HORLA INTERVIEW (December 2018)





SALLY SPEDDING has won awards for her writing in three literary forms: poetry, short stories and novels. Much of her prose fiction leans to the supernatural and mysterious. She has also achieved critical and commercial success in the fields of crime fiction and chiller thrillers. Past awards include the H.E. Bates Short Story Prize, The Forward Press prize for poetry, the Aesthetica Creative Works prize, the Welsh Poetry prize (2010 and 2012) and the Christoph Fischer award for Best Noir Novel (Cold Remains) 2015.

Her work has been widely anthologised in compendiums such as Jack The Ripper Stories, The Best British Mysteries and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime. Titles such as Come and be killed, Prey Silence, Behold a Pale Horse and Cut To The Bone perhaps give an idea of the leaning of some of her long fiction. Heroes / heroines of her noirish crime-thrillers, meanwhile, include John Lyon and Delphine Rougier. She is also the author of How To Write A Chiller Thriller. She is a mother and is married to painter Jeff Spedding. They live in rural Carmarthenshire, Wales, and the Pyrenees of south-west France. Her family history is a European fusion. Two of her novels have been published in Turkish.

You’ve a background in creative arts other than writing. Can you tell us something of that and why you opted to concentrate on writing?

When I was three years-old, my Oma (grandmother) gave me some Dutch wax in lovely colours, and a model of a boy scout I’d seen while out on the sand dunes, was the result. Small, but apparently very detailed. Fast forward to leaving a prestigious school before ‘A’ levels and, defying parental opposition, I followed my dream with sculpture at the College of Art in Manchester then London. Large, leaping horses and daily life-drawing from a range of often strange-looking models, all the while working in various jobs during the holidays.

‘Nothing’s wasted,’ remains my mantra, and an underground mushroom farm – a former munitions dump – near Buxton, changed my life. Its darkness, the cloying smell of dried pigs’ blood (always wash your bought mushrooms!) and the weirdest mutations on the very top ‘beds’ inspired a short story, ‘Magnum Opus’ which won an international competition, was published and found me an agent. Yes, visual art can also tell stories, but for me now, words take things further. Film, too.

Many writers seem to stick to maybe one or two literary forms. Yet you range widely  – enjoying success with novels, short fiction and poetry. Why do you think you find yourself roaming in that way? 

‘Roaming’ is apt. My mind rarely rests, even in sleep where vivid, audible encounters are draining. However, while ideas and feelings need different outcomes, my work is deliberately visual. I try to admire those novels, stories, plays and poetry which could be set anywhere, but everyone is different.

Your writing – in terms of your novels and stories, at least – tends to the darker side of life (crime, mystery, chiller thrillers, horror). What is it that, as a writer, takes you there?

For years, I’ve sensed a previous existence in the fifteenth century, and possibly walled up in the Grotte de Lombrives while fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. This might explain my claustrophobia. Now a tourist attraction in France’s Ariège department, it’s not somewhere to linger!

My Dutch uncle, took me, aged eleven, to the Groeninge Museum in Bruges where, amongst the Flemish Primitives’ panels, was an oil on wood image of a man – still alive – being pulled apart by four horsemen. Also, a diptych by Gerard David of unlucky Judge Sisamnes, also alive, being flayed by his wronged citizens. This early surrealism remains horribly vivid.  Also, in my first school, run by strict, devout nuns, the Crucifixion was everywhere. As were anarchic thoughts of what these saintly women might really have been thinking…

Other people’s stories and experiences can be fascinating, but no-one is without secrets. My twin brother, as an educational psychologist, privately shared with me chilling examples of deadly, young psychopaths. How innocent-looking they were. How believable. This inspired ‘Cut To The Bone,’ in 2014. 

I try not to miss anything.

Open, empty countryside is unsettling, especially those Rupert Bear images where someone was always popping out from behind a bush or advancing ominously over the horizon.

You have homes in Wales and France (your family history is a European fusion). Something that strikes us from much of your writing is its sense of place – be it the vineyards of south-west France in a story such as ‘Midnight Run’ (published here at Horla)the fens of Eastern England in your novel Wringland, rural Wales in the likes of Cold RemainsCloven and A Night With No Stars, England’s Malvern Hills in Come and be killed, France again in The Nighthawk and A Night With No Stars.
Coventry, London – place always seems central.
So what comes first for you: setting or story? Does a piece of country suggest the story or do you spend time thinking about where an idea might work best? On that subject, are your locations – as a rule – places you have particular knowledge of? 
Setting  always comes first and, with one exception, I’ve already known them and felt the possibilities. Next, I’ll ask myself who’s been there / will be there? What lies hidden? Annie Proulx maintains that ‘if the setting’s right, your characters will be in the right place.’ Simple, but to me, true, and there’s always more digging to do. Discovering something little-known in a setting’s history is as interesting as getting to know my characters – who can also spring surprises.

Connected with our previous question, where / how do you get your ideas (the nugget for a final piece of work)? Is there a pattern?

The setting provides the ‘nugget,’ but the story’s theme grows once a character connected to that place, appears, whether alive or recalled as alive in someone else’s memory (and there is ‘false memory’) or dead. The one exception to knowing my settings beforehand, occurred accidentally, one November day five years ago, deep in the Sarthe department, en route south, my artist husband insisted on driving down a tiny lane, then parking, before trotting out of sight with his camera and car keys, leaving me with my precious pc. and files, realising no other vehicle could get by.

To pass that anxious time, I looked around and noticed a derelict farm almost hidden by huge, defunct tractors. However, it was a tilting shrine further behind in the hedge which grabbed my attention. Its small figure of Christ gleaming white, and tub of plants clearly looked after, but by whom? Why? All I needed to begin ‘Footfall,’ first in a series featuring young, wannabe gendarme, Delphine Rougier, whose parents each harbour a devastating secret.

Can you briefly describe your writing process?

Photographs of the chosen place are crucial, and more factual research. Then posing and answering the kind of questions I alluded to earlier. If need be, more research (if, for example, I’m dealing with something like the re-wilding of wolves in France). Next, a Tesco re-fill pad to start writing, plus drawings, maps, etc.,on the opposite pages. Long-winded, but…

How did you get into writing? Did you grow up in a bookish home? Were there any notable influences?

Yes, both late parents would read regularly, but visiting my Dutch Oma and Opa in their inspiring house on the Blorenge mountain outside Abergavenny (south-east Wales), was where I began creating illustrated stories up in the attic, while residual tensions from wartime experiences, filtered upwards.

In that formative period was there a stand-out novel or story that affected you profoundly?

As a ten-year-old, it was ‘Street Fair’ by the American writer, Marjorie Fischer, in which a young brother and sister leave their aunt in Paris and set off by train to the south of France with a small, stray dog, ‘Bouillabaissse.’ Such a wonderful adventure inspired me to also write a review.

Who are the writers you most admire and why?

The late Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s ‘The Pledge’ set in claustrophobic Chur in Switzerland is not only visually brilliant but also psychologically, with an obsessive detective losing his mind. Also, Johan Theorin, again for unique settings and grim, believable stories; Sarah Rayne for her well-researched, dark unravellings; Adrian Magson for his 1960’s Picardy-set thrillers, and Christoph Fischer, whose ‘The Luck of the Weissensteiners’ reflects my own and too many other families’ real-life tragedies.

You’re the author of How To Write A Chiller Thriller. What’s the one thing a writer absolutely must get right when writing in that genre. (For all of the other things please buy the book!)

Originality. The hardest part. It’s so easy to follow a perceived ‘trend’ but why bother? In this book, I use the American Mark. Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ and Tim Krabbé’s ‘The Vanishing’ as prime examples of unusual, ambitious horror, as is Anthony Shaffer’s ‘he Wicker Man.’Krabbé’s own story is fascinating…

Away from writing, do you have any hobbies / enthusiasms? What do you do to relax?

Studying the breeding of thoroughbred race-horses from the first three Arabian stallions. Keeping in touch with friends. Controlling a rampant garden, and sometimes, particularly in France, opening a bottle before I should!

What can we expect next from Sally Spedding?

Bloodlines,’ set near Poitiers, France, is being published next by Sharpe Books, then ‘Death Knell,’ last in the trilogy, set in Norfolk. After these, the Delphine Rougier quartet.


A STORY by Sally Spedding is to feature in a season of supernatural stories for Christmas here at Horla, also featuring weird winter tales by Matthew G. Rees, Jon Gower and John Ord.

Sally Spedding’s website: sallyspedding.com

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