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Helen Callaghan interview: ‘I almost drowned researching my novel’

Stepping off the side of a flooded quarry and plunging into the dark, freezing water, author Helen Callaghan began to panic. This diving lesson was meant to be a research trip for her new writing project but it had all quickly started to go wrong.

“I did a very silly thing,” says Helen, who lives in Cambridge. “You have to jump in from a little step next to the quarry – you step off into the water. I thought the instructors said I should keep my head up when I did this, but what they actually meant was keep your head down. So it forced all of this water into my mask and my nostrils and I’m trying to breathe, but my wetsuit was very tight and I felt it was constricting my breathing.

Helen Callaghan, author (37376149)
Helen Callaghan, author (37376149)

“The thing about panicking is you can’t get rid of all your carbon dioxide and it feels like you are choking, when actually you’re not. I had kind of a meltdown. After about 10 minutes I felt better and said I wanted another go, but they said ‘no, I think you need to sit and calm yourself down’.

“It was very cold that day. I went back to the hotel and I was in bed for about six hours, with all of the heating on, just trying to warm up. So my first diving experience wasn’t ideal.”

The diving lesson was an attempt to understand what her character would see and feel diving around a shipwreck in a new novel she is writing at the moment, because Helen takes research extremely seriously. So she was hugely disappointed not to pass the course and is determined to go back.

“I went on the course three times and I just couldn’t pass it. The interesting thing is once you get past a certain level down underwater, you can’t just say sod this and come back up again. You have to have to do this staggered ascent or you will hurt yourself. So they took me down in this drowned quarry in Leicester and showed me around going ‘oh look there’s a fish’.

Nigh Falls, Still Missing by Helen Callaghan (37375917)
Nigh Falls, Still Missing by Helen Callaghan (37375917)

“I was only there to pass the course but I will go back because the other thing is I don’t like to fail a course, so I will get my PADI certification. It will not defeat me. It would be too embarrassing when the book came out to say I never finished it because I was too scared.”

However, even if Helen doesn’t manage to pass the diving certificate, the failed attempts were not in vain, because every experience is research.

“I now know what it feels like to be underwater and a lot of it is because colours and sounds are different, which is going to feature heavily in the book. It’s the sense that it is a different world with different perspectives.

“I actually don’t need to dive again but I would really like to and what I think would make the book a lot better is if I can go on a proper wreck dive. You have to get your PADI certificate before you can do a shipwreck diving course. I think that if I could stay underwater for long enough I’m sure I would be fine.”

And the fact that all of her diving experiences have been terrifying so far, is a good thing apparently.

“In a way the fear is a gift. In a way all my books are about discovering things to be afraid of because, I think, that’s why people read these things. They are cathartic. People get to explore their fear and people need to be able to do that in a safe way.”

Helen’s is the bestselling writer of two other books, Dear Amy and All Is Lies. Her new thriller, out this month, is called Night Falls, Still Missing and is set around an archaeological dig on the dramatic story coast of one of the Orkney Islands. It follows Fiona, whose best friend Madison calls her one night from the isolated archaeological dig on an Orkney island where she works, and tells her that she’s in danger. But when Fiona gets off the boat at Orkney, Madison is gone – and if any of her neighbours or colleagues know where she is, they’re not saying.

The research for this novel actually saw Helen staying in the Orkneys alone for the winter – and she even set the story in the holiday house she rented.

Brough of Birsay, Orkney, which author Helen Callaghan visited for research (37375844)
Brough of Birsay, Orkney, which author Helen Callaghan visited for research (37375844)

“I think it’s really important to go to the location to understand what it’s like and also with an activity like archaeology, you need to understand the way that you feel while doing that – it gives you other ideas for the book and what could happen in that situation.”

She had visited the Orkneys before on writing holidays and fell in love with the bleak landscape and dramatic weather.

“It’s this amazing landscape geologically. It is this very sharp and craggy black and red sandstone, so everywhere you go is amazing. There are no trees – it’s a spartan landscape and some of the seas there are the strongest in the world. So with the weather it is a landscape and sky that is constantly in motion, so it’s very dynamic.

“It’s also such a mysterious place because they clearly had a very large civilisation going on there and nobody knows anything about it. Next to nothing of it survives but they put massive investment in their monuments, so everything about it appeals to me.”

Having studied archaeology for a degree at the University of Cambridge, Helen had always known of the sights in Orkney.

“The first time I went up to Orkney was in 2005. I was in my late 30s when I finally learned to drive and it was one of those places you couldn’t get to by public transport, but it was full of sights I really wanted to see.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. Pic by Helen Callaghan (37376049)
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. Pic by Helen Callaghan (37376049)

“I wanted to visit the Maeshowe tomb and the stone circles. My speciality was the neolithic Bronze Age and Iron Age – not Norse archaeology at all, but they have a lot of more Viking archaeology there and in the book I wanted to explore the idea of Viking friendships and blood feuds. Vikings were really big on social bonds and if something happened to someone you love you have to take it upon yourself to avenge it. I haven’t explicitly expressed this in the book, but this kind of friendship is something I explore in the story.”

After interviewing a local archaeologist about a ship burial being discovered on one of the islands, Helen was inspired to include this in the book, although she invented an island for the location.

“What I decided to do was to create my own mini-island which is based on the Brough of Birsay, a Norse settlement that is only accessible by a causeway at certain times and it had a lighthouse.”

The book is centred around a friendship between the two women, Fiona and Madison, that has lasted since childhood.

“I knew Madison was going to be hard work,” says Helen. “Readers sometimes say I didn’t like a character by which they mean presumably the characters don’t act how they would like, but I think characters can be great when they are misbehaving and not being very likable people. Madison does some very questionable things, but I think there’s enough in her to love and to justify Fiona’s loyalty.

“That was a difficult balancing act in the book to the point of thinking ‘why are you even looking for this chick’ at some points, but I think a lot of friendships are like this. We all have our complicated bits and our moments and yet somehow we manage to stay friends with each other regardless. Fiona and Madison’s friendship is complicated but it hasn’t crumbled in the face of their relationships or their circumstances.”

Helen also spent time refreshing her knowledge of archaeology by going on a weekend course at the Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall and taking part in a dig at the new housing development Northstowe where she saw some gruesome finds.

Yesnaby cliff warning. Pic by Helen Callaghan (37376080)
Yesnaby cliff warning. Pic by Helen Callaghan (37376080)

“They have found this massive Iron Age town under the building site so I went out there a couple of times and dug for a day. I did find some nice bits of pottery.

“Occasionally you would see one of the pits with black plastic bags covering them up. I asked why they were there. I was told that’s the bodies, and the man lifted up the black bag and sure enough there they were – dead people. They were curled up, buried on their side. They found loads of burials there.

“It was very weird but in fairness I had seen something similar before during the training dig on my university course where someone found a skeleton.

“It’s very personal but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was scary. I think it’s because they are people who were very definitely going to be dead by now because it was so long ago.”

Getting stuck into deep research for her novels is something Helen really enjoys and she has been champing at the bit to go to Cornwall to explore the setting of her next book.

Yesnaby Castle Seastack. Pic by Helen Callaghan (37376072)
Yesnaby Castle Seastack. Pic by Helen Callaghan (37376072)

“My next book is set in Cornwall and it’s about taking people on tours of shipwrecks. There has been an accident which the heroine suspects could have been murder after she discovers something in one of the shipwrecks. The setting is really nice because as of July 4 I get to go to Cornwall to research it.

“It’s set at The Manacles rocks and you can find decent video of it, but at some point you have to be physically standing there to get the full impact of the atmosphere. So on July 4, whoosh I’m out of here – I have rented a cottage.”

However, she does worry about the future for fiction if it doesn’t take into account the coronavirus pandemic and the effects of the lockdown.

“The booking I’m writing at the moment is set in a tourist village with a diving school and there are pubs and hotels, but of course during lockdown all of that was shut and it’s still not clear really if everything is going to go back to normal. I do have some worry about whether this book is even going to be relevant. Is it going to be likely or believable? But I decided that I just have to try and go forward and hope for the best.

“It’s a massive problem for writers. I talked to my agent and my editor about it and they were very engaged with it because lots of writers had raised the issue with them.

Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival - Helen Callaghan....PICTURE: Mecha Morton. (37376155)
Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival - Helen Callaghan....PICTURE: Mecha Morton. (37376155)

“With psychological thrillers, especially, they have to be contemporary. You could set it a couple of years ago but if things don’t return to normal it will look historical.

“I thought, because this is the kind of monster I am, there is an huge opportunity in writing a lockdown novel because there are loads of things you are not supposed to do during that time that characters could be doing. I go running in the park and I’m always astonished at the people, in the midst of lockdown, who are meant to be having their exercise hour but what they are clearly doing is talking to their lover. They were turning away with their phones – the parks were full of these people. So having an affair in lockdown is very difficult.

Brough of Birsay, Orkney, which author Helen Callaghan visited for research (37375849)
Brough of Birsay, Orkney, which author Helen Callaghan visited for research (37375849)

“And also with holiday homes or second homes that you are not supposed to be visiting, what if something happened there to you? Would anyone know? I bet you wouldn’t advertise that you were there – I thought about that with Dominic Cummings – especially if you were an important person. There are big reasons why you wouldn’t say you were there.

The view from Peedie Hoose, the holiday cottage Helen Callaghan immortalised in her novel (37376043)
The view from Peedie Hoose, the holiday cottage Helen Callaghan immortalised in her novel (37376043)

“Also, what do the serial killers do because there’s no one to pick up, there’s no one on the streets, so you have to create situations for them to be there. There are also cases of people finding lockdown so stressful they were having mini breakdowns. There is a lot of material to look at!”

Tempting as it is to write the lockdown novel, there is a strong chance we will be sick of hearing about it soon.

“My publishing house has sales figures going all the way back to the Spanish ’flu and their observation was when something like this happens people want to read about it whilst it’s happening, but as soon as it finished they don’t want to read about it anymore.”

  • Night Falls, Still Missing is published by Penguin on July 23.

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