If You Chase the Devil You Just Might Catch Him
“Unspoilt. A place where children grow up at one with nature, in all ways safe. To journey to Lark is to step back in time.”
This is the radio ad that catches Deborah Kendrick’s attention at the beginning of Julie Mayhew’s IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES. She and her teenage daughter, Viola, have been desperately trying to recover from deep personal tragedy, but nothing has worked, and maybe this is the answer. Someplace isolated, away from the world, “safe.”
But Lark is in no way safe. An island way out in the North Atlantic, the fog is so thick seven months of the year that no boats can get there before April or after August: “By mid-September, you could lose sight of your own feet on the coastal paths.” The way of life that breeds for the small community there is simpler, yes, but with its own customs and beliefs—“We’re not Catholic, but not Protestant, either, really. We’re not anything. We’re just…our own thing.”
Onto the island comes not only the Kendricks, but a charismatic new teacher for the school named Ben Hailey. Soon rumors and whispers begin to spread like wildfire:
- Three of his 16-year-old students, nicknamed the Eldest Girls, have come under his spell.
- So has one of the women teachers.
- The Eldest Girls are participating in secret pagan rituals.
- The new girl, Viola, has joined them.
- They are practicing witchcraft.
- Something must be done.
But the secrets are not the girls’ alone. So many things are being hidden on Lark, so many transgressions, some of them even at the very basis of their society. There is a devil at work in Lark, all right, but it is not the one they think—and the sacrifice it requires will be even greater than they expected.
IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES is a haunting work, filled with explorations into the power of lies, the consequences of silence, and the intensity that can envelop the relationships between teenage girls—a book that feels at once timeless and very modern. What inspired Mayhew to write it? “The book originally evolved from a conversation online. I’d been following my editor, Alison Hennessey at Bloomsbury, on Twitter for a while, though I had never met her. She posted, saying she wanted to read a modern take on witches and the idea really grabbed me. I’ll be honest—I’m usually dismissive of manuscript callouts by agents and editors on social media. So often, they’re ludicrously story-specific and I’m wary of the pitfalls of writing to order. However, her request resonated with me, so I replied. We met, and I talked through my theories on why witchcraft would appeal to the contemporary teenage protagonists that were forming in my mind. I also described the island setting where these girls might live. I’m fascinated by closed communities, and I suppose all of my previous books deal with this idea in some way. It wasn’t until the #MeToo movement rose up a few months later that I really understood what I wanted to tackle with this book.
“The island is fictional. Geographically and logistically, it’s a jigsaw puzzle of influences from the various islands that I have visited and researched. As a child, we holidayed on many of the small islands off Great Britain, and I particularly remember the experience of visiting the yet smaller islands within these archipelagos—wonderful worlds within worlds! Like Sark, for example, off Guernsey, which is only two miles square, has no cars, but maintains its own set of laws. More recently I visited the tiny island of La Graciosa in the Canaries, and what struck me was the way locals talked about their necessary but ‘hectic’ trips to the mainland, making the holiday isle of Lanzarote sound like London during rush hour. The landscape of Lark is influenced by St Michael’s Mount, off Cornwall, with its cobbled harbor, windswept nature and stately home, while for remoteness, I looked to Tristan Da Cunha, in the middle of the South Atlantic, an island which is extremely hard to get to. As for the people and the community, they are entirely my own creation. They are a warning, if you like, of what we risk becoming if we shut ourselves off from the world and don’t make ourselves accountable.
“The Crucible was definitely a leaping-off point, leading me to question why witchcraft still appeals and scares people in equal measure. Megan Abbott was certainly an author my editor and I bonded over. We both love the tension and economy of her writing. Dare Me, in particular, is stunning. I grew up reading Stephen King books alongside the Sweet Valley High series, which may account for my interest in exploring female friendships in very dark settings. Margaret Atwood’s work has been a constant on my bookshelf. I read her as a teenager to understand what being a woman would entail—and I still do. She has the ability to take the personal and the political and make it gripping.”
When the author mentions her previous books, she means four young-adult novels, each of which deal in harrowing themes of their own: denial and family myth in Red Ink, the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Mother Tongue, a girl caught between truth and deception in the alt-history thriller The Big Lie. She did nothing different, however, when she sat down to write her first “adult” thriller.
“I always begin with images and cover the wall in front of my desk with postcards that bring to mind the world and enable me to look my characters in the eye. Then I go to music, compiling a soundtrack that transports me to the setting and resonates with the themes in the book. I start with those elements because they tap into the subconscious, rather than the logical part of the brain, which is too concerned with spelling, syntax and grammar. The best turns of phrase, I believe, come from a place of honesty and feeling, rather than any attempts to be clever and correct. Writing is a constant battle to keep my desire to be impressive quiet.
“I never intentionally wrote for a younger audience—by that I mean I never thought I must talk down to the reader, making things easier or simpler. However, my past titles focused solely on the perspectives of the young protagonists, and their immediate feelings, meaning the books were more meaningful to teen readers. In IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES, I wanted to delve into perceptions of the young, rather than the psyche of young people themselves—how the adults view the generation coming up behind them. Perhaps this book allowed me greater moral ambiguity because it is aimed squarely at an adult audience, but I’m not so sure I have ever offered clear answers to the difficult questions my books can raise. Those answers, ultimately, are for the reader to decide upon.”
In an author’s note about Red Ink, Mayhew once wrote, “My brain doesn’t work in a straightforward A-to-B kind of way. It jumps from here to there to ‘Oh, look, what’s that?’
“What I was trying to articulate then, I think, but didn’t quite understand, was how a story will dictate its own structure. In Red Ink, my protagonist, Melon, is reeling from the death of her mother, while piecing together a fractured story of who her mother really was. Because Melon’s state of mind and her memories are fragmented, the plot naturally unravels on the page in this way too. The form follows the feelings. Because IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES is about seeing—who sees what, and how they see it—I knew I needed to incorporate different points of view. The island voice is omniscient and gossipy. Leah’s voice is first-person and direct, borrowing heavily from the Bible stories she was brought up on. Viola’s story, meanwhile, is told in a close third-person, as if she is being watched, because, well, she is. For the book’s overall structure, I turned to the tarot cards that intrigue the island’s three eldest teenage girls. The 22 cards of the Major Arcana narrate a life from naïveté to worldly understanding—that is the journey the book’s characters, and the island, ultimately take.
“I was just thinking last week about a scene with woodlice in IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES, and realized that subliminally it was influenced by where I work. I have a writing shed in the garden, well-appointed with wi-fi and a heater, but it attracts endless woodlice who manage to get in under the door. If there’s anything to share from that, it’s that every real-life event, big or small, might just be a chapter waiting to be written.”
Impressively, the worlds of IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES and the young-adult novels aren’t the only ones she’s explored. An actress turned writer, she has also produced a prodigious amount of other work—plays, radio dramas, short stories, and now she’s writing and directing short films. How does she choose which form fits a story best?
“After writing a novel, the comparative brevity of a short story or a radio drama is very attractive! Likewise, after writing a screenplay, which is effectively just the blueprint for a film, I ache to immerse myself in the writing of a novel where I can dictate every detail of the world. Changing mediums keeps my perspective fresh and I always have options for where a story will find its best fit. Having said that, I’m currently in the early stages of adapting one of my books into a film, a book that was previously a radio drama. It’s fascinating seeing how a story might engage differently with an audience who is consuming it in a different way. As a wise producer recently told me, it’s never the ‘what’ of an idea, but the ‘how.’”
Changing mediums was how she made many of her first contacts as well. “As I said, I got to know my current editor via Twitter. I often curse social media for swallowing time, but meeting Alison isn’t the first instance of a collaboration forging online. One of my most successful radio plays found its producer on Twitter, and I got to know my agent, Louise Lamont, on there too, chatting about a project I was researching set in Russia. Louise and I eventually met when we agreed to rendezvous by the cakes at a fancy publishing party I wasn’t really supposed to be at. So, it seems my suspect advice to upcoming writers is to tweet and to gatecrash.”
Less suspect, perhaps: “The advice I would give my rookie self (advice I still give myself on difficult days) is to just focus on the writing—the actual doing of it. That is the only thing I truly have control over, and it is always where the joy lies. All the rest—agents, publishers, events, reviews—as lovely as they can be, are just potential cherries on top of something I have the power to make delicious all by myself. If that isn’t a metaphor stretched too far!”
For the immediate future, that “actual doing” will also encompass two new books. One is another thriller, “about a group of girls again, but this time they’re middle-aged—and should probably know better.” The second is yet another first for Mayhew—her first work of nonfiction: “A biography of a British silent actress who became a huge star, then disappeared. It’s a mix of mystery and memoir, and has involved watching reels and reels of old film in the basement of the British Film Institute.”
It’s obvious that Mayhew’s creative universe will continue to grow, but whatever form it takes— we’ll be there.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: