County Armagh writer Stuart Neville on fire with new horror book

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County Armagh crime writer Stuart Neville admits his latest book, The house of ashes, a dark psychological thriller spanning six decades, was his “most difficult book yet.”

When I look into the reason, this is not a straightforward answer on the impact of the Covid pandemic, as the novelist reveals the thought process, moral dilemmas and turmoil of being a detective writer .

The house of ashes is a reaction to my two previous books that I wrote under the pseudonym Haylen Beck and which take place in America, ”says the 49-year-old father of two.

“It’s a lot less commercial and very Northern Irish. It reintroduces the supernatural that I had explored in my early books and it is much closer to horror.”

A dark and intense story about abuse, coercive control, friendship, family secrets, resilience and the empowerment of women, The house of ashes tells the story of two women, Sara Keane and Mary Jackson, who discover a terrifying bond between them at a 120-year-old house in Belfast.

After having recently attempted suicide, Sara moves in with her abusive husband Damien “for a good start”, in a house belonging to her ancestors.

But when Mary knocks on her door, she reveals the tragic events she witnessed in the house as a child.

The original inspiration for the novel came from an actual crime that happened several years ago in a village near his home – which Neville won’t go into details about.

“I didn’t want to be insensitive to those affected by this crime and deal with someone else’s suffering. But the idea of ​​the lonely house stuck with me and I moved the story further. in addition to the original case in terms of location and plot, ”says Neville.

Drawing a line between fact and fiction is something he and his fellow mystery authors are very much aware of.

“In light of the Sarah Everard murder case, I recently spoke with other mystery writers about how we portray crimes against women in our fiction, as well as the portrayal of the police in these surveys, ”he explains.

“Things in the real world reflect to us and we need to think about it from a distance, because you need to be aware of the innocent victims involved.”

Being careful not to “repeat himself” or “write in a formula,” Neville admits he finds it “increasingly difficult to find new ground” as a writer.

“Sometimes when you’re writing a book, it takes a while to figure out exactly how you’re going to approach the story,” he says.

“It was while reading the novel by Michael Hughes Country, which was set around the Irish borders and written entirely in the colloquial language, that I realized was the voice and dialect needed for my older character, Mary. “

And not afraid to self-criticize his own work, after his completed book was accepted by the editors, Neville, unhappy with the balance between the current script and the historical script, resorted to a complete rewrite of the half.

“Sometimes you have to be prepared to lay it all bare and start over.”

Ironically, the rewrite happened during the first lockdown of the Covid pandemic, when Neville, like his characters Sarah and Mary, was in forced isolation.

“It wasn’t intentional, but since so much of the book deals with isolation, there was a parallel to what the planet was going through at that time, and therefore, it’s a topic people can relate to. ‘identify,’ he says.

Among the book club’s suggested questions at the end of the novel is “What themes do you think the author wanted to explore in this book and why?” “

Surprisingly, Neville admits that he’s not always the one who makes these decisions.

“I don’t think you can consciously pursue these themes – you have to let the story unfold on its own. Each reader brings their own values, beliefs, and interpretations to a book, and often the reader will find themes that I don’t. wasn’t necessarily intending, or even aware of it. “

And for this reason, Neville intentionally leaves some of his plots unresolved.

“Very often, even if you try to guide the reader on a particular path, he still chooses his own. You have no control over how the reader experiences the work, so I think it is better for him to leave some room to interpret things. “

In The house of ashes, like his first novel of 2010 The Twelve, who won the LA Times Book Prize, Neville brings paranormal elements. Where are they?

“I grew up in the 80s reading Stephen King and it has always been a big influence. But I have always tried to leave a little ambiguity because I find that readers will decide psychologically for themselves on a one way or another. “

One thing he made sure to do was do extensive research on the subject of coercive relationships and their insidious and damaging impact; and he is grateful to the women he spoke to who shared their personal experiences.

“A lot of people cannot understand why people stay in these relationships. But it has been described to me as ‘the ground always being unstable on your feet’ because the abuser puts them in the position that they always doubt. ‘themselves and weaken them to the point that they feel helpless. “

While much of the violence within The house of ashes is implied rather than explicitly stated, the book contains fairly graphic scenes. I ask Neville how writing it affects him.

“A common thing that you will find among mystery writers is that they tend to be very friendly and sympathetic despite the fact that they write about the most horrible things. be really nice people, ”adds Neville, who in his spare time plays guitar in a rock band called Fun Lovin ‘Crime Writers.

The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville is published by Zaffre and is out now.


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