The second youngest of thirteen children, Helen grew up in the small town of Kilmore, Victoria, Australia, and studied English and History at the University of Melbourne. Via India and London, she went to Glasgow University where she completed a Diploma and Masters in Social Work. She worked as a probation and parole officer for ten years, most recently in HMP Barlinnie, where she helped prepare serious offenders for release. She’s married to screenwriter Sergio Casci, and has two children, Anna and Joe. Her work has been described as a unique mix of noir/psychological/horror and chick-lit.
Helen was in Zürich for a reading and discussion about the German version of her book The Donor, translated as Tod sei Dank. We met for coffee and a chat about writing.
Did you ever want to be anything other than a writer?
No, I always wanted to write. When I was six, I wanted to write TV ads, because I had a great idea for one. In Australia, we have really huge magpies, not like those weedy things in the UK. In nesting season, they’ll swoop down and take a chunk out of your head. It was a major fear of mine, so I had this image of a kid walking along, holding up an ice-cream and the magpie swooping down, taking a bite out of it and saying, ‘Yum.’ It was brilliant.
Who was the biggest influence on your writing life?
My mother. As a literature teacher, she loved reading and instilled that in me. Now, it’s my husband. We discuss ideas and he can see how to fix problems when I can’t. Often when people point out something in one of my books and say, ‘I love that bit’, it’s Serge’s idea. We talk about writing all the time.
What do your kids make of that?
We often all sit around coming up with endings together. They’re involved, although my son sometimes asks us to stop talking about murder at the dinner table. He’s a real prude and doesn’t even like swearing. So he won’t read my adult books until he’s fifteen. My daughter edits my YA fiction and gives very blunt feedback. She’s a great writer and maybe we’ll write something together one day.
You’ve lived in Glasgow for over twenty years. Do you consider yourself an Australian writer?
I’m not sure. My first book came out first in Australia and I even got a review saying she’s not really Australian anymore. Aussies don’t like it when Aussies leave what they consider the best country in the world. But I studied Australian literature in London, and met Thomas Kenneally and Elizabeth Jolley. It was a great experience. And the book I’m writing now is set in Australia, near the beaches west of Melbourne. I find the descriptions much easier, somehow. But I think I’d say I’m more of a Scottish writer than Australian.
Are Australian writers harder to fit into genre categories? I’m thinking of Peter Temple, Christos Tsiolkas and obviously yourself.
I suppose that’s true. But the strange thing is my Australian publisher, Allen and Unwin, was the most desperate to fit me into crime. ‘You have to have an investigator!’, they said. Maybe not authors but publishers are certainly conservative in Australia.
Which kind of books do you read?
Friends’ books, at the moment. I don’t really read crime, I go for dark psychological stuff, with deep themes. I love mad people. Even when I was younger. Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. Anything with a wonky mind.
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?
My New Year’s resolution was to get rid of tags. I’ve never used anything other than ‘said’, but I end up with so many ‘saids’. I noticed it again at last night’s reading. This year, I’m going tagless.
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? And which book did you expect to hate but didn’t?
I can’t say it. Everyone loves that book. OK, I’ve never actually read To Kill A Mocking Bird. I pick it up, look at the first page but can’t get drawn in. Yes, my husband keeps telling me what a brilliant book it is, but …
As for a book I unexpectedly loved, The Rapist, by Les Egerton. It’s not got a publisher yet. I wondered if I should refuse to read it, imagining what my feminist friends would say, but the voice is so dark and fascinating. It takes you inside the head of a rapist.
You’ve obviously met rapists, sex offenders and murderers in your line of work. Would you have written crime if you’d followed a different career?
Yes. All my roads have come together. I’ve always been interested in the darker side, so I’ve drawn on my literature degree, my experiences in Barlinnie, my own reading right from a young age. I’m still just as fucked up now.
Which book or writer deserves to be better known?
The Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell. Her voice just dances off the page. It’s so rare to read something and think, this is completely different.
You’ve had your work adapted for screen. What do you see as the positive parts of the experience and which bits piss you off?
I’m getting better and that is a result of learning from adaptations. How to pare things down, how to think things through. The downside is creativity by committee. It takes years to develop a script and each new person who comes aboard has a new take. I’m not precious, far from it. My problem was being far too much of a yes-woman. I was easily persuaded into changes by people I saw as experts.
And I’m guessing the writer has very little influence.
Absolutely the bottom of the pile. That’s why I prefer to write novels. But the process has helped me to think about my books more as a film. This is Act One, and this is Act Two and so on.
How do you work? Organically, through disciplined plotting or do the characters take over?
I used to just manically write. Now I start with a five-page synopsis, write a hundred pages and think, ‘Fuck! Where is this going? What’s this about?’ That’s exactly where I am with my current book. So I stop and write a detailed synopsis, 15-20 pages so I can see how it ties together, and what the themes are.
Will you tell me a bit about this current book?
It’s an adult thriller for Faber. The working title is Cry, but I’m thinking of changing it to Don’t Say A Word. (The book came out in 2013, entitled The Cry.) It’s about a couple whose relationship began while he was still married. They’re on a long-haul flight from London to Australia and their new baby is crying non-stop. They administer a sedative but accidentally overdose the child. After they’ve landed, the baby dies. He persuades his wife to cover it up. It’s harrowing. And the first time I’ve stayed in one voice. So far it’s all from her point-of-view and that’s so hard. Although there will be a mid-section which is all public reactions; Twitter, conversations at bus stops, dinner parties. The story is about a dysfunctional relationship and how all their decisions have been bad.
What would be your Masterchef dish?
Oh, shit, I can’t cook. Spaghetti Bolognese and sparkling water. That’s my desert island dish.