is the final book in a trilogy. Did you have all three books planned out right from the start, or was writing them more of an organic process?
When I came up with the concept for Silent Saturday (the first book) I thought it was going to be a single standalone book. I’m glad I didn’t limit the stories or the characters to one book in the end though, because I loved working on the trilogy more than anything else I’ve ever done.
Once I’d decided to make Silent Saturday the first of three books, I did
have an overall outline of what was going to happen mapped out in my head. I think it’s even more important to do that with a trilogy or series of books than a single one. Once the first book has been published, you can’t go back and change somethingto fit what happens in the later books. So it’s best to have some idea where it’s all going!
I didn’t have every single detail planned from the beginning though. In Demons of Ghent I started writing the denouement I had planned and it just felt wrong. I ended up scrapping 10,000 words and rewriting the entire scene. There were also some minor characters (like Anneke in Demons of Ghent and Mevrouw Willems in Urban Legends) who became much more developed than I had imagined. Things do have a bit of a life of their own sometimes!
Urban Legends (and, in fact, all of the books in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy) is set in some pretty unusual locations – what sort of research did you have to do for the book?
Best research trips ever! I did actually visit most of the locations in the trilogy, including the ones in Urban Legends. So for Silent Saturday I went up church bell towers in Flanders, and for Demons of Ghent I went around the torture museum in the Gravensteen castle and climbed the Belfort tower. For Urban Legends I visited the Brussels sewers and a derelict factory. You can tour part of the sewers through the Musée des égouts (Sewers museum) in Anderlecht but the factory visit was strictly unofficial. I went with some experienced urban explorers to see that. It was a huge place, in the process of being demolished. Parts of it had already been reduced to rubble, but other parts looked just as they would have on the day the last workers left, except that everything was covered with a layer of dust. It was creepy but also incredibly exciting. All the details of the abandoned factory in Urban Legends came from that visit; it’s all true to life.
What forbidden space would you most like to visit (if you haven’t already?)?
I’ve spent hours thinking about this question and I can’t narrow it down to one place! I visited the Paris catacombs in 2011 and I’d love to see some of the other tunnels down there, the ones you aren’t allowed to go into. I’d also love to see Shi Cheng, the drowned city in China, though I’d have to refresh my rusty sub aqua diving skills to do that! Abandoned London Underground stations would also be on my list., and the nuclear bunker at Cultybraggan here in Scotland.
In real life one of the best forbidden spaces I’ve seen was the citadel of Bam in Iran, which I visited in 1992. It wasn’t forbidden in the same way an abandoned factory or closed railway tunnel is off limits, but it was in a very out-of-the-way place in a country that isn’tall that easy to visit. The citadel was centuries old and took the form ofa small city entirely enclosed by a defensive wall with a single gate. Many of the abandoned buildings were pretty much intact. Tragically,the place was ruined in the earthquake of 2003. I wish I could see it again, as it used to be.
What was your journey to becoming a published author like?
I’d always wanted to be an author, since I was a child, but for a long time I was so busy with study and work and travelling that I didn’t attempt any big writing projects. I mostly wrote travel diaries, poems, and things like that. Then I had two children in the space of 20 months and we moved abroad to Germany. When the kids were old enough to go to kindergarten, I finally had three or four free hours in the mornings so I started writing in earnest. I started with non fiction articles and short stories, which was good because it gave me a track record of publication and helped me to get used to constructive editorial criticism!
I sent my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, to twelve agents before being taken on by Darley Anderson. The book was first published by Penguin in 2009. It was all a lot less dramatic than expected. I’d dreamed for years of the day when I would hold my own book in my hands, but in the run-up to publication we moved from Germany to Belgium and I just had too much on my plate to spend time celebrating! I wrote my second book, The Glass Demon, during the move, so I was also dealing with settling into a new place and supporting the kids as they settled into a new school, and learning a new language and so on. It just felt like fire fighting! I never sat down and thought, wow, my second book.
Halfway through writing the Forbidden Spaces trilogy we moved from Belgium to Scotland so we had all that upheaval all over again.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I do most of my real work Monday to Friday during school term time. I find it difficult to get much done when the house is full of people so I tend towork intensively when everyone else is out! The day starts with me making tea and finding clean shirts and packing lunch boxes and privately thinking, off you all go, I want to write now. At about half past eight I’m finally alone and I work through until about three thirty when the kids get home, with breaks for cups of tea and lunch and a bit of messing around on Twitter and Facebook if I need a few minutes off.
When I’m working flat out on a book, I have a target word count for the day and I try very hard to keep to that. If I get ahead and manage to get the week’swork done by Thursday, I can take Friday off. It sounds a bit mechanistic but as I don’t have a boss hanging over me nagging me to get on, I have to have some way of keeping myself on track!
If you were going to spend the night in a derelict, abandoned building, what would be in your survival kit?
For starters, I’d wear some very warm clothing – maybe a down jacket and fleecy trousers or something, and some warm boots. I wouldn’t want to risk taking a sleeping bag – supposing I had to leave in a hurry, I wouldn’t want to have to disentangle myself from a sleeping bag first!
I’d definitely take something light and calorific to eat (energy bars maybe) and a thermos flask with hot water so I could make tea without lighting a tell-tale fire. I’ve been on enough camping trips to know that if you sleep out, the morning simply cannot be faced without a cup of hot sweet tea!
I’d take a head torch (invaluable if you want to keep your hands free) and an extra battery. I think it would also be a good idea to take one of those little bottles of anti bacterial gel. If you’re in love with Cleanliness then derelict buildings probably aren’t for you, but I think if I actually put my hand on a rat turd by accident I’d want to be able to clean up!
Last but not least, I’d take a Smartphone so that I couldtake loads of photos and upload them in real time. If it isn’t on social media, it didn’t happen…
And which book would you take with you?
Not Urban Legends! Not anything scary, in fact. I think it would be quite creepy enough, sitting in a cold dark deserted place all night!
I’d quite like to choose a book that was relevant to the place itself. Supposing I really did get to explore the off limit bits of the Paris catacombs, for example, it would be great to take along a book about the history of the tunnels, to answer some of the questions that wouldinevitably arise!
Failing that, I’d choose areassuring old favourite like Cold Comfort Farm (which would make me laugh however creeped out I was) or She (to remind me to be brave and keep a stiff upper lip!).
Thank you, Helen! I’ve already read Urban Legends and can highly recommend it. Watch out for page 38, though…
Helen Grant was born in London. In 2001 she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany, and it was exploring the history and legends of this beautiful little town that inspired her first YA novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. The book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Booktrust Teenage Award and won an ALA Alex Award in the US. Helen has written two other novels set in the same part of Germany: The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead. She later moved to Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and her three most recent novels, Silent Saturday, Demons of Ghent and Urban Legends, are set there. Helen now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two rather shiftless cats. As well as writing YA, she writes ghost stories for adults. She spends her spare time walking, exploring ruined churches and castles, and going to the cinema.
Emma Pass has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. Her debut novel, dystopian thriller ACID, is out now and was the winner of the 2014 North East Teenage Book Award. It was followed by THE FEARLESS, another stand-alone thriller for young adults, in April 2014. She lives with her artist husband and crazy greyhound G-Dog in the north east Midlands, and when she’s not writing she likes walking and reading.