Monday, 16 July 2012

Possessed, by Niki Valentine

Today I'm very privileged to be hosting an interview with Niki Valentine, who is doing a blog tour to promote the release of her novel Possessed for the Kindle. Niki also writes under the name Nicola Monaghan, and is a fantastic writer. This is the first Niki Valentine book I've read, and I can recommend it. I would also recommend her Monaghan books (particularly The Killing Jar, which I loved).

Here are my questions and Niki's answers.

1. You write under two different names. How would you describe the difference between the two writing styles?
I think the difference is quite subtle. The Monaghan books are, generally, dark thrillers too, but more literary, so I might do things with language and imagery that I wouldn’t necessarily try in the Valentine books. And my approach to endings is probably slightly different too, where I might leave big questions unanswered in the Monaghan books, and play a bit more with this. However, I’d say that the biggest difference is that potentially supernatural things happen in the Valentine novels and, as a result, they are marketed differently. I explore similar themes in both, really, like destructive relationships and damaged psychologies. 

2. Do you find it difficult to move from one writing style to the other? Do you switch frequently, or do you have to have large chunks of writing time in either one writing voice or the other?
I don’t find it too difficult a transition at all. There isn’t much difference in the process between the two to be honest, and so it doesn’t feel that different while writing. If anything, switching is quite invigorating because the different demands of the two genres add a bit of colour and variety. And, yes, I switch quite freely. Having different projects on the go at one time is a good way to work for me. It means I never get writer’s block as, if I’m having problems with one project, I just look at another and usually this gets my creative juices flowing again.

3. You're clearly drawn towards darkness (and to great effect) in the things that you write. Can you explain why? Do you ever feel like writing about fairies, sparkles and puppy-dogs? ;)
Lol, no, I’ve never really thought about writing about those things. Unless, of course, we’re talking fairies as tall, dark, malevolent creatures, like some of those created by Charlaine Harris and Graham Joyce. And the nearest I’ve come to writing about a puppy dog was a growling, sharp toothed ghost. I’m definitely drawn to the dark side of life and the human psyche and I don’t really know why. Primeval fears fascinate me, as does death and how we deal with it. The closest I come to working this out is thinking about the level of loss in my family and how death was such a constant for me, growing up. My uncle died the year before I was born, and my granddad when I was eighteen months old. My mamma (grandma) had four children die of the ten she gave birth to. So I was brought up with all sorts of stories around death and loss and I think it left me with a lasting fascination. But I think there’s a part of me that’s drawn to these things, anyway. I’ve always loved graveyards, and dark stories, and the sense of the past you feel in some places. Secretly, I’m a bit of a goth at heart. 

4. Possessed is a psychological horror story about a pianist. Was the music an important aspect of the novel for you? Do you imagine soundtracks to the books you write?
Yes, it’s interesting, but I think it’s only as a writer that I’ve really understood how important music is to me. It’s been a major theme in three out of the four novels I’ve published so far and I definitely have a sense of a soundtrack in everything I write. I do play the piano, to a reasonable standard, although I’ve never had lessons and taught myself on a bontempi organ, and then a tiny casio keyboard, in my teens. I was so absorbed with it by the time I was in sixth form that my parents thought I might abandon my studies and go to music college instead. It was a temptation. But, instead, I went to study maths. I think it’s quite common, isn’t it, with mathematic people, to have this musical part of themselves too? I’ve always loved dancing and singing and playing any musical instrument I can get my hands on.

5. Tangentially to the above question... do your dreams have soundtracks?
Sometimes. It really depends. I am quite a dreamer, I don’t know if this is common to writers but I think possibly it is, based on conversations I’ve had with other writers and with my students. I dream a lot, vividly and, often, lucidly too. So there is sometimes music. I’ve even woken up singing before.

6. I am often surprised by the subtle thoughts and emotions I find myself having in dreams; not remembered responses from real life, but reactions to complex unreal scenarios that I would be pleased with if I'd written them. I often wonder if I can consider myself the "author" of my dreams, or whether subconscious creation doesn't really count. Do you ever use your own dreams as material for the fiction you write?
I think that for any writing process, the subconscious is very involved. Often, when you have a problem with a piece of work, going away and doing other things, not thinking about, is the best thing if you want to solve it. I’ve done this all my life, even with mathematical problems, and found that the subconscious is cleverer than other parts of my brain! So, yes, I do think we are the author of our dreams in the sense that we’re the author of anything we create. I have often used my dreams as a material although, sometimes, I’ve woken up thinking that I’ve dreamed a great story then realised, fully conscious, moments later, that it doesn’t translate at all. I am absolutely fascinated with the dream state, though, and it’s another thing that comes out in my writing.

7. Possessed is based in a music college called the "Conservatoire". Is it based on a real educational institution, and if so, is it one you've attended / taught at?
There are a number of music conservatoires around the country, but this is not based on any specific one. In a sense, it did come out of my own teaching. The conservatoire method of teaching involves masterclasses, where students are taught skills and techniques in front of a student audience, by a professional musician. This is an emerging technique in creative writing teaching, and one I’ve seen employed to great effect by the National Academy of Writing. It was fantastic for the students involved but it did strike me that it could be a destructive force, in the wrong hands, and that led to the premise for this novel.

8. I was interested in the sense of otherness highlighted by your protagonist's having just arrived at Uni and feeling herself out of her comfort zone. Was that an important element to the horror / suspense aspect of the novel?
Yes, I think that this was important. There needed to be a strong justification for her psychological state in the story. That said, this was at least in part an autobiographical thing. I went to a good University, and was one of the very few people there from a proper working class background. It didn’t really bother me as much as it does Emma in the story, but I did notice the differences. I suppose, even then, I was observing them with writerly detachment. Like Emma in the book, I had a moment of panic after arriving when I was stuck to my bed in my room, terrified to move and utterly homesick. It didn’t last long. Just like in the novel, someone knocked on the door and the next thing I knew, a bunch of us were out in the city centre eating Italian food.

9. Do you have a preference regarding endings to books? For instance, do you prefer everything neatly wrapped up, or do you prefer to be left asking questions?
I like both. And I do quite like leaving the reader slightly challenged with some open questions. My two literary novels do this in a big way, and readers have responded very positively to this. I’ve had to rein this in slightly for the new genre but have managed to write endings for both Niki Valentine novels that close the main question and let off all the tension, at the same time as opening up a set of new questions that I don’t answer. The ending to Carrie, the film version, was quite an inspiration to me. I know not everyone likes it, but I was not expecting that final twist, and the idea that it might not all be over after all horrified me.

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