Monday, 25 January 2021

UKYA Spotlight: The Crooked Mask by Rachel Burge - Q&A with Holly Race

I'm so thrilled to be running a series of Q&As with UKYA authors over the coming months! First up we have Rachel Burge, whose Nordic-set ghost story The Twisted Tree was published in 2018. It follows Martha, who has an unusual ability that's connected to the Norse myths. The sequel, The Crooked Mask has just been released, and Rachel kindly agreed to answer some questions about her brilliantly creepy duology.

Hi Rachel! Can you introduce the world of The Twisted Tree and the start of Martha’s journey for us?

Martha has an unusual gift: she can tell things about people just by touching their clothes, as if their thoughts and emotions have been absorbed into the material. It started the day she fell from the tree in her grandma’s garden in Norway, the day she became blind in one eye. Martha returns to Norway hoping her grandma can explain – but when she gets there, she finds her grandma is dead and a peculiar boy (Stig) is living in her cabin. 


Martha discovers a disturbing family secret – she is a descendent of Odin and comes from a long line of magical women, and the tree in her grandma’s garden is actually Yggdrasil. Because no one has fulfilled her family’s sacred duty and watered the tree, the trunk has started to rot and the dead have escaped from the underworld. Martha must contend with ghosts as well as a terrifying draugr (walking-corpse) on the loose. 
At least she isn’t alone. Stig proves to be a great ally and Martha is thrilled to discover the attraction is mutual. But then everything changes when she realises he lied to her about his ex-girlfriend, Nina. Stig said she fell from the trapeze at the circus where she worked, but then made a full recovery. But if that’s true, how come Martha can see her ghost? 

I loved The Twisted Tree so much and was so happy to re-join Martha and Stig. Can you talk a bit about where we find Martha at the start of The Crooked Mask?

The sequel starts three weeks later, with Martha arriving at the circus where Nina died. 

Stig left, saying he was going to Oslo and would be back in a few days, but he didn’t return – and he hasn’t been replying to Martha’s calls or texts either. In his absence, Nina has been terrorising the cabin and Martha is afraid her mum’s nerves can’t take it. 

Martha decides to go to the circus where Nina died, thinking there must be a reason why she is haunting her. If she can find out what she wants, maybe she will leave her alone. And if she can find out what happened to Nina, perhaps it will be the missing puzzle piece to Stig.

Martha’s power is so unusual - where did you get the idea for it?

I wanted Martha to have a magical ability and looked to the mythology for inspiration. Odin’s wife Frigg is typically depicted at a spinning wheel where she is said to spin magic, and the Norns ‘weave’ fate in Yggdrasil. The Valkyries, who decide who lives and dies on the battlefield, were said to sit at a huge loom – the weights were severed heads and the threads the entrails of humans, and the pattern they weaved determined which side won. 

Cloth was of huge importance to the Vikings as they needed it for the sails of their ships, and its production was closely associated with magic. Spinning and weaving were considered to be a female undertaking and women would mutter spells as they worked (men who performed magic were mocked for being unmanly in Viking society). 

Some historians believe that while the men were in battle, the women would stay home and perform spells to help them achieve victory. There have been Viking burials sites where weapons have been discovered alongside spinning equipment, which reveals just how important it was to them. 

Having discovered this, I realised that Martha’s gift should be something to do with cloth. I decided that Odin started her family line with a human weaver woman and that their descendents would all have the power to read clothing. I also love that in old English, the female side of your family is called the ‘distaff side’ (the distaff being the long pole that holds the wool while spinning), which is so fitting for a gift passed through the female line. 

This is so interesting - I had no idea that cloth had such symbolic power to the Vikings. Can I ask you a bit about your writing process now? The Twisted Tree has quite a small cast of characters, while The Crooked Mask has a much larger cast. How did you find writing a horror with those different parameters?

Frigg at her spinning wheelI love stories where strangers are thrown together in terrifying circumstances, and found that having just Martha and Stig in the cabin made the first book even more intense. 

In The Crooked Mask, I set out to create a creepy and magical circus where Martha is never quite sure of what’s real or not. The fact that the performers all wear masks (which move and change expression), adds to the sense of confusion. Although the circus is a busy place, I chose to focus on just a few supporting characters. Like The Twisted Tree, the story events take place over about a week, and Martha doesn’t have time to get to know many people.
The Norns weaving fate
I made sure the characters she does interact with have a strong back story (there’s not much point being able to tell a person’s secrets if they don’t have any!) and reflect Martha’s own journey in some way. For example, both Ruth and Ulva are struggling with complicated mother/daughter relationships. This allowed Martha to reflect on her own relationship with her mum and the female line of her family, which is so important to her understanding her place in the world. Reflecting aspects of Martha in the supporting characters also helps to make the book feel coherent thematically. 

I wanted to delve much deeper into the myths in the sequel, but I didn’t want a lot of gods running around! For this reason, I decided to give one god a starring role – Loki. I also based the human drama of the story on a single myth, that of the wolf Fenrir. This allowed me to create a ‘play within play,’ which also helps to make the story feel more coherent. 

The world has changed a lot in the few years between the publications of The Twisted Tree and The Crooked Mask - how have you found writing and publishing a book during a pandemic compared to pre-pandemic?

Promoting The Crooked Mask has been a challenge, but I think that’s partly because there’s always more excitement around a debut than a follow-up book. I am sad that bookshops are closed and I won’t get to see The Crooked Mask on the shelves for a while, but I’m also hugely grateful that I had that opportunity with my first book. I really feel for debut authors who are launching at the moment.  

I’ve found writing during the pandemic difficult due to the pressures of home schooling. It’s also frustrating that I can’t visit the location of my next book for research, but I remind myself that I wrote about Norway when I’ve never been there, so it is possible.

What’s your drafting/ writing process? Planner or pantser?

I discovered the story as I went along for The Twisted Tree. For the sequel, I wrote a detailed five-page outline, which I asked my editor to approve before I began writing. I’m still new to being an author, and wanted my publishers to know exactly what they would be getting. This also gave me confidence, as I could write it scene by scene (a bit like painting by numbers) and then look at the whole picture once the first draft was done. 

Are you able to tell us a little about what you’re working on next?

I’m writing another YA dark fantasy/horror – but this time set closer to home and based on a different mythology. 

Finally, which actor would you want to play Loki in a film adaptation of The Crooked Mask (I’m assuming, from one of the references in the book, that it wouldn’t be Tom Hiddleston?!)?

I guess it would have to be someone with red hair, Damian Lewis perhaps? Or Tom Hiddleston in a red wig would be quite ironic!

Thank you so much Rachel. I couldn't put down either of your books once I'd picked them up! If any readers are looking for an edge-of-your-seat ghost story to escape into, I'd highly recommend these fantastic novels. You can find The Twisted Tree here and The Crooked Mask here.


Holly worked for many years as a script editor in film and television, before becoming a writer.

Her debut novel, Midnight's Twins, is published by Hot Key Books. Its sequel, A Gathering Midnight, will be released in June 2021. She also selectively undertakes freelance script editing and story consultant work.

1 comment:

Tracy Darnton said...

Thanks - fantastic to have a spotlight on UKYA books (well done Holly) and read about Rachel's thinking and writing process.