Sarah Dunnakey’s debut novel The Companion combines the past and present to create a compelling mystery. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston.
It is funny how a place can sometimes exert such a hold over the imagination.
It was partly a building with a fascinating history that set West Yorkshire-based author Sarah Dunnakey on the path to writing her first novel. The setting for The Companion, published by Orion next month, was inspired by Gibson Mill, located in the picturesque wooded valley landscape of Hardcastle Crags near Dunnakey’s home in Hebden Bridge. In the 19th century it was a cotton mill and when production ceased in the early 1900s it was transformed into an ‘Entertainment Emporium’ – with dancing, roller skating and a restaurant – which drew in crowds from miles around. Since the 1950s it has been in the care of the National Trust and the area is still a popular tourist attraction.
“When we first moved here about twenty years ago I spent a lot of time at Hardcastle Crags,” says Dunnakey. “And the mill is this massive stone structure with two centuries of history standing in the middle of nowhere. When you are there you feel that history – you are very aware of it and the number of people who have passed through.” Dunnakey’s story – an engaging and totally compelling mystery – revolves around the fictional Ackerdean Mill, with parallel narratives in the past and the present.
In 1932 12-year-old Billy Shaw lives at Potter’s Pleasure Palace, the top entertainment venue in Yorkshire, where his mother runs the tea rooms. He assumes that he will become assistant to Mr Potter when he grows up but then Potter arranges for Billy to become the companion to wild and unpredictable Jasper Harper who lives up at High Hob, a big house at the top of the valley with his guardians, brother and sister novelists Charles and Edie.
In the present day Anna Sallis has just been appointed custodian of the mill; she has ambitions to develop it further and increase visitor numbers by highlighting its interesting past. Once she starts looking through the jumble of archives, however, Anna discovers documents which lead her to question the received wisdom that Edie and Charles died in a suicide pact in 1936 and she begins digging to find further clues as to what might have happened to them.
It is quite a task when those clues are buried so far in the past and when people in the present might not want the truth to come out. It is an intruiging story, a real page turner, and beautifully crafted, moving smoothly between the two time frames, gradually revealing the secret at its heart.
“It all started really with voices in my head of the people who had lived and worked near the Mill,” says Dunnakey. “It was the voice of Billy that came to me very strongly first and originally I had him as a mill worker. So I had a collection of different voices, but it was not really a novel idea at the time.
“What turned it into a novel was something I was working on in my day job.” Dunnakey’s day job is a little bit out of the ordinary. She is a question researcher for Mastermind and she also writes and verifies questions for University Challenge and Pointless.
It was while searching through material for a specialist subject on Mastermind that she stumbled across something that sparked the novel into life. “Somehow I ended up on The Times online archive in the personal columns of the 1930s,” she says. “And between an advert for colonic irrigation and another for a hotel in Cornwall I saw this advert saying ‘child companion wanted for a little boy in Bodmin’ and I wondered, who is this little boy? What is his family history? But also what about the boy who went to be his companion? And as I thought about it all, I started to think about Billy.”
Dunnakey has had short stories published is various anthologies and one, The Marzipan Husband, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and she had tried writing a novel once before. “I spent a lot of time trying to get it right, rewriting and editing as I went along, but with this I just wanted to get the story down. I wrote the first draft in about seven months.” Then it was a case of honing the story. “At that time my daughter was involved in swimming clubs and violin classes and whenever I took her to them I would sit and write. For about a year I also got up very early in the morning to write before the family got up. So I was grabbing bits of time.” Once she had three polished chapters, Dunnakey submitted them to the Northern Writers Awards 2014. She won an award which allowed her to complete the book and spend time editing it. It also helped her to get an agent and interest from publishers.
She is now working on her second novel which is set in 1920s Manchester and requires her once again to do what she most enjoys. “I do love the research and digging down, getting back to original sources – and there are always mysteries and speculation. I love the people’s history – what ordinary people have left behind.”
The Companion, is published by Orion, July 27, £14.99. It is launched at the Birchcliffe Centre, Hebden Bridge on July 19, 7pm. Dunnakey will be appearing at Bradford Literature Festival on July 1.