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Virtual Book Club: Helen Matthews introduces After Leaving the Village

This week I’m delighted to welcome Helen Matthews to Virtual Book Club, my interview series that gives authors the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club. 

Helen is the author of suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, winner of the prize for opening pages of a novel at Winchester Writers’ Festival. Her second novel Lies Behind the Ruin will be published in April 2019 by Hashtag Press.

Born in Cardiff, she read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management but fled corporate life to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. Helen has won prizes for short stories and flash fiction and has been published in literary journal Artificium. As a freelancer, she writes content for websites and business magazines and has, in the past, been published in The Guardian and had columns broadcast on BBC Radio.

She is an ambassador for Unseen, a charity that campaigns to end human trafficking and slavery.

Q: Helen, what is it about your novel that you feel makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?

I’m glad you asked me this. I’m a member of two book clubs and the lively discussion in those groups stimulates me as a writer. Over the years I’ve tried to analyse what books work best for book clubs and concluded that diverse and controversial themes promote the most interesting debate. Often these are ‘Marmite’ books that some people love and a small handful of people  hate.

My novel After Leaving the Village has been popular with book clubs because it explores important contemporary themes including human trafficking, modern slavery, exclusion, and the corrosive impact addiction to the internet and online gaming can have on family life. Since my book was published, I’ve been invited as a guest to several book clubs and discovered that members are ready to engage with these subjects and join in debate. My novel explores some dark areas, though it is not gratuitous, and I’ve worked hard to be sensitive to my characters’ stories. I’m thrilled that most reviewers and book clubs have found the novel a gripping page-turner. One or two people in a book group may have found the subject matter upsetting but all of them have told me they finished the book – but they read it during the day and not as their bedtime reading.

Q: Before we delve further in to the novel, can we go back a little. Tell us how you came to be a writer.

There’s a quote from Neil Gaiman, in response to someone who asked him: ‘I want to be an author when I grow up, am I insane?’ To which, Gaiman is reported to have replied ‘Growing up is highly over-rated. Just be an author.’

I see myself as having finally achieved my author dream after serving a ridiculously long apprenticeship. Many authors say they’ve been writing from the moment they first picked up a pen and I’m one of them. During my childhood, I had some small publication and competition successes but then went on to study English at university and was overwhelmed by reading the works of so many great literary masters. After starting my career, I carried on writing, late at night with a glass of wine by my side, mainly short stories that were judged too dark by the magazine editors I submitted them to.

After my children were born, I carried on working full time in a career that used the analytical side of my brain and noticed my writing was deteriorating due to the turgid quasi-legal and financial prose I had to write in business reports. The creative spark left me and I found it hard to write fiction, so I began dabbling in freelance journalism and had some success with articles published in family and lifestyle magazines. I even had some pieces published in the Guardian and broadcast on BBC Radio.

During this time,  I wrote a couple of deeply flawed novels and left them in a drawer. Finally, when my children were older, I decided I’d never be happy if I continued on the treadmill of my well-paid career so I fled corporate life, putting my whole family at risk, and went back to university to do an MA in Creative Writing. You absolutely don’t have to do an MA, or any qualification, to become a novelist but I did it because I needed to erase all those years of writing business-speak and try to rediscover my creativity. I wrote another novel for my dissertation, it can’t have been too terrible because I did get my MA, but I knew it was not good enough so it went in the drawer with the others.

I began researching After Leaving the Village and the opening pages won first prize at Winchester Writers’ Festival. As part of my prize, I had a meeting with an editor at a top publisher, who liked my novel and asked me to resubmit, once I’d found a literary agent (these days most of the big publishers don’t take submissions direct from authors). So I spent another couple of years querying literary agents. Five agents requested my full manuscript and many gave positive, personalised feedback but didn’t make an offer. In the end I tried small publishers and signed a deal with Hashtag Press.

It’s been a long journey to become an author and, I’m sure Neil Gaiman would be pleased to hear  I still haven’t grown up.

Helen is pictured at Barton’s Bookshop, where she spent a day with Peter Snell learning what it takes to be a bookseller.

Read about her experience here!

Q: You’ve mentioned rejections which are part and parcel of any writing journey. Have you had any that have inspired or motivated you?

The MA programme I attended at Oxford Brookes was definitely an exercise in tough love. In critique workshops we were publicly grilled and our work was shredded but this process was necessary, not only to improve our writing, but also to toughen us up to face the inevitable rejection and criticism that comes with being a writer. As soon as you put your work out in the public arena, you discover it’s a harsh world, especially on social media. If you scroll through the online reviews of many top authors, you’ll find one star reviews for books that have been loved by millions. It’s perfectly fine for a reader not to like a book and constructive criticism is useful, but there’s a lot of vitriol in the world today. I’ve been lucky that the reviews of my novel have been overwhelmingly positive but I know that could change.

The upside of social media is that it’s a great place to discover supportive communities of book lovers, and other writers, both online and in the real world, who motivate us to stay positive in the face of rejection.

Q: Absolutely! Where is After Leaving the Village set and how did you decide on its setting?

The opening chapters are set in a fictional village in Albania, where my seventeen-year-old protagonist, Odeta is working in her father’s grocery shop. Her life is not especially grim, but it’s dull. She thinks nothing exciting will ever happen to her again. And then an enigmatic stranger from Tirana walks into the shop and her life changes but not in the way she expected.

Why Albania? When I started researching the novel, I hadn’t been there myself and knew almost no one who had visited, but I discovered that Albania was the number one country of origin for victims of human trafficking into the United Kingdom and I set out to understand why. I was already interested in the issue of modern slavery and was making a monthly donation to the charity, Unseen, to sponsor a room in a safe house for a survivor. While I was doing my research, Unseen answered my questions and, when the book was finished, their inspirational managing director, Kate Garbers fact-checked it and offered to write a foreword. I’ve recently been invited to become an ambassador for the charity and this works brilliantly alongside talks and book signings as I can raise both awareness and funds.

Returning to Albania…

I created Odeta’s village and surroundings in my imagination, drawing on resources such as, guidebooks, travellers’ tales, YouTube and Google Earth maps to orientate myself and explore the landscape. I realised I would need to visit the country to carry out some fact-checking and I decided to go with my son, who’s in his twenties. This worked perfectly because, being two different generations, we were able to talk to a wide range of people. We met many fascinating people who told us their stories and even spent an afternoon with a family who owned a shop in a rural village (we had an interpreter to help us chat to them). Albanians suffered greatly in the latter half of the twentieth century under their communist leader Enver Hoxher. People weren’t allowed to travel abroad and religion was banned. Shortly after that regime ended, the country suffered economic chaos and the impact of the Balkan war, raging just across the border in Kosovo, increased the turmoil so it’s not entirely surprising that some criminal elements emerged and thrived in that chaos.

For anyone who enjoys visiting less-discovered places, Albania is a fantastic choice. There are great beaches, mountains and scenery, Graeco-Roman antiquities, world class museums, heritage from the Ottoman empire and tens of thousands of quirky little bunkers dotted across the countryside as testament to the realities of life under Hoxha’s regime. The people are friendly, the food is good and it’s very affordable.

Two women. Two villages. Different destinies.

What readers have said: 

“An absorbing book, well written, believable and bringing into focus two different types of slavery – exploitation of human beings and our dependency on modern technology.” 

“Recommended reading for getting up close and personal to a problem we might prefer to ignore.”

“I was utterly hooked, the book was enthralling.” 

Click here to look inside or buy

Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?

My working title for the novel was Disconnected  as the book explores various types of exclusion. It was inspired by the story of my character, Kate, a London journalist but originally from a village in Wales, who takes dramatic action to disconnect her family from the influence of the internet.

A literary agent I met at a writing conference told me Disconnected was a more suitable title for a ‘young adult’ (YA) novel. She went on to suggest I revise the novel to make it suitable for a YA readership. I didn’t. But I did take her advice on changing the title and came up with After Leaving the Village.

Q: You’ve already mentioned several of the issues and themes the book explores. Are you looking to entertain or illuminate?

I think both are important. I’m delighted that readers have found my book gripping, but I’m even happier when reviewers say the book has opened their eyes to the scourge of modern slavery and recognise it could be going on in their town, or even on their own street. It makes all the research worthwhile.

As a reader, I like to be unsettled and I’ll often choose a book that will immerse me in an unfamiliar world. This could be a new culture, as in, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun; or a different period of recent history, as in My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels.

Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but, a few chapters in, there’s an airport scene when Odeta arrives in London with Kreshnik, the man she thought was her boyfriend and events  take a terrifying turn. The tension in this scene was almost unbearable to write and readers seem to find it shocking. Up to that point in the story, most readers, who will have greater life experience than Odeta, might criticise her for being too naïve. But they would be missing the point. In Odeta’s story, as in the shocking real life experience of many women, men and children who fall victim to traffickers, the victim doesn’t know she’s been duped because the trap has not yet been sprung.

Q: Was the decision of how to structure the novel obvious?

My original structure was to have alternate chapters in the voice of the two main female protagonists, Odeta and Kate, from the beginning. At an editorial meeting with a publisher, I was advised that Odeta’s chapters and the Albanian setting were more engaging for the beginning of the book so I restructured and opened the novel with several successive chapters in Odeta’s voice. I introduced the alternating chapters of Kate’s story after Odeta arrives in London and tried to keep the timelines consistent until their paths eventually cross. I hope this parallel story gives a new perspective and some interest and relief from the darker chapters.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?

The best answer I heard to this question was at Charleston Literary Festival in May 2018. I was attending an author panel and the speakers were Kamila Shamsie and Gillian Slovo. When asked this question, Gillian replied ‘If I knew that, I’d go there more often’.

The truth is that ideas are all around us, we just have to listen when they come knocking. If I don’t have a notebook with me, I jot them down in my phone.

Q: Do you think that self-revelation is part of the writing process?

Not consciously and I hope I avoided this in After Leaving the Village because I was on a voyage of discovery and embedded with the characters. I wanted the reader to walk in Odeta’s shoes as she discovers a cruel and hidden underworld.

But in my next novel Lies Behind the Ruin, which will be published in April 2019, some of my own experience has unwittingly seeped into the story and I didn’t realise it until I was working on my editor’s report. There’s a plot element about a  husband who runs up massive debts and hides the true scale of his financial meltdown from his wife. This is something I went through during a short first marriage, many years ago so perhaps my subconscious is still grappling with those issues and trying to make sense of them after all this time!

Q: How do you create and construct distinctly individual supporting characters?

In After Leaving the Village I have some seriously bad characters, who seem to have lost their humanity. While they are twisted and evil, I’ve tried not to show them as stereotypical villains by giving small clues to their back story and hinting at why they’ve become this way. Not everyone will agree with me, but I don’t believe anyone is born bad. People are shaped by their surroundings, experience and life circumstances. In After Leaving the Village, the darkest character is a man called Kostandin and it’s clear that he hates women. Later in the story, I develop a connection that might explain, though never excuse, why this might be.

Q: Are there any books on writing that you find particularly useful and would recommend? 

Stephen King’s On Writing is a great read and I still dip into it from time to time. 

 Another book I recommend is John Yorke’s Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them.

Q: Finally, what’s your favourite closing line of a novel?

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Want to know more about Helen and her writing?

On Helen’s writer website you’ll find some blogs about writing and also some travel blogs, including several about Albania if you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating country. 

You can also find her on  Facebook, Twitter or you may like to visit her Author Page on Amazon.  

Helen is happy to consider invitations from book clubs situated in Hampshire, Berkshire or Surrey. If she can’t be there in person, she’ll try to attend via Skype. She is also available for talks for libraries, member organisations (such as WI and NWR), and literary festivals. 

If there’s anything else you’d like to ask Helen, just leave a comment.  

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for hosting me on your excellent blog, Jane. I really enjoyed answering your questions.

    Comment by Helen Matthews on December 12, 2018 at 5:12 pm
  2. Sounds fantastic. Brilliant book club choice. Adding to my list

    Comment by Lexi on December 22, 2018 at 11:36 am




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