Q&A: Nuala Ellwood

York-based author Nuala Ellwood on her debut novel, ‘My Sister’s Bones’

Have you always been a writer?

I’ve been writing novels and short stories since I was a teenager. My parents introduced me to literature 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. But writing novels is what I love and so a few years ago I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing at York St John. It was an amazing experience and it helped to hone my writing in so many ways. Soon after graduating I signed with a London literary agent and she secured me a two-book deal with Penguin, which was a dream come true.

What is the story behind your upcoming novel, My Sister’s Bones?

My Sister’s Bones tells the story of Kate Rafter, a troubled war reporter who has just been through a harrowing ordeal in Syria. When her mother dies Kate returns to her childhood home, a place her estranged sister has never left, and becomes convinced there is a crime being committed in the house next door. As Kate struggles with the horrors of her past we are led to question the validity of her claims and ask if what we are seeing is but a strange trick of the eye.

How did you research the novel? Were there particular war reporter whose work stood out to you in your research?

Even before I set out to research the novel I had been inspired by female war reporters, women such as Marie Colvin, Martha Gelhorn and Janine di Giovanni. I have always been fascinated with the way female war reporters have made themselves heard in such a male-dominated profession and how, particularly in the case of the three I’ve mentioned, they always seemed to find the human story in the midst of war and horror. 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.

In terms of the research I was grateful to have received Arts Council England funding to research the novel, particularly the link between war reporting and PTSD. 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

What were your highlights of the writing process?

As a writer I am particularly inspired by landscape so it was wonderful to be able to go to Herne Bay, where the novel is set, for a research trip and really immerse myself in the place. It’s a beautiful but rather neglected town with a really interesting history. During the Napoleonic wars it was a smuggling route and, legend has it, there are tunnels deep underground that the smugglers used to transport their contraband. Further along the coastline is a little strip of beach that was used by Barnes Wallis to test the bouncing bombs that would go on to destroy the German dams and featured in the film Dam Busters. The landscape is stunning and is dominated by a set of crumbling towers, known as ‘The Sisters’, that were once part of a Roman fort. Local folklore says that the towers hide a dark secret – that the Romans buried children alive in the foundations of the fort as human sacrifices and that their cries can be heard on dark and stormy nights. For a thriller writer it was a gift.

But the highlight for me was the mornings I spent walking along the shingle beach. The light on the North Kent coast is spectacular – Turner used to paint here – there is no distinction between sea and sky and the mist lies heavy on the bay to such an extent that it makes shadows of people. As I was walking I felt certain that there was someone up ahead of me but then they disappeared and it became clear that the landscape was playing tricks on me. This gave me some excellent imagery to work with for my novel and I realised that it was the perfect place to set a story about a woman who could no longer distinguish between what was real and what was just a strange trick of the eye.

The subject matter of My Sister’s Bones particularly present today; why did you choose to set the story amongst current events?

Writing a novel about a war reporter I had to think about what events she would be covering and Syria would definitely have been one of them. I think every age has its war and the Syrian conflict is ours. I have been horrified by the suffering of the people trapped in besieged cities such as Aleppo. Also, my husband, a reportage illustrator, spent last winter in the Calais refugee camps, drawing and recording the people living there. The stories he told me on his return of the experiences and trauma these people had gone through, particularly those who had fled Syria, angered and saddened me in equal measure and I wanted to highlight them in some way. It made sense to me to write about it in My Sister’s Bones and, in doing so, explore the human and psychological cost of war.

You’re also publishing an illustrated booklet telling the story behind the novel – how did that project come about, and how has it been different from the novel-writing process?

My husband Nick Ellwood is an artist and reportage illustrator and we have worked together on various projects over the years. When I set out to write My Sister’s Bones I applied for Arts Council England funding to research and develop it. At this point I had the idea of bringing Nick on board to create a booklet that would act as a written and illustrated record of the research and creative process involved in writing a novel. It was lovely to work with Nick. We both visited Herne Bay separately and he returned with some amazing drawings of the landscape and people. However, he also created beautiful and unsettling images of some of the scenes in the novel where my protagonist is experiencing PTSD-induced nightmares. She describes one of these nightmares as a ‘blood dream’ brought about by drinking too much red wine. For this, Nick created a haunting line drawing of the pier at Herne Bay and used real red wine splashed on the paper to create a blood-like effect. For me, working alongside an artist gave me a new perspective on the story and really helped bring the characters and the setting to life.

What’s next?

I’m currently working on my next novel, a thriller with the working title of Little Shadow. It tells the story of Maggie, a writer and academic, who wakes up in hospital to find that her daughter is dead, her husband has gone missing with all their money and the family home has been sold. 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 Belgium 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?

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