Competition published on February 10, 2017.
A war reporter who can’t trust her own eyes.
A deadly secret at the heart of a family.
A killer hiding in plain sight.
Kate Rafter is a high-flying war reporter. She’s the strong one. The one who escaped their father. Her sister Sally didn’t. Instead, she drinks.
But when their mother dies, Kate is forced to return to the old family home. And on her very first night she is woken by a terrifying scream. At first she tells herself it’s just a nightmare, a legacy of her time in Syria.
But then she hears it again. And this time she knows she’s not imagining it…
What secret is lurking in her mother’s garden? And can Kate get to the truth…before she loses her mind?
**We have a copy of My Sister’s Bones to give away – scroll down for your chance to win!**
Reviewer Sheila A. Grant said:
An astounding debut novel from a new writer. The writing is tight and vivid and the book moves on at a steady pace with intriguing twists and turns. Kate is a fascinating character, courageous and vulnerable, whose experiences abroad have in now way hardened her, rather she is a woman of compassion, sad at the loss of her mother, and for losses in her professional life. A thought-provoking book with many strands that gradually and neatly are drawn together to create an astoundingly unexpected and nail biting finale.
(See also a SECOND OPINION from reviewer Nicola Smith)
Sheila was so impressed we put her in touch with Nuala Ellwood to find out more…
Am I correct is saying this is your first novel? Or do you have others lurking in a drawer?
I’ve been writing novels and short stories since I was a teenager but this is my first thriller.
Did you always want to write?
Yes. When I was a little girl I spent all my spare time writing plays and stories and ploughing my way through the books in my dad’s study. I once spent an entire summer cataloguing the whole lot with a meticulous hand-written library card system that still exists to this day. My parents introduced me to literature and the power of the written word at an early age. Dad was a journalist and I grew up listening to the sound of the typewriter bashing out scripts to deadline. To me writing was as normal and necessary as breathing. The house was full of singing and storytelling and music too and being the youngest of five I had a wealth of material to draw on from the comings and goings and dramas of my elder siblings. As time went by my writing came out ‘song-shaped- and I spent several years working as a session singer/ songwriter. The novels came later.
Would I be correct in thinking that the stories from members of your family returning from reporting in war zones inspired you with this novel?
My Dad was a BBC journalist and though he reported on some pretty devastating things, including serial killers, child abuse and the aftermath of civil war in Beirut, he wasn’t a war reporter. My fascination with war reporters stems from a brief meeting I had with the Sunday Times reporter, Marie Colvin at the Chelsea Arts Club where I worked in my early twenties. She gave a talk about her experiences that was inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure and it sparked an idea in me about writing a story with a female war reporter at its heart. Besides the work of Colvin and others such as Janine di Giovanni and the legendary Martha Gellhorn, I have also been horrified by the war in Syria and the suffering of the people trapped in besieged cities such as Aleppo. I think every age has its war and the Syrian conflict is ours. It made sense to me to write about it in My Sister’s Bones and explore the human and psychological cost of war.
All your characters are believable and well drawn with great impact on the reader’s mind. Sometimes when I read a book I have to flip back to see who so and so is but not with this book. Every single person was unique and memorable. Did that come easily to you?
It was very important for me to create characters that the reader would believe in and I’m so glad that you found them memorable. The novelist Claire Messud once said that the correct question to ask about fiction is not whether a character is ‘likeable’ but whether they are ‘alive’ and I think this is extremely important to bear in mind as a writer. That’s not to say that it comes easy and character development evolves over the course of many, many drafts. Dialogue is also hugely important and a writer must ask questions as she is going along. For example: would a character really speak like that in ordinary conversation? I also find that spending a good deal of time creating a biography and a back story for the characters before starting a novel really helps bring them to life.
Are any of the characters based on real people?
Not really. Though the character of Kate is an amalgamation of quite a few of my heroines – Marie Colvin, Martha Gellhorn, Janine di Giovanni, Constance Markievicz and a bit of the Irish warrior queen Maeve. Marie Colvin once said that ‘bravery is not being afraid to be afraid’ and it is that mixture of strength and vulnerability that I wanted to capture in Kate.
Was the theme of PTSD your starting point and once arrived at that did the characters follow with ease?
No. The starting point was to tell the story of a female war reporter. Once I started researching this I began to find out more about the link between PTSD and war reporting. This led me to the work of Dr Anthony Feinstein whose seminal work ‘Journalists Under Fire’ was the first to explore the link between war reporting and PTSD. He found that many war reporters were reticent to admit that they were suffering from trauma for fear of being demoted at work or being seen to have ‘lost their nerve.’ I found this startling but also fascinating and it made me ask myself: what would happen if a journalist, a person associated with reporting the facts, found herself in a situation where her word was no longer trusted, no longer believed? And so the character of Kate Rafter was born, a woman who has seen the worst of human suffering and is now starting to feel the effects psychologically.
Have you witnessed suffering from the condition?
I have had friends who have come through traumatic experiences such as sexual assault and seen first hand how trauma can manifest itself, sometimes years after the event. Oddly, I also found that during the course of my research into the novel, when I spent day after day sifting through footage of war and trauma, I found myself feeling extremely anxious and hyper-vigilant, particularly around my little boy. It was rather like PTSD by osmosis and though it wasn’t anything like as bad as that experienced by sufferers it did give me a glimpse into the horror of the condition and how it can destroy a person’s life.
How did you research the psychological part of the story such as the consultation / interview that Kate had with Dr. Shaw?
A friend put me in contact with a clinical psychologist and she very kindly answered a lot of questions for me regarding procedure and logistics. In terms of the structure I’m a huge fan of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and drew a lot of inspiration from her depictions of WHR Rivers, the psychologist who treated shell-shocked soldiers including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
You must be justifiably proud to see your first book received with such great enthusiasm. Did you ever imagine it would be thus?
The response to My Sister’s Bones has been amazing and has surpassed all my expectations. I’m just very happy and honored that people have taken Kate Rafter and her story to their hearts.
You include so many issues, family ones like abuse, jealousy, rape, alcoholism, rejection and others that relate more to Kate’s working life such as danger, death, imprisonment, professionalism and the risks of becoming attached to the locals with whom Kate lived in Aleppo. How on earth did you keep track of all these different threads without repetition?
I didn’t set out to address all these issues at once. They evolved along with the character of Kate. I wanted to explore why she became a war reporter, what was it about her background that made her want to go towards danger rather than run away and to protect those who needed help. In terms of keeping track I think it helps to have a really great editor and I found the best in Katy Loftus at Penguin. When you are writing a novel, particularly a thriller, it feels rather like you’re weaving together a huge tapestry and if you drop a stitch or alter the pattern the whole thing could fall apart. A good editor helps to see the bigger picture and keeps you on track.
Had you studied creative writing prior to writing this book?
Yes. I have an MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and I now lecture on Contemporary Fiction and Creative Writing there.
Who do you read for relaxation?
I love Paul Auster. He’s the master of the killer first line. I first discovered his work when I was nineteen and was hooked immediately. Even now, all these years later, the release of a new Auster novel is always something to look forward to, and I have to set aside a day to read it all in one go. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf too. Whenever I read her writing it feels like coming home. I love the dream-like quality of her novels but I also love the sharp, witty tone of her diaries and essays. Whether fiction or non-fiction she manages to capture both the beauty and the brutality of life, moment-by-moment, breath by breath. I also love Pat Barker, William Boyd, Maggie O’Farrell, Ian McEwan, Louise Doughty and Olivia Laing.
What is your next project?
I’m currently working on my next novel, a thriller with the working title of Little Shadow. It tells the story of Maggie, a GP, who wakes up in hospital to find that her daughter has been killed in a car accident, her husband has gone missing and the family home has been rented out. As she slowly starts to rebuild her life she meets a woman who seems to understand what she is going through. But the friendship comes at a price and when the woman asks Maggie to accompany her on a trip to Brussels it sets in motion a trail of events that pulls Maggie into a terrifying web of lies and deceit. But who is telling the truth and who will get out of it alive?
About the author
Nuala Ellwood comes from a family of war reporters, and they inspired her to get Arts Council funding to research and write a novel dealing with psychological trauma in the industry. My Sister’s Bones is her debut thriller.
We have a copy of My Sister’s Bones to give away – for your chance to win simply fill in the form below:
My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood, published on 9 February, 2017 by Penguin in hardback
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