Q: - Dark Tides is the second of your standalone thrillers to be set on the Isle of Man, following on from the bestselling Safe House. Why did you choose to go back to the island again?
Chris: - When I finished writing Safe House, I thought I was done with telling stories set on the Isle of Man. For one thing, it’s a relatively small place with a low crime rate and I wasn’t sure it could sustain me for more than one thriller. More than that, I’d seen Safe House as my ‘Isle of Man book’. The plot of Safe House grew out of an idea that had been bugging me for some time, the island seemed like the only place to set it, and the novel became a kind of love letter (albeit a bit warped) to the place I’d come to call home. So I moved on to Dead Line, set in Marseilles, and then a funny thing happened. I found I had another story I really wanted to tell that could only be set on the island. That story became Dark Tides and it’s a novel about Hop-tu-naa, the Manx Halloween, but it’s also a story about family, about friendship, and about the particular intensity of growing up in an island environment. Since finishing the book, I’ve gone on to write a short story set on the island, and my new thriller begins in Laxey, on the island’s east coast. So it turns out I was wrong. I have plenty of stories to tell about the Isle of Man. More, probably, then I’ll ever find the time to write.
Q: - Many readers might not be familiar with the Isle of Man. Although it's part of the Crown, it’s self-governing and, geographically, very separate. Although you're not Manx yourself, you've lived there for eleven years, so what do you normally tell people about it when they ask?
Chris: - I usually start by telling them where it is – in the middle of the Irish Sea, between Liverpool and Dublin – because nine times out of ten, people automatically assume I’m talking about the Isle of Wight. It’s strange really, but it’s often seemed to me that the Isle of Man is a forgotten place (which is one reason why I tend to believe some of the rumours I’ve heard over the years about the island being used to relocate people enrolled in UK witness protection schemes).
I’m not sure why it’s so often overlooked, and I usually go on to tell people that it’s a fascinating place to visit. For starters, it’s absolutely stunning, with an enormously varied landscape packed into such a small place – there are beaches and coves, glens and plantations, even a mountain (though only by ten metres according to the UK definition…). It has a rich and very distinct cultural history, one part of which is Hop-tu-naa. It’s also absolutely full of strange customs and quirks. Manx people believe it’s bad luck, for instance, to refer to rodents as r*ts (hence why I’ve snuck in that asterisk). But if none of that works, I usually go on to tell them that the Bee Gees grew up on the island, as did Mark Cavendish, that the island has a space industry and has been voted the fifth most likely nation to send a man to the moon, that it was the first country in the world to give women the vote, that it’s where they first put letters through seaside rock, and that there are wild wallabies in the north (no, really).
Q: - How much research did you have to do into the Manx Festival of Hop-Tu-Naa, and how does it differ from the better-known Halloween?
Chris: - As with all my books, I did enough research to enable me to tell the story I wanted to tell and then I made everything else up. I did most of my research online although I spoke with lots of friends who grew up with the traditions and I also spoke with experts from Manx National Heritage.
Like Halloween, Hop-tu-naa is celebrated on 31st October, and in its modern form, the two festivals share many similarities – for example, people dress up in scary costumes, and kids call from door-to-door. That said, there are significant differences, too. For example, Manx people carve turnip lanterns instead of pumpkins and kids don’t go trick or treating because they sing nonsense songs instead (which are kind of like sinister Christmas carols). The nonsense songs vary across different areas of the island but perhaps the best known song is Jinny the Witch, which begins, ‘Hop-tu-naa/My mother’s gone away/and she won’t be back until the morning’. As a thriller writer, I could immediately see some dark potential in those lyrics!
Q: - What was the inspiration behind the story? It's definitely creepier than your previous thrillers. Was that a deliberate move, or did it just fit your narrative better?
Chris: - Part of the inspiration behind Dark Tides was the idea of telling a mystery story over a number of years, while only ever narrating the story from one recurring date (in this case, the 31st October). But the main inspiration stemmed from my research, when I discovered a particularly fascinating divination custom linked to Hop-tu-naa. Traditionally, on the night of Hop-tu-naa a Manx family might put out the fire in their hearth and spread the ashes out to cool. The following morning, they’d hope that when they woke they’d find a footprint in the ashes. If the footprint pointed out towards a doorway, custom suggested that there would be a birth in the family. If, however, a footprint appeared that pointed in towards the hearth, it meant that somebody in the family would die. I think it would have been almost impossible for me not to see the potential for a thriller story in that.
And yes, it’s a darker, creepier story than I’ve ever told before, but I figured that if I was going to tell a Hop-tu-naa tale, it had to be a real chiller.
Chris: - Dark Tides is the first thriller you've written almost entirely from the perspective of a woman. Where did the idea for Claire come from and did you find it challenging to write from her perspective?
Chris: - One thing I learned from Safe House that surprised me was how many readers weredesperate to read more stories about Rebecca Lewis, the female PI character I’d created for the novel. Rebecca started out as a secondary character, but readers seemed to connect with her in a very strong way. My idea in Dark Tides was to explore how a single date could haunt a character from their childhood through to their late twenties, and since Rebecca didn’t grow up on the Isle of Man, I had to find someone else. Enter Claire Cooper, whose mother mysteriously disappeared on Hop-tu-naa when Claire was eight years old and who has been plagued by a sense of guilt and culpability ever since. Claire shares some DNA with Rebecca – they’re both very tough, very capable women – but I’d say that Claire is also more vulnerable, and perhaps the most complex character I’ve ever created.
And yes, I found writing the majority of the novel from the perspective of a female character challenging, but that’s exactly why I did it. I try to set myself new challenges in every book I write in that hope that it will make me a better writer. I probably underestimated how tough I’d find it, though I hope that readers will connect with Claire just as much as they did with Rebecca, and that ultimately, they’ll feel the risk was worth it.
Q: - Dark Tides is essentially a thriller with family secrets at its heart. Is that a subject that particularly fascinates you and, if so, why?
Chris: - It seems to be, because in all my thrillers I keep circling back to the theme of dysfunctional families and, as you say, family secrets. I don’t think that’s because of the theme itself, necessarily. It has more to do with the fact that I like to write stories that are relatable – either by writing about ordinary people caught up in situations that are much bigger than them, or by telling stories about professionals in such a way that the focus is placed on their personal lives and fears. For most of us, family is very important, and it's where most of our hopes and fears stem from. I like to play with that.
Q: - Who are some of your favourite writers?
Chris: - Any list would be incomplete, and this one certainly is, but some of my favourite writers over the years have included Jack Kerouac, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Megan Abbott.
Q: - What are you working on next?
Chris: - I’m about halfway through writing my new thriller, which opens on the Isle of Man before taking in multiple destinations throughout the UK and Europe. It’s about a character called Nick Miller, who provides a highly discreet, highly bespoke service, relocating at-risk individuals across Europe with new identities and new lives. And that’s about all I can really tell you for now, except to add that I’m very excited about where the story might take me next.
DARK TIDES by Chris Ewan is out now, £14.99 (Faber & Faber)
Look out tomorrow (28 October 2014) over on the Shotsblog where there will be an opportunity to win one of five copies of Dark Tides by answering a simple question.
Chris Ewan is the Award-winning author of The Good Thief’s Guide to ….. series of mystery novels, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘Crime writing at its best’. His debut, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, won the Long Barn Books First Novel Award and is published in 10 countries. Amsterdam, Paris, Vegas and Venice, have all been shortlisted for Crimefest’s Last Laugh Award. More information about Chris Ewan and his writing can be found on his website and you can also follow him on Twitter @Chrisewan