Dark Room author Tom Becker spills the beans on writing a female lead
The dark Room is the latest of Stripes Book‘s Red Rye young adult chillers and takes us to the American Gothic’s equivalent of the European creepy castle, the high school. When Darla and her alcoholic waster of a dad move into the snobby mid-west town of Saffron Hills she finds herself shunned by the image obsessed ‘Picture Perfects’ who rule the roost at her new school. Then as the Picture Perfects get to be brutally murdered by a photo obsessed serial killer, Darla starts receiving a psychic snapshot every time the Selfie Slayer goes to work
OK the high school slasher is a fairly well established genre trope in American horror and yes I did find myself enjoying seeing the putrid ‘Picture Perfects’ being set up for a slaying, but Dark Room does do a very effective job of spreading a whole shoal of red herrings before we get to the terrible truth of who the serial killer is. It kept me guessing the killer’s identity right up to the final few pages where everything falls into shape. It’s very nicely written too with well-developed and convincing characters, which should not come as any surprise to readers given that Becker is the author of the Waterstones Children’s book Prize winning novel Darkside. .
Dark Room is the first novel that Becker has written with a female lead, the Hothouse caught up with him to find out was hard for a guy to write as a girl?
‘Since my first book was published back in 2007 I’ve had the opportunity to write a few different heroes: Darkside’s Jonathan Starling, Adam Wilson of The Traitors, While the Others Sleep’s Alfie Mandeville and Jamie from Afterwalkers. As I list them I realize that for all their similarities they mean slightly different things to me, and they exist in very different worlds. I’m not sure how Jonathan Starling would have coped on the eternal prison camp of the Dial, or Jamie in the grim Victorian sanatorium Scarbrook House. Now, with my new book Dark Room, I can add a new name to the list: Darla O’Neill. Darla feels different. She’s American, for one thing. She’s also (as the more astute readers will no doubt have noticed) female.
That shouldn’t make a different, right? From Hester in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, there have been some pretty fine female lead characters penned by men. As a reader I couldn’t care less whether the author is a man or a woman – what matters to me is what they’re writing about, and how well they’re doing it. But Darla did give me pause for thought before I began work on Dark Room. If I was going to write a female lead, I wanted to get her right. But what did that mean? How did I have to approach her character differently from Jonathan Starling and Adam Wilson? Just how different are girls and boys?
If you’re expecting me to have some profound answers here, I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. Because when I actually started writing Dark Room I found that the more time I spent with Darla, the less her gender defined her. The hardship and the losses that she had endured, her desire to trust her father despite years of being let down, her outsider status, her struggles to fit in to the shallow, wealthy world of Saffron Hills, the kernel of strength beneath her quiet exterior – these were the things that shaped her character, not the fact that she was a girl. It was Darla’s similarities to my other heroes that struck me, not her differences. She shared a similar background to Afterwalkers’ Jamie, who trailed around the motorways of Britain after his criminal father, whilst her relationship with Sasha Haas had echoes of Alfie Mandeville and William Travers in While the Others Sleep. (It’s probably a good job Sasha and Travers exist in different centuries. The mind boggles at the kind of carnage that could cause if they were ever to team up.)
By the time I had finished Dark Room, my lead character was one of my favourite things about the book. I hope that Darla feels real. I hope that you like her as much as I do, and that you care about what happens to her. There are themes in the book that I haven’t touched on before, particularly the issue of body image for young women, and the pressures to physically conform and to look beautiful. But there are a number of brilliant and insightful authors who have tackled this difficult subject head-on. When all is said and done Dark Room is a horror book, and my main aim in writing it was to chill and unnerve as many readers as possible. And as Sasha grimly notes, when it comes to murder the Angel Taker is a firm believer in equal opportunities – boy or girl, no one is safe from the killer’s camera’…
A convincing slice of American Gothic by a British author I give Dark Room a 555/666
Dark Room is published by Stripes Books 11 September in the UK price £6.99