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Writing Utterly Dark


photo: Sarah Reeve

Boredom is the most underrated of the muses. Back in 2019 I was spending a lot of time in the hospitals and nursing homes where my mother kept being incarcerated. Since she wasn’t often in a mood to chat, I entertained myself by starting to write a story in my notebook. It was all written it bits and scraps, a few lines one day and a few the next, but gradually it took on the outlines of a rather gloomy Gothic novel. Heavily inspired by the Cornish coast and by recent visits to Islay and Iceland, it was about a young man who gets summoned back to his family’s ancestral home on a remote island.

I didn’t imagine anyone would want to read it, since it was more grown-up than my usual stuff and looked set to be utterly dark and depressing. Then I thought 'utterly dark' would be a good name for a character, so I changed the young man’s name to ‘Dark’ and had him arrive home to discover that he has an unexpected sort-of niece: Utterly, a castaway his late brother found washed up on the shore as a baby. A few years ago I discovered that I had an unexpected sort-of niece - my young second cousin Aretha. She’s a very bright and cheerful sort of person, and something of her brightness and cheerfulness found its way into Utterly. And at that point I realised that if I turned the story round by 90 degrees and told it from Utterly’s point of view, it might end up as something publishable.

And, of course, the boredom of 2019 was as nothing compared with the boredom of 2020. When Lockdown struck, I fetched out my Utterly dark notebooks and read through them again, then set about typing them up and trying to give a shape to the story.  And here it is, thanks largely to my editor Liz Cross and David Fickling Books. 

Sarah McIntyre read all the early versions, and did some lovely lino-cut fan-art. You can read about her process and see the final colour version here.

The final cover artwork is by the Irish illustrator and picture book author Paddy Donnelly. He also drew the map (above) and some lovely sea-themed chapter head illustrations - here's a sample.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep is available now from all good bookshops. I think it’s turned out to be one of my better efforts. I hope you enjoy it. 

My mother died last December, while I was finishing the final rewrites, so Utterly Dark... is dedicated to her, and to my grandmother, because they loved the sea.


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