An Interview with Kate Hamer

Kate HamerKate Hamer’s debut thriller The Girl in the Red Coat was published in February 2015 and soon became a Sunday Times bestseller. It was shortlisted for numerous awards and has been translated into seventeen languages. I recently met up with her to talk about her second novel, The Doll Funeral (due to be published on 16th February) and the third one, which she is in the process of writing. We began by discussing her inspiration for the books…   

Your first novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, centres around Carmel, an eight-year-old girl who goes missing whilst attending a storytelling festival. What inspired you to write a story about a missing girl?

Book - The Girl In The Red Coat

Kate Hamer’s first novel – The Girl in the Red Coat

I think it came more as a central image – the image of a girl in a red coat standing in a forest, and I kind of knew, in that image, that she was lost. But when I started writing it, the first chapter just spontaneously came from her mum talking about missing her and what had happened. You know something terrible has happened, but you’re not sure what. That was the springing off point for it all, so I didn’t really think “right, I’m going to write a book about a missing girl”, it was more like an atmosphere, a character, an image…

Your second book, The Doll Funeral, follows the story of Ruby, a thirteen-year-old girl who lives in the Forest of Dean. Did this book begin with an image as well?

Yes, the central image in The Doll Funeral is the one in the first chapter – where Ruby, on her thirteenth birthday, is told that she’s adopted. I had this really strong image of a girl running out into an unkempt garden and singing – singing for joy.

But it took me a long time to write. I had the idea of her, of a story about the past enacting with the present, and I tried to write it in various locations, but it never really quite worked, or there was something missing …

the doll funeral

The Doll Funeral is set in the Forest of Dean

Which locations did you try?

I tried the South Wales Valleys, but it just didn’t work for one reason or another. Then I tried Manchester, or just outside Manchester. But then, about four years ago, we happened to be passing the Forest of Dean and I said “let’s just go and see what it’s like” and as soon as I went under the trees I just thought – this is the location for the story! I knew straight away, and that was really exciting. The Forest of Dean’s an extraordinary place. It’s got a kind of old, mystical feel about it.

Did you intentionally set out to write another story exploring the mother / daughter relationship?

I think it just happened, actually. You just tend to write about things that are close to your heart. I suppose it’s something that comes naturally to me. I think it’s a very potent relationship – and it features in the third book as well. Life is all fundamentally about relationships and that’s one that I have explored quite a lot.

In The Doll Funeral, there is a strong supernatural element, and Ruby, the protagonist, has the ability to see ‘lost souls’. What inspired you to create a character like that?

I’m really into Japanese ghost stories and Japanese horror films, and it strikes me that it’s a very different approach to ‘the dead’ in Japan. It’s almost like they’re still around you, and still living at the same time. That’s something I wanted to write about – how the past is kind of reaching out and impacting on the present all of the time, and how can we overcome that? That’s Ruby’s journey really – whether she can overcome it or not. And she has to go through real trials of fire to be able to do it, to be able to shake the past off and emerge as a new person. That’s why I wrote it in two time frames, to make that really explicit – about the past resonating on the present, and can you escape it? Or do you want to escape it?

One of the other characters is a ghostly figure, named Shadow, who belongs to a previous era. Where did you get the idea for Shadow? Did he come from the Japanese ghost stories?

Not really, no. Shadow just popped up and wouldn’t go away. He was really, really insistent. That’s another funny thing about characters – they’re just like “right that’s it, I’m here”. There’s nothing you can do – he was going to have his story told, whether I wanted it or not. He was probably less present at the beginning of the book, but he was like – “let me in, let me in”, and I found him really easy to write.

Kate Hamer at hay 2015

Kate Hamer at the Hay Festival in 2015

How did you write the dual narrative – did you write the story in a similar way to how it is presented in the book? Or did you write one of their stories first, and then the other?

I wrote it as it unfolds in the book. I think I’d find it really difficult otherwise, because it is really important that the stories bounce off each other.

Did you know what was going to happen in the end, or was it revealed as you were writing?

I’ve found a way that I work, which seems to be becoming a pattern, which is that I write the beginning and then, really quickly, I write the end – sometimes the last page, sometimes the last paragraph, but definitely the last line. The last line is always there. I did the same thing with book three – I’ve got the last line. I haven’t written the middle yet, though. That seems to be emerging as the way that I work, so I don’t necessarily know all that happens in between, but I do always know how it’s going to end up.

The narrative follows Ruby’s quest to find her real parents, whilst simultaneously revealing the story from her mother’s perspective. Did you find it difficult to work out how much of the truth to reveal at what stage in the book?

Yes, I think I probably thought much longer and harder about revelation of information in this one. Actually, at one point, I cut quite a big chunk out. And I have this kind of stone age version of Scribbler, which is just notes pinned up on a cork board – like the chapter headings – so I can move them around. I did quite a lot of that. With Ruby’s quest to find her real parents, she starts uncovering all sorts of things that people don’t want uncovered, so there was a sense of making sure the information came out at the right point.

As I read your books I could see the action almost as a film. You’ve previously worked in media and television. When you were writing, did you imagine the stories as films? Do you have plans to make them into films?

Yes, with The Girl in the Red Coat there’s a possibility of that being made into a film. It’s not definite yet, but it keeps moving one stage on…

I definitely see it like a film when I’m writing, and I know when it’s going really well because I can actually hear the score going on in the background, which sounds bizarre – I’m so unmusical, I could never write music – but, when it’s going well, I can hear the score. I think a lot of writers are the same, actually. It’s definitely very filmic. It’s a visual thing as much as it is about words. It makes it into a living breathing thing.

Can you tell us about the book that you’re working on at the moment?

Yes. It’s about that time in your life where things easily go off in a really, really wrong way, and it affects the rest of your life. There’s a supernatural element in it, but not in the way that you’d think. It’s more to do with the power of the human mind. It’s about those sort of intense relationships that you have when you’re about seventeen…

Does it have a mother / daughter relationship?

That features in it as well, yes – and it’s very, very dark, as they all are. I’ve got a couple of titles… but I haven’t picked one yet. One of the characters is called Phoebe – she’s the main character. I’ll be able to talk about it more once it’s written…

Thanks! I’ll look forward to reading it…

Read my review of The Doll Funeral here. The book will be published on 16th February, with a launch in London on 15th, and one in Cardiff on 16th. You can pre-order it here.

Read my review of The Girl in the Red Coat here.

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