SoSoGay Interview, 15th December 2013
A while ago, we reviewed The Ghost Hunters, the debut novel from Neil Spring which focuses on the adventures of paranormal investigator Harry Price at the infamous Borley Rectory. We were immediately taken with Spring's writing, which so perfectly blended fiction and reality in a way which made it all the more dramatic and enthralling.
To date, the book has sold over 16,000 copies both in print and electronically, so we simply had to get back in touch with Neil and pick his brains about the book.
So So Gay: Tell us about what inspired you to write The Ghost Hunters?
Neil Spring: 'It’s a ghost story, based on a ghost story,' I explain, whenever anyone asks what the book’s about. But that’s not to imply that this is your average, run of the mill tale about a spooky old house. The novel is a commentary on a bygone age - a war-torn nation, beside itself with grief, longing for purpose and hope.
Three years ago, I visited the Harry Price Magical Library at the University of London, Senate House, where shadows stalk the dusty stacks and secrets linger. This collection is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, complete with rare and ancient volumes on the arts of magic and summoning ghosts.
I went because I wanted to learn more about the man who created it: the main character in my novel, Harry Price, who promised the nation that he would uncover the truth about life after death, and was made famous because of his investigation of Borley Rectory, which he dubbed 'The Most Haunted House in England'.
There is obviously a lot of research behind your book; how long did it take you to write?
Three years. Much of that was research. It went through several drafts, too. An intensive process and the result of a very curtailed social life. But worth every second!
Tell us about Borley Rectory. What do you think of the paranormal activity people have claimed occurred there?
The Borley Rectory haunting has it all. 'The Most Haunted House in England'? A house so haunted that objects frequently fly through the air unbidden, and locals avoid the grounds for fear of facing the spectral nun that walks there… It's the perfect ghost story: a cast of complex, competing characters and a dark, terrifying legend.
What’s interesting to me isn’t what the story tells us about spirituality and life after death, but rather, what it tells us about the living and the era they inhabited. The characters at Borley, the people who interacted with Harry Price at his Laboratory, were part of grieving nation – in some ways a desperate nation – that needed something to believe in after the atrocities of the First World War. It was an era choked with grief and longing for hope. And there is no case that better highlights the essence of the age than Borley Rectory.
To use your own vernacular from the book, are you a believer?
Yes. My research for the book has convinced me beyond doubt that there are some occurrences within nature that science cannot yet explain. Of course, that doesn't mean science will never explain these events - but some of the stories I have heard… take some explaining!
We see through the eyes of Sarah Grey, who had a very close relationship with Price. What do you make of their unique partnership?
The Ghost Hunters isn't just Harry’s story. It is principally the story that belongs to his love story. A young woman called Sarah Grey has just returned to London from Paris, out of love and out of luck. She, like many women her age, lost her father to the trenches, and is searching for a purpose, some meaning that goes beyond the budding frivolities of the late 1920s. Watching her mother be taken in by spiritualist mediums, she finds that purpose in Harry Price. Price was a discoverer who was determined to prove the truth about life after death. To others he was a fierce sceptic, the scourge of every spiritualist medium in London with something to hide. I needed a character who was as intrigued by Harry Price as we are. Someone who knew him, perhaps even intimately. So I decided to tell his story through the eyes of his fictional secretary. Price was brilliant and ambitious, impatient, selfish and unreliable, charming and riddled with contradictions. It was easy to see why a young woman would be attracted to him.
Your blend of fiction and fact was one of the things we loved most about your story. What made you want to create a story that is based on true events?
Historical fiction grants you a different sort of freedom. It enables you to go back and re-imagine these people who loved and lived, and create your own interpretation as to their motivations. In Harry Price’s case, I wanted to know: why was he so determined to prove the truth about life after death? And why were so many eminent psychologists and scientists prepared to follow him on that quest?
I plundered the archives, re-discovered his many investigations, his letters and articles. I wanted to explore the many aspects of this fascinating character and discover what set him on his path of investigation into the unknown.
But the more I read, the more I discovered about Price’s private life and his curious, contradictory beliefs, which oscillated between skepticism and belief. And the more intrigued I became.
Did you ever want to embellish the facts a little to tell a slightly different story, or do you think the reality is more captivating?
It isn't true to assume that just because you are writing about people who lived and actual events, that the creative process is any easier. Obviously, historical facts provide you with a base, but that base needs to be explored through an original narrative voice, with its own interpretation, as well as a complex cast of supporting characters.
At the same time, when you stop to consider that you are writing about real events, the hand of history occasional forces you to go back, to reconsider, to ask yourself: 'Have I been fair to this character? Is this how they should be remembered?' You feel a duty to history and to them. But ultimately, as a writer, your first duty is to your reader and plot, and the integrity of the piece as a standalone work of art.
The generation that created the Borley Rectory legend could probably never have imagined that seventy years later we would still be talking about rambling old house, where candlesticks were hurled across rooms, witnesses turned out of bed, and mystery writing appeared on the walls. But here we are. The famous gates to that place are about to be re-opened, but I have used detailed footnotes and a lengthy afterword to explain what is real and what is not.
Do you want to revisit this genre in a future book, or do you have something else in mind?
My next book will revisit the genre - though in a very different way. I’m halfway through writing it now, so stay tuned for that. I’m incredibly excited about it. In some ways, it’s a story that’s been in my head since a teenager - and it is also based on true, terrifying events.
Is there anything you want to say to your fans and the people who supported you thus far?
Thank you - to everyone. I get so many emails asking for advice about writing and publishing, and the best piece of advice I can give is: if you want to be published, keep at it. Re-write. And never stop trying.
A real class act - we loved getting the answers to some of the questions we were just dying to ask and it helped reinforce how much we loved The Ghost Hunters, which we called a wonderful gem of a book.
Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilSpring