Author who shared her characters’ dark place

Helena McEwen, novelist, London, January 2004
Helena McEwen, novelist, London, January 2004

the techniques of method acting has been well documented and have been used by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, among them Robert De Niro, in an attempt to offer a more convincing performance.

But how many authors tackle writing a novel in the same manner, by getting inside the heads of their characters so much that they share the same feelings from joy to sadness?

This was the case of Helena McEwen, with her latest book, Invisible River, as she pieced together a tale of Evie, who leaves Cornwall and an alcoholic father for art school in London.

And it was not an easy journey.

Helena said: “It took me a really, really long time with this one. It was quite a hard one to write because of the relationship between the daughter and her father.

“I became really involved and it took me to a dark place and I could not get out of that place for a long time.

“I found I would be writing only four or five sentences a day.

“It was an ambitious project. I started out wanting to explore the pathway from despair to hope and did not realise I would have to go there myself and find my way back to the light through writing the book.”

Brought up at Marchmont House near Greenlaw, Helena moved to London at 16 to sit exams, but currently lives in Egypt and with her brother in the Berwickshire hamlet of Polwarth.

Invisible River is only her third book in about 15 years, but has received widespread acclaim for its story of Evie’s discovery of the UK’s capital city.

“I am really happy,” she added. “It is the best one so far and also the furthest from my own experiences in a way.

“I did base it on my experiences of going to art school but I also looked into the history of London.”

Helena appears at Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells next Thursday for an author’s conversation with Esther Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, and Alison Gangel. It will be hosted by Edinburgh literary agent Jenny Brown.

Both Esther and Alison’s latest books are memoirs from their early lives, Freud’s focusing on her time at drama school while Gangel reveals six years of her chaotic childhood spent in care with her sister in Glasgow.

Helena says she is intrigued to discover how both authors work, though she has known one of the two women almost her whole life.

“Esther is a family friend whom I have known since we were children,” she said. “We were at the Oxford Literary Festival together.

“I am really looking forward to the St Boswells event, especially as we all work in different mediums.

“I’m interested to find out whether a book takes over Esther’s life as well, although I think it is unlikely that she works in the same way.”

Currently working on her fourth book, based in Egypt, Helena’s contribution to the author event might partly focus on the country, which fascinates her and has changed dramatically since the uprising which ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.

She added: “My new book is set in Egypt but the country has been completely transformed in the time since I started.

“I know artists who have come with a project and Egypt has completely changed it.

“Egyptians are quite similar to Scottish people. They have the same sense of humour and sense of the absurd and are more upfront than the English.”

The author event begins at 7.30pm on Thursday, May 19 - tickets cost £8 (including a glass of wine) and are available from 01835 824087 or email