Split between the UK’s heatwave of 1976 and the present, Amanda Mason’s The Wayward Girls is a dark and gripping tale of poltergeist infestation. Rebecca Wojturska reviewed the book for us and wrote that it’s a “dark and shimmering tale of palpable unease… Mason’s ability to weave mystery and eeriness together will appeal to fans of thrillers and horror alike.” Rebecca had the chance to speak to Mason about her debut novel, ghost stories, stage magic, and a hint at the book that’s coming next.
Rebecca Wojturska: How did you develop the idea and the concept for The Wayward Girls?
Amanda Mason: I’ve already written one novel that’s not published. And I was getting a lot of very helpful feedback, but it wasn’t really going anywhere. But I was getting a lot of rejections that ended with, “but I’d love to see what you write next”. So, when I started to think about what I was going to write next, I realised I really wanted to write something set in the 70s.
I was a teenager growing up in the 70s and, it might be a false memory, but I seem to remember lots of splashes in the Sunday papers about council houses with mysterious poltergeist events and teenage girls at the centre of these bizarre experiences. I just really thought that it would be an enjoyable thing to write. And I wanted to write about sisters. I wanted to look at the aftermath. All those people who were in the Sunday papers, what happens after? What happens when you’re an adult? If you’ve been through something very bizarre like that, something where people might not believe you. There’s always that ambiguity. That made me think it has to be a duel-timeline. And that was all definitely enough for a novel!
Then it becomes problem-solving. Why would people stay and live in a haunted house? What are their circumstances? Why would people go to a haunted house? Because they want to investigate it. In terms of plotting, I started with the characters and asked why are they doing what they’re doing. That’s how I plot things, by seeing how the characters I have thought of are trying to solve the problems, much in the same way that I am trying to solve the problems as a writer.
RW: It’s a strong concept when there are core questions that the book then tries to answer.
AM: Yes! One of the challenges as a writer was saying “this is a difficult, ambiguous, and scary situation, so why don’t you leave?” As a writer, you have to investigate why they don’t pack up and leave. It might be that they don’t have many options in terms of finances. There are also other characters that want them to stay there. And in the present day, why would you go back to the house? Why does one of the grown-up sisters, Lucy, go back? Why do the people around her go back? And also, what does everybody want? Because no one is really very forthright about what they want either in the past or present in this novel. It was very interesting to write and I hope it was interesting to read!
RW: I particularly loved the use of doubling. As you mentioned, there’s the dual timeline, the two sisters. It’s quite gothic and I was wondering if you were a fan of gothic fiction and what kind of gothic fiction you read if you are?
AM: I am a big fan of gothic fiction. Thinking about the work that was available and what I read while I was a teen in the 70s, I’m a big fan of Stephen King. I like his American gothic. I also absolutely love Shirley Jackson. I didn’t read her as a teen but some of it was set in or written in that period. Further back, the influences swirling around for people in the 70s, you’re looking at the Brontës who were from North Yorkshire. And you grow up in Whitby, you can’t not know about Dracula. As a child, we used to go and play in the graveyard.
RW: You have a quite a lot of experience writing ghost stories, and I was wondering how influenced you are by real-life haunting hoaxes, such as those by the Fox sisters?
AM: I love ghost stories, which is why I write a lot of it. I’m very interested in Victorian stage magic. A long time ago I wrote an abandoned play about a fake medium that’s set in the Victorian period. It involved a magician who then moved into being a medium. My late partner was very interested in magic and so I saw and read a lot about behind-the-scenes magic. So, I really am very interested in fakery and ambiguity, particularly in the element of performance and how to fake magic. I can do the odd magic trick!
RW: You’ve previously worked in a comedy street magic act! What was that like?
AM: I can juggle a bit and do various tricks. We had a solid wooden box and 27 steel swords that would not give. I would go in the box, and then we would pass all of the swords through the box, then, obviously, I would come out of the box completely unscathed.
RW: You’re not going to tell us how you did it, are you?
AM: It would completely ruin it! People always say they want to know, so you tell them, and they really don’t want to know!
RW: People probably enjoy trying to figure it out.
AM: Yes! It provides a link between gothic, ghost stories and detective fiction. The mystery unravels. And in ghost stories, you might not know how the haunting is happening, but you find a hint of why it’s happening.
The Wayward Girls is a very personal story. I started off with the question in the 70s of: were the girls faking it or are they not? I spent a lot of time writing it and I do understand they’re not real people. But when you spend a lot of time writing them and thinking about them and eventually hearing them speak to each other, then their story becomes more important than a simple “yes it’s fake” or “no it’s not fake”. It becomes more three-dimensional and so the answer to the questions needs to become more layered and complex.
RW: I wanted to talk about the character of Bee [Loos sister]. I feel a lot of people will recognise something of her in their siblings, particularly young women. Her relationship with Loo is something of a toxic relationship, she’s very controlling and intense. Is this something you have personal experience of?
AM: Well, I have a sister so I understand the experience of sisterhood. I think one of the tropes of gothic fiction is power, and people who are powerless and put somewhere frightening. I think having a relationship with a sibling and particularly within sisters, is that there is a constant power shift. I actually have a younger sister, not an older sister, which sometimes people who have read the book find surprising. I think they assume that I’m Loo and most the time I am Loo, but I’m also perfectly capable of being Bee. Bee exerts her power over her sister because she’s powerless in the larger family dynamic. I’m fascinated with power shifts within families in general, but more so with how teenage girls are with each other and particularly sisters.
My sister and I shared a room. I grew up in a very lovely and ordinary working-class family. I didn’t have a room of my own until I went to college at the age of nineteen. You get used to it as you grow up. You have defences and power plays in place. At one point in the book, Loo and Bee have separate sides of their shared room with separate posters and that is absolutely out of my own experience.
RW: I know the feeling! I shared with my siblings and tried to divide the room up by plonking a wardrobe in the middle.
AM: Yes, we used a chest of drawers! There was lots of territorialising about bits of makeup and clothes. People who don’t understand the dynamic will see two girls who really don’t like each other very much, but if they try to take sides with one or the other, then the two sisters will work together! It’s doubling again, the doubling of power. No one on the outside is allowed in to harm or criticise.
RW: You got those dynamics across well in The Wayward Girls. How important was it to set the book near Whitby, your hometown?
AM: It was important. When I write, there’s a lot of nostalgia involved, another feature of ghost stories. I was deliberately drawing on my memories of the 1970s, which turned out to be staggeringly unreliable. I was about 50% accurate on things like TV shows, clothes, fashion and music. It’s interesting that we are all very unreliable narrators of our own lives. The memories and sensations I was thinking about were set in that landscape. The house isn’t the one I grew up in, but it is based on an old friend’s house. It was on a farm on the edge of a very tiny village.
RW: You’ve spoken about why you set one of the timelines in the 70s but was there any reason you chose 1976 and, in particular, the long hot summer?
AM: I really wanted to have some of the horror in plain hot sunlight. I wanted that contrast. 1976 stands in a lot of memories as the long hot summer. I feel most people have an experience of a long hot summer that is slightly strange and slightly out of whack. It was a summer of extreme temperature which meant, as a writer, I could talk about extreme emotional conditions. As a child, I remember feeling the heat as quite oppressive.
RW: I wanted to touch on your writing process. You’ve written short stories and plays before and I was wondering how you found the novel writing in comparison?
AM: The plays I wrote were when I was teaching and mainly for the schools I was working in. A bit of a distant memory now! I only got to writing for adults about seven years ago when I let my friend bully me into going to a short story writing class. When I started writing short stories, I’d just turned 50, and I felt consumed because I realised this is it. This is what I want to do.
RW: You owe your friend a drink!
AM: The whole process made me very focused and ambitious in a way I felt I hadn’t been before. I do well with a deadline and a word count. I have a terrible capacity to not let go and will re-edit, re-edit and re-edit. I always want to get it right. The flip side is that it makes me impatient. It’s odd to discover what you want to do relatively late in life and it’s remarkable that I discovered it in time. And to learn what I want to do and have achieved it. Nobody is more surprised than I am, I promise you!
RW: You don’t seem too fazed by the novel writing process, so will you be writing another one?
AM: I am currently writing another one. I was working on it this morning. I’m in a two-book deal with Zaffre. Publication date to be confirmed…
RW: Can we have any hints about the story?
AM: It’s the same genre in terms of dealing with the supernatural. The Wayward Girls is my poltergeist story, the next one strays more into the area of folk magic and the supernatural.
RW: If you could recommend one other female ghost writer, who would you recommend?
AM: My answer is always Shirley Jackson. She is the queen and I adore her. The Haunting of Hill House is my personal favourite. In contemporary terms, I love Jess Kidd, Laura Purcell and Stacey Horn. I’ve recently read Melanie Golding’s Little Darlings, which is brilliant and uses the myth of changelings.
RW: Sold! I will buy my copy. There’s so much excellent gothic and horror coming out now.
AM: There is, it’s brilliant! When I first started querying about three years ago, I was frequently told they couldn’t sell ghost stories.
RW: That’s so strange!
AM: I was on a panel at the weekend and someone asked if gothic was having a moment. I don’t think it ever goes away. Places like Netflix, who put out Hill House and American Ghost Story, that kind of access to storytelling is feeding an appetite, as are the new supernatural writers and books coming through.