It can be gone in the blink of an eye… for all of us
Julia Wallis Martin’s latest novel Dancing with the Uninvited Guest is dedicated to the memory of her first husband, Terry Flaherty, who died in a road accident in 1977. He was twenty-two years old.
A widow at twenty, there was nothing initial about the shock. It lasted for eighteen months then this normal, apparently down-to-earth woman started visiting mediums.
For four years, she travelled up and down the country trying ‘everything imaginable’ to make contact with her dead husband. Julia never came close but she did come to several damning conclusions, which are explored with devastating effect in the pages of Dancing with the Uninvited Guest.
“I never found any evidence that Terry existed anywhere. All it left me with was the belief that the majority of people who claim to be psychic are, at best, deluding themselves and, at worst, they’re actually ripping off people who are in a very vulnerable state of mind.”
Not surprisingly, her intensely personal experience imbues the book with edge and authenticity. The narrative centres on a paranormal psychologist who believes there’s a rational explanation for everything - until she’s presented with the seemingly inexplicable: a young man who appears to be at the mercy of a malign entity.
It’s a stunning story which is truly gripping from the first page. That’s partly down to location. The book is set in and around Lyndle Hall, a medieval manor house in Northumbria, which oozes more menace than any number of malevolent spirits. It’s peopled with psychics and parapsychologists, sceptics and psychiatrists. To my mind it’s her best work so far.
After her fruitless odyssey into the spirit world, Julia set her sights lower. She started to look at so-called celebrity psychics; the sort that people flock to, desperate for details about a dead loved one.
“What I discovered was that some of these psychics scour the archives of local newspapers going back, say, six to twelve months, if not longer, for evidence of anybody, particularly young people, who’ve died in tragic circumstances. And they memorise the details. And if you’ve lost somebody like that and you hear that a well-known psychic’s in town, the chances are you will go. A lot of people will go. There’s no question about it. That’s how some of these people are so successful.”
As she points out, there’s a ready-made audience of extremely vulnerable people. For four years off and on, Julia was one of them. She tried everything from sittings with mediums to “fiddling around with ouija boards.”
“I think I’d done everything I could possibly do. I didn’t come to the conclusion there is no life after death. I was brought up a very devout Catholic and that’s a very difficult thing to shake off… I believe in God but I also believe we are not meant to know whether there is life after death or what form it takes.” Which is possibly why chapter One opens with a remarkable passage comparing a world of light and air and that of an unknown, unseen world.
“I do feel very strongly that people shouldn’t attempt to make contact with people who’ve passed over into that other world. Maybe they still exist in a form that would be recognisable to us and maybe they don’t. Whatever the case, I feel that we are not meant to know and I do feel that it’s very dangerous. Not only because there have been cases where people have believed they’d made contact. It’s actually frightened them. They’re gradually drawn into the world of the occult and they’ve become completely obsessed. There’s another reason. I think if I had believed I’d made contact with Terry, that he was there somewhere in the background forever looking over my shoulder, I’d never have been able to move on. I do know people who’ve lost wives and partners years ago and it’s really impeded them. That’s when it’s dangerous.”
Julia was able to move on. The author of four critically acclaimed, best selling novels, she’s now happily married to the writer, Russell Murray. They live with Julia’s son, James, in what sounds like blissful domestic chaos in a cottage in Somerset. “I’m a lousy housewife. I’m completely capable of walking past pans, dishes, washing and pretending none of it exists. I’m very lucky, of course, because I’m married to a writer and Russell wouldn’t care if we lived knee-deep in squalor. He understands. He’s the same in a sense.”
She saves discipline and order for the writing, working seven hours a day, five or six days a week. “There are days when I’m lucky to see five hundred words on the page, because I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve done. And there are other days when I’m on a roll and I’ll do three to five thousand words.”
You could say she’s on a roll now. She’s just signed a six-figure two-book deal with her publisher, Hodder and Stoughton. Before signing, they asked for a fifteen-thousand-word synopsis. Julia believes it’s a growing trend, not specific to Hodder.
“It’s a huge change in attitude. Whey they gave me a two-book deal for Likeness in Stone and the next novel, they didn’t even ask for an outline because they didn’t care. No one cared. The sums of money involved at that stage were so smalland I was such an unknown writer.”
Even with The Long Close Call, no one was particularly bothered. Hodder asked what it was going to be about and Julia said, “Cops and robbers.”
“O.K,” they said, “See you next year.”
The book went on to sell sixteen thousand copies in hardback in its first week. With success come money and, with it, the need for more detailed synopses. As it happens, they’re an intrinsic part of Julia’s writing. She spends up to six months putting together a detailed blueprint for each book. It has everything: plot, chapter breakdowns, motivation, character. Although it develops as she goes along, she’s pretty sure she’d get writer’s block without it. Another way round the blank page/screen/mind is what she describes as writing in “jigsaw.” She writes the biggest scene first then the next and the next until she ends up with just the bridging scenes. She’s currently on her fifth book. She’s written the last chapter but hasn’t started the first. It’s a technique that wouldn’t suit everyone but it clearly works for Julia.
After The Long Close Call, The Times described her as: “…firmly in the first division of the new crime-writing generation.” The accolade must have been particularly sweet, for this is a woman who was told years ago by one of the UK’s then leading agents that she’d never make it. To be more precise, she was told, ‘You will never, ever be a writer. You have absolutely no talent whatsoever.’
That was back in the mid-70s when she happily admits being rejected by every newspaper and magazine in the country. One wrote back saying, ‘Look, you’re completely wasting our time and yours. Please don’t submit anything else.’
She can laugh now but the fact is she stopped writing fiction for a number of years. The publication of A Likeness in Stone changed all that. The Guardian called it a ‘Chilling first novel.’ Val McDermid described it as ‘A fascinating debut which delivers plenty and promises more.’
Julia Wallis Martin is still delivering. Writing, she says, is in the genes. She reels off a list of relatives who are published and others who are working towards it. But it’s more than that. Elements from her troubled childhood inform her work. Her mother was a suicidal manic-depressive who died when Julia was seventeen. In the days before her death, she told Julia she was glad to be out of it; life was something, she said, for which she’d never quite got ‘the knack’.
Julia acknowledges that she writes about exactly that: people who don’t have the knack.
“They’re people who live outside the norms of society. Not necessarily in the way you or I would perceive that, i.e. a person who lives on the streets or who’s involved in drugs. They’re people who live outside the norms. They simply don’t lock into it somehow. Personally,” she adds, almost as a throwaway, “I think it’s a trick of the light. It’s very difficult to explain this but sometimes I think I see the entire world out of the corner of my eye. I see very clearly what’s going on but only out of the corner of my eye.”
I’d interpreted the phrase differently; felt it was more to do with expectations and transience. She considers this for a while.
“For any one of us, it would take very little to completely demolish our world - our security and our happiness. Our perception of ourselves as being safe. Of nothing – or very little – being able to shatter. It’s so false. It can be gone in the blink of an eye. For all of us.”
It would be too trite to say that Dancing with the Uninvited Guest lays the ghost of Terry Flaherty. For Julia, it’s dedicated to the memory of his life.