A stranger just put Kelsey’s boyfriend in a coma. The worst part? She asked him to do it.
Seventeen-year-old Kelsey is dealing with a lot – an abusive boyfriend, a gravely ill mother, an absent father, and a confusing new love interest.
After her boyfriend attacks her in public, a stranger on the end of the phone line offers to help. Kelsey pays little attention to his words, but the caller is deadly serious. Suddenly the people Kelsey loves are in danger, and only Kelsey knows it.
Will Kelsey discover the identity of the caller before it’s too late?
I met Helen through An Alliance of Youth Adult Authors and am happy to visit with her about her debut novel and her other writing experiences. You may learn more about her work at her website.
Let's hear from Helen now!
1. How did you get interested in writing?
I was going to say I’ve always written, but I actually struggled really badly with learning to write as a child, so I guess it would be more accurate to say I’ve always made up stories, even if it took me a while to learn how to capture them on the page. I first became interested in writing as a career after I left drama school, due to ill health, and was looking for a new creative outlet.
2. What inspired you to come up with your latest release, Broken Silence?
I came up with the idea for Broken Silence when I was about 13. My best friend was sleeping over, and we’d just watched “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. We started making up our own thriller stories, and I came up with the basic plot for Broken Silence that night. It wasn’t until ten years later when I told the story to a writer friend, and she was just as captivated by it as my best friend and I had been as teenagers, that I realised it might be worth writing down.
3. Tell me about the main character, Kelsey, and what inspired you to create her.
Kelsey is struggling with a lot of things – her mother is very unwell, her father isn’t really in her life, she has some eating issues, and her boyfriend is abusive towards her. Added to the personal dramas she is already facing, Kelsey then begins receiving strange phone calls, which quickly escalate. All of this has led Kelsey to not value herself as much as she should, and this influences many of the events of the story.
There’s a lot of me in Kelsey, I have to admit. Or at least teenage me. I’d like to think I’m slightly less snarky than she is though!
4. What characters, other than Kelsey, did you find enjoyable to write as you progressed with the book?
I actually really enjoyed writing all of the characters, even the ones who aren’t always that likeable as people. I guess it’s the former mental-health support worker in me, but I just found the process of looking at how each character thinks, and what their motivations are, really interesting. Of course for most of it I was looking through Kelsey’s eyes, as well as my own, which was also an intriguing experience. Kelsey is somewhat of an unreliable narrator, so balancing how Kelsey saw things between her and her boyfriend, Mike, versus the reality of the abusive nature of that relationship, was a particularly interesting journey. Similarly the dynamic of Kelsey’s relationship with her brother and father, and also her changing relationship with her brother’s friend, Ben, were interesting ones to explore.
5. What are some of the themes you explored in writing the novel?
I think this is one of those questions where my answer as the author might be different to the answers readers would give. And as it should be – writing, like all art, will mean different things to different people. For me, I think one of the main themes is around how we deal with trauma, and the affect this has on how we see ourselves and how it affects relationships, whether those be with partners, friends or family. While this may seem a strange thing to say about a book which involves a serial killer, I do think relationships are at the heart of this story.
6. What were some of the things you learned along the way as you wrote and edited the book?
Some of the biggest things writing this novel taught me were patience and persistence. This was my first time working on a project of this length. I simply couldn’t write it all in one go, but it taught me to keep coming back, and to keep editing when things weren’t working in the text. There were times when I wanted to give up, because I’d look at a passage I’d written and think how awful it was, but each time I came back to it, and tweaked it a little more, it got a little better. It was a slow and at times frustrating process, but ultimately a rewarding one.
7. Tell me more about your collection of short stories, Symbolic Death.
As the name suggests, Symbolic Death, is a collection of stories about death. The title story follows a woman who finds a “death curse” symbol scratched into the soap scum around her sink, and Underneath the Clock tells the story of Angus, a young boy watching his family fall apart after the death of his father, told from his innocent perspective. Some of the stories are sad, as you’d expect, but there is also a touch of black humour. In Short-Lived Happiness, a butterfly chrysalis hatches, under the watchful eye of a hungry cat, and Death’s Daughter is told from the perspective of a teenage grim reaper. I wrote these stories over several years, while studying for a qualification in creative writing, and this book is free to anyone who signs up for my newsletter on my website.
8. Is there a particular work in Symbolic Death that you particularly enjoyed writing and, if so, which one(s) is it and why?
I think that would have to be Underneath the Clock. I’ve been a student in various short writing workshops over the years, and I kept finding these two characters – a young boy Angus, and his teenager brother Bede – appearing in the writing exercises we did. I wasn’t sure what their story was for a long time, but the dynamic between them, and the sadness that seemed to surround their family intrigued me. It was an interesting experience, as when all the pieces of the story finally came together, they all made sense. It was like my subconscious had had the plan all along, it just didn’t let me in on it until the last minute.
9. I see you’ve written a few picture books – how did writing them compare to writing a novel?
In a way, I think writing a picture book is more similar to writing a play than to writing a novel. While there are, of course, editors, designers etc. involved in publishing a novel, the final product is still reasonably within your control. When it comes to picture books and plays, the text is only one part of the project. Handing work over to an illustrator, or to a director and actors is a really scary feeling as you do have to relinquish that control. The illustrator or director may take your work in a quite different direction to what you had imagined, but the cool part is, that’s usually a really good thing. The collaboration aspect creates something amazing that neither of you could have come up with individually.
10. What do you find is the right environment for you to write?
It’s varied from project to project, but at the moment my preferred space to write is sitting on the bed in my spare room. I’ve never been one to sit at a desk to write, and I think the spare room works for me as there are less distractions in there!
11. Are there specific programs or tools you find useful to help you with the writing process?
I keep it simple when writing fiction. I use a notebook and pen for keeping track of ideas, and a word document for writing drafts. When it comes to writing plays, I do use software to simplify the formatting process. I have done it myself in the past, but it is pretty time consuming to set up, so I now use Celtx, which is fortunately free to use.
12. What have you found to be useful methods for promoting your writing?
This side of the business is still new to me, but I’m learning! I think the most useful thing has been collaborating with other authors. I found it really scary to approach other authors, or join joint promotions initially, as it felt like they were further along in their journey and I didn’t have much to offer in return. But everyone starts somewhere, and many people are happy to give a helping hand up to those just beginning.
13. What are some of the famous books or authors you have enjoyed or inspired you?
I think the authors who inspired me most were ones who I read as a teenager. Kate de Goldi, Paula Boock and Melina Marchetta come to mind. My teenage years felt very confusing and their works made me feel understood in a way the world in general did not. If you haven’t come across them before, I would really recommend their books.
14. Any aspiring or independent authors whose books you’ve read that you liked and want to mention to others to check out?
This doesn’t quite fit into the category of aspiring/independent authors, but I would say if you haven’t read many New Zealand children’s and young adult authors, I would really recommend checking them out. Sue Copsey, Fleur Beale, Mandy Hager, Kate de Goldi to name just a few. We have a brilliant community of authors here, but I’m not sure how much their work gets seen outside of New Zealand, and that’s a shame.
15. What advice would you give to those who want to write a novel before they actually get started?
A lot of our lives, we have deadlines and goals put on us by other people. Writing usually isn’t like that – you have to set the goals and timeframe, and you need to motivate yourself to do it. There are so many responsibilities and distractions in life, so it can be hard to make writing a priority. It also doesn’t help that no one else really cares (or even knows!) that you’re writing a book. If you didn’t show up to work, you would be told off, but if you don’t show up to writing… no one minds. It’s important to be your own taskmaster, to get yourself to your writing dates, and also to be your own cheerleader to keep going and celebrate your successes. Also, your first draft is probably not going to be that great – and that’s okay, because that’s how it should be! Don’t think you’re not a good writer just because your unedited first draft doesn’t read like a finished book. No one’s first draft reads like a finished book!
16. I see you teach creative writing classes – what’s it like getting the chance to share your knowledge with children and adults?
It’s a really great experience teaching creative writing. Kids have such an interesting way of looking at the world – I love seeing what they do with the writing prompts, and am always inspired by their ideas and creativity. In all my classes – both for children and adults – my main focus is on improving confidence with writing. I strongly believe that the best way to become a better writer, is to spend more time writing, but self-doubt and self-consciousness can get in the way of that. The best feeling in teaching is seeing someone complete an awesome piece after feeling too afraid to start, because they thought it wouldn’t be good enough. It might sound cheesy, but it really is an honour to be allowed to be a part of that journey for them.
17. Are there programs, other than the creative writing classes, that you offer through the Brain Bunny Workshops?
Brain Bunny Workshops is just creative writing, though I did collaborate with a drama teacher a while back, to run a creative writing and theatre sports holiday programme. I did also used to also teach gluten-free baking and arm knitting through the Wellington High School Community Centre, where I teach my adults classes, but I’m now just focusing on teaching creative writing.
18. Tell me about the play you wrote, How to Catch a Grim Reaper, and how that experience compared to writing books.
How to Catch a Grim Reaper tells the story of a group of flatmates, who set out to end death and suffering forever, by capturing the grim reaper. There’s just one problem with their plan though: they need to kill one of their friends to do it. Well… almost kill them. I describe the genre as “drama-horror-comedy-romance” as it has a bit of everything mashed in together, but somehow works!
I was commissioned to write this play by an organisation here in New Zealand called Young and Hungry. They are a charitable trust who empower young people, through mentoring, to appreciate, create and participate in New Zealand Theatre. I was involved in Young and Hungry as a teenager, so it was really nice to be able to reconnect with them as an adult.
The experience was not as different to writing a novel as you might expect. My strength has always been in writing dialogue, so even when I’m writing fiction, I often start my drafts by writing out some conversations between characters. The one thing I did find was that my first draft of How to Catch a Grim Reaper had way too many stage directions. I was used to having to describe everything on the page, and had to learn to pare that back and trust the actors to tell the story.
19. Other than the writing part, what aspects about plays do you find particularly enjoyable?
All of it really! My parents introduced me to going to the theatre at a young age, and this is something I’ve enjoyed since. Mum and Dad actually met through an amateur dramatic society, so it’s not surprising really. I studied acting, and have worked as a director, and in stage management. When I was younger, I thought that would be the field I ended up working in, but writing is a much better fit for me, though I do still occasionally take to the stage for performance poetry.
20. Who would win a battle of superhero skills: Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman?
Hmm… I want to say they all would, because they would realise they’re on the same side, and join together to use the best super power of all – teamwork! But if I have to choose just one I would say Wonder Woman. Have been a fan since watching reruns of the 70s TV show as a kid, and I just think she’s awesome.