Q: Is Riley Cairn a nom de plume?
Yes. I chose it partly due to a psychological desire to be one step removed from the publicity that follows publication. Unfortunately, today, you have to be a brand. Stephen King is a brand. JK Rowling is a brand. I felt very uncomfortable with that. I'm just me. I thought I could kill a couple of birds with one stone by using a pseudonym. I could still be at one remove and at the same time, it would offer me the scope to promote Riley Cain as a writer of really entertaining books for kids for Halloween. I have other books that I would like to write that would definitely not be for children and so ‘someone else’ will write these other books.
Q: What can you reveal about your life?
I was born in 1968 and raised in Dublin. I've always loved the city. It's my city. I did have to emigrate in the ‘80s but I came back. My writing is very strongly linked with the city. It's not that I always wanted to write a love letter to Dublin or use Dublin as a setting. But like everyone else, you tend to take the city for granted. After I came back, I began to see the city’s potential. I studied Film and International Relations at college. I work full-time and write when I have time off.
Q: Why did you become a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer. As a teenager I read Stephen King and that led me to all these older Victorian and Edwardian ghost writers. I wanted to be able to write like them. My writing style is designed to be read by candlelight. It’s slow creeping stuff rather than ‘in your face’.
However, The Halloween House gives the lie to that because those funny poems are ridiculous! They are written for children: safe scares and spooky stuff with plenty of burps and farts. When some of the poems were read in the publishing office, they caused such a laugh that the publisher took the collection on immediately. My aim was to write 31 poems, one of every day in the run up to Halloween that would entertain my nieces and nephews when they were aged between six and eight. They publisher got fantastic illustrators on board and so The Halloween House was my first book published.
I wrote Banshee Rising for my niece Caitlyn; it was my gift to her, and it was published in time for her turning 15. The heroine of the book, also called Caitlyn, is 15. I wanted it to be an entertaining story, full of thrills and spills, like a rollercoaster, and so something she would read. I'm very enthusiastic that kids should read, and not just my stuff! They should read everything; my point would be to just read. My philosophy is if you are a reader, you will always be a leader.
Q: Is there a moral dimension to your stories?
I didn't think there was at the start. I was just trying to tell entertaining stories. I always go back to the image of a roller coaster; you don't build a roller coaster for a moral or a theme, you build it for the thrills and spills.
At first, I thought that was where I was coming from. It was only in the writing of Banshee Rising that I realised that it was very much about family. It wasn’t done consciously, it happened organically. Caitlyn wants to know her background and her roots and this leads to the adventure, but it also leads her to her family. Her romantic interest and sidekick, Danny, has an ability to solve puzzles, but I also gave him a troubled home life. His father doesn't come into the story, but he has expectations on Danny that turn violent. So, you have these like-minded characters whose family lives are not happy. If you had asked me at the outset what is the theme, I couldn't have answered that. It just happened that way.
I plot my stories heavily, so that there's mystery and action. I work them very carefully to bring you to the edge, and the hairs on the back of your neck should go up, but the theme emerges organically.
Q: What moments or elements of Banshee Rising bring people to the edge?
Creepy stuff like the Silken Door. It's a passageway between worlds. The reason it's called the Silken Door is because it is covered in spiders’ webs and there is something moving between the web and the door. You have to reach through to grip the handle and I’ve created a sense to make you feel, ‘I wouldn't reach through there!’ It is plotted to build that atmosphere.
I'm a big, big fan of horror movies, but my kind of horror movies would be Hammer films and '80s horror, which are just on the edge of really unsettling. Maybe I’m getting old, but when I look at modern horror films, I think it’s just too much. Nothing is left to the imagination – all this body horror stuff; I am disturbed but I am not terrified. There is no chill. It is just disturbing. There is a difference between horror and terror. You are always wondering what’s behind The fog in John Carpenter’s film. I love that element of slow creep atmosphere, which goes right back to the horror fiction of people like HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe and all of those old writers. That's where I'm coming from.
Q: So far you have published in two different formats. Why?
The two books, The Halloween House and Banshee Rising , are published out of sequence. Banshee Rising is my first book. I tried to write for years. I never succeeded until I had this idea to do a book for my niece Caitlyn which would entertain her. Banshee Rising is a self-contained book in which I've stitched through all these elements that I think Caitlyn would love - she loves ghosts and the supernatural stuff – something in the family strain! It started with ghosts and it started in Dublin and it led me to Irish mythology with its gods and monsters.
While I was between projects, I was going through my laptop one day and found an old folder of poems from when Caitlyn and her cousins were six and seven. I had been writing these little nonsense poems, little ditties, just to entertain. Just silly stuff that would entertain kids. A number of them were Halloween poems.
The publisher was taken with the poems and that project went ahead quicker than Banshee Rising. They were able to pull everything together and get those fantastic illustrations done. So, The Halloween House became my first published book. Bookstores told me they were very pleased with the way it was moving from the outset. The Halloween House took on a life of its own. That's the reason for the difference in formats. It was not planned, it just happened.
Q: Cinema is a significant influence on your writing
I love the visual. I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s at a time when cinema was changing, and all these new directors were making things like ‘The Exorcist’ as well as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. A couple of reviews of Banshee Rising have described it as very visual in its imaginative setting. I think that plays into the whole movie aspect of scene setting and character description. That's why the Banshee in Banshee Rising has this really stark look - it is so strong visually and cinematically in my head that’s what she looks like.
Q: What are your hopes for your writing?
One is that it will be picked up by the American market where Halloween is so big. Another is that there would be a Japanese translation of Banshee Rising. If you read Banshee Rising, you’ll see that the Banshee is almost the equivalent of that haunted ghostly female in Japanese culture which I find really interesting. I've watched a few ‘60s Japanese supernatural movies. One is The Black Cat which plays into that atmospheric, heavily folklore-based tale. A famous staple of Japanese culture is The Haunting of a Well. In the movie The Ring, that is tapped into from folklore. From the folkloric element, you have this long-haired, very unsettling ghost who is usually associated with wells and water. It’s a very Japanese thing. The Banshee in Banshee Rising is a long-haired bedraggled figure who is really creepy. You only ever see one of her eyes for most of the story. If you see both, you know it means death.
Q: What is a quirky aspect of your writing?
I love silly names. Another writing project that I've put together that I haven’t done anything with yet centres on a whole series of silly names - just names I’ve put together from random places. If an unusual name tickles my imagination, I’ll try and use it. For example, in Banshee Rising one that really struck me was a character called Maelmorda. When I found the name during my research, it stuck in my head so firmly. I said I’d play with it and see what it offered. And it gave me this mad king, who is cursed. He dwells at the Silken Door, guarding it. I just thought Maelmorda speaks of something strong and dark. If a name grabs me that way, I put it aside, and I see if I can find a character for it. Maelmorda is a classic example of that.
Q: Do you have a writing process and if so, what is it?
I still have to pay the bills, so I have a daytime job. On my days off I get up early, have my coffee – I have to have my coffee to make myself human - then, depending on how I'm feeling, I listen to music as I am setting up. Music is key to my writing and helps to stimulate my imagination. I had a folder of music that instantly suggested scenes or characters to me for Banshee Rising.
I write for as long as I can. I am not the kind of person who can write for eight hours no matter what. Some days, you just look at the blank page. That's the reality. Some days you will crawl to do a paragraph. On the other hand, right now I’m working on a project and some days I can’t stop writing. It’s fantastic because you've got all these good scenes that you're stitching together. And I just go at it and go and go. At some point in the day I try to take a walk and listen to the music that I've put together for the project and see what comes to me - and stuff comes! It's really weird the way stuff comes. What I would say to people who are writing is, the more you write, the more it tends to flow. But the idea of an eight-hour writing day, well that happens sometimes but not always, you just go with the flow.
Q: What kind of music stimulates your imagination?
Because of my interest in cinema, a lot of the music I pick will be dynamic and passionate soundtracks. Something like the soundtrack to Blade Runner 2049, for example – very techno and futuristic and which was suggestive of an underworld to me. Another example is composer team Christian Vorländer and Simon Heeger of 2WEI. It is mainly instrumental and very cinematic. I get such crazy ideas by just shutting off and listening to the music. Music is very influential on what I do.
Q: A lot of writers like to come across as tortured souls. But you always come across as very positive. Inwardly is there a certain amount of turmoil or are you somebody who is just content now making your dream a reality?
It always makes me laugh when I see these images of authors looking very serious. I think that's maybe a profile thing because the publisher wants them to look like a person of gravitas. I would hardly be able to talk about my tortured soul when I'm writing about cartoon witches and werewolf snots for kids!
Writing gives me meaning. If I lost the ability to write tomorrow, I think I'd lose the ability to live. It's what I do. It gives me purpose. It's everything I am. And what a fun gift to have! Anything you read that I have put out there was mine alone to enjoy beforehand and that's fantastic. I really enjoy the process of a scene suddenly coming together and thinking: ‘Wow, I did this.’ Now, the muse helped me, but I did it. So, I don't get all serious about writing, though I am very serious about the fact that writing is what I do and I'm going make sure I enjoy the process.
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