Alex Cotter has worked hard all her life at daydreaming, while making a living from words: from bookselling at W.H.Smith and publicising The Booker Prize to copywriting and teaching creative writing. Alex lives near Bath in an ancient house, with cobwebs, creaky floorboards, one husband, two children, and a revolutionary cat called Trotsky.
The House on the Edge (Nosy Crow Books)
The House on the Edge is a mystery story with ghosts and smugglers, and even treasure from the past, but it's also a story that explores families, friendship and what makes a home. We asked author Alex Cotter to tell us more about her fabulous debut for children.
Q&A with Alex Cotter
1. Can you tell us what your new book, The House on the Edge, is about?
It's a story about 13-year-old Faith and her beloved house, The Lookout, that sits - teetering - right at the edge of a cliff. Since her dad went missing some months ago, Faith takes care of everything - of Mum, who doesn't get out of bed, and her little brother, Noah, who's convinced there are sea ghosts in their cellar.
As a crack grows bigger in the cliff edge and other people start to threaten The Lookout, Faith is compelled to explore her house's links to smuggling and shipwrecks - with help from a strange boy, Sam, who she sees wandering on the beach. But when Noah goes missing too, Faith has to race to keep everything - her family and her house - from falling off the edge.
2. Is there a sentence or two from the novel that for you, sum up The House on the Edge?
What a cracking question! It's possibly summed up best by Faith's final words, but that might be a spoiler (!), so maybe when Sam says, "I want a home is all ... I want to feel safe."
3. What helped to inspire the story about ghosts, treasure hunts and missing people?
It began with a house on a cliff. I've long been fascinated by - and worried for - crumbling coastlines, and I've always had a passion for ghost stories. As a child I used to visit Whitby a lot - the birthplace of Dracula! - where you do hear of houses falling from the cliff edge. I was also inspired by the fact that wherever you find smugglers, you often find ghost stories too - smugglers would invent them to scare prying eyes away from their illegal operations.
To get added inspiration, I walked the coastline between Devon and Dorset alone one autumn - for setting research as well as to get a sense of Faith's isolation. The fishing community that fell into the sea, at Hallsands in Devon, really inspired the human element of my story and the ever-crumbling Dorset coast was where I based the story's setting. Cornwall and North Devon also helped inspire ideas about 'wreckers'.
4. Did any homes you have lived in have a role in inspiring the house in this story?
I moved a lot as a child and I used to experience quite a massive sense of loss each time - and possibly as a result, I always characterised my houses as heart-beating real. (I also did the same with cars, but I blame my love of 'Herbie' films for that!).
I think the house in my story was drawn from the contrasting personalities of two homes. One from when I was nine and we moved to an old, stark-cold-freezing house with creaking stairs, ticking radiators and a dark, dusty, damp cellar. I had a hard time at my new school, which is maybe why this house took on a rather ominous, dark personality (think 'Coraline'!).
I now live in another old house that definitely goes bump in the night, but it's the first home I've lived in for a long time and I love it, which is maybe why its character feels kind and safe and full of fun! It's also got a lot of history (pull up a chair by the crackling fire and ask me about its ghost stories!)
7. We also learn about smugglers, tunnels and 'wreckers' in the novel - do you have a favourite story from your research into these?
So many! I spent some time at Morte Point in North Devon - a treacherous coastline known as a ship graveyard. There was a 'wrecker' there called Elizabeth Berry, who was rumoured to tie a lantern to a horse's tail to lure ships with the false impression of homes and safety. When boats became stranded, she'd use a pitchfork to keep sailors pinned beneath the water - with no survivors, she could claim all the cargo.
Then there's the infamous Dorset smuggler, Isaac Gulliver, 'King of Smugglers', who faked his own death to fool custom officers by lying in an open coffin, wife weeping by his side! When I read that his daughter wanted to distance herself from her father's smuggling, it got me wondering why, inspiring the main historical character in The House on the Edge.
Oh, and there's the story about C18th women smugglers who would tie animal bladders filled with alcohol beneath their petticoats. There's a tale of one female smuggler who was the only survivor of a shipwreck in 1799, because her booty of filled bladders acted as lifebuoys!
5. Although the story is a mystery adventure, The House on the Edge is also about a family 'on the edge'. Why did you want to explore child carers in this novel, and is this something you needed to research?
I had a friend at school who was a child carer and I witnessed first-hand the problems and challenges that can come with that. Due to some of my own childhood experiences as well, I really wanted to explore what it feels like for a child when they are isolated, when they have to deal with issues and responsibilities that can set them apart from their peers.
It was incredibly important to me to do additional research, from talking to those I know who have been child carers to reading and researching widely - to make sure I authentically and sensitively depicted the life of Faith as a child carer.
6. The cracks in the house also reflect Faith's family, especially her mother who is suffering with depression. Was this a difficult subject to write about?
I was very aware of taking gentle, measured steps as I wrote. The best approach I found was to ensure I grew the story very much from Faith's perspective. I took myself right back to being me as a child, stepping deep into those shoes again, to appropriately mirror how a child views mental health and its impact on them.
7. Who is your favourite supporting character and why?
Ooh that's a tough one! I might have to choose Sam. He was drawn from two childhood friends who inspired me with their resilience and enthusiasm for life, despite hardships. I just cared for Sam so much and I desperately wanted him to be okay.
8. Is there a part of the novel that you particularly enjoyed writing?
The scary bits! I love it when I can feel my whole body reacting in fear as if it's really happening! I also loved it whenever Sam popped up and annoyed Faith - I really enjoyed jumping between the two characters to inhabit their contrasting emotions and motivations!
9. What would you like young readers to take away from your story?
To know that they can all be brilliant, resilient, problem-solving treasure hunters - but that when things get too tough, to look for the people they can trust . . . and to ask for help.
10. Faith and her family love living by the sea - would you swap town for a house by the sea?
Yes, yes and yes again! The sea calls to me (there, hear it?!) - but alas, work and life make it hard; plus (see above!) I'm hideously attached to my 'kind' house now so I'd have to find a way to take it with me, like a tortoise.
11. When and where do you do your best writing? What are you writing now?
Anytime, though night owl hours tend to suit me better than up with the lark. 'Where' used to be cafes, but I've had to retrain my brain to work at home this past year! I do a lot of notebook action too, and that can be anywhere, on walks, up a mountain, on the beach. I love working on trains too - something about journeying sparks all kinds of imaginings!
I'm currently working on book two: a murky lakeside mystery set in a fictional Cumbrian village that relies on the tourism created by its mythical (and rather sinister) freshwater mermaid (think Loch Ness with scales!!). It's got destructive friendships and feminism and student protests and it explores ideas around self-esteem and how sometimes we can all pretend to be something we're not.
12. Do you do other kinds of work as well as being an author?
I do! I work in communications for a neuroscience charity (which, literally, tests my brain enormously!), and I also do a range of copywriting and editing work. But it's all work with words, so it tends to complement rather than conflict with fiction writing.
13. What do you most enjoy when you have time off?
Predictably, reading! I've also recently got into the paddleboard craze, so lately I'm often to be found paddling shakily down the river (trying to avoid our notorious territorial town swan; he's lethal!)