On Thrillers and Jedi Training - A J Hartley Talks Cold Bath Street

2 July 2018

A J Hartley is a New York Times bestselling author, whose collaboration with Tom De Longe has earned him a huge following of loyal fans. And he dropped in to tell us about his latest title, Cold Bath Street!

What was the genesis for Cold Bath Street?

The book had two starting points. One was visiting my home town and feeling like it had moved on without me, that I was stuck in my childhood memories of what it used to be like, while the modern place was different, unfamiliar in key ways. I felt outside it, irrelevant, ghost like. The other starting place was an idea I had been kicking around for years: a ghost story told from the perspective of the ghost but avoiding the fairly common “he doesn’t know he’s dead” trope. It left me wondering what it would be like to try and represent death as a state, particularly as a kind of half way house in which a soul might be trapped, unable to move on to whatever is supposed to come next. The breakthrough was in thinking about that state as the moment of death itself: the ghost was locked in his final seconds for ever, the world around him unpopulated and unchanging, till he finally started to forget that there had ever been anything else. That struck me as both sad and scary, which is a good combination. Then I started coming up ways to make it worse…

Plotting thrillers can be a tricky business. Without giving us any spoilers – how much of the story was detailed before you began writing?

I tend to plot general story issues out fairly tightly so that the core mystery makes sense and I don’t paint myself into a corner, but in this case the story was so premise driven that I was writing before I had worked out all the details. It had an energy of its own. Also I was discovering material to use as I researched local legends and ghost stories I knew I wanted to both use and, in a sense, “solve” at least within the fiction. The ending came as a surprise, something I stumbled upon in the writing itself which changed the way I had planned how everything would work out. It was a very organic process.

Illustration by Janet Pickering

Your book takes place in your home town. What are the joys/frustrations of writing about something so familiar, and how much has it changed from the reality?

Part of both the problem and the appeal of writing about my home town is that while I visit quite a lot (once a year or so) I haven’t actually lived there for any length of time for over thirty years. It’s amazing how memory tricks you. Several times I had to stop and start over because I looked at a map and realised things I remembered being in one place were actually in another entirely. Also, as a kid you tend ( or at least I tended) to take the place for granted, assuming all the interesting history was elsewhere; that means I had to do a lot of digging to make sense of things I had not properly understood. I learned a lot in the process and probably now know more about certain aspects of Preston than I did when I lived there!

Who or what are the biggest influences on your work?

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, all of whom have keen eyes for real human details which help them make the impossible elements of their stories feel absolutely true. I’m also a keen mystery and thriller reader and love stories which play with narrative voice or sequencing to disrupt your expectations in the way Gillian Flynn does, say, in Gone Girl. But I’m also steeped in Dickens and Shakespeare, the poster boys who explode the old lie that sensational and extravagant plots are the enemy of good, rich and complex writing.

Illustration by Janet Pickering

Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I have a new thriller coming out next year under my Andrew Hart pseudonym called The Woman In Our House about a live in nanny who is not what she appears, and I’m in the earliest stages of thinking about a sequel to Cold Bath Street. There will also be brand new editions of my Darwen Arkwright trilogy which have never been released in the UK before; these are stories of a Lancashire lad living in Atlanta GA who finds he can pass through mirrors into a terrifying world of monsters which then use him to try and escape into our world.

What are you currently geeking out over?

I was just in Ireland at the island sites where the Jedi training scenes from the last Star Wars movies were filmed. What was doubly cool, of course, is that they weren’t just sets but actual ancient monastic settlements. I love old places with long human histories and the trip was a study in that. Also, I get to sit down and talk with Christopher Eccleston during his run as Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company about Cold Bath Street (which he is hopefully going to perform for the audiobook), about Shakespeare, Doctor Who and the supernatural in literature. Who wouldn't geek out over that?

Illustrations from the title, by Janet Richardson.

Join A J Harley signing Cold Bath Street at our London Megastore on Thursday 19th July!