INTERVIEW with Helen Laycock

Welcome to Books, Chocolate & Wine, Helen. I have read one of your collections of short stories for adults, Peace and Disquiet, and also The Secret of Pooks Wood for children. Both were great books, in particular The Secret of Pooks Wood which I thought was a fabulously magical story. I will endeavor to read all your books and I shall recommend and read your childrens' stories to two special little girls in my life.

You are a prolific writer, can you tell me a little about your books and their genres

Hello, Angela, and thank you for inviting me to the Books, Chocolate and Wine table.

What has always gnawed at my obsession for order, neatness and labels is that, unlike so many writers, I don’t fit neatly into a box as far as genre or audience are concerned.

As my readership consists of children and adults, I could almost say I write for everyone, but as I have taken a great big sidestep over (that scary area) YA, that’s not strictly true. Teens, you’re on your own…

The majority of my books have been written for the 8-12 age-range, and, I hope, appeal to both boys and girls.

There are nine in total:
Five of those are MYSTERIES where the child protagonists must use their wit and resilience when challenged by dangerous situations

Glass Dreams,
Mandrake’s Plot,
Martha and Mitch,
Song of the Moon;

The Secret of Pooks Wood;

another is an amalgamation of two light-hearted books recounting the HUMOROUS ADVENTURES of a minuscule man trapped in the human world Mr Charlie Chumpkins and The Further Mishaps of Charlie Chumpkins; the final book is a collection of FUNNY VERSE for children

the final book is a collection of FUNNY VERSE for children
A Mouthful of Chuckles.

As differentiation, I refer to my other books as ‘adult books’. This often results in a raised eyebrow, so I’d just like to point out that they are not those kinds of adult books!

The books I have written for… grown ups are SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS. I have three collections so far, two of which lean towards dark, or psychological, subject matter

Peace and Disquiet
Minor Discord,

while the remaining collection is much more jolly and uplifting!
Light Bites

I have also put together a book of HUMOROUS VERSE for adults
A Bellyful of Laughs

I am currently working on a couple of other collections for adults – a book of quirky fairytales (title still undergoing revision) and a humorous book entitled ‘Confessions’… which will be fictional, of course.
*crosses fingers behind back*

How do you decide what to write next - do you have an adult writing session then children's?

I think that whatever inspires me comes next.
I tend to let ideas for children’s fiction brew for quite some time before beginning them,
a)to allow all the details to weave through the ether and into the plot notes;
b)because writing around 30 000 words always seems like a gigantic chinkless wall is about to tower above and around me, completely obliterating life for the foreseeable future!

In that time, I will write shorter stuff. I often look at what writing competitions are coming up and, if I feel inspired, I will have a go. This could be poetry, flash fiction, or short stories. I even wrote a play recently. Writing for a competition definitely makes me focus
more than if I was just writing for fun; I enjoy the challenge of honing a piece until I feel it’s the best it can be.

Also, it’s refreshing to switch focus for a while, from the hefty solidity of a book to something more quickly achievable, and in a different genre. It’s a kind of catharsis to work on other projects.

Writing a book can not only be quite isolating, but it’s a huge sapper
of energy!
You used to be a teacher, do you find your former pupils suddenly become characters for your children's books?

That’s an interesting question!

I can’t say I’ve ever characterised a particular pupil, but knowing how children speak, interact, react and behave has been a great tool in creating realistic characters and dialogue. In the book I am writing at the moment, there is a naughty schoolboy who is a bit of a ‘challenge’ to the teacher. He is great fun to write as I have lots of material stored ‘up there’ from similar types. You know who you are…

For some reason, twins feature in quite a few stories. I think that’s just a particular fascination of mine.

Some of my characters come from difficult backgrounds. I seem to use orphans a lot. As a matter of ethics, I wouldn’t use anything of a sensitive nature if I had come across a child from similar circumstances. Whatever happens, the characters always come out strong
and victorious by the end of each book.

Whoever the character, I want the reader to experience a reaction of sorts towards them, to have an opinion. It could be intense dislike, fear of them, worry for them, or they could tickle a funny bone. Traits are important to portray, flaws as well as assets, and there
should always be a character who is championed by the reader. If the reader doesn’t care what happens, then I have failed.

Where do you get your inspiration for the fantastical and magical stories?

I don’t usually start with the idea of magic. It somehow just finds its way in, which is why children’s fiction is so appealing; you can take the plot that bit further. I don’t really associate what I write with the term fantasy; that reminds me of unicorns and Harry Potter.

One Christmas, there was an advert on TV which showed a snow globe. I thought how lovely it would be to have a personalised one which had inside it a miniature version of the owner’s home. I pictured an old manor house covered in snow – and mentally saved that image, knowing that, eventually, it would be part of a story. Another component of the story clicked into place much later in the year when I was driving through the countryside. I passed a rotten old gate which had been wedged open. As I glanced at it, I noticed a hand-painted sign hanging off it which I thought said ‘Pooks Wood’. The Secret of Pooks Wood became the title of the book in which the magical snow globe would feature. Inside the snow globe would be a tiny version of Great Hawkesden Manor, where the time-shift story would be set, and the snow globe would be the vehicle for revisiting the past.

I seem to have a ‘thing’ for glass spheres as Glass Dreams has in it a crystal ball or two. It went well with the circus theme, and was a way of linking characters and events past and future. Jake is left a mysterious crystal ball when his grandmother dies, and so the
adventure begins.

Old buildings seem to carry with them a sense of mystery and intrigue. The setting of Mandrake’s Plot is St. Agatha’s, a boarding school for girls in the misty Scottish Highlands. Evie and Mia stumble across a disused chapel, inside which they find the skeleton of a nun clutching a curse. It is that curse which has to be overturned, but not without
difficulties, of course!

I like to think that my stories are grounded in a recognisable reality, but a reality where something out of the ordinary can feasibly happen.

Which of your books is your personal favourite and why?

I think that my favourite book is Glass Dreams, where an orphan runs away to the circus. The sad beginning, the death of Jake’s grandmother, with whom he lives, is not what you’d expect of a children’s book. He then goes on to an awful children’s home, with no anchor of family and friends. I won’t spoil the ending, but he has more than he could ever dream of. Of course, to get to that point, there is the inevitable web of peril which must be negotiated, and the forging of important relationships is key to a positive outcome. This
book has in it my favourite character – Cedric, a diminutive, and atrocious, knife-thrower who is always accompanied by Audrey, his beloved Chihuahua.

I also had a very emotional reaction to the ending of The Secret of Pooks Wood. When I read it to my daughter for the first time, we both cried. I am most proud of that one as juggling the time-scale of the plot was a complex issue for me.

Salt is up there, too, as one of my favourites. It is set in the fictional Cornish town of Pirates’ Cove, and, as we all know, Cornwall abounds with mysterious secrets and tales of smuggling. It has a real summer holiday spirit to it.

Which book(s) and/or author(s) have most inspired you or influenced your writing?

The first author I ever read as a child was Enid Blyton: The Wishing Chair (the awe!), Mr Pinkwhistle, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven (I wanted to join either group; I wasn’t fussy!), Mallory Towers, St Clare’s (please send me to boarding school)… I found the adventures exhilarating, and so she was a huge influence on me. As soon as I was able to write, I made up stories so that I could self-indulgently immerse myself into an alternative experience. To realise that it was possible to create other worlds, to populate them, to generate at will mayhem or danger, surprises and shocks, was addictive. It was my first
taste of escapism. I think that a lot of my children’s books have that Blytonesque element, though having re-read some of her books which, although at the time, were thrilling, I do hope that mine are better written!

I also love Roald Dahl’s originality (a great predecessor of David Walliams). That moment when my teacher read the description of Charlie tasting chocolate for the first time stuck with me, and I was hooked. Dahl had the ability to create caricatures as characters, which made them really memorable, and so appealing to children. I hope that I have achieved something similar in Martha and Mitch in the forms of Miss Scattypants, Mr Mugsworthy-Millions and his wife, Penelope, as well as with the peripheral characters, while keeping Martha and Mitch themselves, ‘real’. To an extent, some of the characters in Mandrake’s
Plot are similarly caricatured.

What genre of books or particular authors do you like to read in your spare time?

Personally, I’m a huge fan of thrillers and suspense. I love the psychology of the characters and the trickery of the twists.

One of my favourite authors is Linwood Barclay; I have read everything of his. I also enjoy Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Nicci French, SJ Watson, Elizabeth Haynes… oh, and the fabulous Gillian Flynn! I have just discovered BA Paris, and Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard was a gripping yarn, too.

From a completely different genre, I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth is Missing (Emma Healey) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce). Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In was another great find.

I’m not a huge chicklit fan, but there are a few which have hit the mark for me, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, for example and You Had me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane.

The funniest book I have ever read is The Tent, The Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy, which is especially poignant if you identify with camping and the Welsh!

As for brilliance, I think Donna Tartt has it. I’d love to write as well as her.

What do you do when you are not writing?

I volunteer in the local village library. As well as being behind the counter where I am let loose to operate the computers, I do the wall displays (there’s still a bit of teacher in there somewhere). I hosted ‘Tea and Tales’ in the library where I read a selection of funny stories and poems to a captive audience (and unlocked the doors when I had finished).

I enjoy long walks with a group of friends, though I am a fair-weather walker, if I’m honest! It’s always nice to end up at a pub for a well-earned meal and a drink. We have a great group of friends and do a lot socially.

We do a lot of visiting, and have a lot of visitors. Where we live in the south-east is not originally home for either myself or my husband. Family and friends seem to be spread far and wide. We enjoy travel generally, especially road trips.

If I could choose a favourite pastime, it would be going to the theatre. We’re pretty close to London so we have easy access to what’s on there.

When you were a child, what did you want to be or do when you grew up?

I wanted to be an actress, or in a pop group. I even had a name for my band: ‘Little Sisters of Oblivion’. I flirted with the glamorous idea of becoming an air-hostess and changing my name to Adele, but, one day, in infant school, my teacher let me mark the spelling tests with a red pen, and I got to write on the blackboard. That sealed it. A teacher I would be! Once I had decided, I never wavered. I have always enjoyed the company of children, and when I taught, there was nothing more rewarding than seeing them enthused. Sadly, the pressure that came with the job made me realise that it was taking over my life. I would now love to be known as a writer by profession.

Have you got a book in the pipeline now, is it for children or adults and when will it be published?

Yes, I am nearing the end of my tenth children’s book – a funny one. Well, that’s what I like to think. I am really pleased with how it’s going. I should think it will be completed by the autumn, if not this summer.

I have the bare bones of an idea piling up for another children’s book after this one, but it still needs a lot more thinking time.

As I mentioned earlier, I have two more short story collections in the pipeline.

One day, I hope to have a collection of serious poetry published. I have hundreds, and every so often they make outings to poetry competitions. A few have been published in anthologies, but, ultimately, I’d like my own. As you have probably realised by now, I
like to have fingers in lots of pies!

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