In her chilling psychological thriller, The Shadow Bird, debut novelist Ann Gosslin unravels memories and secrets, and exposes the unwitting victims of a gruesome crime committed decades previously. The Shadow Bird was published in July, 2020.
Hello Ann! Many congratulations on the very recent publication of The Shadow Bird! How did you celebrate your big day?
Thanks so much, Wendy. It’s not every day a writer publishes her debut novel, so the past few weeks have been an exciting time. Before the pandemic derailed in-person events, I had planned to celebrate the launch with an evening of conversation and good cheer at a London bookshop or similar venue. As in-person events became unadvisable, my lovely agent, Charlotte Seymour, saved the day by organising a launch via Zoom. It was great fun to have so many people join in, including the team from Legend Press and Andrew Nurnberg Associates, book bloggers, and friends.
How did your Blog Tour go, and are you planning further promotions amid the current COVID-19 restrictions?
It was a whirlwind two weeks of back-to-back book reviews, and I’m indebted to the wonderful bloggers who made time in their busy lives to read The Shadow Bird and post such generous reviews for the Blog Tour. As a new author, it was also a nail-biting time for me, and impossible to anticipate how readers might respond (love it? loathe it? toss it across the room?). Fans of
psychological thrillers are a discerning bunch, so I’m happy to report that the response was overwhelmingly positive.
As for other promotional activities, I’m trying to make the most of social media and book sites such as Good Reads. An article on the inspiration behind the novel was recently published on www.booksbywomen.org, and I plan to initiate other activities, including giveaways via Twitter and video readings.
What was the inspiration for The Shadow Bird and how long did it take you to complete?
The initial spark for The Shadow Bird began with a single image: a dark-haired woman sitting by the bedside of a young girl in the pre-dawn darkness. The girl in the bed is unconscious, and the woman is desperately hoping she’ll wake up. I had no idea who she was, or where she came from – whether a gift from the writing gods, or a flicker from the cosmos – though from the outset it was clear to me she was a psychiatrist, and that she viewed the girl in the bed as a younger version of herself. That was the starting point, the doorway into the story.
The character of Timothy Stern showed up later. I have always been interested in how two people on opposite sides of a seemingly impenetrable divide (in this case a psychiatrist and her patient), interact when circumstances bring them together.
Once that initial spark ignited, the story lived in my imagination for quite a long time before I felt ready to write it down. Over the course of three years the novel went through a number of drafts, but that initial scene – and the first sentence – remained the same.
Can you tell us about how The Shadow Bird came to be published, and whether being part of a writers’ group was key to your success?
In early 2017, when I had what I thought was a polished draft of The Shadow Bird, I felt ready to dip my toe in the roiling waters known as ‘finding an agent’. Having had little luck in the past with previous attempts, on a whim I decided to enrol in an online writing course with CB Creative. A fortuitous decision, as I truly believe The Shadow Bird would not have been published without the encouragement of the writers I met on the course.
Writing can be a lonely business… sitting at your desk, staring at the blank page as you struggle to bring your story and characters to life. Though I happen to enjoy that aspect of the writing life, at some point it’s critical to seek feedback from others, preferably other writers who understand the trials and joys of creating fiction. A writers’ group can be a wonderful antidote to those long solitary hours, and the feeling of community and camaraderie is invaluable.
When you were plotting The Shadow Bird, how did you manage the dual-time narratives and different settings for the action, and do you think of yourself as a disciplined writer?
I’ve always been drawn to novels with dual-time narratives (though they can be tricky to write). I love how they weave an extra layer into the story and provide depth to the characters’ lives. In The Shadow Bird, the dual-time narratives were designed to reveal key information about Timothy (and Erin) that would not otherwise be available to the reader. It was important to me to show a snapshot of Timothy’s life before the crime occurred. Plus, having the reader know more about Timothy than Erin does magnifies the tension, as well as the pathos, of Timothy’s life: the before and after, marked by a brutal crime.
As for being a disciplined writer, I do make time to write every day (usually first thing in the morning). I try to write about 1,000 words before getting on with other things, even if some days it feels like I’m just typing. Sometimes it’s a struggle to trick my brain into believing this is what it’s supposed to be doing at the crack of dawn (weee… isn’t this fun?). Lucky for me, it mostly obliges, and it’s always a thrill when I’ve managed to pluck some elusive gem from the murky depths of my subconscious.
The episodes set in the psychiatric facilities are realistic and very uncomfortable to read – how did you research these sections, and were they the most demanding parts to write?
I’m not surprised to hear those scenes made for uncomfortable reading, since they were also uncomfortable – and difficult – to write! In an attempt to create an aura of authenticity (while avoiding the often sensationalised beliefs and misunderstandings about mental illness and incarceration), I researched the lives of forensic psychiatry patients, and read as much as I could find (though no easy feat) about the system, including personal accounts by patients and their families, and by psychiatrists working in the field.
Which novelists have influenced your writing and what have you enjoyed reading during lockdown?
Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Kazuo Ishiguro, Daphne du Maurier, Elena Ferrante… and so many others, have all been major influences on my writing. I am continually reading and re-reading works by these authors, all of whom are impossible to pigeon-hole and manage to write a different type of novel with each new book.
During lockdown, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the growing sense that the world as we know it was falling apart. No surprise, then, that my attention span was in tatters. Normally, I manage to read 1-2 books a week, on average, but since late March, I’ve tended to gravitate towards short fiction (though I did enjoy re-reading ‘plague novels’ such as The Plague and Station Eleven, as well as Emily St. John Mandel’s lovely new book, The Glass Hotel).
My collection of ‘Desert Island’ books (or post-apocalypse comfort reading, as I now think of it), consists mainly of much-thumbed short-story collections by Alice Munro, William Trevor, Jhumpa Lahiri, Deborah Eisenberg, Lucia Berlin and Daphne du Maurier, and has provided many hours of pleasure and escape from our current predicament.
Legend Press acquired The Shadow Bird as the first part of a two-book deal – can you tell us what’s in store for us in book two?
Book number 2 had been rattling around in my head for quite a while, so it was exciting to finally get the story down. It’s slated for publication in July, 2021, so having a deadline was a good reminder to stay focused! As in The Shadow Bird, the story is built around the relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient, but that’s where the similarity ends!
And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2021?
If you’re wavering, please remember this: If you don’t enter, you can’t win.
Uncertainty about the merits of our work (and I challenge you to name a writer who doesn’t feel this way!) will hold us back – if we let it – from sending our stories into the world.
So, take a deep breath and dive right in!
Tip #1 – You only get a few pages to hook a reader’s interest
How often have you plucked a book from the shelves and read a page or two, only to think, nope, this isn’t for me? If your novel doesn’t get going until, say, page 32 (or 7 or 15), rework your opening scene to engage the reader from the very first line. And speaking of first lines, don’t settle for a so-so first sentence. A great first line is the portal into the story, so craft one that is infused with intrigue, excitement, mystery, or surprise.
As you move into your first scene (and those that follow) create an immersive experience with a range of sensory input. Use strong verbs and nouns to conjure not only sights and sounds, but smell, touch, taste. And in the spirit of ‘show don’t tell’, remember to evoke the mood in your scenes as opposed to describing it. To borrow from Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Tip #2 – Have a look at the excerpts from previous winners and short-listed writers of the Caledonia Novel Award
Not with the intent of comparing your novel to someone else’s – your voice and story are unique, after all – but to have a sense of the kind of writing that made the contest judge sit up and take notice. Compelling writing may be difficult to describe, but we know it when we see it. Reading widely and finding inspiration in others’ work can fire up your own writing in mysterious ways.
Tip #3 – Before you press ‘submit’, do take the time to read your entry aloud
If you feel this step is unnecessary, you might be surprised at the things you miss by silent reading alone: unintentional rhymes, dropped words, awkward rhythms, and stilted dialogue… just to name a few.
Finally, now that you’ve drummed up the courage to put your work out there (no small thing!), please don’t feel discouraged if your submission isn’t singled out by this year’s judge. While the number of stories swirling in the cosmos is probably infinite, book publishing and literary opinions are subjective – not to mention driven by forces impossible to fathom – and likely have little to do with your particular story or the quality of your prose.
In the end, what really matters is the excitement one feels when filling an empty page, and the many joys of writing.