A gripping, multilayered debut in the tradition of Tana French and Donna Tartt, Victoria Gosling’s Before the Ruins weaves a suspenseful tale of four friends, an empty manor, and a night that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Gosling discussed the novel with Caroline Zancan, Senior Editor at Holt, for our Author/Editor series. Click here to order Before the Ruins (released January 12, 2021) from our bookstore.
Caroline Zancan: One of my favorite things about your wonderful book is how deftly you weave between two threads, set in two different times. Both storylines felt equally compelling, their unfoldings equally gripping, and I’m curious which one took shape for you first? If the two stories were always entangled for you, a part of the same larger story, or if one came first and then led to the other?
Victoria Gosling: Thank you for saying that! Before I started writing Before the Ruins, I had planned to write a completely different book, one that included a section set at the manor in the 1930s on the night the diamonds go missing. I thought about that book a lot for a couple of years but I was unconvinced of my ability to write it successfully. It was too big and I just didn’t have enough to go on. In the end—very reluctantly—I realized I had to shelve it. The moment I did, a whole new story started showing in my mind, in what the Germans calls the Kopfkino, or “head cinema.”
It was no longer winter, it was no longer the 1930s; it was summer and there were these young adults poking around the manor—now abandoned. Andy turned up and I had such a feeling for her, for young Andy, and at the same time I had the sense of her as a grown woman. To survive she has learned to contain all her wildness, her rage and impulsivity, and something has been lost as a consequence.
So, in answer to your question, those two threads arrived simultaneously. The work was to understand the why – what had happened to young Andy for her to become the woman we meet at the beginning of the book. It takes something as momentous as Peter’s disappearance for her to break free from the patterns of behavior (addictions might be more accurate) in which she has become entrenched. My hope was that she would find a way to reconcile those two selves, for them to be on better terms and by the end of the book I think she’s managed that.
What I learned is something I keep having to learn: sometimes you have to make a decision, even if you don’t have a backup option.
Before the Ruins is that rare book that I read furiously both for the gorgeous writing and to find out what happened—there are so many questions you raise from the start of the book to the finish. Did you know the answer to those questions when you set out writing this? Or were there surprises for you along the way?
There were plenty of surprises. For me, stories arrive as a series of images or snippets. I saw Andy and her friends at the manor that summer. I saw them there again in the snow. I had a vision of a flooded city. There were plenty more. Only by writing do I find a way to connect those images, or rather to uncover what has happened between them. This mystery is what motivates me to write—I want to know what has happened too. It’s also the hardest thing about the whole process—writing into the unknown. You have to have faith that there is a connection, that there is a story to be uncovered. Quite often it felt like a hopeless task. You have to sit with it and be patient and remain hopeful. So hard!
Optimism isn’t a quality we immediately associate with writers, but it’s such an optimistic thing to do, especially for unpublished authors: to steal all this time from life, to invest so much in order to create something you have no idea is going to turn out half decent, to believe that writing—a grand game of make believe—is a valid way to spend your hours. Even the most miserable nay-saying of authors is a wild optimist!
Before the Ruins is part of a really rich tradition of literary suspense—for me it called to mind books like The Secret History and the work of Tana French. Who are some of your favorite writers in this vein?
We didn’t have a huge selection of books in my home growing up, but my mum was a great believer in libraries so off we would go once a week. There was a library in our village and I’d be let loose on the shelves while my mother did the shopping. The books I liked had a certain thrum to them, a sense of mystery or strangeness, and I would hunt around reading the back jackets trying to find books that promised it. I think that’s what I’m trying to create as a writer. It may or may not be categorized as suspense, but it’s invariably suspenseful.
Books and authors I loved early on? Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, Brideshead Revisited by Waugh, anything by Joseph Conrad. I remember that The Thirty-Nine Steps by Buchan had me up half the night under the covers with my torch. In general, I’m never disappointed by Sarah Waters or Margaret Atwood—always so taut, so wise, so hard to put down. More recently? Deborah Levy, Sophie Mackintosh, and Carmen Maria Machado bring the sense of strangeness of . . . ahem . . . leaking psychic force that I look for. A couple of weeks ago, I read and loved Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow.
Finally, I’ll tell anyone who will listen about Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. Set during WWI, the story revolves around a cast of soldiers, many suffering shell shock, and their psychiatrist, W. Rivers, whose job is to heal them in order to send them back to the front. In the third book, The Ghost Road, there are long sections that revisit River’s experiences as an anthropologist in the Solomon Islands prior to the war. The whole series, in particular this last book, are so strange, so powerful, so profoundly mysterious, it’s tempting to accuse Barker of being a medium rather than an author.
Too much? Sorry—don’t get me started on my favorite books!
The manor where much of the story takes place is such a rich, evocative setting. Was it inspired by an actual place, or was it solely a product of your imagination?
The book is set around where I grew up, so the Downs, the Ridgeway and Marlborough are all real places, although my own village is about ten miles from Andy’s stomping grounds. As for the manor, I was about seventeen and with some people I didn’t know terribly well. Someone suggested going back to their boyfriend’s house. We ended up sitting and drinking in the dark on a huge lawn and I was invited to stay over, probably too drunk to get home. I remember being led into this incredible house—on tiptoes, trying not to wake up the boy’s parents—and shown to what my host told me was a Queen Anne bed on the third floor. In the morning, I scurried away so I only had a glimpse of the manor in daylight. And I don’t think I saw the people who took me there again, so I never went back. But a glimpse is exactly what a writer needs.
I was so satisfied by all the final reveals and the resolutions to the various mysteries at work here. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the only thing we leave the book not knowing is where those diamonds are hidden! Do you know, or is it as much a mystery to you as the rest of us?
I do and I think I can safely say there is no one on earth who would guess their fate.
That other novel, the one I shelved in order to make way for Before the Ruins, has continued to trouble me. It’s become clear that eventually I am going to have to write it. I’m working on something else right now but after it’s done, I think I’m going to return to the manor all those years ago and then . . . if all goes well . . . we can all find out exactly what became of that diamond necklace.
Victoria Gosling grew up in Wiltshire, England and studied English Literature at Manchester University. She is the founder of The Reader Berlin, hosting salon nights in Berlin and writers’ retreats in Greece and Italy. She also organizes The Berlin Writing Prize. Gosling is the author of Before the Ruins.
Caroline Zancan is a Senior Editor at Holt, acquiring literary and upmarket fiction and memoir. She is the author of the novels Local Girls (2015) and We Wish You Luck (2020), and likes to think this gives her insight in guiding her own writers through the wild ride of publication. Favorite and forthcoming acquisitions for Holt include Heather Harpham’s Happiness, which was a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick; Nafkote Tamirat’s The Parking Lot Attendant, which was a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize; Leah Hampton’s F*ckface; and Victoria Gosling’s Before the Ruins.
Before the Ruins
By Victoria Gosling
Published by Holt
It’s the summer of 1996 and school’s out forever for Andy, her boyfriend Marcus, her best friend Peter, and Em. When Andy’s alcoholic mother predicts the apocalypse, the four teenagers decide to see out the end of the world at a deserted manor house, the site of a historic unsolved mystery. There they meet David—charming and unreliable, he seems to have appeared out of nowhere.
David presents an irresistible lure for both Andy and Peter and complicates the dynamics of their lifelong friendship. When the group learns that a diamond necklace, stolen fifty years ago, might still be somewhere on the manor grounds, the Game—half treasure hunt, half friendly deception—begins. But the Game becomes much bigger than the necklace, growing to encompass years of secrets, lies, and, ultimately, one terrible betrayal.
Meticulously plotted and gorgeously written, Before the Ruins is a page-turner of the highest order about the sealed-off places in our pasts and the parts of ourselves waiting to be retrieved from them.