Despite his portrayal of heavy- handed Catholic asceticism in his debut novel The Loney, British author Andrew Michael Hurley insists he is not trying to exorcise the demons of an austere childhood through his work.
"I didn't set out to write a novel that is anti-Christian or anti- Catholic. Many Catholics have read and enjoyed the novel as they can recognise the world where it came from. And the family in the book wasn't the family I came from. They read it and understood where my cynicism came from. They were happy for my success," the 40-year-old tells The Sunday Times in a telephone interview from Lancashire county in north-west England, where he lives.
Narrated by a nameless young boy, the book revolves around his Catholic family's Easter pilgrimage to The Loney, a desolate stretch of coastline. They are accompanied by friends from their congregation as well as their new priest, Father Bernard, who is replacing the previous priest, Father Wilfred, whose recent death remains shrouded in mystery.
The Loney also explores the issues of faith, paganism and religious dogma, best personified by the protagonist's staunch believer of a mother, who hopes the religious retreat will work miracles to cure Hanny, her simple-minded mute elder son.
"I wanted to include the local folklore and customs as a counterpoint to organised religion. In places such as Lancashire, some of these traditions are adhered to. People still have a need for that kind of religion and mysticism in their lives," says Hurley, who was once an altar boy and is now an atheist.
The sweeping gothic novel is a dark, foreboding tale that unfolds against the backdrop of dank marshes, sand dunes and the treacherous waters of Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, which inspired his writing. "I fell in love with the landscape. It's a very beautiful yet menacing place to write about. I was brought up with nature around me. When I was young, I'd spend a lot of time walking, in the hills, near the lakes and even in the rain. There's just something spiritual about going to places on my own," he adds.
The Loney picked up a Costa First Novel Award at January's Costa Book Awards, which are held annually by the British coffee chain and given out to authors based in the United Kingdom or Ireland.
The judges said the book was "as close to the perfect first novel as you can get" and the novel earned praise from horror doyen Stephen King, a writer he admired.
"I didn't expect to win at all. I knew I'd been shortlisted, so that was already a great feeling. This just topped off an exciting year," he says.
He drew on his childhood experiences to write most of the novel, which took about four years to complete, as he could write only in his downtime on weekday evenings and weekends.
"It was difficult trying to structure the novel, giving it that sense of menacing, impending doom; and getting the pacing right and the ending too," says Hurley.
He was also initially unsure if his book was a gothic or literary novel.
"That was a drawback, I think. I met with quite a few rejections from publishers and agents," he says.
I fell in love with the landscape. It's a very beautiful yet menacing place to write about. I was brought up with nature around me. When I was young, I'd spend a lot of time walking, in the hills, near the lakes and even in the rain.
BRITISH AUTHOR ANDREW MICHAEL HURLEY on Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, which inspired his writing
It was a small-time indie publisher, Tartarus Press, which threw Hurley a line, doing an initial limited print run of 300 copies. The book received positive reviews, which soon led to interest from other publishers.
Since then, the book's film rights have been optioned by DNA Films, the production house behind other book adaptations such as Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.
"I'm so excited about that. I can't wait to see how it turns out. I'd love to see British actor John Hurt play Father Wilfred - I think he'd be great," says Hurley, whose love of literature was sparked at a young age by his teacher parents.
"One of my most vivid memories is being read to by my father. There were always books in the house," he recalls.
Hurley, now married to a teacher, would later go on to teach English and creative writing for about a decade, before working as a librarian for five years. He switched to writing full-time in January last year.
He says of the change: "It's great. It's something I've wanted to do for a long, long time - to devote more time to writing."
He is now working on his second novel, slated for release next year. It will also be set in Lancashire.
"I think gothic literature has an enduring appeal. But The Loney has a different take and it plays on the genre.
"Maybe that's why it was so well received. People are always drawn to dark stories. That's why they like watching horror films and reading horror stories."
- The Loney is available from $19 from major bookstores.