Article published on April 1, 2016. Reviewed by Mike Stafford
Stalwart reviewer of this parish, Mike Stafford recently posted a highly flattering review of Try Not to Breathe so not surprisingly author Holly Seddon was happy to engage for nudge and nb readers.
Mike Stafford: Firstly, the title of the book is shared with one of the tracks of REM’s Automatic for the People, and even the briefest study of its haunting, desolate lyrics suggests the similarities might not end there. Did you draw inspiration from any of the musicians Amy namechecks in the book?
I listened to Pulp over and over when I was writing about Amy’s life pre-attack. ‘His ‘n’ Hers’ and ‘Different Class’ both bristle with the promise of sexual exploration, hope and dark moments. The draft first chapter even had a few lyrics from ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ strewn through it originally.
Beyond that, I had a playlist that I listened to over and over, especially while editing, and which has now turned into my launch party playlist. Most of the songs are from 1995 but some are on there for the feelings they generate, I wasn’t super strict. (The link is here if anyone would like a listen: https://open.spotify.com/user/hollyseddon/playlist/4rZB6LKp73T1KJEjTkQuNB)
MS: There’s a rich seam of suspense novels now with leading characters who are psychologically impaired or damaged in some way. Is that something you felt you had to ‘live up to’ while writing?
Luckily no, but only due to my tardiness. I started writing Try Not to Breathe a long time ago (hence the ‘present day’ is 2010). For a few reasons it was quite a stop-start process, and by the time we’d sold the book to publishers, there had been a wonderful explosion of these complex, flawed protagonists and fresh takes on the unreliable narrator. So while Try Not to Breathe is entering a party that’s already started, I was able to write it without that pressure.
MS: In seeking justice for Amy, Alex is almost forced to drag her life back on track, but the book never really feels like a selfish quest for redemption. Was redemption important to you when writing, or was your focus always on justice for Amy’s character?
Thank you so much, I’m glad that’s how it comes across – I’d have hated for Alex to be either too worthy and earnest or outright selfish. Perhaps I should lie and claim I knew all along, but actually, Alex’s own journey developed almost under the radar.
Initially, I wanted justice for Amy and Alex was almost a vessel for that. But the more I got to know her, thinking about why she would have been in this mess, the more I wanted her to have a second chance.
MS: Perhaps inevitably, your book has drawn comparisons with The Girl on the Train. As a writer, how helpful do you find that type of comparison?
From a marketing point of view, it’s probably very helpful to the folks who look after that side of things but for me, it’s a bit of a strange feeling to be compared to someone else, even if that someone else is awesome.
As a newcomer to this world, I’m not used to it as no other job I’ve had has involved that experience. The Girl on the Train is brilliant, and Paula Hawkins is a fantastic writer so it’s incredibly flattering, but at the same time the books are not the same. It would be boring if they were!
I am also trying not to pay attention to anything that will mess with my head while I’m writing my next book! I don’t need to be thinking, “I wonder if this is anything like this author or that author’s next book?” I’m neurotic enough!
MS: We can’t not ask – how did you set about researching coma patients for Amy’s scenes? And did you feel a sense of duty towards real life coma patients when writing?
It was actually a Radio 4 programme about persistent vegetative states that first sparked the idea. I hadn’t known anything about these long-term conditions before and most of my ideas about comas came from soap operas. But it was both fascinating and heartbreaking. One of the experts described the condition as “a living death” and that was a springboard for developing Amy’s experiences.
I did a lot of reading about treatment, watched documentaries and read some unbearably moving accounts from a handful of patients who had recovered from states like this. But I had to allow myself to use huge dollops of artistic license. I tried to be respectful to anyone who might have experienced this bleak situation, but the story came first.
MS: For us, Amy was the star of the show, but it’s clear she’s not got a great deal of series potential. Can you tell us any more about what you’re working on next?
That’s lovely to hear because I’m so fond of Amy. But no, there’s not a great deal of potential for Amy in future books! I never considered writing a sequel, Try Not to Breathe was always a standalone story. A few people have asked about another book focussing on Alex but I’m not sure I would want to do that. Never say never but right now, it feels a bit like sleeping with an ex when you have a new boyfriend.
And I do have a new book boyfriend! I’m working on another standalone thriller. I’m about a third of the way through the first draft so it’s early days but I’m really enjoying the new characters, a fresh setting and pulling in everything I learned writing Try Not to Breathe to really tighten the tension while delving into the characters’ backstory. There are some dark teenage secrets, unbreakable bonds and hopefully some jump in your seat moments. I got really spooked writing late the other night and had to go and sleep in my son’s room so I think that’s a good sign.
Many thanks to Mike and congrats to Holly for getting so many mentions of the title of her book into the interview.
Author bio: Holly Seddon is a freelance journalist whose work has been published on national newspaper websites, magazines and leading consumer websites. As a mother of four, Holly divides her time between writing articles, walking her miniature Schnauzer and chasing homework-evaders around the room. And then doing some more writing when night falls.
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