Emma Carroll is a secondary school English teacher. She has also worked as a news reporter, an avocado picker and the person who punches holes into filofax paper. She graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University's MA in Writing For Young People.
Emma Carroll talks to Graham Marks about her fascination with cold and love of modern gothic writing.
Could we begin with a few background details…biographical notes…and the journey you took to become a writer.
I come from Somerset - Somerset born and bred - and as a child I was always very keen on writing stories but I didn’t actually start writing seriously until 2009, when I went on an Arvon course with the school where I taught English. While I was there I started writing again, and as a result of going on that course I ended up doing an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, which took me two years. And as a result of that I got an agent and my first book came out in 2013. So, yeah, a bit of a late starter, really.
So you’d written as a child, but had you always wanted to be a writer?
Yeah, absolutely, it was one of those things that was always a sort of dream job, really, in the back of my mind. It was why I became an English teacher, because I loved books, I loved reading and I loved writing, but I didn’t really think I had it in me to write whole novels. I think you get to a point where you read so much that you realize there are plenty of people out there who can do it better than you can, so you tend to back off and end up reading books instead of writing them.
Did you give up work to go on the creative writing course?
I was working part time, and it was just lucky that the timetable for the MA just happened to fit in with the day I had off each week…it all felt fated, in a way, all happening at the right time. I haven’t actually given up work yet, in fact this summer is my last term of teaching, and as from this September I’ll be writing full time. So that’s where we are.
You said earlier that, in your mind, writing would be a dream job…now that you’ve got it, is that true?
Yes…yes, it is [laughs]…you still have those moments when you think, ‘Am I actually going to go insane if I don’t see anybody today?’. But, generally speaking, I quite like being on my own…my dog’s here and there are people coming in and out of the house. It is absolutely lovely, it really is, so we’ll see how it goes. Nothing is set in stone, and my plan at the moment is to give this a go for a couple of years and see what happens – so ask me again in two years.
Right, I’ll make a note in my diary!
Now I gather that there is one specific incident on an icy lake which you’ve said was the story starter, if you will, for Frost Hollow Hall – what happened?
It wasn’t actually an icy lake, and it wasn’t as dramatic as all that…it was back in the 1980s, when winters were cold, and I went out with my family onto the Somerset Levels – which they flood every year, for some reason or other. This particular winter was very, very cold and the flood water had frozen and lots of people were out skating on these fields that were completely covered in ice. The water wasn’t very deep, a foot or so, so it was quite safe, and there were all these people there with their dogs and their bikes.
I’ve got a neurotic mother, who gets very nervous – I couldn’t imagine her letting us go skating on a proper lake – but she let us go because she thought it was ‘safe’, which of course immediately got me thinking, ‘Well, what if it wasn’t safe, what would happen?’. And that thought stayed with me: what it would be like to fall under the ice and be trapped? I remember seeing a film, The Dead Zone, based on a Stephen King book, in which a group of children are playing ice hockey on a frozen lake and fall through. There’s this really horrible camera work of all the children trapped under a sheet of ice. All these things mix together in your mind and when you start writing or thinking about a scene you draw on all this stuff that’s stayed there in your head over the years.
Why did you choose this particular period of history to set the story?
A couple of reasons, really – first of all, when I was teaching I was teaching Victorian literature and the Victorian period to ‘A’ Level students, and I like reading historical fiction set in that era. So, in terms of the research I had to do to write a book set in that time, I’d already done a lot of it because of what I was doing for my day job. Also, I chose the 1880s because I wanted a cold winter and so I asked a friend who was a big weather buff to find me a cold winter at the end of the 19th Century, and he came up with 1881. So that’s how it happened.
Any story set in these time, 1881, is going to be thought of as ‘Dickensian’, even though the man himself had been dead over ten years; although there are Dickensian elements in the book I thought it possibly owed more to Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle – were they an influence at all?
[pause]…I think they all probably were, to be honest. If you’re going to write anything not just set in Victorian times, but that has that kind of language to it, your characters are experiencing life at that time; so you’re going to be drawing on things you’ve read…I think that’s just how writing for me works, I imagine that’s how it is for a lot of writers. Your creativity comes from all the things you’ve absorbed during your life.
I would say possibly that the very cold winter motif has Dickensian elements to it; I think the slightly spiritual, slightly spooky element is definitely quite Wilkie Collins. Conan Doyle? Hmmm…he’s a bit later isn’t he? I don’t know so much about Conan Doyle, and funnily enough he turns up in my latest book, but he’s less of an influence. But what did influence me a lot was modern gothic writers, like Daphne du Maurier and Susan Hill and Sarah Waters.
Is there any one author who influenced your style most?
Can I say two?
Of course you can!
I would probably say – although I don’t think in any way that I write anything like either of these writers – I love Daphne Du Maurier, who can tell a story like nobody else, really; she has a way of engaging you in a yarn that barrels along and she taught me the pleasure in a good story. She might not be the most literary of writers, but she has that eerie quality to her writing which is really captivating. And Sarah Waters, just because she knows how to put words on the page. Neither of whom are children’s writers. I got asked this question the other day: why didn’t I write for adults if I’m influenced by adult authors? In short, it’s because when I started writing I was writing as a girl and that’s what happened, that’s the voice that came out and the one I used in Frost Hollow Hall.
I don’t actually want to write for adults…I’ve worked with children for twenty years, so I’ve got a lot of experience of being around them and knowing what they like, and there’s something about that 9-12 age group that I particularly like…cynicism hasn’t got to them yet, they’re expectant and hopeful and they’re still finding out about themselves – the important things, rather than has their hair been straightened properly. They’re not quite so self-obsessed, they’re more outward-looking still.
As a teacher who teaches secondary kids it’s been an absolute pleasure going out to primary schools and meeting Years 5 and 6, because they still have that magic about them that’s lovely to be around.
Frost Hollow is real mixture of social history, ghost story and detective thriller – was it difficult keeping those three plates spinning at the same time?
Interesting you should say that, I didn’t think of it being a detective story, particularly, more of a mystery that needs solving…but no, I didn’t find that difficult, really; writing any book’s difficult, isn’t it? I wanted the book to be all those things, but I didn’t want it be a ‘history book’ experience with great big, long, descriptive paragraphs, I wanted the history to be part of the story. As Tilly goes from a life steeped in poverty to a really lavish house we experience it as well…it was quite natural thing.
I did think Tilly was a kind of detective as she was absolutely obsessed with finding the answer to the mystery.
I think why she’s like that is, first of all, because this spirit or ghost or whatever you want to call Kit saved her life, and she’s indebted to him, but also the fact that he trusts her to solve the mystery for him, he’s got confidence in her to be able to help him. When people put their trust in you, it makes you want to do your best for them, and no else has ever treated her like that…she’s always been thought of as a little bit of an idiot or a little bit scatty, and when someone trusts her that’s the motivation, she wants to prove she’s worthy of that trust – and she’s got a little bit of a crush on him as well, which always helps. She is quite earnest.
I liked her.
I like her, too.
Is the hall based on a real building and set in a real place?
No, it’s not, it’s completely a product of my imagination. The village is based on the village I live in, the layout is loosely based on photographs of my village at that time, but there isn’t a big house on the outskirts. I added that in, that’s what we have to do!
How much research did you do…and how much of it did you actually get to use?
Good question…I did have to research quite a lot of things that I didn’t know about before; it’s all very well having a general knowledge of things, but when you’re going to put it in a book it has to be accurate, so the things like séances and how they might be conducted, and what a medium might say…and how much would it cost to sail to America, and which were the companies running ships across the Atlantic and what were their ships called. The little details, rather than what did they eat and what did they wear. It was more about if your character was going to do something, how would they do it? I’ve got notebooks full of pictures and notes and loads of things I didn’t use, but it all helps you create the world the story takes place in. So, a lot of reading of all manner of things.
The other thing was the language, the style of dialogue, in the story…it’s definitely not modern day, but neither is it exactly how people would have talked back then – how long did it take to get the tone of voice of your characters right?
[laughs] Tilly uses some Somerset dialect, so words like ‘lummox’…some of the words are definitely ones that we’d use around here, because that’s where the story is set, but other than that you have a ear for the kind of words and phrases that sound slightly dated, but that won’t be too obscure so that the reader won’t understand. I did use Victorian slang dictionaries…to enhance how the characters sound, and also to make a demarcation between the working class characters and the ones who are the lords and ladies of the manor; you want to capture their status through the way they speak.
In terms of characters, I thought this was quite a matriarchal book, Will’s being the only male role of any significance – a choice, or simply what the story dictated?
[pause]…I don’t know…it’s funny, I was asked this the other day - why were my male characters not very male, or rather, why were they so gentle?
I don’t think of it as being a matriarchal book, particularly, I think that it’s book with women characters in it. I don’t think that makes it matriarchal. I think it’s really important for girls to see other girls as somebody they can like and aspire to and feel strongly about. I think there’s a tendency amongst girls not to have positive feelings towards leadership, which seem to be far more easily channeled towards boys – you see it all the time in schools, when you have leadership competitions or you’re voting for form captain, girls will always vote for boys, rather than another girl. Its about getting them to identify positive characteristic in other girls.
Tilly solves her own problems, but she is vulnerable, it’s not all about ‘I can do this by myself’, she knows when it’s good to work with other people…I think female relationships are really interesting and very worthy of looking at, but I didn’t set out to write a book that was all about female characters, that was not the message; but I do have a strong feeling about girl characters being able to be presented on a positive way.
I wasn’t using the word ‘matriarchal’ in a pejorative way, I just thought you had a cast of very powerful female characters driving the story.
If this was actually in Victorian society you would really have had to get right under the skin of things to see that dynamic, because on the surface it probably would’ve been very male-dominated. As a female myself I am interested in those dynamics.
You mentioned the séance earlier, and the Victorians did have a total obsession with all aspects of death, so - even though the staff at the hall don’t appear to think the same way - this almost made me feel Kit’s mother’s behaviour was in many ways quite normal…was this a class thing? Were the people below stairs more pragmatic and those above stairs more given to having the vapours?
I think so, I think those above stairs were more indulgent with themselves. Below stairs, Mrs Jessop just gets on with it and is much more practical and nobody sees her grief, it’s hidden away and it’s not until Tilly reads her diary that we realize what she’s been through. Upstairs it’s a whole different story, with grief being quite open and public, Lady Barrington wearing a locket with some of Kit’s hair in it around her neck…and the way she has of thinking that her grief is more important than Mrs Jessop’s. I think there is a class demarcation in how they see death and publically express their grief.
At that time, walking hand in hand with death there was a solid belief in spiritualism and of the reality of ghosts – both of which play an important role in the book and affect your major players. Did you have to get yourself into a specific mindset to make those beliefs real? I mean, do you believe in ghosts?
I don’t not believe in them [laughs]. I have had an experience of that kind, when I was very ill – I had cancer ten years ago, and a friend also had it, a different sort, and died…it was a shock at the time, especially when you’re going through treatment yourself, and I had a dream that he visited me, sat on my bed and held my hand and told me I was going to be OK. It was so powerful and when I woke I thought ‘That was actually him…’; it was a difficult time, but quite a few people I’ve spoken to who have been through extremes of grief or emotion have also had some kind of spiritual, other-worldly experience that can’t be explained in a rational way. I find that interesting and quite intriguing.
Do you mind if I mention the cancer, or should I just say that you were ill?
That’s fine…having thought about it over the last couple of years, it’s such an important part of why I started writing – writing was part of my recovery - that it doesn’t really make sense to not mention it.
OK, good…did you always know there was going to be a séance?
I wanted there to be one…I was thinking about my readers, and what set pieces could I have that they’d be excited by and the séance is quite a dramatic scene, and a gift to a writer as it’s a good way of revealing things. It wasn’t because I had a particular interest in them myself, and [as I said,] I had to research them.
There’s a sub-plot running quietly under the main plot, which concerns Tilly’s father and sister – do you think Tilly and Will would eventually go and join them in America?
Oooh! I don’t know, I haven’t asked them! [laughs] I think they might, they could do – it’s funny as in the next book I wrote, The Girl Who Walked on Air, the heroine does go to America, which is what happened with quite a lot of people who couldn’t make it in this country. I wouldn’t put it past Tilly. There’s a story in there somewhere…
Having spent so much time, virtually speaking, in 1881, how would you feel about living there yourself?
The snow side it I would love, because I’m a snow geek and a properly cold winter would be lovely…and I'd like the freedom, I guess, to be able to leave school at 13 and not have your parents worrying about you and where you were going, that freedom to roam about and discover things would be really exciting.
There would a lot of downsides, but that’s one of the reasons I like writing historical fiction, your characters are put in much more perilous situations than now. As an author what’s appealing, and it makes me sound a real meany, is that you can put your characters into a world that’s quite harsh and challenging.
Is there going to be a sequel?
I do get asked that…and the final chapter is slightly open ended with that in mind, but it was never planned that there would be a sequel. Maybe at some point, I’m keeping my options open!
Thank you Emma Carroll for talking to Just Imagine
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