Today we're talking to M. Sean Coleman about his new book The Cuckoo Wood.
Welcome, and thanks for taking the time to answer our questions about your book.
A pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Let's get going, then. Firstly, where did you get the idea for The Cuckoo Wood?
Ooh, that's a good question. Where do any ideas come from? I guess it stems from the character of Dr Alex Ripley. She's been with me in various guises for a number of years now. I wanted to create a character who had spent a lot of time investigating cases where religion or faith underpinned the decisions characters had made or the actions they had taken. As a character I wanted her to be forced to question her own understanding of those issues of faith. She has a reputation as a miracle detective, which means she has spent most of her career debunking people's claims, but I wanted her to be put in situations which challenged her rather cynical worldview and forced her to question the very things she holds so dear. So, in coming up with ideas for her cases, I didn't want anything she investigated to have a straightforward, black and white conclusion. I didn't want each case to be as simple as "No, it’s not a miracle because…", so I began to think of other situations which might force her to question whether she might have witnessed something divine. At heart, though, she is always a skeptic, though she would love to be proved wrong. The original idea for the story of The Cuckoo Wood came from a documentary I saw called "The Town that caught Tourettes" which was all about a group of teenage girls in New York State who had all developed Tourettes like symptoms and nobody could figure out why. They went through so many theories as to what was going on there from poisoning to contagion, but nothing could explain why it was only happening to the teenage girls. Anyway, the part that struck me most was the notion of a collective hallucination – the idea that something becomes more believable because you’re not the only one who saw it, and that became the basis of the story. That, coupled with the frailty of the teenage mind, the insular nature of a closed rural community with secrets to hide and, obviously, death and the threat of death. I want Ripley to have to deal with these kind of things every time she's called in. Nothing is ever a straightforward case of deception or fraud. Underneath it all, someone in each story believes wholeheartedly in angels, miracles, healings, or whatever else she’s looking at. Ultimately the question should always be: Who is she to tell them that what they believe is wrong?
Without giving too much away, what was the hardest scene in the book to write?
Ah. Well, they all have their challenges, but I think the most difficult ones were those where I was trying to balance what was real with what was perceived. I wanted there to be a proper thriller feel about the story and pacing, but at the same time I wanted there to be this sort of ethereal, mysterious quality to it too. My previous books were all straight crime thrillers, but in this series I want there to always be a doubt or uncertainty. Are there angels? Can people be cured of terminal diseases by faith alone? Is that a face in my pancake? But at the same time, the stories have to be based in reality with very real threats to life and limb for our characters. I think that was the bit I found most difficult to balance without poor old Ripley turning into some kind of hallucinating mad woman, or constantly have some kind of Scooby Doo reveal at the end.
Have you ever experienced any “inexplicable” encounters like those Alex Ripley investigates?
Well, I've never seen an angel. Unless you count my junior school nativity, but I was too busy being a rock to take much notice of her. (Yes, there were rocks in the nativity story.) I did, however, spend a number of years working on a television show which investigated the paranormal, and we saw some pretty strange stuff while filming that. I think one of the things that fascinated me about that process was that we would spend all day on a shoot in a location, hearing all the stories and talking to all the people who'd seen things, and by night time when we started filming we were all seeing things all over the place. Perhaps they were spirits, perhaps it was our own collective hallucination. Who really knows? The thing is, I’ve always been fascinated by how faith and religion can be used to manipulate the mind. I know that most people practice their religion in moderation, but that doesn't make for a good thriller, does it? I'm interested in those small, breakaway groups who will die or kill for their faith. I want to understand why an otherwise rational person can be compelled into irrational acts by the power of their faith. And I think we all see that around us on a daily basis these days.
What did you learn while writing The Cuckoo Wood? I learned that there is only one actual lake in the Lake District—Bassenthwaite Lake. The other fifteen bodies of water which constitute the Lake Districts are all meres, waters or tarns. (Keep that in your hat for a pub quiz.) I also learned a lot about collective hallucination, the power of suggestion and the origins of the Old Testament. During my research I became fascinated by the way that the different cultures and religions that moved across the United Kingdom would adopt and subsume the ones that had come before. I spent ages looking at old buildings that had become Christian churches but which still had the original beams made of wood from Viking ships from a time when they had been gathering places to worship the Vikings' Pagan gods. And those buildings had, in turn, been built on the site of ancient Celtic worship sites, or had subsumed existing Christian communities, or merged with them. Passionate faiths, but in a constant state of flux depending on who was winning the wars. I love that kind of stuff. I also learned that there is a high likelihood that King Arthur and his knights, if indeed they did exist, were probably Cumbrian. Sorry Cornwall.
The Cuckoo Wood is the first book in the series. How do you see Alex Ripley developing throughout the rest of the series? Well, Ripley has a number of her own issues. I think she would love to find proof of something other, and there may be a time when she becomes so focussed on that aim that she loses sight of her better judgement. She is currently in an emotional state of flux, since her husband when missing in action during the course of his final tour in Afghanistan. It would be great for her to get a resolution to that situation on way or the other, so that she can move on. At the moment she doesn't know whether he is alive or dead, and so she throws herself into these cases to keep her mind off the awful speculation. I know, but it's not time for her to know yet. I hope, too, that she keeps a little of each investigation with her, gradually chipping away at that resolve of hers yet, at the same time, making her more sure that she is right to be skeptical. I'm hoping that she’ll stay busy investigating more and more weird and wonderful cases and maybe, one day, she’ll get the answers she's looking for.