Today’s interview is with one of my oldest writing acquaintances, Mr E O Higgins! His novel, Conversations with Spirits, has made the Amazon Bestseller list, and was nominated for The Guardian / Edinburgh Book Festival ‘First Book Award’ 2014.
Mr Higgins, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about your novel.
Conversations with Spirits is a comic mystery book set during the Great War.
It’s about a rather washed-up ponce, called Trelawney Hart, who is recruited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the author of Sherlock Holmes – to investigate a psychic, who is doing strange, magical things in a small seaside town on the South Coast of England.
What made you want to write a novel like Conversations with Spirits?
I used to go out with a girl that liked to visit psychic fares and such things. I tended to go with her and immediately relocate to the nearest pub to read a book. Anyway, after one of these events, she came rushing into the saloon bar I was camped out in and told me she’d just spoken to a psychic who had given me a message from my father – who had died very recently. Naturally, this was quite upsetting – and, I guess, it germinated from there…
In researching the book, I have since sat with several psychic mediums myself. Once you understand what they’re doing is just cold reading (usually quite bad cold reading), you realise that you’re just hearing the same stock phrases being trotted out again and again.
It’s an appalling business – funded by the bereaved.
What was your favourite scene to write?
The séance was fun. Quite a lot goes on – and I liked the idea of one of the sitters panicking about being watched by his dead relatives whilst masturbating. That obviously appeals.
The most difficult bit to write was the section written as Conan Doyle, it took quite a lot of work to get that sounding right.
Your main character, Trelawney, is a very complex one. Was he always so, or did he start off with different motivations and evolve over time?
I think he developed over time.
It was fairly clear early on that if Trelawney continued being just an angry, acerbic arsehole, there probably wouldn’t be much in the line of emotional investment in the character. So, I think there needed to add a backstory to vaguely explain him – and make him slightly more sympathetic.
Now a little about yourself:
When did you start writing? Was CwS your first novel, or are there others tucked away in your desk drawer?
No, it’s not my first, though I think you are supposed to tell people that your first published novel is the first thing you’ve ever written, as though it’s horribly embarrassing to admit you’ve had to do some work.
I’ve been writing ever since I used to smack away at my mother’s typewriter at the age of six – and there are, of course, shoeboxes in my mum’s house crammed with old scripts and novels that will never see the light of day. Well, let’s hope anyway.
Do you have a playlist of writing music? Perhaps, a soundtrack you envisioned for your novel?
I’ve had the same 200-odd songs on my phone that (due to some remarkable laziness on my part) I’ve been listening to for about two years now.
It drives me slightly mad occasionally – and figure I should do something about it. But then usually forget and don’t.
‘Emmylou’ by First Aid Kit is playing at I write this.
What is your favourite genre to write, and why?
Well, I write fiction really.
Mystery is area where I’ve obviously had the greatest success, but it’s not necessarily where I want to stay forever.
What book have you enjoyed reading lately?
The UK has become a very troubled place, of late. So, I have taken refuge in P G Wodehouse’s Psmith novels.
What helps you get through writer’s block?
I actually find writing quite hard and need to take myself off on long walks to clear my head a lot. Otherwise, I just end up throwing laptops across barrooms in frustration – and that’s a costly habit.
What is your number one tip for writing?
Read a lot.
Then write down things you like – either because they’ve given you some kind of emotional response or just because you like them stylistically. Then try and work out why.
What’s something you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?
That there’s a very good reason that no one writes mystery novel in the first person…
What other hobbies are you interested in?
I have a one-year-old baby and, as such, I have renounced all hobbies.
If I’m not working, I’m either feeding my son, cleaning his arse or watching terrible TV about a fat man dressed as a clown.
What genre do you have no interest in writing?
I don’t think you’ll be seeing any ‘chick lit’ coming from me any time soon. I’m not even sure I’d be allowed…?
What is the weirdest thing you’ve had to research?
I remember getting discovered looking up ‘tithe barns’ on Wikipedia at work once. That was a slightly awkward moment.
I was a bit embarrassed and I think my boss thought I was looking up porn or something, so demanded to see what I was looking at. I think it was a bit disappointing for her.
What is the strangest question or remark you’ve received about your books/writing?
I get bad reviews and social media abuse from ‘working mediums’ fairly often.
Usually with some sort of: ‘I don’t know what this book was about’ complaint. Which is especially odd considering they’re supposed to have supernatural intuition…
Can we expect to see more of Trelawney and Billy? (I’m asking for a friend, not like I’m desperately in need of a sequel or anything…)
Trelawney and Billy will indeed return. Please let your friend know.
Things have slowed down a bit since I have a child (and wasn’t really prolific before that) but hopefully in the next year or so there should be a new book making an appearance.
Trelawney’s up against Devil worshippers in the next one – so, presumably I’ll be upsetting ‘working Satanists’ with my next book.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I have an idea for a collaborative project about Jack the Ripper that I might press ahead with – but I really need to get the synopsis written.
Hopefully, I’ll find the time any decade now…
E O Higgins is a British fiction writer and performer.