The Resident catches up with author Michelle Paver on life in Wimbledon and the inspiration behind her new ghost story, Thin Air, ahead of Halloween…
Words: Will Gore
When I interviewed Wimbledon author Michelle Paver back in 2010 for SW19 Resident, her book Dark Matter was about to hit the shops. Having just completed her hugely successful Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series for young readers, releasing a ghostly tale for grown-ups was something of a leap of faith. Thankfully, fortune favoured the brave and Dark Matter went on to sell brilliantly and win numerous awards.
Six years on, I’m chatting to Paver about her new ghost story, Thin Air, but first we discuss what she calls ‘the lovely surprise’ of Dark Matter’s huge success. ‘What surprised me the most was the breadth of the readership,’ Paver says. ‘Ghost story and horror aficionados liked it, but so did fans of science fiction. Older children read it, too, and it was taught for Common Entrance. I thought under-15s wouldn’t read it, but they must be tougher than I was at that age!’
Dark Matter told the story of a wireless operator left all alone in a remote part of the Arctic. Alone, that is, except for a rather unhappy ghost. It’s a nerve-jangling set-up and storyline. Readers will recognize Paver’s trademark style in Thin Air, which is released on 6 October. Like Dark Matter, it’s set in the 1930s and follows a group of climbers on a trek up Kangchenjunga, in the Himalayas, the third highest mountain on the world. ‘My hero Stephen is desperate to climb the mountain,’ says Paver. ‘He’s climbing with four other Brits, very much pillars of the empire – but along the way, for various reasons, he ends up alone on the mountain with the ghost.’
I ask Paver whether she had always intended to write another ghost story after Dark Matter. It was meant to be a one-off, she says, but after suffering an injury, she found herself with some unexpected reading time, and the idea for Thin Air suddenly occurred to her.
‘I had always wanted to write another ghost story, but I had no ideas whatsoever,’ Paver explains. ‘I got busy on my next children’s series [the final book in the Gods and Warriors saga was published in August] and then about three years ago I was suffering from something called a frozen shoulder. It’s horrible and keeps you awake. One night I was reading a mountaineering book and it just came to me, this idea of a story involving a ghost up a mountain.’
As something of a technophobe, Paver avoids using the internet (she keeps her computer offline to keep distractions at bay), so her research involved getting hold of every book she could find on mountaineering, particularly trips that took place back in the 1930s. She based Stephen and the rest of his team’s expedition on a real one that took place in 1931 and peppered the narrative with genuine details. ‘One of the mountaineers I read about took his dog up the mountain,’ she says, ‘so you guessed it, there’s a dog in Thin Air!’
Before becoming an author, Paver was a lawyer, trying her best to get published while doing her very busy day job. Eventually she quit the legal profession in the hope of making it as a writer, and, as she was working out her notice in 2000, received the news that her first book, a work of romantic historical fiction called Without Charity, was to be published. A series of similar love stories followed until Paver dreamed up Wolf Brother and the Chronicles series followed on.
While she’s gone from romantic fiction to ghost stories, via children’s books, one thing that has remained constant for Paver is her home life. She was born in East Africa, but moved to Wimbledon Village at the age of eight, where she has been a resident ever since (not withstanding one solitary year away when she had a flat up in Bloomsbury).
Paver is, unsurprisingly for someone who’s stayed so long, an advocate of village life. ‘The restaurants, like The Ivy and Café Rouge, are fantastic. The shops are great – I have a lot of affection for Fielders [in Wimbledon Hill Road], and I can order books from them if I need to. I love the fact it’s a family business, and there’s a lovely dog there.’
Unsurprisingly, Paver is a big supporter of Wimbledon Library, and the Common is another favoured haunt. Her home overlooks it and people-watching is the order of the day when she needs a screen break. ‘I love looking out on the Common while I’m working,’ she says. ‘People are generally there having a nice time, so you tend to see parents with kids, dogs and joggers.’
At this time of year, an autumnal Wimbledon Common must be quite something for Paver to behold. Earlier in our chat, we discussed the elements that make for a great ghost story and she said choosing ‘an atmospheric location’ is key. If she’s looking for an idea for a follow up to Thin Air, perhaps she won’t have to look any further than just outside her window.
Thin Air is published by Orion and is released on 6 October. For more information, visit michellepaver.com