Friday, 11 March 2011

Fifteen minutes with Miriam Halahmy – Part One

Hidden, the first book in the Hayling Cycle, by Miriam Halahmy, will be published on March 31st. Tackling the complex issues of immigration and human-rights law, Hidden is a coming-of-age novel dealing with courage, prejudice and the difficult choices faced by its fourteen year old protagonist, Alix. 
I caught up with Miriam at Edge Headquarters a few days ago and asked her a few questions about Hidden, and her writing life.

1. Hi, Miriam, what does a normal writing day consist of for you? 
I write best in the mornings for two to four hours, and usually complete a couple of thousand words. I will then probably edit some of this in the afternoon. I write something every day. 

2. Where do you write? 
I have a beautiful study which my husband built for me at the end of the house, over looking the garden. It is sunny and quiet, but I often walk up the road to Costa Coffee bar and write there. I have been writing in coffee bars since I was a student and really like the atmosphere, especially early in the morning. 

Miriam gets creative in a coffee bar
I leave the house before eight a.m. It is a brisk fifteen minute walk which gets the creative juices going. At that time of the morning the cafe is peaceful with the background hiss of steam and the music down low. I sit at the same table, with my regular Americano, hot milk on the side and within ten minutes I am in the fictional dream, typing away on my little laptop. 

Many people have followed my lead and have told me they now write in coffee bars!

3. Are you a discovery writer, or do you outline? What’s your writing process? 
I start in my head day dreaming – I let my thoughts go in tangents, ask questions, answer them, ask more questions. I start a notebook and write down anything that seems relevant, a snippet of dialogue, an eye colour, a piece of clothing, a fear. Once I feel ready to start my book I write quite quickly and I am very much a discovery writer. My characters tell me where to go next, who they will meet along the way, what they think of the problems up ahead and how they are going to cope. 

Or in her study at home
Sometimes I come up against a problem and can’t move forward. Those are the most difficult times, when I get the urge to abandon ship, go and load the washing machine or make dinner. But I have learnt the hard way, that those are in fact the most important times, when you have to glue yourself to your seat and work your way out of the hole. Otherwise you start the next day at the bottom instead of on top and ready to move forward. 

My method for overcoming the problem is to ask myself questions and make myself answer them, however silly and banal the questions and answers appear to be. It is the very act of writing which gets me writing again and quite soon I find I have freed myself up, climbed out of the hole and resumed the flow of the story. 

4. Do you use a notebook? Can you share with us the last thing you wrote? 
I have been writing in notebooks since childhood. I have a cupboard full of them. I prefer quite small cheap notebooks and I am very fussy about lines – they can’t be too wide or too narrow. I don’t mind plain paper. I hate that paper with woodchip in it which comes from Nepal. It’s very trendy, but useless for writing on. I have different notebooks for different purposes. I always have a journal on the go, I have been keeping journals since I was a child. But I don’t write something everyday, only when I feel like it. However, whenever I travel I keep a meticulous journal, as so many new and exciting things happen when you travel. 

I always start a new notebook for each new novel and only use it for those notes. But I usually have a general notebook on the go for everything else which needs recording. The last thing I wrote was a note to myself to finish these questions! (Good answer! - Ed) 

5. Where did the inspiration for Hidden come from? 
I was walking on the beach one day on Hayling Island and I thought: What if a couple of teenagers saw an illegal immigrant thrown into the sea from a boat and they rescued him? What would they do? That was it – the story was born and eventually became, Hidden, the first in my cycle of three novels set on the Island. 

Inspiration on Hayling Island beach
It’s always a mystery where the first idea for a story or a poem comes from, I think. But I had been writing about asylum seekers; I have worked with asylum seekers and I had been writing short fiction for young people. I think a lot of things came together and ignited my idea that day. 

6. Location obviously plays an important part in the Hayling Cycle, what came first, the location or the story?
I had begun to think that Hayling would be a great place to set a story for young people. There are so many mysterious corners to the island, there are all the possibilities of a setting by the sea and although it is a place I love, it’s not that well known, so it was like writing on a fresh sheet. I think all of this came together that day on the beach when I had my inciting idea. 

7. Setting a story in a real place that you know very well, must present it’s own problems. Or did you find it easy to create a sense of Hayling for your readers? 
My parents moved to Hayling as I went to uni. So I have spent a lot of time on the island, but not actually lived there. My parents left the island before they died, but my husband shares my love of Hayling and so we visit several times a year for long weekends, week-long holidays in a flat on the beach, and quite often, just for the day. I have visited the Island literally hundreds and hundreds of times since my student days. 

I found it very natural to use the setting of Hayling in my books, it was a gift really, knowing parts of the island so well and having a real love for the place. Like Alix in my book, I prefer the island in winter when there are very few visitors and the beaches can be quite deserted. I like the winter light on the island too, it’s quite pure and translucent, particularly in the early mornings on the beach. That’s why Hidden is set in winter. 

Miriam beside a pill box on Hayling Island
However, there were problems as the landscape did not always fit the story I wanted to tell. For example, Hayling had quite a few pill boxes on the southern beaches at one time, to protect England from invasion during World War Two. Several of them have disappeared, including the one I used to sit on near the Lifeboat station. So I just put it back as I needed it as a landmark in my story. I also had to learn a great deal about the tides to make sure there was enough water at the times they kept falling in the sea. The water completely drains around the Island every day and leaves just mud flats and no water in many places.

Click here for the second part of Miriam's interview, when she gives us a sneak preview of the second two books in the Hayling Cycle and let's us into a guilty secret … 


  1. Hey Miriam - I learned some new things about you! And I love the sound of Hayling Island - it sounds like a gift to a writer. On the plot-problem thing, I find going for a walk for half an hour and talking it through with myself hardly ever fails. Something about being out in the open air - I've read there's evidence for it somewhere!

  2. It sounds lovely, Miriam, as if Hayling is another character in your book, not just a location. Can't wait to read it.

  3. Yes Sue, I find going for a walk one of the best things. And Bryony, Hayling is definitely one of the characters!

  4. Fascinating, Miriam! I went to Hayling Island once as a child and haven't been back, but I think I need to now. I have been writing in coffee shops for decades, too - there is something about being in the bustle of real life that ameliorates the isolation of writing.

  5. Great interview, Miriam - can't wait to read the 2nd part - and the book!!

  6. I'm intrigued by Hayling Island - I know nothing about it. So for that and for other reasons, I'm really looking forward to reading your book!

  7. Lovely that I'm creating a real buzz around Hayling Island. Tourism might increase!!