Hello readers! I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabriela Houston, author of the Slavic fantasy The Second Bell, which was recently published by Angry Robot Books. A big congratulations to Gabriela!
About our Author:
Gabriela Houston is a London-based writer. She was born in Poland and raised in a book-loving household on the nourishing diet of mythologies, classics and graphic novels. She had spent much of her early school years holed up in the library, only feeling truly herself in the company of Jack London’s trappers and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s red-headed orphan, among many others. She came to the UK at 19 to follow her passion for literature and she completed her undergraduate and Masters degrees at Royal Holloway, University of London. After her studies she worked in publishing for a few years. She now lives with her family in Harrow, where she pursues her life-long passion for making stuff up. She’s represented by John Baker from Bell Lomax Moreton Agency.She’s the cohost of a YouTube channel, Bookish Take, which focuses on a writer’s journey from the initial idea through to the publication process and beyond!
First, the most obvious question: where did you get your inspiration for this book? Is Slavic folklore something you had always been interested in? Did the idea for this book start with a character/voice, a concept, an observation, or something else?
I’ve always been interested in different World Mythologies, but Slavic folklore was more something I have absorbed as a child and then come back to as an adult.
I have always felt drawn to the dark side of Slavic folklore, the concept that everything around you is a potential threat, and that everything in the world is teeming with intelligent life that has its own agency.
The concept for The Second Bell really came as a question of how would a mother react to her child being born with a characteristic considered taboo and evil? Using strigas for inspiration here just felt perfect, as in the traditional folklore strigas are some of the least nuanced monsters. They are evil in a visceral, feral sort of way.
In my book the humans and strigas both are entirely ignorant of the true nature of the strigas’ “other” hearts, and even what the potential threat really is. That fear of the striga nature is so internalised that any attempt to explore it broke every taboo and came with serious consequences.
We discussed this briefly, but which character(s) would you like to write another book or even short story about?
I would like to come back to Kalina one day, if the powers that be decree it possible.
She’s not a loveable character so she might not seem like the obvious choice, but I’m very interested in the psychology of an outcast, and how turning towards orthodoxy of any kind can give a (however illusory) sense of stability, around which the core self-identity can be built.
And once the foundations of that self-identity are shattered, how does one go about rebuilding that sense of self?
What is one thing you would like people to take away from your novel?
First and foremost I hope people are entertained!
Then I suppose it would be that lack of certitude is sometimes the healthiest standpoint.
Miriat, Salka’s mother, is not at all certain she’s making the right choice when she joins her striga daughter in banishment. She’d been brought up to believe all strigas are evil, and so she cannot be certain her daughter will not become a monster one day. But she does what feels right anyway.
The characters in The Second Bell who are the most unshakeable in their beliefs are often those doing the most harm, even though they do it with the best of intentions.Were any of your characters based on people you know?
Nope. And if they were, I would not admit it!
This book has some emotional moments. What was the last book to make you cry?
The Foundling by Stacey Halls. An impeccably researched historical novel set in the 18th C London, about a mother who has to leave her baby in the Foundlings Hospital, and then when she comes back to claim it six years later, she finds somebody has already taken her baby, using her own name.
It’s so emotional and full of heart, I cried a couple times reading it!
Do you think your writing process will change at all now that you’re published?
I learn more with every book I write, and so I expect my writing process to go through some changes. However, I think any major shifts that might occur will be a result of the external deadlines or other requirements rather than me honing my process.
What authors do you most admire? Did any of their writing styles inspire you while writing The Second Bell?
I find it hard to narrow it down!
I grew up loving the stories of the Far North by Jack London and James Curwood. The survivalist concept of human against nature is definitely something you will find in The Second Bell.
What is your desert island book (the one book you could read over and over)?
My favourite book of all time is The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I must have read it over a dozen times; a hugely underrated book. It’s just such an exquisite study in loneliness and courage! I also find the theme of balancing a sense of duty against the survival of the soul so powerful, and I think there is certainly an echo of that in The Second Bell.
Are there any parts of the artistic process that you struggle with or do you feel like it all comes naturally? Do you keep a writing schedule or write when you feel motivated?
When I dive into a project I write pretty much every day. I’ve been lucky enough to make a couple of writing friends, who I meet in cafes (pre-covid) and over zoom. One of them I’ve been working with at least 5 times a week for over a year now, so it’s a great help in staying motivated.
Writing is work, and I treat it as such. Inspiration is great, but no idea will actually write a book for you. I find this attitude helps me get through any times I might not feel like writing, or have trouble focusing. If I have trouble with something I’m writing I just attack it from different angles till it’s done, so I try not to dwell on whether a part of the process is harder or easier. If you find dialogue hard, you practice till you get better. Same with the descriptions, POVs etc. It’s all part of writing a novel.
Do you have a dream cast if your book was ever to be optioned as a film or show?
Hmm, it’s a hard one! I can think of one who’d be perfect! For Alma, the older matriarch of the strigas, I would love to cast Geraldine James, who I know from her role as Marilla in Anne With an E on Netflix. She just has such an incredible presence and range, and I think she would be able to really capture Alma’s strength, as well as her foibles!
And lastly, do you listen to music while you write? Is there any music in particular you will associate with writing The Second Bell?
When writing The Second Bell I would often listen to Joni Mitchell and Loreena McKennitt on repeat! The former because of her soulfulness, the latter for her energy and atmospheric storytelling.
I know both their music well though, I don’t think I could listen to a new album when writing a first draft!
Thank you to Gabriela Houston for taking the time to do this interview and a thank you to Caroline from Angry Robot for setting it up. You can purchase The Second Bell through the following links:
I was able to read an advanced copy and review it, that can be found HERE.