Seventeen-year-old Lin Fox finds a body in an orchard. As she backs away in horror, she steps on broken glass.
Then blood appears on her doorstep — blood, and broken glass.
Something terrible is found in the cemetery. Shards of glass lie by a grave.
As the attacks become more sinister, Lin doesn't know whom to trust. She's getting closer to the truth behind these chilling discoveries, but with each move the danger deepens. Someone wants Lin gone — and won't give up until he's got rid of her and her family. Forever.
Helen Grant’s Young Adult novel, The Glass Demon, is one of the most gripping and chilling crime thrillers I’ve read. I absolutely loved it, even though my knuckles whitened as I read the book!
Hooking the reader in from the start, this effortlessly written story holds you with spine-tingling fascination and horror, keeping you gripped to the very unexpected end. The Glass Demon is not a novel for the fainthearted but with its elements of romance, family dysfunction, intrigue and terror it makes a thrilling read - and I believe it appeals to adults as much as it’s intended YA audience.
I’m delighted that Helen Grant has agreed to be interviewed on Absolute Vanilla.
Helen, what was your original inspiration for this story and where did you first hear about the legend of the Allerheiligen stained glass (the source of all the trouble in the book) and what was it about the story that particularly appealed to you?
The Glass Demon was inspired by the real-life story of the Steinfeld Abbey stained glass. When I was a child, my father used to re-tell the ghost stories of English writer M.R.James for us, to amuse us on long journeys. One of the stories, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, was partly set in the German abbey of Steinfeld. When we moved to Germany in 2001 I was amazed to find myself living 10km away from Steinfeld, so naturally I had to investigate! The Steinfeld glass, like the Allerheiligen glass in the book, was made in the 1500s. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the abbey was closed down, the glass was removed from the cloister windows and sold. For a century no-one at Steinfeld knew where it was, or even if it still existed. Then in 1904 the writer M.R.James, who was a renowned medievalist, was asked by Lord Brownlow to make an inventory of the stained glass in the chapel of Ashridge House. James realized that the glass came from Steinfeld. He was so inspired by its rarity and beauty that he wrote a ghost story about it. The story was mentioned in the German press and a Roman Catholic priest called Father Nikola Reinartz, who was passionate about local history, went to Ashridge House to see the glass. He wrote several articles about it, which I have read. Several aspects of this story interested me. Firstly, I was amazed that it was possible to remove a set of stained glass windows from their frames, transport them abroad and put them into a new setting without smashing them all to smithereens. Secondly, if there were any more glass like the Steinfeld glass, still waiting to be discovered, it would be almost priceless. The Steinfeld glass was auctioned in the 1920s for the equivalent of over eight hundred thousand pounds in modern money!
The legend of the Allerheiligen glass is an invention by me, but it was based on the story of the Steinfeld glass and the question “what if there was another set of stained glass windows, as old, rare and gorgeous as the Steinfeld glass, still waiting to be found?” This question was the starting-point for The Glass Demon.
The story is set in the Eifel region of German where you once lived and you have said in another interview that you find the Eifel region very inspiring. What is it about the place that particularly appeals, and to what extent did you need to research the region and its legends?
Well, a German acquaintance once said to us, “You can’t live in Bad Münstereifel – it’s in the middle of nowhere!” – but the being in the middle of nowhere was a big part of the attraction for me. The town, like many other Eifel towns, has old half-timbered houses, ruined castles and ancient churches. You have the feeling that the twentieth century with all its horrors passed the place by – you feel as though you are back in the Germany of the Brothers Grimm. It’s also an area with a rich history and bursting with old folk tales and legends. In a big city, these tales get lost; in a remote village they seem to stay alive.
I suppose I must have done a lot of research but it never felt as though I was “working”. I was simply following my own interests and the inspiration for the book sprang from those. The hardest thing perhaps was reading Father Reinartz’s articles about the Steinfeld glass. Like the legends of Bad Münstereifel, which I researched for my previous book, they were published in the Eifel Club newsletter in the early twentieth century – which means that they were printed in a terrible Gothic type that is really hard to read, and the language was quite old-fashioned. Obviously the articles were entirely in German too, so it was a bit of a labour of love.
How important do you think old myths and legends are in modern storytelling, do you think they even have a place?
Absolutely. Look at the success of the Percy Jackson books, which were inspired by Greek mythology! Personally, I like to use genuine old legends and folk tales because I think they give authenticity. I like to think that a reader might Google the Steinfeld glass or Bonschariant the demon and discover that they are “real” and think, Wow, how spooky!
The Glass Demon is a particularly sinister novel which keeps the reader guessing as to what your protagonist, Lin, is really dealing with. This prompts me to ask what kind of writer you are. Did you plot this novel and know where it was going, or did the story unfold as an adventure for you as much as it did for Lin?
I plotted The Glass Demon very carefully. I’m not a writer who plans every single individual paragraph before I start writing, but at the same time I always have the “skeleton” of the story – the main characters, the main events, who did the crimes. I like to construct fairly complex plots and you can’t hide clues to the mystery if you don’t know where the story is ultimately going! Having said that, there is always room for aspects of a book to develop as the story goes along. I never envisioned Tuesday being quite as appalling as she eventually turns out to be, and Lin’s reconciliation with her father was something that developed on its own – it felt natural, and a good resolution to their relationship.
The Glass Demon is a crime thriller and I’m not familiar with many YA novels in this genre. What drew you to writing this kind of story?
I have to put my hands up here and say that when I started writing I did not set out to write YA, nor did I set out to write crime novels! I wrote the stories I wanted to tell. My aim was not so much to write about crime as to write about interesting people in dramatic situations that happen to have crimes in them. I wasn’t targeting younger readers either. That was more of a marketing decision since my brilliant UK publisher, Penguin, saw the appeal of my books to teens and young adults. I like writing about young heroines (I have a sneaking suspicion that I haven’t quite grown up myself which is why I like doing this) and I am not given to writing very brutal scenes of hand-to-hand combat; there tend to be lots of nasty discoveries instead. This is maybe more suited to YA than the adult market.
How would you feel about younger teens reading The Glass Demon given its sinister overtones and the menacing evil which flows through the story?
I think it vastly depends on the individual. When I was ten I was eagerly reading adult adventure stories and I was a huge fan of the short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which are about animated Egyptian mummies, monsters, mutilation, etc. I enjoyed the thrill of reading something scary and I don’t think that had any adverse effect on me. However, I can see that this type of story might not be for everyone!
I was interested to hear my own (pre-teen) daughter saying recently that she likes older books (such as Alan Garner’s) since the children in those are allowed to do really adventurous things that kids in modern books would not be allowed to do. I think for younger readers, as well as many adults, reading adventurous or even frightening books is a way of confronting their very real worries and fears about life.
In the novel you don’t shy away from difficult family situations and big issues. Aside from creating emotional depth in the story, do you feel it’s important for writers to address issues, in this instance, such as anorexia, marital difficulties and disconnected parenting, when writing for young adults?
I suppose it is, but for me it just wouldn’t work if I thought “This is an important topic; I ought to include it somehow.” I always start with the story I want to tell, and if issues such as anorexia or poor parenting come into it, it is because they feel right for the story. The Glass Demon is a book about demons of many types, not just scary ones lurking in stained glass windows. Oliver Fox’s demon is Ambition, and Polly’s is her anorexia.
You don’t pull any punches in the telling of The Glass Demon and some very bad things happen to good people. What is your view on the balance of good and evil in storytelling?
One of the things that any thinking person struggles with is the fact that life isn’t fair; bad things do happen to good people. I reflect that in my books. At the same time, I do try to find some resolution for the characters at the end of the story. A totally bleak miserable ending would be too nihilistic for me. There is no happy ending for Polly, but Lin has to find some way of making her peace with her parents. In The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, my first novel, the book ends with the heroine Pia feeling very sad about the future, but she also discovers that she has an ally who will support her.
Lin, especially given the circumstances, doesn’t find it easy fitting into her new life in Germany – does this to any extent reflect your own experiences as an expat? And to what extent do you find you draw on your life per se in telling your stories?
I loved my time in Germany (we lived in Bad Münstereifel for seven years) so Lin’s difficulties do not reflect my own experiences. However, having been immersed in life in small-town Germany for so long, I can see that it might be difficult for someone who was ambiguous about being there. In a large city like Cologne you would probably find a lot more people prepared to speak English with you; in a small town or village people are shyer about doing this. You really need German to get by. You also need to throw yourself into village life (festivals etc) if you really want to be accepted.
I do draw on my own life when writing, but Lin isn’t me, nor is Pia. Rather, I tend to use the details of daily life in Germany to set the scene.
Lin’s father is a passionate and driven academic – how goal-directed would you say you are when going after and researching a new story? (I ask this knowing that Helen recently spent time in the sewers of Brussels…)
I am extremely goal-directed! I’m much bolder about pursuing a new storyline than I would be about investigating something simply for the sake of it. For example, for my third book Wish me dead, to be published in the UK in June 2011, I chose the setting of a bakery. I approached two bakers, one in Kommern and one in Bad Münstereifel, and asked them to let me see “behind the scenes” as research. I feel less embarrassed about asking for a favour if it’s for a book!!! I have also poked around in old castles and derelict buildings and recently I went up the bell-tower of a local church because I wanted to write a scene set in a bell-tower and the details had to be right. I’ve also been into the Brussels sewers and am planning a trip to Paris to see the catacombs.
Do you have any favourite authors who have had a particular influence on your own writing? If so, who, and in what way?
M.R.James, the English ghost-story writer, has had a very definite practical influence on my work. That is not to say that I try to write like he does (although I did win a competition to write an ending for his unfinished story The Game of Bear!). It was my interest in Steinfeld Abbey, sparked by his ghost story about it, that led me to research the Steinfeld glass and ultimately to write The Glass Demon.
I don’t consciously try to write like anyone else but I am sure my youthful passion for Edwardian adventure stories has had an impact on my choice of topics for my books – I’m never going to write a kitchen sink drama or chick lit, for example; I like adventures and thrills.
In becoming a successful writer, what would you say are the most important lessons you have learned a) about writing and b) about getting and staying published.
About writing: be disciplined. When you write your first book, unless you are already a celebrity who has been offered a book deal by a publisher, you are basically writing it in hopes someone will buy it. There is no guarantee that anyone will publish it, nor is there any deadline for finishing the manuscript. So unless you are very disciplined it is too easy to put the book to the bottom of the to-do list and never actually complete it. I have a writing regime that involves writing a set number of words per day, and if I have got far enough ahead by Thursday I can take Friday off!
About getting published, and staying published: be professional, and be lovely to work with. I read a brilliantly good book about this, called The Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Rachael Stock. One of the points she makes is that being great to work with means that people are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. Conversely, you hear of people actually losing a book deal because they are so difficult to work with. For me, being good to work with means:
Giving people what they want. If an agent only deals with crime don’t send them a romance. If they ask for 3 chapters and a synopsis don’t send them one chapter and no synopsis. Make sure submissions are in the right format (there is lots of useful info about this in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook).
Not being a prima donna. If someone tells you they love your book but they want you to change some aspect of it, don’t throw all your toys out of the pram. You can still say no to their suggestions (although you might have to look for another publisher) but you won’t help yourself by getting upset or angry.
Your previous career was in marketing – to what extent do you think this has helped you create a brand and image for yourself – do you, in fact, even see yourself and your work in marketing terms?
I think the biggest thing I learnt from my career in marketing was to stay calm when someone is apparently asking for the impossible, or is criticizing. I used to have one boss who used to ask me to produce a report or presentation, and when I went into her office to show it to her she would have her red pen out ready to write all over it before she had even read the title page. She just assumed that whatever I had produced would not be good enough. She was my line manager, so I couldn’t throw a major tantrum. Since I became an author, I have had lots of feedback from agents, editors, copyeditors and reviewers, much of it positive but some of it negative. None of it has been as difficult to take as seeing that red pen coming out!
I suppose to a certain extent I see myself and my work in marketing terms; I am interested in types of promotion, sales volumes, target audiences etc because I spent ten years dealing with those things. However, I do still try to be myself and to write what I want to write rather than thinking about the target audience all the time. If I self-consciously tried to write “teen fiction” it would probably come out as a sort of literary High School Musical!!!!
I know you currently have new projects in the pipeline – can you tell us what readers can next expect from Helen Grant?
Well, we left Germany in 2008, so once my third book Wish Me Dead was finished, I felt that I had said everything I wanted to say about life in Germany, at least for the time being. Since 2008 we have been living in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) so I intend to set my next book there. I have the outline of the plot but I am still researching the setting, which is why I have been visiting the sewers and other unusual locations! Don’t expect any major genre changes…I meant it when I said I’m never doing chick lit!
Many thanks to Helen for this interview!
View the trailer for The Glass Demon
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Helen Grant's books can be found on Amazon (UK and US) and elsewhere.
All images provided courtesy of Helen Grant