Lisa Heathfield on her debut novel and why she’s fascinated by the dark side
PUBLISHED: 13:17 02 October 2015 | UPDATED: 13:17 02 October 2015
Brighton author Lisa Heathfield entered the discerning Young Adult (YA) market with her debut novel about life in a cult. She tells Jenny Mark-Bell how she germinated the idea for Seed, and why she’s fascinated by the dark side
“I was writing another book and Pearl [the protagonist] appeared to me one day, peeking round corners and saying ‘write my book, write my book’.” So says Lisa Heathfield, the Brighton author of the paradise lost parable Seed. Pearl stands on the cusp of womanhood while negotiating what that means in her secretive, nature-worshipping community led by the svengali-like Papa S.
It is a fine book, recalling for a younger audience the baleful biblical subversion of Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Lisa says she wrote the book without knowing where she was heading. A prolific writer (she recently completed a book in a month), she says “I started to write and all I had was Pearl. I knew she lived in a cult and that’s all. She told me the story.”
To call Lisa a debut author is slightly misleading. While no-one – not even her husband, a member of Brighton band Clowns – had read her work, she has been writing since the age of nine: “When my writing spirit comes in I can write solidly for five hours, which is my favourite thing to do. I drop the kids at school, do the washing up, and I handwrite, just sit down and…”
Lisa, a Catholic, didn’t want to write an anti-religious book, which is why the cult in Seed worships nature. “Most cults are religious, and therefore as a reader looking in, you kind of feel anti-religious because it’s quite a destructive thing.” She therefore avoided any reference to mainstream religion, to the extent of avoiding blasphemous exclamations. “But still, people review it and say it’s a religious cult.”
In the novel, adults are present but unattainable – the children of the cult are unaware of the identities of their parents. Likewise, adults are often given the opportunity to rectify the situation, but fail to take it – perhaps because by joining the cult they have abdicated personal responsibility and assumed a child-like dependence on their leader.
But what motivates that leader? Lisa says: “Everyone asks if I did loads of research on cults, and I didn’t, but I did read a book about Charles Manson five years ago. He is that sort of character: a bit young, a bit handsome. I think though with vulnerable people, if that person comes along saying, ‘come with me and I’ll make you happy’, you think why not? That’s the thing about Seed: without all the bad bits, is it okay? Is it okay to cut yourself off from society and live in a lovely way? Is it okay to cut kids off from the world? The kids are growing up in a really safe, loving environment. At what point does it go wrong?”
Seed has some adult themes, including sexuality, mental illness and violence, and Lisa says she feels her own 12-year-old is too young to read it, although she says: “I think the really dark stuff goes over their head if they are too young for it.” Her next book is crossover fiction, although she says many of her existing readers are adults anyway. She’s a voracious reader of Young Adult (YA) fiction herself: “I trained to be a teacher years ago and for part of the course they got us to read two YA books a week. I had only been out of my teenage years about four or five years and there I was, back reading these books. I kind of never stopped, because they are so brilliant and thought-provoking.” She names some recent and perennial favourites: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandie Nelson; The Earth is Singing by Vanessa Curtis; anything by David Almond; Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; Enid Blyton; and an all-time favourite, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: “I re-read it again recently for the first time in years and it is just amazing.”
Lisa and her husband used to run a café, but she is now happily writing full time. “It’s lovely, I drop the kids off at school and then I just write. It’s blissful and a bit too good to be true.” She is a dutiful writer, though, and seems to be full of inspiration: “The book that I wrote in a month really took it out of me: the character wouldn’t let me watch telly, she wouldn’t let me read a book, she wouldn’t let me write anything else, nothing. She is lovely but she was so determined to be heard. My hand swelled up and then the other one swelled in sympathy so I had these really big, achey hands – it was weird.”
She says the ideas keep on coming, but “you do doubt yourself and wonder whether they’re good enough. But I love writing so much that I don’t really mind writing a book if it’s not going to be published. I just have to write.”
Seed, published by Electric Monkey, is £7.99. Lisa’s next book will be published in the spring
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