Please welcome Lauren A. Forry to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Abigale Hall was published on April 11th by Skyhorse Publishing.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Lauren: I started writing stories when I was kid, weird stories about witches and children disappearing in fields of corn and a blob that ate students on field trips. I read a lot of Goosebumps and the Bunnicula books by James Howe, and I really wanted to write my own scary stories (which were not scary and barely stories).
It wasn’t until college that decided I wanted to be a writer. I originally wanted to be an ER doctor and started on the pre-med track at NYU. NYU is split into several different colleges, and it offers open arts elective courses so that students in the other schools can take certain classes at Tisch School of the Arts. I needed one more class to fill out my spring semester Freshman year, so I took an open arts course in screenwriting. I pretty much immediately realized that telling stories is what I should be doing for a living. While I found my science courses interesting, I had more passion for that course than any pre-med work I had done. When I told my parents I wanted to switch my major and become a writer, my mom’s word-for-word response was, “Well we knew that. We were waiting for you to figure it out.”
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Lauren: Definitely a hybrid. I’ve learned the hard way that if I totally try to pants something, I write nothing worth keeping and have to scrap entire drafts. On the flip side, if I try to plot everything, I don’t let the story develop and reveal itself naturally. So before I start a novel, I figure out the opening scene and inciting incident, the mid-point climax, and the resolution. Then I write chronologically. As each scene develops, I start to see where the plot needs to go in order to get me to that next major plot point, so when I finish a chapter, I’ll do a quick outline of what I think needs to happen in the next chapter, adjusting as necessary. It’s exciting when I get towards the end of a first draft, and I know exactly how many scenes I have left to write until I get to the ending (which may or may not have changed since my initial idea).
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Lauren: Scene descriptions! Because I had four years of screenwriting training, I have a strong sense for scene structure and dialogue, but when I decided to write novels, I struggled with descriptions because I realized they actually have to be interesting. In screenwriting, you’re creating a blueprint for others to follow. You only include what detail is necessary, and you keep it simple and straightforward. When describing a scene in a novel, you’re not just the writer. You’re the director, actor, cinematographer, costumer, sound mixer, etc. It’s entirely up to you to work the reader’s imagination and create the scene you want them to see.
When I’m writing a first draft, my scenes are mainly skeletons – dialogue and necessary plot points. Then I’ll go back and layer in the stronger, descriptive prose. It usually takes me a few rounds before I get the scene to evoke the tone and atmosphere I want.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Lauren: My very first influence was The X-Files. Long story short, my dad was an FBI agent, so when The X-Files premiered when I was 8 years old, he wanted us to watch it together. (My parents let me watch pretty much anything so long as I watched it with them. I also didn’t scare easily and had a pretty strong understanding of fiction versus reality.)
For all original 9 seasons, Dad and I never missed an episode together. Because of that, I’ve always been drawn to anything dark, scary, weird, or strange. As an adult, that’s translated into a love of Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Sarah Waters, David Mitchell, Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, and many others.
On the other side of the spectrum, I also have a pretty big love affair with Judge Judy. Understanding how people think is important for developing strong characters, and seeing what people choose to sue one another over in a small claims court – especially when they’re suing family members – fascinates me.
TQ: Describe Abigale Hall in 140 characters or less.
Lauren: A dark Gothic thriller set during one of Britain’s most depressing eras where women must cannibalize their own desires to survive.
TQ: Tell us something about Abigale Hall that is not found in the book description.
Lauren: To me, Abigale Hall has always been a story about the past versus the future. Mrs. Pollard is the past, desperately clinging to old ideas and values no matter the cost, while Eliza is the future, fighting for her own identity and freedom.
TQ: What inspired you to write Abigale Hall?
Lauren: Two ideas kind of collided around the same time that birthed the idea for Abigale Hall. First, I had been reading about post-WWII Britain. Being American, I grew up learning about how great the post-war years were for us economically. In Britain, it was the exact opposite. I had no idea that living conditions were worse for several years after the war than they were during it. It seemed like such a depressing time and I thought, “What a great setting for a horror story.”
While my dad imbued me with a love of scary, strange stories, my mom is a huge history buff who got me interested in British and European history. She’s also into genealogy and because of that, she inadvertently sparked the idea for the plot. She discovered we had a distant ancestor named Brownawell and thought it would be a great name for a character. I started thinking who this Brownawell might be and what his secrets were. Once I figured out those secrets, I thought of who might be the best person to discover them, and that person became Eliza, the novel’s protagonist. Once I connected the idea that Eliza’s story could be put into that postwar setting, everything else fell in place.
TQ: Abigale Hall is described by your publisher as "a historical ghost story". What appeals to you about ghost stories and do you have any favorites?
Lauren: I like the mystery of ghost stories – the question of what’s really happening. Why is the ghost here and what connection does it have to those who are still living? And, is there really a ghost or is what’s happening the manifestation of an unwell mind?
I love the film The Orphanage. After The Others, I didn’t think another film could pull off such a unique twist on the genre, but The Orphange does. And I finally read The Shining the other year and couldn’t put it down. I find I’m more drawn to malevolent, manipulating spirits than the kind ones!
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Abigale Hall?
Lauren: I read as much as I could about the WWII and postwar experience in Britain. David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain was a huge asset. Britain also had something quite remarkable from 1937 to the 1950s which was the Mass Observation social research organization. Mass Observation asked people to document their everyday lives and sometimes answer specific questions about the news or politics at the time, and mail in their diaries. Because of that, there is a vast amount of information about the average person’s life in Britain during and after the war. Several editors have collected some of the entries into books, including Simon Garfield (Our Hidden Lives and Private Battles), and the diaries of a woman named Nella Last, who was especially prolific, have been collected into three volumes. Lots of books can tell you the events of the time, but it’s the little details like what type of soap people used or the most popular brands of toothpaste, that really make a setting come to life.
I was also living in London when I wrote Abigale Hall, so I visited as many museums as I could. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth had, at the time, a life-sized model of a typical 1940s house, and I took about a thousand pictures. Plus it had suitcases and belongings of children who had been evacuated during the Blitz, ration cards, 1940s clothes and shoes, gas masks. You could even sit inside a shelter and experience what is like to hide during an air raid.
Sometimes I would just walk around central London and try to see it as Eliza would have, but I’d have to double-check streets and walking routes because in 1947, London had barely begun to rebuild after the Blitz. A street you can walk down today might have been a blasted bombsite until the 1950s.
TQ: Please tell us about Abigale Hall's cover.
Lauren: The cover puts the focal point on the house, which I love, because the house really plays a central character in the story rather than just being a setting. Only some of the windows are lit to evoke the sense that something is not all there about this place. There is a battle between darkness and light going on inside. And the surrounding tree branches are like claws, but are they reaching out to push you away from the house or turning in to keep something contained?
TQ: In Abigale Hall who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Lauren: Rebecca was the easiest. I am a younger sister, so I could channel her mindset pretty well. We youngest siblings can tend to be selfish. We experience this strange combination of everyone else in the family simultaneously looking out for us and taking care of us while also ignoring us enough that we’re left to our own devices and can do as we please. So I took my experiences with that and amped them up to a more dramatic level.
Peter’s friend, Stephen, was the hardest. He’s a misogynist and a creep, so having to think like him made me uncomfortable, particularly in his scenes with Eliza. I would say more about a time I enjoyed writing his character, but I don’t want to spoil anything!
TQ: Which question about Abigale Hall do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Is Abigale Hall also a Gothic romance, like Rebecca?
Lauren: No, and I’m sorry if anyone who reads it expects more romance than there is! Eliza does have a boyfriend whom she loves dearly and wants to get back to, but in an age where women were already being forced out of work after the war and chided for causing child neglect if they did work, I wanted Eliza to learn how to stand on her own. Her entire life, her identity has been wrapped up in relationships – relationships with her parents, her sister, her boyfriend – and I wanted her to learn to see herself as a whole person and question whether or not she likes what she sees.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Abigale Hall.
“A set of teeth smiled at her from the brown water. Eliza dropped the spoon. The sheep’s head sunk to the bottom of the pot.”
Boiling a sheep’s head to make broth was something people did – you couldn’t waste anything – and as soon as I read that in my research, I knew I had to include it. I’ve never made broth in my life, let alone boiled animal heads to do it, and that image left such a strong image in my mind that I couldn’t wait to share it.
TQ: What's next?
Lauren: I recently finished my second novel, which is another dark, twisted tale, though not Gothic. I like to think of it as a dark X-Files episode except set in 1950s Britain with a repressed housewife and a disgraced scientist. And I’m editing my third novel, which will be my take on a murder mystery in the vein of And Then There Were None. (The Clue movie with Tim Curry is a big childhood favorite, and I’ve wanted to write something darkly humorous – and murderous – like that for awhile.) I’m also working on a few more short stories for Brick Moon Fiction (brickmoonfiction.com) that I’m excited about but can’t say much about right now.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Skyhorse Publishing, April 11, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 376 pages
Amid the terror of the Second World War, seventeen-year-old Eliza and her troubled little sister Rebecca have had their share of tragedy, having lost their mother to the Blitz and their father to suicide. Forced to leave London to work for the mysterious Mr. Brownwell at Abigale Hall, they soon learn that the worst is yet to come. The vicious housekeeper, Mrs. Pollard, seems hell-bent on keeping the ghostly secrets of the house away from the sisters and forbids them from entering the surrounding town—and from the rumors that circulate about Abigale Hall. When Eliza uncovers some blood-splattered books, ominous photographs, and portraits of a mysterious woman, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the house, but with Rebecca falling under Mrs. Pollard’s spell, she must act quickly to save her sister, and herself, from certain doom.
Perfect for readers who hunger for the strange, Abigale Hall is an atmospheric debut novel where the threat of death looms just beyond the edge of every page. Lauren A. Forry has created a historical ghost story where the setting is as alive as the characters who inhabit it and a resonant family drama of trust, loyalty, and salvation.
Lauren A. Forry was brought up in Pennsylvania before living in the woods outside of London. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Kingston University, where she was awarded the Faber Creative Writing MA Prize for her thesis work, Abigale Hall. Her short stories have since been published by Brick Moon Fiction, Lamplight Magazine, and other sci-fi and horror anthologies. She currently resides in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.