It’s a pleasure to welcome to the blog, Vena Cork. Vena is the author of The Rosa Thorn Trilogy – Thorn, The Art of Dying and Green Eye and has had two novels published this year with Endeavour Press, The Lost Ones and Toxic.
First of all I’d like to say a big thank you to Karen for inviting me to guest on her blog.
I live in London with my husband, who is also a writer, although, as an art critic, unlike me he doesn’t make things up. He writes in a room upstairs; I write in a room downstairs, and we shout to each other through the ceiling or if that’s proving difficult we text.
I started my working life as a drama teacher, but gave this up when I had the first of our four children. When my youngest child was three I acquired an Equity card, and became an actor. This didn’t work out too well so I went back to teaching. All the while however, I was writing, mainly plays, some of which were staged at the school where I worked. At some point, however, I realized that writing a novel might be a more satisfying experience, and so that’s what I did and I was lucky enough to find an agent who landed me a three book deal. Three crime novels with the same central character, Rosa Thorn followed. Then I was diagnosed with cancer and dropped out for a while, but when I recovered I started writing again.
This year I’ve had two books published by Endeavour Press, both set in London but with very dissimilar locations. The Lost Ones takes place in Notting Hill, Portobello Road during the weeks leading up to Carnival. Toxic, by contrast, is set in suburban Willesden. From the top of the hill in Roundwood Park you can see Wembley Stadium, but that’s about it as far as icons go. Unlike the wedding cake concoctions of Notting Hill, the houses in this part of Willesden are very 20th century: many houses built between the wars, and some blocks of modern flats.
Willesden is in Brent, one of the most multicultural areas of London, and as I pounded the streets waiting for inspiration to strike, I found that the image of a tower kept popping into my mind – a 21st century tower of Babel, peopled by many diverse nationalities and personalities. This tower assumed mythic proportions. It became a character in its own right – the first character in my novel. It was also clear to me that something was wrong with it. The first moment she enters the building the atmosphere of unease permeating the place is immediately clear to Persey, my main character. It’s also clear to Harry, a long-standing resident who has loved living there but who now feels a creeping sense of unease, the cause of which is a mystery to him.
Initially I imagined the tower to be fifteen or sixteen floors high. But I wanted the reader to know most of the occupants, and this would have meant writing about hundreds of people. However the image of the menacing monolith persisted: the tower had to loom large. Eventually I hit on the solution: a block of 15 flats on five floors only, but positioned on a hill, thus making it appear much larger and more formidable than it actually was.
One day, as I wandered through Willesden it struck me very forcibly that the sprawling suburb hadn’t actually been there for that long. Even in the lifetime of my great grandmother it would have been a little village in the middle of the countryside. At that moment 21st century Willesden with its brick buildings and tarmac roads seemed very insubstantial and I had this idea of the savage wildness of past millennia still lurking under the concrete, waiting to erupt.
Once I’d sorted out my tower, peopling it was easy : I had several stories waiting to be told. But there were two problems. Firstly, how to ensure that all the separate stories also interlinked to form part of the central narrative and secondly how to deal with so many different narrative voices in such a way that the reader would jump from one to another without becoming disengaged. In The Lost Ones, although there are two narrative voices, most of the time the story is seen from the main character’s point of view. With Toxic, by contrast, although I knew what the story was about, I was constantly having to ask myself who reveals what to whom and when. It often felt like crawling blindfolded through an impenetrable forest.
It’s only now when I look back on what I’ve written that I recognize that what unifies the people in the tower is loss and how to deal with it. This wasn’t a theme I consciously set out to explore. It chose itself.
Below is the opening of Toxic.
Harry Hartley was watching the sun rise over Willesden when a giant bat swooped past his balcony. A second later there was a loud crump and time stopped.
When it restarted Harry saw that the bat was Gillian Thomas from Flat 8. She lay in a spreading pool of blood on the tarmac below. The biggest shock was that it wasn’t a shock; there’d been an atmosphere in Yew Court lately. Harry was susceptible to atmospheres; it was one of the reasons he’d been such a successful teacher – he knew when things were about to kick off way before anyone else. Joyce would have said that atmospheres had nothing to do with it, that the place had gone to pot since the housing association installed Stanley Atkins as caretaker in the 1980s. Priti would probably have agreed; she was no fan of bombastic, bullying Stanley. Ironic that Joyce, had she lived, would have finally found common ground with Priti. But Harry knew it wasn’t Stanley, or the fact that the building badly needed a makeover. It was something else. He didn’t like it. Yew Court had been his home for over forty years; he was damned if he’d see it ruined.
When you come home to one life but find yourself in another…
When Persey Delaney returns to Britain after working abroad, everything has changed.
Her mother is newly-divorced and her younger sister Meg is still struggling to recover her confidence after a horrific accident.
Together, they have moved from their long-envied, prime address in Mayfair to a seedy block of flats in Willesden.
Soon Persey lives there, too.
And within weeks of Persey’s return home, strange goings-on begin to upset her already unsettling new life.
It seems that Yew Court has become a malevolent witness to secret lives.
The horror begins as the residents are subjected to a series of dreadful events, each getting more and more frightening as the days progress.
The local paper dubs Yew Court the unluckiest block of flats in London, but Persey fears that luck has nothing to do with it.
Dark forces are at work and there’s a race against time to prevent a catastrophe…
Toxic tells of how so many lives are woven by Fate into a tapestry of terror in this gripping thriller.
About the author:
Vena studied at Homerton College, Cambridge, and was one of the first female members of the Cambridge Footlights. She was an actress, playwright and teacher before becoming a full-time writer and producing the Thorn trilogy.
Thorn, the first in the trilogy, was hailed by the Guardian as ‘a compelling, dark-hued psychological thriller’, by Time Out as ‘an outstanding debut’, and by The Times as ‘one of those rare and energetic books you can’t put down and don’t want to end.’ It was followed by The Art of Dying and Green Eye, both also highly praised. The trilogy is now available from Endeavour Press.
Her new standalone novel, The Lost Ones was published on May 16, 2016 and her fifth novel, Toxic, also a standalone will appear later in 2016. Both are published by Endeavour Press.
Vena lives in London with her husband, the art critic Richard Cork. She has two sons, two daughters and a grandson.