Author Q&A: Andrew Michael Hurley

Starve Acre
(John Murray: hardback, £12.99; ebook, £8.99; Audible, £16.99) 

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The new book by the Preston-based author of the prize-winning best seller The Loney follows Richard and Juliette Willoughby, who live on the Yorkshire moors, mourning the loss of their son, Ewan, who has died suddenly at the age of five. Starve Acre, their house, is now a haunted place. Juliette is convinced Ewan still lives there in some form while Richard tries to keep the boy out of his mind by turning his attention to the field opposite the house, where he patiently digs the barren dirt in search of a legendary oak tree.  

Tell us about the evolution of Starve Acre. Was it a challenge to expand a short story into a novel or was the short story originally pared down from something longer?
Starve Acre was originally commissioned as a novella by Dead Ink Books in Liverpool, the brief being to imagine that I was writing in the early seventies and come up with a “horror” story that might have been published then. This was great fun to do and it meant that I could relive my teenage years when I spent my time scribbling gruesome stories in the style of Stephen King and James Herbert. The first published incarnation of Starve Acre ends with much more graphic violence than the John Murray version, where the horror is more psychological. To write two different versions of the story was a challenge and to write so short a novel was difficult in the sense that so much had to be left as suggestion. But this is never a bad thing, particularly in the supernatural genre. If the reader plays a role in imagining the characters and the fictional world, then the more likely it is that they will stay with the story, and the story will stay with them.

Is there something unique about northern landscapes that provide such inspiration for writers? And what are some of your favourite examples of its use?
I’ve always enjoyed stories that are completely entwined with their settings and so couldn’t be set anywhere else. Wuthering Heights is like this; without the moorland the characters could not exist. Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole is a story that can only have a northern location. Jenn Ashworth’s recent novel Fell draws directly on the idiosyncrasies of Morecambe Bay. What I’ve tried to do in all three of my novels, too, is tap into the layers of history and folklore in specific northern places and discover what it is that makes them unique. It’s partly to do with the bleak weather and the topography, something to do with the ghosts of old industry, I think. All of which demand a resilience from and shape the people who live there.

Is there a particular place in real life that inspired Starve Acre?
The novel is rooted in a fictional valley in the Yorkshire Dales but Starve Acre I found in a book that I happened across in the library called English Field Names. No more information was given about the place itself, but I felt as though there had to be a reason why it had acquired such a reputation of sterility. So, in part, the novel is an attempt to tell that story.

What about the folklore in the story – the bogeyman figure of Jack Grey and the hanging tree, for example – is any of that rooted in reality?
The idea that the tree might have been used for executions emerged naturally the more I thought about the history of the place. It seemed like the sort of spot for a public hanging, a communal area but away from the village itself. A place that would have acquired a reputation of being haunted because of its association with death. Jack Grey is based on a character that I invented during the writing of my second novel, Devil’s Day. He didn’t make it into that story, but he was perfect for Starve Acre. As Richard points out in the novel, Jack Grey is a local version of other folkloric figures like the Green Man or Robin Goodfellow, a playful and yet sinister spirit of woods and fields. But Jack Grey is only a persona that’s been given to a more intangible power that rests in the landscape of Starve Acre.

Hares take on a surprisingly wide number of symbolic roles in folklore. What do your hares’ dual attributes of viciousness and innocence represent in Starve Acre?
In the novel, the hare is a symbol that has different meanings for different people and so viciousness and innocence, for example, are attributed to it by the characters rather than those aspects being intrinsic to its nature. To a large extent it’s Richard and Juliette who make the hare what it is or see in it an answer to their emotional trauma. At first, anyway. What becomes clear, to some characters at least, is that the hare is animated by something “other” that they cannot begin to fathom.

Your story has some tangible magic with the hare’s rebirth, but there’s a detachment that questions the authenticity of the occult elements and whether the ghostly possession of characters exists in a shared imagination. Does this reflect your own stance on all things otherworldly?
I don’t believe in ghosts – not in the way that they might be traditionally defined, anyway – but that doesn’t mean that I’m not fascinated by them, or by the fact that other people claim to have seen them. It’s the psychology that lies beneath those claims that interests me. Being a cynic, I don’t accept for a moment that a psychic is actually hearing the voices of the dead, so what are they hearing? Why are they hearing these things? In Starve Acre, Juliette invites a group of what she assumes are mediums to the house in the hope that they will live up to their claims and bring her dead son’s spirit back. This raises questions about the ethics of such a promise. On the one hand, if Juliette gains some emotional relief from the experience, then does it matter if none of it is objectively “real”? But then, is delusion ever cured by more delusion? Richard shares a lot of my scepticism but even he apparently witnesses something uncanny. For both of them, the supernatural is a replacement for language. The Willoughbys don’t have the words with which to comfort themselves or each other and so they find hope in symbols and superstition instead.

The National Trust has made a call for people to share local folklore ahead of Halloween. It argues that these stories are dying out “in an age of social media and advanced technology”. But authors appear to be writing about and rewriting folklore, myths and legends more than ever. What’s your take on it?
I’d disagree that these types of stories are dying out because of technology. I’m not sure how you’d prove that, really. I think you’re right that there is a renewed interest in folklore and locality at the moment. In the last couple of years, I’ve had stories published in three anthologies – Eight Ghosts (English Heritage), Seaside Special (Blue Moose) and This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories) that have specifically sought to revisit, investigate and reimagine the myths and mythologies of particular places in Britain. There’s also been a resurgence in folk horror in the last decade with films like Midsommar, The Witch and A Field in England all drawing their narratives from specific times and landscapes. And this fascination with “place” is of course what’s there at the heart of nature writing, too, which has grown in popularity in line with folk horror. This is because the two types of writing are bound together. They’re both concerned with exploring, depicting and so preserving the peculiarities of particular places. We’re perhaps more conscious than ever about the imminence of ecological ruin and so there is a sense that writers are turning to the land and folklore and setting both down on paper before they’re lost.

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