Year of Indie Debuts: After Leaving the Village by Helen Matthews

For the latest indie debuts interview, I’m speaking with Author Helen Matthews about her novel ‘After Leaving the Village,’ published by published by Hashtag Press. I often ask authors about their journey to publication, because that’s an achievement in and of itself, but hers is a little different again in that she’s had support from the charity, Unseen, who work to end human slavery. I

Helen, how are you involved with the Unseen charity and how has it helped to create your novel?

To answer your questions about my involvement with the charity Unseen – it wasn’t a collaboration, as such, but came about by chance when I  decided I was going to write a novel about human trafficking and was looking for research material. I started writing ‘After Leaving the Village’ in 2013 and human trafficking was not a high profile news story as it is now. It was actually quite difficult to find material until I discovered case studies (survivors’ stories) published by charities, including Unseen. When I learned about their work, I became a supporter and began to make a monthly donation to Unseen to sponsor a hostel room for a trafficking survivor.  While I was writing the novel, I rang their office on a couple of occasions to ask a question and, when my novel was finished, their founder and director, Kate Garbers kindly agreed to read it through to check it was factually accurate. (Similar to when you’ve written a crime novel and ask a police officer friend to read it through).

Fortunately Kate loved the story and was sufficiently impressed with the quality of my writing to offer to write a Foreword for the novel. They’ve helped me to promote the book by featuring it on their Facebook page and in a newsletter sent to supporters. We’re also doing a joint fundraising event in the New Year. I decided to donate a percentage of profits from the book to Unseen to help support the fight against slavery. More recently, Unseen has appointed me an Ambassador for the charity and invited me to  a training session, so I’m now an accredited speaker and able to give presentations about their work alongside promoting my book.

That’s really interesting, and it must feel good to think your book is working to help people who’s real-life stories are like your main character, Odeta’s. You’ve written a book which is a good read first and foremost, even though it tackles some difficult subjects. How do you think a writer can balance the passion they have to draw attention to an injustice, with their passion to tell a good story?

It’s good advice, if not always practical, to write with your potential readers in mind. If I think about what I look for as a reader (and I read many genres, from commercial to literary), the books that satisfy me most offer something more than just escapism, convincing characters and a plot that rattles along. When I’m investing time in a book, I like to learn something about the world or gain an insight into human nature. In a contemporary novel, I love a ‘state of the nation’ theme (Ali Smith’s Autumn; Zadie Smith’s NW; Capital by John Lanchester).

While researching human trafficking, I discovered that the top country of origin of victims trafficked into the UK was Albania, so I decided this was where my character, Odeta, would come from. I’d never been to Albania and my initial research was from articles, travel guides, maps, Google Earth and watching YouTube videos. When my novel was at final draft stage I realised I’d have to visit Albania to make sure details were accurate. While there, I arranged to spend an afternoon visiting a family in a village (though not as remote as Odeta’s). Their daily life, their home and their approach to entertaining guests were uncannily similar to what I’d dreamt up in my imagination. They even owned a shop – though theirs sold hardware and auto spares, not groceries.

My major concern was whether young Albanians would speak more English than Odeta because this is an important plot point in my novel. Of course, the older generation learnt only Russian and, for decades of the twentieth century, Albanians weren’t permitted to travel abroad. I found that students and Albanians who’d travelled abroad did speak some English but I was relieved to find, once we left the capital, Tirana, even young waiters in a roadside café couldn’t understand my simple request for a bottle of water.

As a novelist you can’t overstuff your story with all the facts learnt from research, however fascinating. You have to let go and trust your characters to take the action forward so your story doesn’t buckle under the weight of research.

Well, your research paid off because your book is amazingly evocative, her village life is delicately and convincingly brought to life in your writing, which makes what happens to her all the more heartbreaking, and her inner strength all the more real. As you say, human trafficking, modern slavery, wasn’t well known about even just a few years ago, and it’s been the work of charities and campaigners which has shone more light on it. How did you first hear about it and decide to research it?

Unseen, the charity I support, has three main aims: supporting survivors and potential victims; equipping stakeholders, such as companies, police forces, health professionals, to recognise the signs, and influencing legislative and system change. Under this third remit, Unseen’s research was instrumental in inspiring government to bring in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The reason we’re better informed now is because, when perpetrators are caught, they are charged appropriately and convicted of modern slavery offences. In the past it was often the victim who was charged with, for example, prostitution or immigration offences.

I’m continually developing ideas for novels and jotting down notes for the next one. My starting point of After Leaving the Village was Kate’s story – her anxiety about her son’s Internet addiction and somewhat radical approach to a digital detox. My working title was Disconnected. As I brainstormed ideas around disempowerment and exclusion, I thought about what it would be like to be forcibly cut off from everything. This led me to research human trafficking and modern slavery. With such a sensitive subject, I took care to honour my character’s humanity and make Odeta a fully-rounded ordinary woman – just like you, or me, or our daughters – rather than the shadowy one-dimensional victims so often seen in the background on TV crime drama.

Where does this in-depth research fit this into your process? Do you write the first draft and then research your hunches, or do you need to establish the research first and then build your story from that?

My starting point is a broad plot outline and an idea for my main characters before doing some initial research. I then write a few chapters to test out whether the characters will live and breathe on the page. Not all stories have legs and some plots fizzle out. Once I’m confident, I get stuck into more extensive research. I write a first draft, checking facts as I go along. I’d strongly recommend finding an expert in the subject to check your manuscript at the end of the process and I was very fortunate that Kate Garbers of Unseen offered to do this for me.

And I think anyone looking to write such an depth novel as this one, would do well to heed that advice! This has been a huge project for you, and of course is still on going as you try and get the word out about your book – but do you have more in the pipeline? Are you writing around the same area, or striking out in a new direction?

I have a new novel underway and an early draft has been read by two beta readers and critiqued by a writer friend, who was on the MA in Creative Writing course with me at Oxford Brookes University. She is a skilful and challenging reviewer and her suggestions involve structural changes. I’m itching to get back to working on it when the launch and promotion phase of After Leaving the Village calms down. The new novel has contemporary themes (my characters will potentially be affected by Brexit, for example), but it’s set in 2016 when the full impact isn’t known. It’s broadly in the suspense thriller category, like my current book, but I’m tweaking it so it will end up slightly closer to the psychological thriller genre.

Brexit  is a challenge for writers like everyone else, it’s an odd time to write near future fiction just because everything is so up for grabs! I’m working on one set in a post Brexit Britain too which is my first foray into urban fantasy – seeing as the possibilities right now seem multitudinous, if not all positive! I always like to end with a daft question – when writing, what’s your guilty pleasure reward for hitting your daily word count?

I’ve a terrible habit of hunching over a laptop all day, staring at the screen or the ceiling. Often, I look up to find it’s 4.00 p.m. and getting dark and I’ve not stuck my nose outside the door all day. So, I go for a walk or, perhaps, a swim, and my guilty snack of choice is Cadbury’s fruit and nut.

So, dedication to the art and craft of writing, proper research and fruit and nut – I think that’s a recipe for writing we’d all do well to follow. After Leaving The Village is a story which works on many levels and as well as being a deep commentary on the way we live now, is a good story too. I was struck by how the young people in the book are all chasing dreams seen from a far, hints of a golden life glimpsed through various social media channels, dream which all too often prove to be dangerous in so many ways. Please do buy a copy and read for yourself, both because it’s a good story with real characters, and because Unseen needs our support for the good work they’re doing.

After Leaving the Village is available in paperback and as an eBook by Find it at Waterstones, Foyles and all good bookshops and on Amazon at

To learn more about anti-slavery charity Unseen go to

To read Helen’s blog and hear about upcoming author events, visit her website

A year of Indie debuts – The Other Twin by Lucy V Hay


In this edition of our Indie debuts series I’m talking to author Lucy Hay about her thriller ‘The Other Twin’ published by Orenda books. It’s set in London on Sea, or Brighton as others may know it, a place which has always been some what subversive and alternative in nature and has attracted delight and dismay in equal measure. Her novel weaves its way through this setting and works itself into the cracks between the outward glitz and underground decadence of the town, and into the lives of two families which are equally enmeshed, one with the other. I opened my interview with her talking about the setting, as for me it came across as a tangible and exciting creation which was central to the book, almost a character in its own right.


Almost like cities such as London and Edinburgh, Brighton has a strong, vivid presence in fiction, which means that many people must come to any new representation of it with a lot of familiarity. How well do you know it as a place and do you feel the weight of all those ‘other’ Brightons behind your writing?

I knew I had to get Brighton right. It’s a vibrant city that has such a significance for so many people, especially the LGBT community. I knew that classics like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock right through to modern icons like Peter James’ Roy Grace would be compared against my version of Brighton – which people have, in reviews – so yes, that was a pressure. But ultimately, I had to let go of that and bring forth MY vision of Brighton, not recycle someone else’s. So rather than pore feverishly over published content, I went to Brighton and sucked up the atmos there, using my eyes, ears and other senses to really get a ‘feel’ for the place. Hopefully I have transmitted that to the page.

Your novel uses the dichotomy between the public and the private of the internet to great effect, the way that we publish the most intimate thoughts to a world of strangers and yet keep them from our nearest and dearest. How do you feel that sense of sharing and yet not sharing has affected how we live now?

I’m always reminded of Shakespeare’s notion of the ‘whole world’s a stage’ quote when it comes to the internet. We all have online personas now, just as we have public and private ones. How we use these online personas can differ, person to person. For some, the online persona is a ‘work thing’ – they may create a brand and strategy, that is very carefully crafted. For other people, online may be the only place they can speak the truth and truly be themselves. For just as many, it is somewhere in-between.  Social media has so many wonderful applications, especially for women and marginalised people to find their tribes and create opportunities (including work and money). But it also has a dark side: too many people abuse social media – such as trolls – and even more use it to fuel the neverending cycle of outrage we currently live in. It’s become a conformity factory, with perceived transgressors piled on and harassed; those people calling out others then kid themselves they’re raging against the machine and/or taking on the system. It’s a real shame.

There are a lot of hidden identities in the book, some hidden willingly, some desperate to be uncovered. Do you think that the struggle for truth in who you are is at the heart of your writing?

Absolutely. I spent a very long time confused about who I truly was; I felt fragmented, even a fraud. It took me many years to accept my own identity and my – sometimes paradoxical – roles and emotions within it. Life is a journey and I daresay there are still lots of things I will find out about myself yet, too. But unlike before, I am not afraid to do this anymore. I think that’s why I wanted to write about identity and truth in The Other Twin – I feel it is all a matter of perspective, rather than a concrete thing.

Reading your book I did reflect on how what might be called ‘Thrillers’ do seem to have a mostly white, female and middle class cast, especially those centred in a domestic setting rather than all spies and guns, if you know what I mean. Did you set out to write a book with a deliberately more diverse cast of characters?

I feel very strongly that stories of any kind need more variety. As a script editor and blogger at, I identified a need for stories to have more characters than ‘the usual’ a long time ago; not just for ‘political correctness’, but because there are swathes of the audience not being served – it’s good business sense! I have written several non-fiction books about writing, including one on so-called ‘diverse characters’, so it was a no-brainer to take my own advice! Lots of writers shy away from diverse characters like those from the LGBT or BAME communities, because they’re afraid of getting it ‘wrong’. I can understand and relate to this worry, because I felt it too. But I picked LGBT and BAME characters because of a genuine interest and feeling of solidarity with both communities; my friends and acquaintances sharing their own stories literally helped me inform the narrative. Their POVs were absolutely invaluable and I feel very grateful they shared their perspectives with me. There would have been no story without them.

Do you start a book with an idea of where the plot is going, or do you pick up a thread and see where it follows?

It depends. With The Other Twin, I saw the ending and ‘big reveal’ in my head, clear as day – as if it was a memory, like it really happened. I could see and feel it so clearly, right down to the location and the sense of urgency. From there, I asked myself: WHO are these characters? WHAT is happening? WHY? HOW did they get here? Though the ways of getting there changed through the many drafts, that ending never did.

Assuming this is your first published book, or even if it’s not, I imagine like most of us it’s one in a long and worthy line of nearly theres and also rans, so what do you think you’ve learned about your writing by being published?

Every book teaches you something in my experience. The Other Twin is my first crime novel and what I have learned from this one is how much difference an editor who really ‘gets’ the book makes. Both Karen Sullivan and West Camel at Orenda Books challenged me every step of the way to bring my best game to drafting process, they went through every line with the classic fine toothcomb! I was allowed to get away with NOTHING. The fiends!

Where is your next book set, will you stay in Brighton or are you moving to a new location?

Book 2 for Orenda is set in Epsom, Surrey. So very middle-class, white and straight … in both senses of the word. Probably the antithesis to Brighton, in fact!

Cats or dogs?

Cats, obviously. I have five of my own, I’m a crazy cat lady in training. When my kids have left home I plan to rant and rave and throw cats at everyone like the woman from THE SIMPSONS. It’s going to be awesome.

BIO: @LucyVHayAuthor is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers. Lucy is the producer of two Brit Thrillers, DEVIATION (2012) and ASSASSIN (2015). Her debut crime novel, THE OTHER TWIN, is due out with Orenda Books in 2017. Check out  here website HERE and all her books, HERE.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Other Twin’ as I am a sucker for a deep dark secret and the machinations people go through to keep it a secret. I found the main character appealing enough to want to go with her for the ride, and the world through which she traveled felt authentic and enticing. It also had a touch of glamour which one doesn’t often see in British set thrillers, which was a nice contrast to the darker side of the writing – I kept getting flashes of sequins and marble floors, bright lights and designer labels, like a brittle shell over murky waters. It also tackles some uncomfortable issues head on, in a way which wasn’t overly preachy, and it did give pause to reflect not only on what was happening in the plot, but what the book was subtly saying about the genre. So, if you fancy some nitty-gritty-glittery thriller action, this is definitely worth buying, and if you like Lucy’s work, it’s really good to see she’s got plans for many more with her supportive and high quality publishers, Orenda, who are certainly ones to keep tabs on.  And right now the Kindle edition of THE OTHER TWIN is on a 99p promotion, so there’s no excuse not to grab a copy!

Year of Indie Debuts: The Hungtingfield Paintress

The latest debut author in the spotlight is fellow Urbane author, Pamela Holmes, whose novel The Huntingfield Paintress is a fictionalised tale of a real person’s life. That person being Mildred Holland, a vicar’s wife living in rural Suffolk in Victorian England. It’s a fascinating account of her fight to do and be what she wants to be in a time when women didn’t really have that much choice.

Was it difficult to write from the point of view from a character that was real – did it inhibit you in any way? What approach did you take to find her voice?

I found out everything I could about Mildred Holland (1813 – 1878) and the times in which she lived. In the British Library, I read about the role of women, parish life, the impact of industrialisation on rural areas and the Gothic revival. A local amateur historian with an interest in the genealogy had commissioned a Holland family tree and let me pore over it. Diaries and accounts of people who had taken a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe like Mildred and Willian did for eight years in their early married life gave me insight into what they may have seen.

I interviewed art historians and restorers about painting techniques in the 1850s as well as scanning architectural magazines from The British Institute of Architecture to understand more about that profession. Completing all this research was ultimately liberating for it gave me the impetus, the structure with which to focus my imagination.  Mildred’s voice emerged from it all. I realised I knew where she came from, what and why she would want to act or might feel in a particular way. So it was not difficult to write from her point of view; I felt I knew her. As for what she looked like, I could find no existing photograph or description of her appearance but I think she was physically magnetic.

What inspired you about Mildred that made you want to tell her story?

I recognised that when Mildred settled in Huntingfield after eight years travelling the Continent with her husband, she was in limb. The opportunities to express herself, to do something for herself were few. She was a vicar’s wife. She could run the home, support her husband, serve tea to guests, administer goodly works to those in need. But that was about it. There were firm expectations about what she should do but, as importantly, what she should not.

The Huntingfield Paintress describes her journey to self-expression. The book shows us that Mildred found a way out of her situation. But to do this she needed her husband’s support and she succeeded for there is evidence that William paid for what she did. He would have come in for criticism, allowing his wife to ‘work’ although the fact that it involved religion provided some degree of acceptance. There would have questions about her morality. None of this stopped Mildred, and realising this convinced me that she was determined and clever woman who was willing and able to manipulate people to achieve her ends. That made her fascinating. An impressive woman who I liked very much but also a woman with foibles and faults.

Where did you find out about her life in Huntingfield and also her travels before she settled there?

The local library was a brilliant source of information about the area, its flora and fauna. As I became more absorbed in the writing, I decided I needed to live in Huntingfield for a time so I rented an old laundry building. I sketched, walked the hills and woods she must have wandered, went to churches and towns she may have visited. I was invited to tea in the Rectory where Mildred lived for over 30 years and drank in the pub (or tavern) which still exists in Huntingfield, where her servants may have gone even if she might not. All this helped me to understand what life may have been like there.

Before the couple settled in the village, they travelled widely. For eight years, they were in various parts of Europe, going as far as Constantinople and across the Mediterranean to Morocco. They would have seen glorious examples of medieval, Gothic and Islamic art and architecture as well as experienced the life, geography, weather and cultures of these different places.

What would it have been like to return to a tiny Suffolk village? What would they have thought of their church, a victim of the Reformation when statues, fabrics and glass showing pictures were all destroyed? Inside it was white-washed, according to an entry in the parish records from 1583, so as to cover up ornamentation. By comparison to the splendours of Venice or Florence was it just a little dull?

What did you enjoy most about writing a novel about a real person?

Mildred was at a crossroads when she settled in Huntingfield. She had had a life-changing experience travelling the Continent and she was now in a place which ostensibly afforded few opportunities to express herself. When I came across her story, I was also at a point in my life when there were choices I could make if I only could find the courage and commitment to do so. My two boys were both at University and though I had a job I enjoyed, I knew I had energy left to do more. Finding out that there was little lot known about this fascinating woman gave me the opportunity to create a version of her life that is based in truth but more importantly, I hope, is psychologically and emotionally convincing.

Will your next novel also be a fictionalised account of a real person’s life?

I’ve started writing my second novel. My ideas about it change as I write. It is not a fictionalised account of a real person’s life but, of course, draws on experiences of others as well as some of my own. I think all novels do this at some level; we watch how others cope, respond and are driven by events, circumstances, their past lives and their dreams. It is a wonderful and painful process to write, at least for me. I find this quote from Emile Zola of comfort: ‘From the moment I start a new novel, life’s just one endless torture…..’ If one of the world’s most talented, famous and erudite writers find the process hard, is it any wonder that I do?


Thanks very much, Pamela, for this insight into the creating of The Huntingfield Paintress. You can get a copy on the Urbane website, in bookshops and on Amazon.

Year of Indie Debuts: The Single Feather

Delighted to have author, Ruth Hunt, as the first guest in the Year of Indie Debuts blog series, which is celebrating the fantastic work coming from small presses. Her novel, The Single Feather, was published this year by Pilrig Press and tells the story of Rachel – a young woman who is a paraplegic and is trying to get her life back on track after moving to a new town.

Ruth, can you tell me about your novel and what inspired you to write this story?

The Single Feather is about a woman called Rachel, who’s a seriously disabled amateur artist. With the help of a family member she’s escaped from an abusive, traumatic period with the ‘Guards’. To add to her problems, she’s feeling increasingly isolated. All she wants is to feel accepted in her new town, Carthom, so decides to ‘reinvent’ herself hiding large chunks of her past. When she joins an art group, she’s not aware of the fragility of some of her fellow group members or the secrets they are keeping. As arguments start up – the tension rises and the group splits into factions. With the ever-present possibility of being returned to her former life, Rachel along with some of the art club members realise to move forward means confronting the past, but with all what’s happened are any of them in the mood to forgive?

Even though I have spinal cord injuries I’d made a conscious decision over the years to avoid writing about disability issues but I couldn’t help but notice how few novels for adults had a seriously physically disabled protagonist. Then in 2010 onwards there was a significant shift in people’s attitudes to those with disabilities, mainly caused by a combination of the government and right-wing press demonising those with disabilities, which has now filtered down to members of the public. This led to an increase in hate crime, as well as suicides and much more. So, I thought if I was going to write a book with a character with disabilities this was the perfect time to do it.

How long did it take you to write it and what did you learn in the process about writing novels and yourself?

In all it took me two years to write, plus an additional period of time rewriting and getting it ready for publication. I learnt so much about writing, and this was helped by my decision to pay for a developmental editor to work with me, while I was writing it. When she returned chapters, it was like a mini creative writing class on each page. I also used beta readers who all gave me valuable and detailed advice.

In terms of myself, I learnt how a sustained period of creative work could be beneficial in terms of my disability, providing routine and distraction. Furthermore, without moving from in front of my laptop, I felt a deep sense of freedom, something I’d not experienced for a long time.

Have you always written stories and if not, when did you start?

When I was a little girl, I wrote a story with characters called The Doo’s, all shaped like a capital ‘D’. As far as I can remember the story was rather uneventful with the family of Doo’s travelling on a train. I illustrated it, and my mum and dad cut it up and stapled together to make it look like a book and sent it off to the publishers – Hamlyn. When the reply came, I was so excited at simply having an envelope addressed to me. It didn’t bother me this was my first rejection letter. I carried on writing, all the way through school and had my first article published in a newspaper when I was 17.

Then, in a matter of minutes, my life changed forever when I was involved in a major accident. Writing was pushed to the back of my mind in an attempt to simply survive. However, when I had to resign from my job, when I was thirty, due to my disabilities deteriorating, I had long periods of time on my own at home. It was a distressing time, and I turned to writing, initially as a form of support, which turned into more constructive, and publishable writing by the end of that decade.

You chose to publish your debut novel with publisher, Pilrig Press, can you tell me how you reached this decision and what it was like to work with a small press?

I knew as a debut novelist getting published by one of the big five publishers was going to be a uphill task and could take years. So, I decided to include independent smaller presses, when I was submitting. Pilrig Press asked to read the full manuscript and after I made a few changes they suggested, gave me the final yes while I was on holiday. I did this all without an agent.

Working with a small press, you feel part of a team. You get a lot more control over aspects such as the cover, but you don’t have a huge marketing campaign so you need to be prepared to do some of this yourself. I think it’s a less pressured environment, and a perfect way to ease a new author into the publishing world.

What is the best book you’re read this year so far and why?

You can’t limit me to just one! There are three books that have really stood out for me this year: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; All Involved by Ryan Gattis; and The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan All three gave me unforgettable characters who remained with me long after I finished the last page.

What are you working on now?

I’m revising for an exam as part of my degree with the Open University and finishing off some other outstanding work. Then in September, I begin book two. I have journals stuffed with notes, character profiles and chapter plans, all for an idea I’m really excited about.


Many thanks to Ruth for her insights into her inspiration and writing life. I’d like to read the Doos! If you’d like to read The Single Feather, then you can buy it here. And you can connect with Ruth through her website and on Twitter.

Next up in the Year of Indie Debuts series is SE Craythorne, talking about her novel, How You See Me, which is out from Myriad Editions on August 19th. And the author of one of Ruth’s best books this year, Anthony Trevelyan, is here in September talking about The Weightless World.