Suzy Aspley: Crow Moon

Suzy Aspley was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2022 with One For Sorrow, and went on to sign with Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath. Her chilling, gothic thriller - now titled Crow Moon - is steeped in folklore and set amid the mountains and ominous, dark forests of the Trossachs. Crow Moon is published today by Orenda Books.

Hi Suzy! Many congratulations on today’s publication of Crow Moon! How are you celebrating your big day, and what plans do you have in the coming weeks to meet your readers and promote your novel?

Thanks Wendy for this opportunity and for your brilliant ongoing support for my writing. I’m hoping to do some book signings on the actual day of publication, and we then have a launch on 25th March - the night of the Crow Moon - where I’ll be chatting to wonderful author Michael J Malone at Waterstones in Glasgow. There’s also a blog tour organised by Anne Cater of Random Things Tours and I’ve been truly blown away by all those people reading and reviewing the book. It’s had the most amazing support!

Can you tell us a bit about what’s been happening with you – and Crow Moon – since you were longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2022, and why your agent Euan Thorneycroft is such a great fit for you and your novel?
I think 2021 was a real turning point. After winning Pitch Perfect in 2019 and being shortlisted for the Capital Crime New Voices prize, I had really high hopes that I’d find an agent and a home for the book right away. I also won a mentorship with the wonderful Jo Dickinson at Hodder and worked with her for six months on the book. Then the pandemic hit and my day job in the health service went into overdrive. I kept the writing up of course, but wasn’t getting very far.

In late 2021 I was getting a bit despondent as while agents kept saying they liked my writing, they weren’t quite sure about this particular book. So I wondered whether I would ever be published. However, that all changed over the Christmas of 2021 when I received an offer letter from my brilliant publisher Orenda Books and signed with Euan within the space of about a week. I’m sure crow magic must have had something to do with it!

I’d worked with several agents on earlier versions and had some brilliant support from many people, but in my first zoom meeting with Euan, I just felt like he was the right agent to represent me. We had a very honest conversation and I knew it was the right decision for me to work with him and A M Heath.

What inspired you to write Crow Moon, and what came first for you – plot, characters, setting, or something else entirely?

I was at a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, with a group of people who have since become great writing friends. In a workshop with Louise Welsh and Stuart MacBride, we were given a prompt. Mine was human remains in a matchbox and I had to go and write a character based on the prompt. I was immediately taken back to a story I had covered as a reporter many years before where someone had died in a fire and there was little left to bury. It was the most awful story at the time, but it sparked an idea that became central to Crow Moon. And Martha walked in fully formed with the matchbox in her pocket. It was as though a tap had been turned on in my head and the story developed from there.
Let’s talk about your main protagonist, Martha Strangeways, the investigative reporter and grieving mother who becomes embroiled in a local tragedy within her small community. How did you build this character, and which parts of her story did you find the most challenging to write?

As I said, Martha walked in to my head with the matchbox and her dogs at her side. It really was like magic. She goes to places that I walk in every day, and has a darkness in her which is driven by her own complicated background and the loss she suffers. I think the challenge was not to put her in such a low and dark place that she became unlikeable and unreachable. There had to be light for her amongst all the darkness - her son and her friendship with Orla helped bring balance, I hope.
How much does this newly-published Crow Moon differ from earlier versions, and do multiple redrafts affect your feelings about your manuscript?

All of the original story is still there, albeit it’s been through many many rewrites. I don’t really plan at all and therefore the writing process was draft and share and redraft based on feedback and suggestions. Most writers have a number of unpublished books in the drawer, where they’ve learned their craft. I don’t have that though, so this was very much a learning curve for me and while redrafts can be hard, you have to go with the process and trust that publishers know what’s needed.

Which part of the process, from writing through to publication, have you enjoyed the most, and is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Getting new words on the page is the best bit. I think because I find it so hard to plan, I just sit down and go on a new adventure on my head. It can be quite scary to face the blank screen, but something always comes and the characters take on a life of their own quite quickly.
There have been highs and lows, but honestly I’ve learned so much. I think having resilience is really key. Everyone wants it to be the best book, and keeping the faith that you’ll get there is really important.

Which novelists have influenced your writing, and what debut novels have you enjoyed recently?

In terms of influence, the Scandi authors have very much been an influence on me. I also love a good gothic yarn, which I’m sure has coloured the way I see the world. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is a brilliant writer and I hoovered up her Thora series in the early days, wishing I could write like that. I love Andrew Michael Hurley’s work, and CJ Cooke’s gothic is a triumph.

For debuts, there’s so much amazing writing out there. I loved Rebecca Netley’s The Whistling - a brilliant ghost story - and am currently listening to Jennie Godfrey’s The List of Suspicious Things, which is ace. I also recently found Weyward, which I think was Emilia Hart’s debut and I loved that too. Fellow Orenda authors I’ve loved for their debuts include Eve Smith’s brilliant The Waiting Rooms and Ronnie Turner’s modern gothic So Pretty. I could go on and on...

What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you embarked on writing Crow Moon?

Mari Hannah said to me to keep going, as it was the persistent writers who made it. She’s been a great support, as have so many other writers who’ve become friends.

On worst advice, I’m not sure. I think I have learned to limit the number of people I share drafts with as everyone has an opinion of course and as a rookie, you can feel like you have to change everything. So now, I read early stuff out to my mam (very honest feedback and a huge crime-fiction fan), my writing buddy Alison Belsham, who is brilliant for bouncing story ideas around with, and then my agent and publisher.

You signed a two-book deal with Orenda Books – what can we look forward to next: another Martha Strangeways mystery, or something completely different?

The second Martha book will be out next year. She’s taken herself slightly further north for part of the action and there’s more folklore, creepy settings and crimes! I’m loving working on it again - with everything I’ve learned from Crow Moon!

And finally, what made you decide to enter the Caledonia Novel Award 2022, and what words of encouragement would you give to other writers thinking of entering this year’s competition?

I always think the Caledonia Novel Award seems to produce talented authors and brilliant books. I was in the doldrums at the time and saw it on Twitter. I remember wondering whether I should bother as I was at a bit of a writing low and literally entered about an hour before it closed! I’m so glad I did. What a buzz to get on the list and have the recognition that this gave the words.

My advice is, just enter - what have you got to lose and you never know how far it will take you.
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