Sarah Rayne Writes Psychological Thrillers With Ghostly Themes
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. My earliest memory of writing anything of any significance is when I was thirteen, and I wrote a play for the Lower Fourth to perform. It was the era of angry young men, so I had visions of a glittering career alongside Harold Pinter and Peter Shaffer. By the age of 16, though, I had switched to poetry–the role models then were eighteenth-century aesthetes dying romantically in garrets. I haven’t ever actually lived in a garret, but my flat is on the first-floor, which I suppose is near enough.
Do you have a “real” job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you’ve had in your life?
I’ve been writing as a full-time career for a very long time, but prior to that I had a wide variety of jobs, from the newspaper world, to the legal profession, and property selling. But I always wrote in my spare time – for years I lived a double life, because when most people were heading for the TV or a wine bar after a day’s work, I was pounding an elderly typewriter on the end of the dining table, with Mozart on the stereo. I would turn up at the office each morning, pink-eyed from lack of sleep, giving rise to a belief that whatever I did in my spare time, it might be somewhat colorful.
Since you’ve written more than one novel, which is your favorite?
It’s difficult to pick out one particular one. For this question I had to do a shelf count, and I was a bit startled when there turned out to be a total 34 titles.
I do have a particularly soft spot for Ghost Song, partly because it has a theatre/music hall setting, which touches my father’s era in the music halls. I did, in fact, name a character for him–his stage name was Frank Douglas, and the Frank Douglas of the book is very like him–light-hearted and insouciant, and finding humor in almost any situation.
Music Macabre is probably my other favorite–it’s Book 4 of the Phineas Fox music mysteries series, and Phin was intended to pursue a scholarly line of research focusing on a “lost” fragment of Franz Liszt’s music–but music that seemed to have links to Jack the Ripper. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the way that Jack would get into the story. He became part of every plot twist, he influenced characters’ motives and their actions–it was as if he peered out of every dark shadow surrounding the nineteenth century players, and reached out to the present-day through them. I’ve always hoped that book made for an absorbing read–it certainly made the writing a memorable experience.
The genres range from stand-alone psychological thrillers, through a haunted house series, (the Michael Flint/Nell West books), which started with Property of Lady, and then on to the musical mystery series–Phineas Fox, which began with Death Notes. The most recent of that series is The Murder Dance.
Are you currently working on any writing projects our readers should watch for release soon?
I’ve just embarked on a new series set in the early 1900s with a theatrical background. Publication is towards the end of 2022. No title yet–I find titles harder to think of than plots, so I’m hoping my editor or the publicity department will be coming up with something.
What type of music, if any, do you listen to while you write?
I’ve always found music a brilliant tool for creating a mood, so I frequently listen to it while I’m working. It’s usually either Mozart or Bach. Those two gentlemen have helped me through many a difficult patch of writing–in fact through many a difficult patch of life as well. I also have a particular piece of music by Berlioz–an overture called Rakoczy March, which has never yet failed to kick-start a sluggish writing mood.
I do think music is brilliant for creating a mood. It can be unashamedly romantic, such as Fred Astaire serenading Ginger Rogers with Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight, in the film, Swing Time. It doesn’t matter that Fred’s voice wasn’t perhaps the finest, nor that the film, viewed today, is a bit scratchy. It still makes you want to be floating around a flower-decked ballroom with French windows open to a night garden.
At the other end of the scale it can be heart-wrenching–Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter being brave to an accompaniment of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Would that railway platform scene have been as moving without the music?
And on a different level again, it can be rousing–Bob Dylan adding his own gravelly note to the Sixties with his stirring anthem of change and protest and rebellion, in The Times They Are a-Changing.
Is there an established writer you admire and emulate in your own writing? Do you have a writing mentor?
I think I’ve probably been most influenced by some of the great gothic writers–Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, Wilkie Collins. And the wonderful short stories of M.R. James delight me every time I read them. As well as that, I love what’s usually called “Golden Age” crime novels, and I’m also a massive fan of Dorothy L Sayers.
When growing up, did you have a favorite author, book series, or book?
Reading was very much part of my childhood. My parents were voracious readers, and it was routine to visit the library once a week, and borrow half a dozen books each. I read a very wide range of books from quite an early age. Enid Blyton’s school stories were a huge favorite–I do know they were unbelievably classist, but I loved them, and there does seem to be an echo of them in today’s young adults reading the Harry Potter books–boarding schools and all that goes with them, although Ms Blyton’s characters certainly didn’t dabble in magic.
I also absolutely loved Pamela Brown’s Blue Door Theatre books–I still have the entire series.
What about now who is your favorite author and what is your favorite genre to read?
I have very eclectic tastes – if it’s a good story and well written, I enjoy it. But I do have two particular long-standing favorites, both of which I’ve re-read many times. One is The Hopkins Manuscript, by R.C. Sherriff, the Journey’s End author. It has what I’ve always thought of as a truly outstanding, reader-grabbing first line: “When the Royal Society of Abyssinia discovered The Hopkins Manuscript two years ago in the ruins of Notting Hill, it was hoped that some valuable light would at last be thrown upon the final tragic days of London.”
The other is a huge tome called Broome Stages by Clemence Dane. I discovered it more than thirty years ago, and I probably read it about once every four years. In a very general way the book is a family saga–it spans 1715 to 1930, and covers seven generations of a theatrical family. The story begins with travelling players in tavern courtyards, and traces the family’s rise–through the Victorian actor managers, those lovely fruity characters who re-wrote Shakespeare to suit themselves–and on into the early years of the 20th century, with the onset of the first movies. It’s about the changing world of the theatre, but it’s also about the Broomes themselves–their loves and hates, and feuds and plots, and the building of a theatrical dynasty.
If, one day, I could write a book of that caliber, I think I would believe I had achieved something really great. But I know it’s not going to happen.
Where do you write? Set the scene for us when you are writing. What does it look like? On the couch, laptop, desk? Music? Lighting, handwriting? Or do you write at a coffee shop or other location?
In the early years–when I had finally managed to make the transition from working by day and writing by night and became a full-time novelist–I thought I might adapt the attic of my flat. Then a practical-minded friend pointed out that at its highest point the attic is exactly four and a half feet deep, and I would have to work lying down, or in one of those peculiar and painful positions reminiscent of medieval torture cages.
So instead I turned the corner of a bedroom into a study. There’s a large desk, which houses a desktop computer, and there’s usually a scattering of notebooks and pens on it, as well as the current crop of favorite CDs.
If I look to my left, there’s a view of trees and fields through the window. Around dusk an owl emerges from the foliage of a large oak, surveys its realm in lordly fashion for a few moments, then silently glides across the sky. Lovely.
On the wall facing me as I work, is a framed photograph of a Victorian actor-manager called Sir John Martin Harvey–one of those soulful young men with black hair that needs cutting and an alluring line in disheveled Edwardian evening dress. It portrays him in his role as the all-time romantic anti-hero, Sydney Carton, in his own stage version of A Tale of Two Cities, and it’s inspired more than one character in my books.
Do you watch television? If so, what are your favorite shows? Does television influence of inspire your writing?
I don’t watch a great deal of television – but I do have a weakness for old black and white films – usually, although not exclusively, British ones. I do love the old Ealing comedies.
Is there any one particular book that when you read it, you thought, “I wish I’d written that!”?
Again, it would have to be Clemence Dane’s Broome Stages.
Have you ever had a character take over a story and move it in a different direction than you had originally intended? How did you handle it?
This certainly often happens – there’s the wonderful quote about characters: “You do everything you can to raise them right, and as soon as they hit the page, they do any damn thing they please.” And characters can, in fact, intrude into your ordinary life in unexpected ways…
A few years ago I spent the morning writing a brief scene to set the mood for a romantic interlude between two main characters. I described the man as being in his early thirties, with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt.
I finished the scene, and went off to collect some shopping. And in the supermarket checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie. He went out with his shopping, and I half fell through the check-out after him, scattering assorted items en route. (Somebody helped field the tinned soup but the muesli had to be swept up and I don’t think they ever did find the scouring pads). By the time I reached the car-park it was awash with torrential rail, and visibility was on a par with a Victorian London pea-souper. And whoever he was, whatever he was, my dark-haired, green-jacketed man had melted into the mist.
I do know that the logical explanation is that I had seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it, but I have never been able to rid myself of the sneaking suspicion–and the hope–that he had stepped, however briefly, from the pages of my own imagination, and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.
It’s said that the editing process of publishing a novel with a publisher can be grueling and often more difficult than actually writing the story. Do you think this is true for you? How did you feel about editing your novel?
For me, the editing process is a brilliant part of the creation of a book, and I always greatly enjoy working with an editor.
You spend a year or so writing a book, getting inside the heads of your characters, agonizing if they get hurt or murdered or misunderstood. And it’s not always something you can share, in fact if anyone says, “How’s the book going?” You mumble something about it being OK, thanks, and you happen to have killed somebody off that morning. That’s usually about it.
But an editor gets inside the book with you, and discusses motives and motivations, and makes good suggestions–sometimes unexpected ones, too. For The Death Chamber, published a few years ago, my editor at the time asked me to cut out a character. She thought his presence was detracting from the main plot line. It was up to me, but…I stomped around for two days, cursing and muttering. I grumbled to my agent over several lengthy phone calls.
But by the end of the second day I began to see that my editor had a point. I also saw that if I cut that character out, there was no reason why I couldn’t use him in the next book. And I did just that. In the creation of a book, nothing is ever wasted.
Is there anything else you want your readers to know about you? Include links/information on where to find your books, any blogs you may have, or how a reader can learn more about you and your writing.
I have a website, which I try to keep up to date, and which is at:
There are synopses for all the books, and links to bookshops (eg Amazon etc) for purchases, and also biographical details and a link to my blogsite.
I usually publish a blog on publication of each book, especially if there might be background details or information about research that readers might perhaps find interesting. The direct link for that is:
I also made a video recently about the haunted house series, which can be viewed here::
I’m also on Facebook.
And, of course, I’m always delighted to hear from readers–emails can be sent via the website.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your work with the readers,