Tweets and ghosts with Barbara Erskine

Best-selling novelist Barbara Erskine is a good sport. She's delayed writing her first blog to talk to the EADT, and she also divulges - exclusively - that her next novel will be set in Suffolk.

Steven Russell

Best-selling novelist Barbara Erskine is a good sport. She's delayed writing her first blog to talk to the EADT, and she also divulges - exclusively - that her next novel will be set in Suffolk. Not even her editor knows that yet. She talks to Steven Russell about triumphs, creative anxiety and ghosts

TWITTER'S a funny phenomenon. You wouldn't walk into a crowd and shout out your personal business - well, for some extroverts it would be heaven - but it's oddly addictive when done behind the shield of a keyboard and screen. Thanks to this 140-character electronic confessional, we know Barbara Erskine's old manor house near Colchester suffered during the winds of late October: “Rain through roof. Electricity off. Aga temp dropping. Back porch collapsed. Another fun night in the idyllic countryside!” We're aware that at Hallowe'en three small witches, two skeletons and four non-specific ghouls braved the dark lane to rap on her door. And we learn she's just been diagnosed allergic to coffee, tea and chocolate. “Not sure life still worth living.” We also discover that, despite her first novel selling more than two million copies, being published in nearly 30 languages and presaging nine more hits and two collections of short stories, Barbara can still feel a bit wobbly about the potential of a new-born tale. “Dithered for ages as didn't have courage to send it off to my editor - umbilical nerves!” she tweets. “Gone now. (Book, not nerves!) Need drink.”

Can that creative angst still bite an established author, then?


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“Oh yes! It is like having a baby, when you look at it and say 'Is it all right?!' When I was at school, I always used to write like this” - she mimes shielding her exercise book with a curled arm. “I never wanted anyone to see what I was writing. I still feel a little bit like that.” Once other people start getting involved, it's as if it's a child who's not quite yours any more - particularly in this electronic age when manuscripts can be emailed without ceremony.

“It's funny. Before, you used to wrap it up in a parcel. That shows my age! That was a real moment of handing it over, but now you press a button and it's gone. I think that's why you hesitate: because it's so easy to press the button. So you have another read-through . . .”

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Yes - it's really a moment that deserves a flourish of trumpets.

“I have a lovely new editor who does do 'trumpets'. He presses down the exclamation mark button! You feel he's patted you on the back, so that's nice.”

Barbara feels safe to exhale once the folk in the publishing machine have read a new manuscript and signalled that it passes muster. Her editor was reading it over the weekend and, when she returns home after the interview, she hopes her inbox contains a message with even more exclamation marks!

The author, jolly and open, is confident enough to admit very occasional misfires. She sent off a duff early version of Daughters of Fire, having reprised some characters from an earlier book who proceeded to take over the new story. It wasn't the tale she set out to write and she knew it in her heart, but really needed someone else to confirm it, since it then demanded several months' work to untangle the strands.

“It taught me a lesson: to be very cautious about bringing in too many strong characters.”

She can't talk too much about the just-finished book, due to be published next July, because of marketing purdah. The title is under discussion. It seems to be becoming the norm for publishers to choose it, rather than the author - a development she's not thrilled about.

Barbara had always chosen her own titles - until her last book. Novels, it seems, are being categorised more and more - and for commercial reasons are being carefully “positioned”.

“The Warrior's Princess, I will say publically, I hate! It was not my title. They said I couldn't have my title because the word 'ravens' was in it, and 'ravens' apparently means 'fantasy'; and that's 'bad', because I'm not technically a fantasy writer. I was very upset about that.”

Her preference was The Valley of Ravens, “which was my sort of title”.

For this new story she's put forward her preferred name and an alternative, while her editor has come up with another good option. At least there's leeway to discuss it, “whereas last time they did it at the very last minute. It really quite upset me”.

A historian by training, Barbara's stories are a mixture of fact woven with phenomena such as past-life regression, reincarnation and out-of-body experiences. Past and present invariably impinge upon each other.

Brought up believing in spirits - a grandfather told wonderful ghost stories about his time in India - she has an ongoing fascination with the supernatural: and first-hand knowledge.

The first home Barbara and husband Michael bought was a terraced house in Kew. Halfway up the winding staircase they'd sometimes notice a little girl huddled against the banisters, crying.

In 1980 they moved to an old farmhouse at Bredfield, near Woodbridge, where they'd occasionally be woken by urgent knocking on the front door in the middle of the night. There was never anybody there.

Some time later, Barbara says, she heard the story about a desperate neighbour from centuries earlier who had hammered on doors in seek of help.

Michael's commuting to London by train proved a strain. They moved to another farmhouse - at Great Tey, near Coggeshall - where they spent nine years.

Here, the younger of Barbara's two sons was often visited at bedtime by an old lady in a pink twin-set, who sat on his bed and told stories. The family doctor said it sounded like a woman called Miss Nash, who had lived there many years before.

It was in 1991 that the manor house near Colchester became home, where “we have inherited a whole range of ghostly happenings” - including a dog similar to a West Highland White Terrier that she says has been seen by several visitors. The house is quiet at the moment.

I'd be terrified to clap eyes on a ghost, but Barbara seems to take it in her stride.

“I think I've been very lucky in that I haven't seen the kind of ghosts I write about,” she laughs. “They've been fairly benevolent. The way it works for me is you see something, hear something, and then - perhaps I react rather slowly! - you think 'OK . . .', and then you think 'Hang on a minute . . .' It's a kind of delayed reaction; by which time it's normally gone.”

Some spirits she's watched for a while - tried, even, to talk to some - “but I think the moment you get emotionally involved, it's over. You've got to have that kind of empty feeling that exhaustion brings.” Experienced psychics have learned to create that state to order, she believes.

I'd also be scared if my son had an apparition at the end of his bed. “Initially I thought it was one of those imaginary friends children have - though how many of those are not imaginary at all? It turned out she loved children and had never had her own. There was nothing frightening about her; she was very kind.”

Barbara's convinced most people have a predisposition to tune into supernatural wavelengths, certainly as children, but that it gets dulled out of us as we grow, “or laughed at in school. I think so many kids have this, and the first time they talk about it, all their mates go 'Hurrrrhhh!' And they don't ever think about it again”.

Most people do believe her when she talks about supernatural experiences; others are convinced she's “completely loopy!”

Rather endearingly, Barbara admits to sometimes feeling jumpy while writing her tales - particularly Midnight is a Lonely Place. “It's my spookiest book, I think. It did get full-on.” Walking along the passage outside her room was daunting. And by the time she'd finished the novel, she'd moved her desk from the window - with her back to the room - to a spot where she had her back against the wall!

Barbara feels her stories aren't easy to label. One fan described them as Harry Potter for grown-ups - “I thought 'I like that!' If only . . !” - while someone else called them a mixture of Stephen King and Ruth Rendell, which seems a tad overblown.

The level of content that could conceivably be tagged as “horror” is extremely variable, though Barbara did once get invited to a horror convention, apparently on the strength of featuring maggots in Midnight is a Lonely Place. Fly larvae are keywords for the genre, it seems!

“I went and I had such a good time. You should have seen all the black nail varnish and the gothic look. I thought 'If only I'd known, I could have worn a wig!'”

When Lady of Hay was published, Barbara was dispatched on a city-by-city tour of America. Years later, she went to Australia on a publicity drive. Most people were nice, but radio phone-ins did bring some nasty calls from fundamentalists taking issue with her stand on reincarnation and similar matters. That type of thing tends not to happen in Britain, she finds.

Back to the present and there's precious little time to rest on her laurels. She's got ideas about the next book she'll write, what it's about and the setting, and she's trying to let her subconscious turn the soil, rather than deliberately thinking hard about the finer details. Barbara will give herself until after Christmas; the publisher will want a synopsis not long after, and then the whole cycle begins again.

Perhaps it's better that way, with something to get the teeth into - the natural order of things. One of her recent Tweets stated: “As always, instead of doing the things I promised myself I would do as soon as book finished, am standing round feeling depressed and bereft!” Does she really feel like that?

Yes. It's a kind of literary post-natal depression. “And I'll tell you the next stage, which is really good: you do frantic displacement activity with duster and Hoover! I have cleaned the house so much I don't recognise it! You feel very self-righteous because you've done something useful.”

Then she can finally meet up with the friends she's been putting off while writing. “I have got the most dangerous list of lunches coming up! I shall balloon!”

Postscript: Thanks to those electronic postings, we know that after our interview Barbara “came home via the new (Colchester) Waitrose . . . What joy!” Oh, and on Hallowe'en she revealed “my editor has read my revised manuscript and is very pleased with it. Almost ready to rock!!”

Wonder if those mirror his pat-on-the-head exclamation marks . . .

Barbara basics

Born 1944

Before she could physically write, used to fold paper and make it into “books”

Studied Scottish history at Edinburgh University

While a student she started - and put on ice - her first attempt at writing a novel

Worked for an educational publisher

Then as a freelance researcher for books on art and history

Started to sell short stories

Wrote a handful of historical Mills & Boon tales

While living in the Black Mountains, near Hay-on-Wye, she started research for Lady of Hay

The book was published a decade after she sketched out the story

Has two sons

Husband Michael is now retired

Web link: www.barbara-erskine.co.uk

Barbara Erskine's novels

Lady of Hay (1986): A sceptical journalist has a hypnosis session and finds herself reliving the experiences of the wife of a baron during the period of King John

Kingdom of Shadows (1988): A lonely wife is haunted by a growing fascination with an ancestor and inexplicable dreams

Child of the Phoenix (1992): The life of a princess, born with mystical powers, is tied to the destinies of England, Scotland and Wales

Midnight is a Lonely Place (1994): A writer rents a cottage on the bleak Essex coast; Roman spirits wreak vengeance on each other

House of Echoes (1996): A woman inherits an old house on the East Anglian coast and then realises her family is at risk from a powerful energy

On the Edge of Darkness (1998): A woman from the 6th Century, training as a Druid priestess, is trapped in the wrong time

Whispers in the Sand (2000): A divorcee aiming to cheer herself up with a Nile cruise to the Valley of the Kings finds herself the victim of a spectral presence

Hiding from the Light (2002): Set in the Manningtree and Mistley area. Features a City girl, a rural cottage on the Essex coast she recalls from childhood holidays, and a local rector - fascinated by the story of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, a local man - who is worried by the level of supernatural disturbance in his parish

Daughters of Fire (2006): Links the Roman invasion of Britain with present-day Scotland, as a historian experiences visions of a Celtic queen whose life she is dramatising

The Warrior's Princess (2008): A London teacher recovering in her sister's house in Wales after being attacked becomes obsessed by the story of a princess captured by invaders 2,000 years earlier and taken to Rome

BARBARA Erskine appears at Lavenham's first literary festival on the morning of Sunday, November 22, giving a talk at the village hall called Past and Present Reconciled? There might be the odd ticket left: email kussen@waitrose.com to check late availability.

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