Kate Hamer’s debut novel is being hailed as the next literary sensation, a book that could propel its author to the top of the best-seller lists. But despite all the buzz around The Girl in the Red Coat – there is already talk of a film – the former television documentary-maker says she is focusing on writing her second book. It’s another coming-of-age thriller and, her fans will be pleased to hear, she is more than half way through.
“It’s wonderful,” Hamer says of all the attention, invitations and solid reviews that she has been receiving. “But I’m keeping my feet on the ground.”
Given the number of hugely successful crime novels with “girl” in the title – blockbusters include Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and The Girl with a Clock for a Heart – a cynic might suspect that Hamer’s publishers wanted to jump on the bandwagon. But the author says she had her title “right from the start” and if anything the success of the aforementioned titles made the publisher want to “veer away from ‘girl’”.
Hamer’s page-turner tells the story of Carmel, an eight-year-old who is abducted in the UK by a shady American preacher with links to a healing cult. The story is told in two voices: those of the kidnapped girl and of her grief-stricken mother, Beth, who has to come to terms with her daughter’s disappearance.
The dual narrative presented Hamer with her biggest challenge, she admits. Getting the “balance right between the two ... is quite an ambitious thing, which I hadn’t realised,” she laughs.
Hamer, 50, was born in Plymouth. Her father was a Royal Navy engineer, her mother was a primary school teacher. At the age of 10 she moved with her parents and two elder sisters to Pembrokeshire. Having spent most of her life in Wales, Hamer now calls Cardiff home and says that she feels Welsh. “It really feels like home, and there is a really nice literary scene there,” she says.
Although she enjoyed a happy childhood, a traumatic family event when she was eight was a pivotal moment in her life. Her parents’ van collided with a lorry leaving her father with a broken arm and her mother with serious injuries including broken ankles. Her elder sister stepped in to run the house in her mother’s absence and the previously bustling household became quite a different place.
“I was away from the hustle of normal family life,” Hamer says. “I was just reading, reading, reading. And I kind of tuned into something. A quietness, an eeriness or maybe just your own thoughts. I think it was quite an important time.”
Her book has obvious parallels with Little Red Riding Hood and has been described as a 21st-century fairy tale.
“I was brought up with Grimm’s fairy tales, they are absolutely woven through my childhood,” Hamer says. “But only when I finished it [the novel] I thought, ‘My God, she is Little Red Riding Hood and she strayed from the path’.”
Hamer is “not particularly religious” but “really interested” in religion nonetheless. “Like a lot of people I’m somebody looking for answers,” she says.
But the evangelical aspects of the book were inspired by Joanna Southcott, an 18th-century ancestor who was a self-described religious prophetess.
“I was brought up with this idea that I had this crazy relative that founded her own religion,” Hamer says. “She attracted quite a substantial following at the time, and this informs the book. That idea of cults, and how they can exert their power.” More than anything, Hamer says, the book is about the power of love and the relationship between mother and daughter. It’s a bond that “has not been explored a great deal in fiction”.
“I just think that women and the way they relate to each other in families is very influential in our lives,” she says. “This thing of how women influence each other through the generations. I think it is an important relationship to a lot of people.”
She describes the “push-me pull me” of most mother-daughter relationships as one that she was keen to explore. “There is also a point you come to where you suddenly see your mother as a separate person, and you realise they have a life of their own and they are an individual,” she says. “I think it is a shocking and interesting moment when that happens.”
The writer has two grown-up children with her husband Mark, a gardener, and had a successful career in television before deciding to study for an MA in creative writing in 2011. But while she says that the course was good, it was really the fact that she had committed the time to writing that enabled her to begin her first novel.
“I’ve always written, notes and fragments and short stories and ideas, but you don’t know at 18 that you are going to go off and be a writer – well I didn’t anyway. Then I had children and a really good career in television,” she says.
“I reached a point where my life was freeing up a bit and it was a good time to pursue it.”
The idea for the book came to her as an image of a girl in the forest. It stayed with her for several weeks, and one night she just got up from bed and wrote the first chapter. Hamer had not thought about where the book might go, but was simply compelled to follow the thread.
“It’s good to not think too far ahead,” she says. “If you have got a story that you feel you want to write, just write it.”
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