Helen Smith is a member of the Writers Guild of Great Britain and English PEN. She traveled the world when her daughter was small, doing all sorts of strange jobs to support them both – from cleaning motels to working as a magician’s assistant – before returning to live in London where she wrote her first novel which was published by Gollancz (part of the Hachette Group).
She is the author of bestselling cult novel Alison Wonderland. She writes novels, poetry, plays and screenplays and is the recipient of an Arts Council of England Award. She’s a long-term supporter of the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture and mentors members of an exiled writers group to help them tell their stories.
Her latest book is the dystopian thriller The Miracle Inspector.
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Thank you for inviting me here. I wanted to write The Miracle Inspector because I had come up with two interesting characters – a young couple called Lucas and Angela who were living a miserable, middle-aged existence in a London of the future where schools have been closed down and women aren’t allowed to work outside the home. I had an interesting situation to put them in, too – I wanted them to try to escape from London to Cornwall, where they believed they would be able to live more freely. I was inspired to write it because I had been volunteering as a writing mentor with exiled writers in London through a British charity called Freedom From Torture. I wondered what it would be like if I had to flee London because it was no longer safe for me to live here. How would I get away? Who would help me? What kind of reception could I expect in the places where I tried to ask for sanctuary. I felt I could address some of those questions by writing The Miracle Inspector.
This is a dystopian thriller. Can you tell everyone exactly what that is?
Dystopian fiction paints a picture of a bleak future. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, a word invented by Sir Thomas More in the time of Henry VIII to describe an ideal society of the future. Like The Miracle Inspector, the best dystopian fiction describes a future where civil liberties have been curtailed, citizens are spied on and it’s impossible to move freely between one country and another. Though there are technological advances, often people are living in worse conditions than the ones experienced by the reader, for example with food shortages or limited access to medical care.
What’s the story behind the title?
To compensate its citizens for the curtailment of their liberty, the government in London has allowed the constitution to be written by the people for the people. The right to believe in miracles is enshrined in the constitution – but no one has ever seen one. Lucas, one of the main characters in the book, has been given the job of Inspector of Miracles. He has to investigate all reports of miracles, but most turn out to be frivolous reports of religious images in food, made by people who are lonely. Lucas is only twenty-four but most of the people in positions of power are young men because so many of the older men have been taken away by the authorities for some reason or another – usually accused of terrorism or paedophilia. Lucas’s colleagues can’t work out whether it’s an important job or not. Of course, if he were to find a miracle, that would make him very important indeed…
Can you tell us about your main character?
There are three main characters: Lucas and Angela – the Miracle Inspector and his wife – and Maureen, an older woman who reports a miracle. Lucas and Angela are young and poorly educated, though Lucas is a member of the elite ruling class and has a good job. Maureen is old enough to remember the time before the revolution that has brought about such catastrophic changes for England, and she even had a job as a newsreader for a short time when she was a very young woman. The three of them are brought together when Maureen contacts Lucas, and their lives are changed forever soon after they meet.
Are there any supporting characters we need to know about?
There’s a poet called Jesmond who is on the run. He is something of a hero to the anti-government movement and he pops up now and then at underground poetry venues. He’s Lucas’s godfather, but Lucas disapproves of him and is worried that communicating with Jesmond or being involved with him in any way might bring danger to himself and Angela. I’m rather fond of Jesmond – he’s a flamboyant character!
Can you open to page 25 and tell us what’s happening?
Lucas is making a mistake that could put him in terrible danger: he has gone to visit Joanna Jones, the wife of the Head of Security in London. He has done it on a whim after seeing a live video feed of Joanna on Jones’s computer – he spies on his wife at home. Like the other cloistered young people in London, Lucas is sexually immature, having married young and had no opportunity to meet women at work or anywhere else. It’s not clear whether he has gone to meet Joanna to attempt some sexual assignation or to warn her that her husband is spying on her. He barely understands his motivations himself. But now he’s in trouble!
What about page 65?
We’re in the underground poetry club with Jesmond, Lucas’s godfather, who is looking out at his audience. He’s tired and cynical after so long on the run, though the young crowd worship him. He notes that everyone is very skinny and the young people cultivate an androgynous look – for men, not growing a beard is an act of rebellion, showing solidarity with women. Adding weight is like a litmus test for gender. So the young stay slim, the young men grow their hair and the young women keep theirs short, and everyone wears scarves around their necks to disguise their Adam’s apple (or lack of it), so the women will have a chance to sneak out at night to places like this, even though it’s forbidden.
Now that The Miracle Inspector has been published, what’s your next project?
I’m working on a murder mystery series set in present-day England. It features twenty-six-year-old amateur sleuth Emily Castles and her side-kick, the philosophy professor Dr Muriel. It’s great fun to write. I have already published two novellas featuring Emily and I have just finished the first full-length novel in the series, Invitation to Die, which is set at a romance authors’ convention in Bloomsbury, London. Now I’m working on the next novel in the series which is set in Torquay.
Do you have anything you’d like to tell our readers that hasn’t been discussed?
No, I’d just like to thank them for reading this interview – and I’d like to thank you for asking the questions, too. I love the idea of opening up the book at pages 25 and 65 and telling you what’s happening – that’s a very inventive way of discussing a book. Thank you!