Readers’ Day at the Guildford Book Festival, Post 3: in which Erin Kelly and Marianne Kavanagh discuss the Victorians, female ambition – and scary endings

As will now be apparent, I love a psychological thriller – and Erin Kelly and Marianne Kavanagh are masters of this genre. That’s not the only thing they have in common: both are experienced journalists who have written for magazines and newspapers.

‘Stone Mothers’ is the name the Victorians gave their lunatic asylums, Erin explained. The Victorians believed that the design of these buildings would bring their “nearly dead” inhabitants back to life; the institutions themselves were intended to be a step forward from the Bedlam system, which allowed members of the public to buy tickets to watch “lunatics”.

Erin lives in Colney Hatch, near what was once the second largest asylum in England. Now a block of luxury, “albeit bland”, flats and home to footballers and Love Island celebrities, Erin found herself thinking about the asylum’s original purpose while writing her book.

Which begins with an introduction to Marianne, our narrator, who is caring for her mother, who suffers from dementia. When her husband buys her a pied â terre, Marianne finds herself unable to venture inside – and a chance encounter with a former boyfriend sparks the unravelling of secrets linked both to the building and her past relationships.

Many of the book’s events take place at the Nazareth Hospital, a fictional establishment located in the land-locked area of the Sussex countryside. The isolated location, Erin told us, is key to the novel’s narrative. What happens to the patients when hospitals such as these close – and to those living in the area, who lose their jobs?

Whilst researching ‘Stone Mothers’, Erin found herself shocked by the gender bias of mental hospitals. Women were frequently placed in them as a form of punishment; sectioned for no reason, there was a grim disparity in the way men and women were treated. Laziness, novel-reading, excess alcohol, the loss of a child, war widow status, mistreatment by a husband…all could lead to incarceration. “It was chilling”, Erin mused, “how hard you had to work to get out once you’d been locked up”.

Marianne Kavanagh’s novel ‘Disturbance’ sounds equally gripping. Its protagonist, Sara, is unhappily married to a bad-tempered man with whom she has two teenage sons. Driven to the edge by neglect, it takes just one incident to stop Sara from coping with life – and the book tells the story of her falling apart as she fails to cope.

There’s a significant sub-plot featuring 20-something Kate, who is recovering from heartbreak and seeing an unsuitable therapist. The relationship between Sara and Katie, Marianne K. told us, is the focus of the novel. They’re drawn together because Sara is in desperate need of a strong female friend and become close despite the age difference. Until now isolated, Sara finds herself getting to know members of the local community.

Interestingly, Marianne K. dispensed with chapters whilst writing the book: “It wasn’t a conscious decision – but it felt like the right thing to do”, she explained, adding that once events start moving, there is no way they can stop.

Are you intrigued as I was? Both Erin’s and Marianne’s novels are exactly the kind I enjoy most: full of Gothic melodrama and brooding, unknowable characters. As the panel host Fanny Bruce commented, both novels feature women as victims – and heroes. What does this say about women’s place in the world? For Erin, it’s important to write about ambitious women and mothering and showing that combining the two can send you to the brink, because they’re irreconcilable.

In respect of Sara, Marianne K’s central character, this is a woman who leads a conventional life because that’s what she thought she should do. Having been constrained by her husband’s illness, Katie opens her eyes to what a woman should be.

Is the human psyche a scary place to find yourself? According to Erin, she writes about things which are happening around us, although in crime fiction, unlike real life, there is usually justice. Her research, she says, always makes her “furious” – and ‘Stone Mothers’ was no different. However, she writes with a “clear and analytical” mind, as she’s absorbed all the rage before putting pen to paper.

As for Marianne K, she found herself “frightened” whilst writing ‘Disobedience’. During that process she changed narrators: having originally written the book through Katie’s eyes, she decided it wasn’t effective enough and switched to Sara, a “far more complicated character with many issues”. This, Marianne K. reflected, may explain the lack of chapters: as she wrote, she felt compelled to keep her head down and reach the end. She describes herself as “horrified” by the book’s ending, having had no idea where it was going.

Erin, on the other hand, believes that writing thrillers gives her a sense of control: “I always know what the ending’s going to be”.

The conversation then turned to a favourite topic of readers: do a book’s characters have to be sympathetic? Erin, who says her characters are as likely to be victims as they are perpetrators, professes herself to be “vexed” by the likeability question. People are compelling because they are flawed, is her argument – and we all love a character who we love to hate, like Patricia Highsmith’s protagonist Ripley.

Marianne K. agreed, adding that it’s important for a book to make us see people from one point of view and then realise that there’s another perspective. None of us are all good – or all bad.

Has being a journalist helped or hindered our two authors? The interviewing skill has proved helpful, responded Erin, as it trains you to find the details that matter. And journalism “takes away the fear of writing”. The deadline skill is also useful, added Marianne K.

I can’t wait to read these two books and am so pleased to have been able to hear their authors discuss them. Spring Readers’ Day in Guildford has been one of the most enjoyable days out I’ve had in quite some time: as I said in my first post about the Book Festival: roll on October.


  1. The gender bias of mental hospitals I think reflects an ingrained bias in mental health in general that still perseveres. Stone Mothers sounds like it has a fascinating premise & like you, I’m a sucker for thrillers! Thanks for sharing about Kelly & Kavanagh, Liz, as I haven’t read anything by them before. xx


    • I think you’re spot-on, Caz. Rarely do you hear the descriptions “hysterical” or “over-wrought” applied to men and I think it’s fair to say that, even in this day and age, women are still viewed by many as the weaker sex. Rant over, and I agree that Stone Mothers sounds like a brilliant read; I’ll let you know what I think of it as soon as I’ve finished it!


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