Every week we feature a Q&A session with one of our Crime Cymru authors. This week, Thorne Moore offers a fascinating insight into how not just location, but homes and buildings impact on character and story.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Luton, but I’ve lived in Pembrokeshire for the past thirty-eight years. My mother’s family came from these parts, though well before her time – she was born in Cardiff, but her grandmother was born in Spittal, so I could claim to be coming home. I studied history at Aberystwyth and later law through the Open University and worked in a library until I decided I wasn’t fit to be an employee. I left to become self-employed, making miniature furniture and running a restaurant with my sister. I am now on the brink of giving up everything except writing, which is all I ever really wanted to do. I’ve had five books published so far, (domestic noir and/or historical) with a sixth about to burst on the world any moment now.
Can you tell us about your latest book?
The Covenant is my latest, and it will be published by Honno Press on August 20th. It is the story of Leah Owen and begins in 1883 when she is nine. Her family rents a small (very small) farm in Pembrokeshire and it’s a case of poor but happy until a tragedy fatally injures the family and twists the mind of the God-fearing father Thomas Owen (Tada). Leah’s dreams, one after the other, are crushed by his conviction that their land, assigned to them by God, must be preserved at all cost, to pass on to his grandson John, whom Leah is left to raise. But obsession and possession warp them all and lead to the worst of crimes. Leah finally realises she alone has the means to resolve an impossible situation.
Do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how/where?
Location is always important to me. Areas create the ambience that makes some sense of the characters. I have used West Wales where I live now, and a fictional version of Luton where I grew up. The feel of my books varies according to which setting I’m using. North Pembrokeshire, being totally rural and almost cut off from the rest of the world, creates its own slightly claustrophobic atmosphere with everyone knowing everyone else, whereas Luton provides the opposite sense of being lost in an anonymous urban crowd.
But besides the importance of general locations, I do fixate on houses. I see them absorbing something of the people who have lived there – maybe their dreams or nightmares, but at the very least their choice of wallpaper. But unlike their occupants, they don’t die or move, they stay put, adding another layer with the next people who take up residence there. Once I’ve created a house in my stories (the cottage of Cwmderwen in A Time For Silence and The Covenant, or the mansion of Llysygarn in Shadows and Long Shadows), it becomes a major character in its own right.
How does the location of the story impact on your characters?
Usually a lot. In fact it’s often their driving force. In Shadows it’s Kate’s reaction to the house she comes to live in that distracts her from taking sufficient note of what’s happening with the people around her. In Long Shadows the characters are driven either by their determination to stay or their longing to leave. In The Unravelling, Karen is motivated by the image of a forgotten girl but it’s when she connects the girl with specific places that her memories come back. In A Time For Silence, which has two time lines, the present day story is triggered by the discovery of a derelict cottage and the past story focuses on a woman trapped there. In The Covenant, the same cottage and its few acres are at the heart of the whole story, with its grip on the family that lives there. Is it Heaven or Hell?
Do you think of the twists first then the story, or does this change every time?
Normally I think it all begins as a theme, a question that intrigues me and makes me want to explore it. With Motherlove, for example, I heard a story on the news about a young woman taking her ‘parents’ to court when she discovered they weren’t really her parents. I immediately wanted to explore how different people would react to that discovery. Is that a twist? Then I have to work out a possible story that would enable me to do the exploring. Specific twists and turns are just a part of that. I have a basic storyline in my head, with a vague but meaningful ending, I add in a random mix of two-dimensional cartoon characters, and I start writing. By about chapter 3, the characters had grown at least one more dimension and I understand who they are. By chapter 6, they’ve usually become autonomous. I just sit back and let them write it. They know what to do and what to say, so why should I interfere? Sometimes they really take me by surprise, but they’re in charge of the twists.
In The Covenant, what is the biggest challenge your character faces?
Leah Owen faces nothing but challenges, but ultimately, they boil down to survival, which is a major struggle. Not physical survival so much as survival of her Self, her soul if you like, in a situation dominated by notions of duty and propriety where self is expected to be negated and choices are predetermined. Leah has the intelligence, the determination, the strength to achieve anything she wants if only she weren’t bound by notions of duty and loyalty to family and land. It’s a question of what extreme lengths she would finally go to, in order to break the bonds.
What are her happiest memories?
Since there’s not a vast amount of happiness in the course of the book, I hope I have managed to convey that there was a time before disaster when the family home was a place of love and joy, even if bound by piety. I think her happiest memory would be of riding on her father’s shoulders, seeing their little world spread before her, knowing it was hers and all was well. Which it wasn’t. If at the end she were to remember all that had happened in the course of the book, her happiest memory would probably be of tea and cakes in a café in Haverfordwest in the middle of World War I.
How important is justice to your character?
Leah Owen would probably see that as a matter left to God, if only she believed in God. She doesn’t personally seek or expect justice in this world. For her though, justice would be a matter of punishment for wrong-doing, a concept like duty, righteousness or obedience, imposed by the Bible or her father, and demanding from her rather than giving anything back. That is one respect in which Leah is unlike me. I do regard justice as important and it’s a theme through my books, but not in the sense of making someone pay for a crime. Justice should be about putting something right or, if that’s no longer possible, making sure the truth is known. Which is something Leah might not agree with at all.
Is your character an honest person?
No, Leah Owen isn’t honest, but she would probably think that she was. She lives in a society where children would be beaten for telling a lie but where adults live lies all the time. It’s a society where everything must be proper, where there are some things that must never be said, some words that must be spoken, however false, and some feelings that must be denied at all costs, even to one’s self. Difficult to be honest in that sort of world.
What prompted your latest novel/story?
My first novel, A Time For Silence, dwelt on the life, death and mystery of John Owen, who was murdered at Cwmderwen in 1948. Many things are explained in the book, but not necessarily who exactly John Owen was, or rather, why he was as he was. I’d planted hints about the family that produced him, in inscriptions on tombstones, including mention of an aunt, Leah, who died in 1919. Although I had no desire to write a sequel to A Time For Silence, I couldn’t help looking back into the family history, and I started off writing a short story about Leah. But it kept nagging me. It was terse, as short stories are, and it kept begging for more depth and colour to be added, so it grew into a full-length novel in its own right. It explains John Owen, I hope, but it is primarily the story of Leah.
If you’ve spent time researching for your book, how difficult is it to not overload the reader?
It’s always tempting, if you discover something interesting, to want to pass it on. But preferably remember Eliza Bennet’s comments in Pride and Prejudice: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.” A novel isn’t a text book and a story isn’t a coat hanger on which to dangle random facts. The research is really there to make sure I get nothing wrong in the tale I want to tell. Unless there’s a real reason for mentioning something, it should be left swimming quietly beneath the surface. When I was researching local prisoner of war camps for A Time For Silence, I found some fascinating reports that just itched to be included, and they would probably make a great book in their own right, but I knew they would have been a distraction from my story so I firmly put them to one side. On the other hand, in The Covenant, some research had to make its way in, such as, for example, the rental value of land, because it was essential to the story.
What’s next? A series or something entirely different? Continuing to build the portfolio?
I have another book ready to go, set, would you believe, in a cottage in Pembrokeshire. Contemporary rather than historical but still a psychological mystery. And I have two other books underway, one of which delves into the past (my usual theme) to understand a mystery in the present, and the other was going to be a more conventional mystery, but it’s veering off, predictably into a psychological exploration. But then I’m also sitting on some science fiction…
Will there be a sequel?
There already is a sequel to The Covenant: my first book, A Time for Silence. I just wrote them in reverse order. But that’s it now with that series. Everything is covered. I write domestic noir rather than traditional detective novels. All my books have detectives of sorts, but they are amateurs, investigating one particular mystery, so it isn’t as if I could keep following one character on different investigations.
Read more about Thorne Moore
To discover Thorne’s books, follow the link here to her Amazon page.