Writer’s Block With Helen Moorhouse

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author HELEN MOORHOUSE about GHOST STORIES, boarding school and writing FOUR NOVELS

Photograph by Circus Photography

Helen Moorhouse is the author of four paranormal novels, as well as a freelance commercial voiceover artist and copywriter. Her new book, the spellbinding Ever This Day, was inspired by her time as a teenage boarder in the Brigidine Convent, Mountrath in the 1980s. While the school itself wasn’t haunted, Helen has experienced some eerily unexplained activity at home and at work that has served her well as a writer. Well-practiced in the art of suspense, the author’s hair-raising words have naturally been critically acclaimed. Her third novel Sing Me to Sleep (2013) won particularly positive praise. “Helen Moorhouse helped restore my faith in intelligent writing that has the ability to fully draw the reader into the story, and believe the unbelievable,” says broadcaster Jonathan Healy.

Helen has racked up an impressive back catalogue of writing experience, in addition to her achievements as an author and the voiceover work she records in her home studio. To date, she has been a contributor with the Irish Independent, the Irish Examiner, You magazine, theweddingplanner.ie and brideandjoy.ie. She has penned copy for such radio stations as Galway Bay FM, Classic Hits 4FM and Sunshine 1038, along with numerous brochures and websites.

Helen Moorhouse lives with her husband and four daughters in Dublin. She is currently writing her fifth novel.

Ever This Day (€14.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I live in north Dublin – Drumcondra/Whitehall direction. We moved here from East Wall about seven years ago when my second daughter was born and I love it. It’s close to everything – town, the M50, the airport. We’ve got both Omni and Artane Castle shopping centres close by, and access to so many places like Drumcondra, Fairview, Clontarf and Killester. There are always new places opening up to try, and lovely parks and amenities to bring the kids to. I’ve got four daughters aged nine, seven and three-year-old twins, so daily life is a little hectic and it’s always a rush to get the six of us out of the house. Eating out has become something of a rare pleasure so when we do, we tend to get good food for good value – somewhere like Casa Pasta in Clontarf. On the rare occasion that my husband and I get to go out together, we like to try somewhere new, so we don’t have a favourite place, as such. If I was to pick, I’d probably go somewhere like The Winding Stair. My best friend and I used to spend hours drinking coffee and gossiping there when we were in college, and it’s lovely to go back now to that lovely clattery atmosphere and fabulous food. Because my husband and I are both self-employed, our weeknights are often taken up with work so we have a policy that Friday night is takeaway night. We get amazing buffalo-style wings from The Washerwoman in Glasnevin, or a Firehouse pizza and open a bottle of wine and just catch up with each other once the girls are in bed. We have some great coffee places locally too, like Ebb and Flow along the coast in Clontarf, and one of my absolute pleasures is to stop off at The Nuthouse in Killester after the school run and pick up a cappuccino. Gaby and the crew there are just brilliant, and always have a chat and a smile – and know what I want the second I come in the door.

On roots

I grew up in Mountmellick, Co Laois which is about 10k from Portlaoise. However, because I went to boarding school and then moved away for college straight after, I’ve actually lived away for longer than I lived there. Whenever I smell turf smoke, however, I’m transported straight back home. We had open fires or the kitchen range lit in the house most of the year, and my father – like so many people locally – used to bring his own turf from the bog. The smell of gorse too – that lovely coconutty aroma (even though coconut itself is evil!) just smells like summer to me, and takes me back to drives and walks up into the Sliabh Bloom mountains which are absolutely beautiful. Laois is a complete hidden gem, with gorgeous walks and unexpectedly stunning scenery. Of course you can’t think of Mountmellick without thinking of our famous Christmas tree in the town square. Locally, it’s claimed as the biggest Christmas tree in Ireland and the biggest in Europe and the light sequences have been in place since the 1960s. I still get a real thrill when I see the lights switching from a bell to a Christmas cracker to coloured rows, and the four-sided crib at the base. I try to bring the girls to see it when I can, just to give them a little taste of my Christmases as a child which were really special.

On creating

I am lucky enough to have a little room at the front of the house which we use as a sort of study. It also serves as the room where stuff goes when it has no other place to fit, and a guest bedroom. As well as my desk and computer, we keep the “good” dining table in here, along with very crowded bookshelves. There’s also a comfy chair and sofa which is handy to escape to. On the walls hang a copy of the cover of my first novel, The Dead Summer, which my husband had framed and had it left on the doorstep one Christmas morning as a lovely surprise. There’s also school photos of the girls – it’s lovely being able to see them grow year by year from my desk; there’s a framed photo of a little Roman side street restaurant which we took when we were footloose and fancy free; and there are some lovely drawings from the girls stuck about the place. There’s also lots of important little things stashed in here like a lot of vinyl, back issues of music magazines, my mother’s platters that I use at Christmas time – plus we keep all the festive goodies in here too so as December draws in it gets full of advent calendars, boxes of Quality Street, bottles of glühwein, scented candles – it’s a real little wonderland!

On bookshops

When I’m in West Cork, I always do my best to get to Kerr’s Bookshop in Clonakilty when I can. I always feel drawn in walking past it. It’s small, but perfectly formed, and has this wonderfully relaxed and welcoming feel. You just want to browse for ages and they have such a huge and varied stock – from gorgeous coffee table photo books, to bestsellers, to something new or different to try. The staff are always brilliant too – chatty and friendly and knowledgeable. It’s such a treat to spend some time there, and you never know what you’re going to find.

On her nightstand

Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches is in the pile, and I’m dying to get round to Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties. Stephen King was a huge deal in our house when I was growing up and I cut my horror teeth on books like Salem’s Lot and The Stand. There are also some unfinished books there – Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, for example. I adore Bryson’s writing and observations – he has made me literally cry with laughter. I read Notes from A Small Island shortly after it was published, so to revisit Britain with him twenty years later is a sort of personal journey for me too. I also have Richard Ayoade’s Ayoade on Ayoade in there. I just think he’s incredibly talented and intelligent as well as funny. I also keep a copy of Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note on my bedside table to dip in and out of when I get five minutes. Sometimes I just sit on the end of my bed and read one letter to catch my breath. It’s such a fascinating collection of writing, and often very inspiring.

On spooky inspiration

I think ghost stories are just so satisfying to read – they’ve got everything, loss, sadness, regret, revenge, mystery, ultimate resolution and, deep down, we all love the thrill of a little fright, don’t we? Personally, I’m afraid of everything – of every creak and little breeze, but there’s something thrilling about that too. As a writer, the possibilities presented to you when you open yourself up to there being an afterlife, to there being something out there other than our day to day, are endless. Plus, we’re Irish, and the ghost story is deeply embedded in us – púcas and banshees and being taken away by the fairies – the fireside story is as much part of our history as our language and music.

My five years in boarding school were the inspiration for Ever This Day but sadly our convent had nothing more frightening to offer than the fish pie on a Friday! Of course there were spooky corridors and rooms where you didn’t want to go in the dark – and lots of glowing crucifixes attached to cubicle walls (actual glow-in-the-dark crucifixes!). I had to invent the convent ghost in my book.

I’ve never actually seen a ghost, but I haven’t given up hope that I will someday. I’ve had a couple of unusual experiences though. In the house I grew up in, there was an unused attic space above the bedroom I used to share with my sisters and at night we often heard a noise like something falling up there – sometimes like a little shower of pebbles landing on the floor, and other times big thumps like bricks that had been dislodged.

We just assumed that it was maybe rats or pigeons or mice or masonry crumbling off the old walls or something similar and actually got so used to it we’d completely ignore it. Once, however, we actually climbed up to have a look and to our shock, the space was completely empty and nothing whatsoever was disturbed – not even a bit of brick dust or an animal dropping. To this day, we don’t know what made the sounds up there at night.

At another time, I worked in a radio station down in Cork which was housed in an old Christian Brothers School and was allegedly haunted by a student who had died tragically there. I worked night shifts in the newsroom for a while and used to regularly see the lift travel up and down by itself and also see the internal extensions light up on the phone when there wasn’t anyone else in the building. Most of the staff there had experienced all of this at one point or another – it was very widely acknowledged. On one occasion in particular, all of my equipment in the newsroom turned itself off and back on again over the course of a single night, but not at the same time – the TV, the recording equipment – even my minidisc player, in the middle of a bulletin. It had never happened before and never did again, so I really do wonder if something or someone was mucking about with me. The place was very unnerving at nighttime actually and at the end of my shift I used to literally fling myself down the three flights of stairs and out the front door as quickly as humanly possible.

@SophieGrenham

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