Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Virtual Book Tour: Out of a Clear Sky by Sally Hinchcliffe

As promised, today I am hosting a leg in Sally Hinchcliffe's virtual book tour to celebrate the publication of her book, Out of a Clear Sky. It seems like an interesting virtual experiment, and who knows, I may try the same for Strictly Love when it comes out in September....

My contribution to the tour is a review of the book followed by a question and answer session with Sally about her inspirations, for what frankly is one of the most unusual settings I've ever come across for a thriller.

Out of a Clear Sky is a tense and sometimes claustrophobic thriller, set in the rather unlikely world of bird watching. It starts with the heroine, Manda, alone in a mountain bothy. We learn that she was not alone orginally: at the foot of the mountain, lies the body of a man who was stalking her, and as she destroys the evidence of why they were both there, we are left wondering, how someone, who by their own admission, "had never killed anyone before", came to be in this postion. As the story unfolds we gradually learn what brought Manda to the mountain, and how the secrets of her past have bled uncompromisingly into her present.

Manda is struggling to come to terms with the fact that her boyfriend, Gareth, has left her, and their mutual birdwatching friends, no longer seem to want to have anything to do with her. She is also made uneasy by the presence of a fellow birder, David, who mysteriously appears every time she goes out birdwatching. What at first seems mere coincidence, gradually becomes something more sinister as Manda realises her computer programme is being hacked into, her garden is being infiltrated, and she is being watched.

Slowly, she starts to unravel as the pressure from the present brings back memories from the past she has tried so hard to suppress, and she realises that she is a dangerous person to be around.

This is a brilliant and absorbing thriller, tense and uncompromising, and often very uncomfortable to read. Iwould thoroughly recommend it, and look very much forward to Sally's next book.

Interview with Sally Hinchcliffe:

JH Bird twitching is something I tend to associate with Bill Oddie and Springwatch, so it was a big surprise to find it at the centre of your novel. Are you a twitcher yourself, or did it just strike you as an interesting theme?

SH I do enjoy birdwatching, or birding ('twitcher' is a little derogatory...) and so it made an obvious background to the book. The fact that programmes like Springwatch and so on are so popular has helped - people I think are a little more open to the idea of birdwatching now, whereas it was bracketed with trainspotting when I was younger. And when I was doing my MA I road-tested a few chapters on my fellow students and regardless of whether they enjoyed watching birds or not they were all enthusiastic about the bird aspects of the novel. The best thrillers always take you into a different world, I think, and using something I was familiar with and other people weren't meant that I could write about it from within, without having too much heavily-worn research.

JH It seems to me that each chapter has been carefully chosen with a particular bird in mind. The ravens in chapter one are a fairly obvious choice, and I can see the connections with the more exotic birds (the parakeets/the kingfisher) with Manda's past, but is there some meaning in dunnocks, skylarks and starlings? And did the story come from the birds, or did you weave them into it?

SH How a chapter got its bird (or a bird its chapter) was an organic process. Sometimes it was hard to choose one bird for a chapter title, and interestingly enough this was often those chapters that weren't working very well themselves. Once I sorted the chapter out, the bird would as often as not just drop out nicely as well. Mainly I tried to choose birds that people would mostly have heard of and which had some sort of cultural resonance as well as a resonance with the plot. In all cases (except for the firecrest which, like Manda, I've never seen) it was a bird I myself knew well and had observed. Some of the birds - swifts for example - are simply among my favourites and I've self-indulgently included them. Others, like the dunnocks, were important to the plot, because of their exotic sex life (and if that doesn't sell the book, I don't know what will!) and some, like starlings, are under-rated birds which people overlook and I wanted to give them a little moment in the sun.

JH The descriptions of bird watching are so vivid and intense, at times I felt I was almost there with the characters. Is this something you have experienced at first hand, or did you have to do alot of research?

SH A bit of both. I've drawn most of the observations from life where I could, but I also went back and checked the facts, particularly for things like breeding times and details of calls and habitats. There was a lot of stuff that I thought I knew, but I wanted to be certain and make sure I was as accurate as possible. My feeling was that Manda herself was a very accurate and precise person when it came to birds, and I needed to have the confidence that I was getting my facts right.

JH The lushness of the African part of the story forms a wonderful contrast with the alien landscape of England to which the teenage Manda is sent - is this also drawn from personal experience? And if so, did you, like Manda come eventually to appreciate the English countryside?
SH I did spend part of my childhood in Tanzania, yes, and remember the shock of the cold after the warmth of the tropics. I had at least lived in the UK before, so it wasn't quite as alien to me, but it took me a long time before I really felt properly at home in this country. And, like Manda, learning to appreciate the birds has been part of that journey
JH What drew you to Manda's story? Was there one specific starting point, or did it evolve over time?

SH In a sense, I started with the ravens, that whole opening scene on the mountain, although it's hard to know just when an idea for a scene like that crystallises into one for a book. From there, the story unfolded - both the main stalking plot, which was there from the start, and the back story which came later.

JH This is at times a claustrophobic and uncomfortable novel to read, did you experience any of those feelings while you were writing it?

SH The finished book is in a way a distillation of what I originally wrote in my first draft. The editing process has boiled it down, sharpening up the plot and concentrating on the essentials of the story. So the claustrophobic feel sort of crept up on me during the rewriting process, rather than being there from the start. But I did find that Manda's voice made its way into my head and was a constant presence especially in the later stages. It's quite nice now to be able to go birdwatching without her...

JH What drew you to this genre? Is it one you read yourself?

SH Yes and no. I have always devoured straight crime novels - from Josephine Tay to Ian Rankin, and all points in between. But I'm an omnivorous reader and enjoy Nicci French, for example, and some of the other more thoughtful psychological thrillers. It's a genre that crosses over most easily into literature, I think. Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, for example, is one of my favourite books, utterly gripping and compelling yet fascinating too. And Ronan Bennett's books which are both thrillers and something much darker and bleaker. And of course with the plot I had, it was crying out to be written as a thriller, so the book in the end dictated the genre.

JH What are you planning to write next? And will it feature bird watching...

SH It's a bit early to say at this stage, although it won't be about birds. It will be in the same genre though - pacy and plot driven but hopefully a little thoughtful too.

JH I look forward to reading it, and wish you every luck with this one!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, I've read both Out of a Clear Sky and Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, and I much prefer Clear Sky. There's that weird bit on the boat in Miss Smilla where our eponymous hero turns into Jason Borne. Perhaps I'm terribly ageist and sexist here, but I found it rather unrealistic. Clear Sky, on the other hand, seems firmly rooted in reality: even the uncanny abilities of the stalker are explained in the most satisfying way. But quite aside from this mechanical functionality, I just found it utterly emotionally compelling.