It started in a dark, closed room. Me, alone with some police evidence tapes, spooling through images. Marking up time codes, the numbers burnt into the pictures in a hidden way the public can’t see when they’re transmitted on TV.
Making notes of useful shots we could make into sequences. Seeing with my own eyes the evidence of what happened. What he did. What that man did.
I was working closely with Cambridgeshire Police as they were gathering evidence for the Soham case. A school caretaker called Ian Huntley had murdered two little girls. Ten years old and full of dazzling life. That man took everything those little girls had away from them. Destroyed their families. Eviscerated a community. Horrified a nation.
I was leading the BBC News coverage of the case. And it affected me profoundly.
As the months wore on, we learned more about what happened, and the mind and motives of that man. A picture of a psychopath emerged. Repeated behaviours, perverse inclinations, monstrous outcomes. I cried myself to sleep, privately, and often.
In the years that followed I wanted to learn more about what makes us human. What makes us do what we do. The heart, the brain, the soul. The nuances and subtleties and differences between us. Whether evil is born or made.
I had an opportunity to learn about the different disciplines in psychology by training as an Executive Coach at the BBC while doing my day job. I went on to take my learning further – and found out more about the potential darkness of the human soul. And I learned a lot about how our environments influence us, as well as how certain things are intrinsic to us. But also the plasticity of the brain; and the possibility of change. Nature versus nurture. Our in-built preferences and the things we can transform.
And all the while, I was reading, reading, reading. And writing, writing, writing. As a TV producer and journalist, I had been a professional writer and creative for more than twenty years. Ever since I was a little girl I had written almost every day. And I still do today. Little aperçus, things I am feeling or noticing; poems and prose pieces.
My training as a literary critic as a student at Oxford shaped me and inspired me. Over the years, I kept coming back to texts I had discovered while I was there. The pieces that lifted me, the verses that helped me make sense of the world and its pain. The lines that gave me solace and comfort through periods of intense difficulty in my own personal life.
All these influences began to percolate together somehow. The life of a psychopath. The workings of the mind. The sometime darkness – and the ephemerality – of humanity. The ability of literature to light up the world, illuminate understanding, and provide succour. All these threads were coming together and I knew I needed to write a story to share with others what I was feeling. And I needed closure, catharsis.
And with that, the idea for Seas of Snow was born.
Written with the duality of two protagonists, an evil man and an innocent little girl, the story is set in a sleepy village in 1950s Tyneside. The book dances through time, backwards and forwards between the literary reveries and physical abuses of the young girl, Gracie; and the old woman of today, frail and isolated in a nursing home. Billie Harper, Gracie’s childhood friend, is the only solid presence in her life, and seemingly the only constant. Diaries and poetry books bind the story and the characters.
It is a story of lost innocence, betrayal and broken trust. It is a story of consequences.
Certain objects act as a touchstone between the memories of Gracie’s childhood life and the stark realities of the old woman’s existence. A crucifix, a locket, a perfume bottle, a piece of embroidery, a curl of hair and the cinnamon scent of books weave the times and places of the story together.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s dragons and princesses prose poem becomes a talisman for Gracie, tying in with her childhood games with Billie. And as she discovers his poetry, her fascination for the fact he wrote his own epitaph inspires her to write her own. Suddenly life is beginning to take on a new sense of meaning and understanding. But it is her uncle Joe who carries the momentum of the story. He intrudes on her while she takes a bath – a tableau that gradually unfolds through intermittent, evolving scenes as the book progresses. The scent of lemons in the air from the bubble bath reprises the first sensory impact Gracie had on Joe – as he locks the door and refuses to leave.
Seas of Snow is also a love letter to literature. Thematic influences include the paralysis and inability to act of Hamlet. How a person’s reluctance to face up to truth and do what is right can wreak such havoc and destruction. Literary influences include Nabokov’s Lolita. I have always been mesmerised by the understatement of the writing in this novel – how despite the apparent salaciousness of the first chapters, what emerges as the book unfolds is how the writer leaves so much up to the imagination of the reader. Seas of Snow does something similar. There is a subtlety in some of the most brutal scenes. The reader pieces together the full horror of what is unfolding; there is a deliberate delicacy in the writing.
As a TV producer for many years (I have produced, written, directed some of most extraordinary people including Sir David Frost, Sir David Attenborough, the actor James Nesbitt, the Blur bassist now cheesemaker Alex James; Rory Bremner, Fiona Bruce and so on) – I think, and write, in filmic scenes. So the chapters of Seas of Snow are very short and accessible. Ideal for snatches before bed time or a read on the commute. I think and I write in a very visual way, which I have been told is very visceral for readers.
As a reader, I have also experienced too many apparently great books over the years with annoyingly trite or unsatisfying endings. So I worked hard to create an ending that would make reading my book well worth doing. Now Seas of Snow is out there, launching on March 9th, I wait with baited breath to find out if I have succeeded…
(c) Kerensa Jennings
About Seas of Snow:
1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.
As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations.
But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?
Pick up your copy online here!
Published by Penguin, Sea of Snows will be in bookshops from Thursday 9th 2017.