The Room Beyond is both a modern day ghost story and a Victorian chiller. It weaves two time frames together to unravel the secrets of one aristocratic family over a century. It centres on a West London mansion – 36 Marguerite Avenue – a romantic house rich in family portraits, elegant rooms, and endless corridors full of lingering whispers. In the present day, the young artist Serena is entranced by it from the moment she is taken on as a nanny there, falling in love with its atmosphere and becoming intrigued by the eccentric glamour of its inhabitants. But the book also transports us to the same street in 1892, where the past is more chilling than she could have imagined, and the fate of two women who once lived there have haunting consequences that reach out from the past into Serena’s life.
How much did your degree in English encourage you to read?
I have loved reading from an early age, so studying English at university was a treat! The range of courses on offer was vast, from Old English right up to the present day and I think that that sort of exposure is a bit like travelling: the more you see, the more you want to see.
What prompted you to return to University to study a Masters in Victorian fiction?
I left university with the naïve belief that I’d go on to have a hugely successful career in business. It didn’t take me long to realize that I simply wasn’t cut out for the commercial world. I craved books and libraries and even essay deadlines and as soon as I could save enough money I did my Masters. Victorian fiction has always been my greatest passion. One of my A Level texts was Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native and I still know it backwards.
What is the appeal of this era for you as a writer?
I’ve always been fascinated by the changes that were taking place in society during the Victorian period: the growth in industry, the rise of the middle class, the role of Empire and the impact of Darwin. It was an extraordinary period of change that produced some intriguing literature.
How do you juggle being a writer with your husband and three energetic children?
Not very well! It took me seven years to write this book, mainly during my children’s afternoon sleeps. But writing keeps a different part of my brain busy and as my life has become increasingly hectic I’ve cherished my writing moments more and more. I always manage to find some time for my work and even if I can’t physically sit down at the computer, the ideas are still bubbling in my mind.
Why is setting the story around a mansion always a good device for storytelling?
Most people are drawn to beautiful houses, particularly those with an interesting history. When I wrote The Room Beyond, 36 Marguerite Avenue was just as much of a character to me as the individuals who lived there. I wanted the house to feel like it had a living breathing soul, and secrets, just like any human being. In this case they are very dark secrets!
Please tell us about your inspiration behind the story.
My main inspiration for the book came when I was doing my Masters degree. I wrote my dissertation on the dark world of Victorian sensation writing which was very popular at the time. Wilkie Collins is perhaps the most famous author to have appeared from this genre but there was another amazing writer who was famous then called Mary Elizabeth Braddon. She was massively well-known for her mysterious, eye-popping works that sent middle class housewives flying to the bookshops. I wanted to take on Braddon’s mantle but make my book feel more modern by entwining all that gothic drama into the present day.
Who are your favourite reads in this era?
Probably Hardy, Dickens and George Eliot. But Edgar Allan Poe and of course the lovely Mary Elizabeth Braddon have had a huge impact on my writing.
What is next for you?
At the moment I’m promoting The Room Beyond and loving every minute of it. I’m also in the midst of writing my new book about Walter Balanchine, a character from The Room Beyond. Walter is a Victorian mystic from London’s East End. A product of the brutal workhouse he is extraordinarily tall, wears even more extraordinary clothing and has a string of bottles and charms hanging from his neck. No one really knows where Walter came from and whether it really is magic that shimmers in his fingers but I feel it’s about time to tell his story …