Wednesday 27 March 2013

Triskele Bookclub - House of Silence by Linda Gillard

Books that don’t fit the mould always appeal to me and this one is no exception. House of Silence is a tricky book to define. It has mystery, romance, skeletons in the closet, a decrepit family manor house and a fair few emotional truths. I read it in one weekend, completely absorbed by the world the author creates.

The characters are deftly drawn, with layers upon layers of personality, and each with a distinct voice. Considering there are several scenes containing four sisters, this is some achievement. Our protagonist is also more complex than even she realises, and her journey of discovery is as much about understanding herself as it is about uncovering long-buried secrets.

Another area where Linda Gillard shines is in dialogue. The early conversations between Gwen and Alfie fairly crackle with wit and intelligence. My personal favourite was Hattie, whose butterfly monologues flit from subject to subject with flashes of colour and beauty.

The expertly paced plot is full of surprises, not least the romantic twist, and just when you think you know what’s going on, there’s another development. The damaging effects of long-distant choices reverberate down the years, surfacing in the present to upset the fragile balance.

And as with all Triskele Bookclub choices, the entire novel is suffused with a sense of place. Both the Norfolk location, with windmill, sea mists and December chills; and Creake Hall, the seen-better-days Elizabethan manor, with formal gardens and draughty attics, are beautifully realised and atmospheric. The hall becomes a character in itself.

I was initially wrong-footed by the switches in point-of-view, but once I got used to this stylistic choice, I found it an interesting way to experience incidents from two angles. Reading House of Silence reminded me of several other well-loved books, such as Cold Comfort Farm, The Pursuit of Love, Janice Gentle Gets Sexy and The Little Stranger and was a delightful way to spend a weekend.

Review by JJ Marsh

Interview with Linda Gillard

Linda, location is a key feature of all Triskele Books, why is why we chose House of Silence for our bookclub read. Personally, I think your choice of setting works perfectly as backdrop to the story. But could you tell us a little about why you chose Norfolk?

I know the area well and lived there for many years, but beyond that, I think there’s a sort of literary north Norfolk landscape that exists in the mind of the general reader: isolated, bleak, flat, with big skies and artists’ light. I wanted to write about a family who don’t communicate with each other and never have. They spend a cold, emotionally harsh Christmas together, shut away in a gloomy, decaying mansion in a Norfolk backwater. Revelations change the family’s domestic landscape for ever and light is finally let in. The north Norfolk coast seemed just the place for all that to happen.

On a lighter note, the Norfolk setting allowed my hero live in a converted windmill which provided a great contrast to the Jacobean mansion.

You clearly have an ear for dialogue and excel at characterisation. I know you used to be an actor. How influential was that?

It’s been hugely influential. I actually see myself as not so much a novelist, more a failed screenwriter! I read drama at university, went to drama school, then acted professionally for some years, so dialogue, “voice”, how they portray character are all deeply ingrained in me.

I do very little dialogue attribution. I expect readers to be able to tell who’s speaking from the way the characters talk. I’m quite fanatical about tinkering with dialogue until it sounds right, until every character sounds individual. I hate it when I read books and all the characters sound the same regardless of gender, age or class. That’s just lazy writing.

Over the years I discovered a character’s “voice” was a lot to do with rhythm – the length of sentences, punctuation, elisions, the way people truncate sentences when talking, even the way they swear. I noticed in one of my drafts that everyone was cursing in the same way. People don’t. There’s a world of difference between “Blast!”, “Blimey!” and “My giddy aunt!”

On the same topic, do you think a theatre background informed your concept of structure? There is something classical about the way House of Silence builds to the dramatic third act. 

I think my theatre background has definitely influenced how I structure novels. I even write what are known as “curtain lines” at the end of chapters! (Something pithy or surprising that makes a good “exit” from the chapter.)

I think HOUSE OF SILENCE owes something to the 19thC plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, whom I studied at university. It’s not just that all the revelations come out in the final “act”, I also give the main characters a great big “soliloquy” in which they each talk about the past and what really happened (or what they think happened.) This is very much a theatrical device and I wasn’t sure it would work in a novel, but I couldn’t see how else to unravel my complicated plot.

I was also playing around with the Agatha Christie convention of Poirot gathering everyone in the library to hear the (false) revelations/confessions before the reader gets the real solution. I knew that worked in classic detective stories, so I thought I’d use it in HOUSE OF SILENCE which owes something to the English country house mystery.

One of the things which threw me at first was the switching between 1st person point-of-view to an omniscient narrator. It’s an unusual technique. Was it a conscious choice or did it simply develop that way?

I’ve done that in all but one of my books. (In STAR GAZING I have two first person and a third person narrator.) I settled on this narrative style because I get bored writing in just first person, listening to only one voice. But equally, I think third person narration is not nearly so effective for getting readers to feel what the characters feel, see what they see. So I devised a “horses for courses” style where I use whichever narrator will best serve the bit of the story I’m telling. Describing how my heroine feels sexually attracted to someone was probably best done in the first person. But I also needed to show scenes where she wasn’t present, scenes in which members of the family talk to each other about the past. That couldn’t be done in first person so it had to be an omniscient narrator.

This switching back and forth irritates some readers and they’ve complained about it in reviews, but I think this seamless combination of first and third narrators gives me the maximum flexibility and scope. In STAR GAZING I had a congenitally blind first person narrator heroine, so much of the book was told from her blind “point of view”. Even if I could have sustained that for an entire book, readers would have got bored with the lack of visual reference. So I had another first person narrator (the blind woman’s sister) and a third person narrator. I just used whichever I thought best for the bit of the story I was trying to tell. I suppose it must have worked because that novel was short-listed for two awards and won another.

A bond develops between two characters over quilting and material. (In fact, I joined in Gwen and Alfie’s Austen game by dubbing the book Fabrics and Fabrication.) The seamstress/unpicker is powerful theme running through this story. Is sewing a personal interest or was this an area you needed to research?

I didn’t need to do any research because I’m a quilter (or used to be before I started writing full-time.) Three of my novels incorporate patchwork quilts and textiles as part of the plot and two of my heroines are textile artists. (The other two books are EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY and UNTYING THE KNOT.)

I think there’s an affinity between constructing quilts and the way I write novels. I’m sure years of designing and making quilts fed into my writing. I guest-blogged about this for another indie author, Joanne Phillips. 

Something I noticed were the many moving truisms about grief, behaviour, family, love and trust. I’m curious as to whether you started out with the express intention of exploring those ideas, or whether they grew out of character interaction.

I don’t think I ever write about anything else! I hope I do it with a light touch – there’s always plenty of humour in my novels ­– but all my books are about love, loss, trust, family and friendship. Something that interests me is how much damage can be done by people trying to do “the right thing”. Everyone in HOUSE OF SILENCE acted for the best, but no one could foresee the long-term consequences.

I explored this in another novel, A LIFETIME BURNING, in which the main protagonists act “for the best” with catastrophic consequences. That novel definitely showed signs of my undergraduate study of Greek tragedy! With that book I set out to write something on a grand scale, a Greek tragedy set in suburbia, written in the style of someone like Barbara Pym. It was an experiment. I didn’t have a publisher when I wrote it and I was feeling brave. I just wanted to see if you could do something almost operatic in a novel.

The structure of that book is very complex because in addition to my first and third person narrators, it’s non-chronological. The story jumps back and forth over sixty years of an extended family’s life. Some readers dismiss the structure as random, but events and information are fed to the reader in a very precise way for maximum dramatic effect. A life doesn’t generally have a good dramatic structure, so I imposed one by manipulating the sequence in which events were narrated.

There was another advantage. I could cover sixty years of this family’s life and follow Elmore Leonard’s very good advice to “leave out the boring bits.”

You’re one of a growing number of traditionally published authors who have forsaken publishing houses to go it alone. What drove that decision?

I was an award-winning, mid-list author of contemporary women’s fiction when I was dropped by my publisher a few years ago. (“Disappointing sales” was the reason given.) After two years my agent still hadn’t found a publisher for my fourth and fifth novels. Editors liked the books, but said they’d be hard to market as they belonged to no clear genre. I had a modest but enthusiastic following nagging me for a new book, so I decided to indie-publish my fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE on Kindle.

And has it been successful? 

Yes, very. I hoped to sell 10 a month, maybe 10 a week if the book really took off, but I sold 10,000 downloads in less than four months. Amazon acknowledged my success by selecting HOUSE OF SILENCE as a Top Ten Editor’s Pick Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category. I’ve since published four more indie novels (two backlist, two new) and I now earn a good living from them – something I wasn’t able to do when I was traditionally published.

I’ve proved I can earn more for myself than a publisher can earn for me, but the main issues for me were creative freedom and artistic control. Two of my traditionally published novels were sunk by unappealing covers and I’d had a title foisted on me which I hated. I was asked by editors to simplify my storylines and make my heroines more likeable.

For years I was told my books didn’t belong to any genre and were therefore hard to market. I wouldn’t accept that. I embraced the genre-mix and used it as a selling point. My tag-line for HOUSE OF SILENCE was “REBECCA meets COLD COMFORT FARM” and readers have told me that made them click. Mixing genres isn’t a problem for readers, just retailers.

HOUSE OF SILENCE is the first of yours I’ve read, but I know it won’t be the last. Does location play a key factor in your other books? If so, where should I start?

I’ve lived in the Scottish Highlands since 2001 and I’ve spent many of those years living on islands – Skye, Harris and Arran. Although I’m English, I’ve carved out a bit of a niche writing novels set in the Highlands and islands. STAR GAZING and THE GLASS GUARDIAN are set on Skye, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY is set on the remote Hebridean island of North Uist.

Location is very important to me, both as a reader and as a writer – the area, even the actual building in which the story is set. UNTYING THE KNOT is set in Highland Perthshire, in a 16thC tower house that the cracked-up ex-soldier hero has renovated as a family home. The tower house is another character in the story, in the same way that Creake Hall is a character in HOUSE OF SILENCE.

I don’t think of myself as being very good at descriptive writing – I find it very hard – but creating a sense of place is something for which I’ve been praised. I’m also interested in creating interior landscapes, eg the sensory world of the blind heroine of STAR GAZING. A few of my characters descend into delusion or madness, where they inhabit their own world. In UNTYING THE KNOT the hero suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. At the climax of the book he retreats into a private world of flash-backs. Sometimes he believes he’s on a Falklands battlefield, sometimes he thinks he’s patrolling Londonderry during the Troubles.

I was trying to create a landscape within a landscape – one that’s imagined inside one that’s real. My hope was, the sudden dislocation of place would give readers an inkling of what it’s like to suffer from PTSD, a devastating mental health condition that isn’t widely understood and for which there’s little in the way of treatment.

So if you’re interested in Scotland, landscape, family stories, romance and mental health issues, you might enjoy any of my novels.

Thanks very much for inviting me onto the Triskele blog. It’s been a real treat to answer your questions. I love talking about the nuts and bolts of writing!





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  1. ooh I must read this - I adore north Norfolk. Thanks for this!

  2. Great interview and another for my to-read list!