Thursday, January 13, 2022

Sarah Rayne

Sarah Rayne is the author of many novels of psychological and supernatural suspense, including the Nell West & Michael Flint series. She lives in Staffordshire.

Rayne's The Murder Dance is the most recent novel in the Phineas Fox series.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I find titles harder to think of than plots. There've been times when I've spent longer on trying to come up with a title than on writing a synopsis for the book itself. I've even made out charts with what I think are key words, and played put and take with them until something possible emerged. But with The Murder Dance the title simply presented itself, and I hope it tells the reader what the story is about - a dance that has, at its heart a murder first committed over four hundred years ago.

What's in a name?

A good deal is in a name, as many of the great writers of fiction have known. Names can indicate a considerable amount about a character. Would Ebenezer Scrooge have come across as the ultimate miser if he had been allotted a gentler, softer name? As it is, the harsh consonants strike a nicely disagreeable dissonance, and even the word Scrooge has passed into the English language as depicting a mean person. In Martin Chuzzlewit, the name of the dissolute midwife, Sairy Gamp for a time was synonymous with a colloquialism of the day for umbrella. Even now, I can remember my grandmother saying it looked like rain today, so she would take her gamp.

And Richard Brinsley Sheridan - no slouch when it came to bestowing colourful names - gave us Mrs Malaprop and the term malapropism for mispronunciations, and also the exuberant Sir Lucius O'Trigger, along with Sir Anthony Absolute, and Lydia Languish. They're names that instantly conjure up vivid mind pictures of the people in question.

I can't rival any of those in naming my characters, but the influence probably comes through here and there.

In The Murder Dance I created a parson called Humbert Marplot, a fruity Victorian actor called Sir Peregrine Pond, and the lively Elizabethan diarist, who unfolds much of the murder at the story's core, and who is only ever named as 'Greenberry'.

As well as this, I was able to make use of two genuine names - a pair who been servants and accompanists for Will Kempe - the Elizabethan clown-actor who is at the heart of the plot. Master Kempe's own account of his life refers to his two trusty servants - Slye and Bee. It was very good to use two such distinctive names and know I was writing about real people.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

In my teens I started at least three novels, which never got much beyond the first chapter, although I did write a play for the Lower Fourth to perform, with parts for everyone in the class.

Later, I toyed with the intriguing prospect of becoming a poet, and starving for my art in a garret - although the few lines of poetry I did manage had more in common with limericks than with lyric verse. But I think if I could have looked across the years and been able to see where I am now, my over-riding emotion would be absolute astonishment that not only did I manage to finish a novel at all, I finished almost thirty of them (to date), and they were all published.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings are usually what I've worked out at the start of a book, so there's an aim, a grand denoument to be worked towards. However, I nearly always hit a bogged-down state after about seven chapters - ie around page 70. Generally I decide the plot isn't moving fast enough and there isn't sufficient tension, so I often have to go back to the beginning and re-jig the whole thing. It's remarkable how later chapters can alter what happened earlier, so it's nearly always something that's worth doing.

It can feel as if no progress is being made during that re-writing, but hopefully it tightens the entire story, and snares the reader's attention more strongly.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

They're in a world apart - although it's a world I like entering. I may once have actually done so... I had written a scene describing a particular character - explaining that he was in his early thirties with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket and brown knitted tie.

That done, I went off to the supermarket, and there in the checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie… I watched, fascinated, as he put items into a plastic bag – pasta, wine, cheese and fruit. (If he had been buying tinned spaghetti or baked beans, I would probably have had to re-think the seduction scene planned for Chapter Eight.)

I followed him out, (of course), but the carpark was awash with torrential rain and visibility was on a par with a Victorian London pea-souper. And by that time, whoever he was (whatever he was), my dark-haired, green-jacketed man had melted into the mist.

I do know that the sensible explanation is that I had seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion, subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it. But I have never been able to rid myself of the sneaking suspicion – and the hope – that he had stepped, however briefly, from the pages of my own imagination, and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

There have been so many it's difficult to pick out individual ones. But one that stands out is seeing a particular film on TV. I was about eleven years old, and I thought, vaguely, that the film, which dated to the 1940s, would be utterly boring. But it was a rainy Saturday afternoon and those were the long-ago days when there was only one TV channel, so I curled up in a chair to watch. The film absolutely enchanted and mesmerised me. It was never televised again, but I never forgot it. It's usually known as The Dream of Olwen but also as While I Live. The plot centres on a young woman coming into a clifftop house, not knowing who or what she is, sitting down at the piano and playing an unpublished piece of music written twenty years earlier, by a girl long since dead. For me that film ticked all the boxes – eerie music, secrets from the past, and, of course, a faint whiff of the supernatural.

Note: The film has, in fact, since been released on DVD. I've watched it several times over the last few years, and it still works the magic for me.
Visit Sarah Rayne's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Murder Dance.

--Marshal Zeringue