Holly Seddon is a freelance journalist whose work has been published on national newspaper websites, magazines and leading consumer websites. Try Not To Breathe is her debut novel and has already been hailed as ‘the most original psychological thriller of 2016.’ While according to Tess Gerritsen, one of my favourite authors, this novel has: ‘A razor-sharp, fast paced plot and wonderfully complex characters. Not since The Girl on the Train have I been so captivated by a work of suspense.’
Naturally, my expectations were high and I was delighted to find that Try Not To Breathe delivered:
Alex is sinking. Slowly but surely, she’s cut herself off from everything but her one true love – drink. Until she’s forced to write a piece about a coma ward, where she meets Amy.
Amy is lost. When she was fifteen, she was attacked and left for dead in a park. Her attacker was never found. Since then, she has drifted in a lonely, timeless place. She’s as good as dead, but not even her doctors are sure how much she understands.
Alex and Amy grew up in the same suburbs, played the same music, flirted with the same boys. And as Alex begins to investigate the attack, she opens the door to the same danger that has left Amy in a coma…
I’m interested to know where the idea for Try Not To Breathe emerged from. Seddon tells me that it was while cooking dinner, some years back, when a health programme on the radio caught her attention. They were “talking about persistent vegetative states. Listening to the stories from loved ones left behind – unable to grieve but still having lost the person they loved – really floored me. And that’s where the character of Amy came from. Amy was a vibrant, brave 15-year-old in 1995. In 2010, she’s in the same hospital ward she’s been in for 15 years. A hot mess of a journalist called Alex stumbles upon her and becomes obsessed with working out what happened all those years ago.”
With regard to writing, Seddon explains, “I like to have a framework – I have to know the beginning, middle and end – but I don’t like to plan too much detail. I think the detail comes when you get to know the characters and they lead you in a few different directions.” A little of Seddon’s teenage years appears in the character of Amy, “the music and the grand plans. Amy feels desperate for a bigger life than her small town offered, I can’t deny the similarities!”
When Try Not To Breathe hit the UK bookshelves, Seddon explains that although she was thrilled, she also felt a little weird and detached. She explains, “I live in Amsterdam,” so while her “friends and family were sharing pictures of themselves with the books or pointing at the display in shops,” she wasn’t actually there. “I was so touched by their excitement, but it almost felt like it was happening to them rather than me.” But everything changed when the day after publication she “flew into Heathrow to do an author event as part of WHSmith Fresh Talent and as soon as I was through security, I marched into the nearest WHSmith and took a giggling selfie with MY BOOK.” After that, “I had to have a stiff cup of tea. It was too overwhelming, I couldn’t process it.”
The next novel, a stand-alone, is already under way. “It’s a suspense novel that focuses on a woman whose wide, exciting world has been shrunk down to a narrow life spent watching her neighbours from behind her curtains. She’s fearful, and rightly so. Someone is pursuing her as dark childhood secrets may finally be coming to roost. It’s set in Manchester, a city I love that will always be special to me as my husband lived there.”
Many writers have set routines, yet Seddon, a mother of four, admits to not having one and I wonder how she manages to achieve so much. “My writing gets done whenever and however I can get it done. Generally at night on the sofa, or when my littlest child has a nap. As deadlines loom in, it can also be at the crack of dawn in the kitchen or the wee small hours – anywhere that the laptop light won’t wake the household. To be honest, I was the same with journalism and even school work years ago. It’s always a patchwork and occasionally a panic.”
Rather than a notebook to keep snippets that intrigue her, Seddon uses the modern equivalent: “a very long note on my iPhone. I keep a long running note about my work in progress, but I have a separate note for story ideas which can be as short as a couple of words or a real brain dump. One time I found a line on there that said “woman murdered and the twist is, a squirrel did it”, which I have no recollection of writing. So it appears I do this in my sleep between fever dreams too…”
Writing short stories since childhood, I ask if she considers it a good way for new writers to cut their teeth before tackling a novel. “I think any practice is good practice. Short stories are a great way to experiment with styles and different genres. I’ve often written dystopian sci-fi short stories, which are obviously very different to the novels. Short story writing is an incredible discipline, you have to be very precise and not waste a word. That’s a great skill for any writer, fiction or otherwise!”
When I enquire as to whether any of her short stories or some of their characters might develop into a novel, Seddon admits that she hadn’t considered it but that, “I certainly had a few ideas that I thought could be novels but I realised would work better as shorter stories, and the other way round. As yet they’re all just on my long note though!”
While writing, Try Not to Breathe, Seddon tells me that when she was flagging she would “read interviews from debut authors who had found agents and got their books published, even though it was incredibly tough. That was inspiring!”
Which led nicely on to my final question: What one piece of advice would she offer new writers? “Stick with it. Above all else, even if it takes you ten years to write a single piece of work, stick with it. You can’t improve something that doesn’t exist, and you certainly can’t get it published. Don’t let anyone try to put you off.”
(c) Susan Condon
Try Not To Breathe is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Susan Condon is currently working on her second novel while her first searches for a home. Her short stories have won numerous awards including first prize in the Jonathan Swift Award and for the past four years she has been long-listed in the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include My Weekly, as well as the Ireland’s Own, Circle & Square and South of the County: New Myths and Tales anthologies.