Author Q&A: Amanda Mason

The Wayward Girls (Zaffre, £12.99. Audible, £32.99)

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Amanda Mason has had a career as a teacher and has written and directed plays since she was a theatre student. She began writing prose seven years ago, at age 50, and The Wayward Girls is her debut novel. Set in her native Yorkshire, it is centred on a family living in a rundown cottage in 1976 and a group of people in the present day investigating strange occurrences that happened there in the past. 

This is your debut novel, but you’ve written short ghost stories before. What do you find so compelling about the genre and do you ever scare yourself?
I’ve loved ghost stories ever since I was a child, and I’m really not sure why. I grew up in Whitby, where there’s no shortage of supernatural folklore, so that might have something to do with it, and there’s the Dracula connection too, I suppose.

I find them incredibly satisfying, mostly because they deal with sensation. People read ghost stories in order to be scared, and that creates such a fascinating relationship between writer and reader. It’s very intense, but it can also be quite playful. There’s a sense of inviting the reader into the narrative that I find very appealing.

I’m also very interested in the function of setting. Traditionally, supernatural fiction takes place in liminal spaces, somewhere remote, somewhere old or abandoned, somewhere just a little bit
“off”; places where the boundary between this world and the next blurs. And that’s such an interesting thing to play with as a writer, and as a reader. Sometimes you can’t be sure if everything isn’t just playing out inside someone’s head. You can get lost in a good ghost story, in every sense.

I have indeed scared myself once or twice, not so much because of the story I’m telling but because I prefer to write in total silence, and I get very caught up in the pace and the emotion of scenes. Sudden noises under those circumstances – a window slamming shut, someone knocking loudly at the door – can be a bit… startling.

Did The Wayward Girls begin life as a short story or did it demand to be a novel from the start?
Oh, definitely a novel, right from the beginning. I’d already written one, as yet unpublished, that’s also a ghost story, which had received a bit of attention and some helpful feedback from some agents, most of whom said they’d be interested to look at the next thing I wrote. So I thought I’d better crack on and write something.

I’d spent a bit of time researching psychic phenomena in the 1970s – because I already knew I wanted to write something set in that period – and the idea for the investigation and the follow up in the present day emerged very quickly from that. It was quite reassuring, in a way. I knew the two timelines would require the space only a novel could provide, and at the time, that seemed like a pretty luxurious idea.

Tell us about the use of marbles as a motif in the book. What do they represent?
Well, on one level they’re emblematic of childhood: simple, innocent, universal. Pretty much everyone has played a game of marbles at some point in their lives. And they’re sort of timeless too – they
could belong to any of the inhabitants of the house, past or present. But they imply an invitation to come play as well, so it’s echoing the invitation the writer extends to the reader. And I suppose there’s also
an implication the game might go wrong, literally spin out of control.Lastly, they can’t move of their own volition, they are reassuringly solid, physical, and there is always a human hand behind them; or least, there should be.

Out of the five siblings in the story, why did Loo’s voice present itself as the one to tell the story?
Because her voice is closest to mine, or my voice is closest to hers – I’m not sure which is which now, and we are quite similar in lots of respects. We’re the same age more or less, and I wanted to write about someone who had worked to distance herself from her childhood. Loo links the two time periods: in 1976 she is rather shy, creative but still quite unformed and still very much under the influence of her sister, Bee. In the present day, Lucy – as she has become – would regard herself as a success. But she’s very closed off, emotionally, and a lot of the novel is concerned with breaking down those boundaries and coming to an understanding of why she had built them up in the first place. In terms of structure, Loo links the narrative physically too. All the other siblings have made it their business to get as far away from their mother and the farm as they can. And her gifts in terms of her abilities as a medium – abilities she neither wants nor enjoys – become central to both investigations.It’s not solely her story – this is a novel about sisters after all – but for my purposes, she’s the centre of the narrative and ultimately, she’s the one who holds all the secrets.

Thankfully Iron Sike Farm is fictional, but you were born and bred in Yorkshire. Is there a real farm or place that inspired it?
Absolutely. Iron Sike Farm is based on a farmhouse set on the outskirts of a tiny village in the North York Moors. It was the childhood home of one of my oldest friends. I changed some aspects of it; I gave it a garden it didn’t have, I changed the construction of the barn and moved it further away from the house, because that made things easier for me. But the isolated location, and the idea of a house filled with lots of lively and creative people was a very important starting point. The happy family I remember is exactly the kind of home Cathy intends to create for her children in the novel, but the Corvino family simply don’t fit it, and as a result, they find their lives unravelling quite quickly.

Do you believe in ghosts?
I usually say no when I’m asked this – although I know several entirely sensible people who claim to have seen one – because I regard myself as being very rational. But thinking about it, I am, despite my best intentions, quite superstitious and if I find it acceptable to greet magpies and to never put my shoes on the table, then maybe I’m not quite as rational as I think. I’m certainly just as susceptible to atmosphere as anyone else, and I’ve been in a couple of houses where things didn’t feel quite right. Let’s say I believe in ghost stories and leave it at that.

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