We get a lot of requests to stage events at the SWC, and have to plan more than six months ahead; sometimes good ideas just don’t get to us in time. As part of this guilt-trip (!) we are publishing a wee interview here, with one Linda Huber (a writer hailing from Glasgow, who now lives and works in Switzerland). Her second novel, The Cold Cold Sea, is published by Legend Press. Bestselling crime writer, Caro Ramsay, described Linda’s debut as ‘an emotionally intelligent thriller – a little gem of a book.’
If you want to meet Linda in person, then you can see her at Hillhead Library in Glasgow on 4th August at 4pm, or Waterstones Argyle St in Glasgow on 13th August at 7pm.
1. Describe your novel in one sentence.
The Cold Cold Sea is a story of loss: two families each lose a child, a father loses his self-respect, and a little girl loses everything she has ever known.
2. When and why did you start writing?
I wrote my first story aged seven, for my Writer’s Badge in the Brownies. It was about a girl called Susan who lived on a farm, and I remember to this day what fun I had writing it. That was the start, and I’ve been writing ever since. Later I was annoyed I’d done my Writer’s Badge so soon after becoming a Brownie; as a nine-year-old I knew I could have done it so much better!
3. Do you have a routine when you write?
Coffee is vital, but basically I sit down and write. If a book’s going well I carry on with a new section, if not, I edit what I’ve already written. At some point I’ll probably get stuck, and then I leave it for a month or two and go on with something else. This makes writing a book a fairly slow procedure, but on the other hand I usually have at least two on the go at any one time.
4. What inspired you to write this novel?
When my children were small, I started to research my family tree and came across a little girl I’d never heard of before – a distant cousin called Agnes, who drowned long ago aged eleven. A parent myself, I could well imagine the horror that her family must have gone through. Around the same time there was another drowning tragedy which really hit me, because a friend knew the people involved. This was in the papers, and one day I saw a sad little news paragraph reporting that the child’s body had been recovered.
I started thinking: how do parents cope with a loss like that? How do they react – do they blame themselves, or each other? How can anyone bear something so completely devastating? Your child has drowned and you didn’t help her because you weren’t there. And then I thought – what if this reality is so unbearable for someone that they have to change it? That was the beginning of The Cold Cold Sea.
5. Do your characters often morph and switch identities or do you have them firmly in place when you begin writing?
They are firmly in place. My books are character based, so that always comes first. I spend a long time thinking about my main characters before I start. They do grow as the novel develops, sometimes they are given new past experiences to give them insight into what is going on in the plot, or they get new interests to enable them to do something or talk about it, but who they are as people is in place from the start.
The secondary characters are a little different – less backstory for one thing, and it has happened that a secondary character is written out or changed in some way during the writing. My first book, The Paradise Trees, originally had four POV characters; but my editor thought it would work better with just two, and it was very interesting changing the other two into non-POVs. I enjoy doing things like that.
6. Why do you think this book is so appealing?
The story is every parent’s worst nightmare; and yet I don’t think it’s a depressing book. There are a lot of children in my cast of characters and this allows for humorous moments too. Does the book end well? I think it does – I wanted to end on a positive note, conveying that there is always, always hope, and light at the end of the tunnel. Having said that, not all my characters make it to the end of the story. But that’s true in real life too.
7. The novel approaches sensitive subjects such as child abduction and nervous breakdowns. How important was it to you that these topics were presented accurately?
Very. As a physiotherapist I had worked with people who had suffered brain injuries of various kinds, and seen the reactions of their families. A sudden brain injury like Michael Schumacher’s, or the birth of a child who has cerebral palsy, can be devastating for the family involved; and over the years I’ve talked a great deal to people in situations of extreme stress.
The abduction theme was different because I’ve never known anyone that this has happened to. I wanted to portray realistically the sense of self-blame, and the shame, that the parents must go through, and in a way I think this is similar to the feeling you get when your child is harmed in any way through something you have done or omitted to do. I well remember losing my younger son at a crowded outdoor swimming pool complex when he was two. He had tried to go back to our towels to find the biscuits, but of course we immediately started searching round the pools and the lakeside. He was distraught when I eventually caught up with him and I thought, ‘My God, I did this by looking away for two seconds.’
I think it’s important to say that The Cold Cold Sea is not based on anyone’s experience. Knowing that it was sensitive, when I finished it I sent it to a literary critique service in London. They were enthusiastic and advised some changes, which I was still carrying out when little Madeleine McCann vanished in Portugal. Like Olivia in my book she was almost four and on a family holiday. The rest of Madeleine’s story is of course completely different to Olivia’s, but I still felt I should wait for the moment, so I put it to the side until the end of 2011.
8. In your novel, three-year old Olivia goes missing – which is a horrific ordeal. Did you feel a certain amount of responsibility in how this was portrayed?
Yes. What happens to Olivia is a terrible experience for a child of any age. The problem here was trying to combine realism with something I was comfortable portraying. One thing I didn’t want to put in my book is prolonged sexual abuse – something that often is involved in a child abduction, but I felt it had no place in The Cold Cold Sea. And although Olivia’s ordeal is central to the plot, the main storyline is less about what happened to her than about how it is going to be resolved by the adults involved.
9. Who are your favourite crime authors?
Mary Higgins Clark, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Elizabeth George, and Val McDermid
10. Who would you recommend The Cold Cold Sea to?
Anyone who enjoys suspense novels!