Kate Hamer’s debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, is a thrilling work of fiction that will leave you stunned every step of the way. At its center sits single mom Beth and her only daughter, Carmel, eight years old and dreamier than most. Carmel is a very special child with an odd talent, and is easily distracted and has a habit of slipping off, out of her mother’s sight – testing Beth’s ever-present fear that her daughter will disappear. One day, Beth’s nightmare becomes a reality when Carmel vanishes. As the publication of The Girl in the Red Coat neared, we caught up with Kate Hamer to talk about writing, her premise, and more.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:Most parents’ worst fear is losing a child at the hands of a kidnapper, so taking on this topic in your debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, must have taken some courage and some surety. Why was this the direction in which you wanted to go?
KATE HAMER: Of course I thought long and hard about this. In the end, though, I feel it’s a book about love just as much as it is about loss. That’s the heart of the novel. The central relationship is one between mother and daughter and hopefully it does something a bit different with the subject – and takes the reader in a direction they might not be expecting.
PRH:Was there anything in contemporary media that brought you to this subject? Or perhaps a story from history?
KH: Very early on I made a conscious decision not to study real-life stories that have appeared in the media. This was for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted this to be Beth and Carmel’s story alone. Secondly, I felt it was a respect issue – I didn’t want to paste real families’ tragedies onto my fictional work. One story that definitely did feed in though was Demeter and Persephone. I loved the Greek myths when I was younger and I even remember doing an art project on this particular one. Persephone is snatched by Hades and taken to the underworld and her mother’s loss is so great the whole land turns to blight. In my novel, this is kind of reversed. The day after she loses Carmel Beth finds herself marvelling that the weather is so springlike and beautiful. She longs for weather that will create a wasteland that will properly reflect her grief.
PRH:Throughout your novel, you move between points of view – that of Carmel, the young girl, and her mother Beth. What did you find most challenging about getting into the mind of Carmel? What techniques did you use to do so?
KH: Carmel’s voice was always quite fresh and clear in my mind. To a certain extent I suppose I cast back to myself at that age for some of her attitudes, interests, and opinions. The challenge that I had was to make her voice age-appropriate without ‘talking down’ to her. I didn’t want to make her overly childlike and she certainly has a very formed interior life of her own. On the other hand it meant I had to be careful with language and on my edits I would pick off words that I thought might be outside the vocabulary of an eight-year-old, or concepts that she wouldn’t have yet encountered.
PRH:Did you know from the start how you would end the story?
KH: Pretty much. I wrote the last paragraph quite shortly after the first few chapters. This seems to be the process that’s emerging for me. I did the same with the novel I’m working on at the moment. There’s also a third one that’s only a few chapters and a last page at the moment – but the whole story is there.
PRH:There’s a very heavy spiritual element to the story, which I won’t delve too far into as I don’t want to give away too much to those who haven’t yet read The Girl in the Red Coat. But can you talk a little bit about how that plot decision came to be?
KH: Right from the start I knew two things about Carmel. One, that there was something odd or special about her, and two, she was lost. It made perfect sense that the seeds of her disappearance lay in that strangeness that, as you say, is hard to talk about without giving too much away! I’ve always been interested in spirituality and religion – the power for both good and ill it has over societies and the mind. How certain individuals can seem to have a quality about them that makes you think they have a different insight than the rest of us. Cults interest me too. Apparently one of my long-distant relatives started one – Joanna Southcott – and it was often discussed in the household with much hilarity. She gained quite a following in the eighteenth century by claiming she was bearing the new Messiah. I was fascinated and I don’t think that fascination ever went away!
PRH:In writing fiction in which lives hang in the balance or tragedy sits at the edge of every moment, how do you as a writer decide where to draw the line in regard to what’s too much or too heavy for the reader?
KH: I think the only thing the writer has is their instincts and I was determined never to ignore those. You know when something does not sit right and it’s your duty to follow that instinct and never to include anything that does not feel authentic to the narrative – merely there for shock or sensation. You have to let the characters lead you every step of the way. That’s my take on it anyway.
PRH:Talk a little bit about your writing habits. Do you write daily? In the same place? Is there music you listen to while writing?
KH: I try to get to work every morning by nine AM. I’ll work through then until midafternoon and then go for a much-needed walk. I write most days except Sunday, which I try to keep free. It’s usually at my desk in my study but sometimes it feels good to take my laptop and go somewhere else – a café or the library. If I have a day where it’s really not flowing, though, I won’t persist. I’ll go and do something else until I’m inspired to carry on. I never listen to music – that would drive me crazy!
PRH:What’s next for you in your writing?
KH: I’m on the third draft of my second novel. It’s a coming-of-age story with quite a strong supernatural theme. I’m itching to get onto the third novel too.
PRH:Are there any books from this last year that you’ve adored?
KH: Like everyone else I avidly read Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. I love the unconventional thrillers that have been exploding over the past few years and I’m very much looking forward to reading Rosamund Lupton’s new novel, The Quality of Silence, next on my list. Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory was a debut novel that really struck me with its unusual and shimmering language. I was also thrilled that Edna O’Brien published her first book in ten years in 2015 – The Little Red Chairs – and I completely devoured it.
PRH:This is your first novel. What surprised you about the publishing process?
KH: I think the scale of time involved. I used to work in television – often with quite a quick turnaround and the amount of time between the book deal being done and publication wasn’t something I was expecting. I don’t mind though. It’s rather nice after frenetic television life and a novel itself takes quite a long time to write!