In her ambitious debut novel, Sabina Lungeanu builds a deliciously gloomy gothic world, at once familiar and entirely new. Set along the rugged coastline of rural Scotland, with the almost mythical Merriver mental institution at its core, Hiraeth (2020) expands into a poetic portrait of the human psyche. Initially focused upon the interconnecting stories of a first-time father on the brink of breakdown and a twelve-year-old boy mourning the absence of his own father, the narrative unexpectedly evolves into an almost metaphysical journey exploring death and the very essence of the self.
The Daniil Pashkoff Prize (2018) shortlisted author and devout worshipper of the “patron goddess, Lady Caffeine,” joins Generally Gothic to discuss the madness at the heart of Hiraeth, and the magic at the heart of her writing process.
The following interview is spoiler-free, and safe to read before Hiraeth (which is available to purchase online now).
“𝕸𝖆𝖞𝖇𝖊 𝖍𝖊’𝖘 𝖓𝖔 𝖒𝖔𝖗𝖊 𝖙𝖍𝖆𝖓 𝖆 𝖉𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖒 𝖉𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖒𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖎𝖙𝖘𝖊𝖑𝖋. 𝕭𝖚𝖙 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖔𝖓𝖊 𝖕𝖑𝖆𝖈𝖊 𝖘𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖊𝖘 𝖙𝖗𝖚𝖊 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖈𝖑𝖊𝖆𝖗 𝖎𝖓 𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖒𝖎𝖓𝖉, 𝖒𝖔𝖗𝖊 𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖑 𝖙𝖍𝖆𝖙 𝖍𝖊’𝖘 𝖊𝖛𝖊𝖗 𝖇𝖊𝖊𝖓. 𝕴𝖙 𝖎𝖘 𝖍𝖎𝖒 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖍𝖊 𝖎𝖘 𝖎𝖙.”
How did the concept of the novel come about?
Like all my stories, Hiraeth began as a nagging thought, an idea that wouldn’t give me peace. There was little active plotting involved. My mind simply loves to free associate and decided to blend a mysterious pocket watch trapped inside a bird cage, the rugged Atlantic coast of Scotland, and a ghost…
Where did you find inspiration?
My biggest source of inspiration was Scotland. I’ve been fortunate [enough] to visit Edinburgh twice and have fallen head over heels in love with it. The dark facades of the buildings, the cobbled stones of the Old Town, its disturbing, sometimes downright gruesome history… it’s just one of those magical places where stories seem to lurk right beneath the fabric of reality, eager to be born.
The narrative spans multiple time periods and first person voices. How did you tackle this in writing, to ensure the linear clarity that you did?
Frankly, that was the biggest challenge while writing the book. I almost gave up on several occasions because the timeline refused to behave, or some character suddenly got ideas and developed in a surprising way. Now I’m glad I didn’t and just allowed the story to write itself. The first draft was a messy business, it was only during the edit rounds that the chapters began to assemble themselves like jigsaw pieces and I could finally see the big picture.
I’m glad you didn’t give up too! Some surprisingly existential themes are explored. Does the story have a deeper meaning for you?
Absolutely, though I hadn’t been aware of it while writing. It was only after some rigorous editing that the story revealed its essence to me. That was also when I recognised the Welsh concept of hiraeth as the perfect title for the book. Fierce longing for a destination forever out of reach is something that resonates deeply with me.
“‘𝕴 𝖉𝖆𝖓𝖈𝖊𝖉 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖕𝖆𝖎𝖓,’ 𝖘𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖆𝖞𝖘, 𝖊𝖞𝖊𝖘 𝖆𝖑𝖎𝖌𝖍𝖙 𝖜𝖎𝖙𝖍 𝖘𝖔𝖒𝖊 𝖎𝖓𝖓𝖊𝖗 𝖋𝖊𝖛𝖊𝖗.”
Madness, or sanity, is a major theme and is associated with each character in one way or another. Why were you drawn to exploration of the psyche, and what role does it play in the novel?
Madness and its twin sister, sanity, are the backbone of the story. I don’t want to spoil anything but suffice to say they manifest in diverse iterations and drive the characters in unexpected ways. I find these manifold, ever-changing faces of madness fascinating.
As do I, particularly in the context of gothic fiction! What does the ‘gothic’ mean to you?
To me, gothic is a state of mind. It’s about lending a voice to the darkness within and embracing its cathartic effect. Those things that only come alive at night have an uncanny ability to terrify and fascinate us in equal measure.
How does the gothic manifest in your writing? What is it about your work that makes it gothic, or generally so?
My novel mainly relies on atmosphere and foreshadowing to set a gothic mood. The themes of madness, alienation, confinement, as well as the presence of a rather talkative ghost add to the gothic flavour of the story.
The atmosphere of Hiraeth was undeniably gothic, and I particularly enjoyed your descriptions of place. In what other terms would you define your fiction?
I find it difficult to describe my writing in an objective manner, but it’s been called haunting, lyrical and immersive. I strive for authenticity and tend to gravitate towards unsettling, yet deeply human themes.
I think those three words sum your style up very well. What was the process, from idea to publication, like for you?
[Hiraeth] is the first novel to be published but the second one I have written. The experience I’d gathered with my first manuscript proved invaluable while writing Hiraeth. One of the most important lessons I’d learned was perseverance and trusting the process. Some stories refuse to be told in a linear manner and this was one of them. I know now that each story grows at its own pace and rushing it only stifles its development. I had no plans to publish this novel back in the day, so being able to hold it in my hands now still feels mildly surreal.
“𝕾𝖍𝖊 𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖈𝖍𝖊𝖘 𝖔𝖚𝖙 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖙𝖔𝖚𝖈𝖍𝖊𝖘 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖐𝖊𝖑𝖊𝖙𝖔𝖓 𝖔𝖋 𝖒𝖊𝖙𝖆𝖑, 𝖍𝖆𝖑𝖋 𝖊𝖝𝖕𝖊𝖈𝖙𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖎𝖙 𝖙𝖔 𝖘𝖍𝖆𝖙𝖙𝖊𝖗 𝖚𝖓𝖉𝖊𝖗 𝖍𝖊𝖗 𝖍𝖆𝖓𝖉, 𝖆 𝖒𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖋𝖎𝖌𝖒𝖊𝖓𝖙 𝖔𝖋 𝖍𝖊𝖗 𝖎𝖒𝖆𝖌𝖎𝖓𝖆𝖙𝖎𝖔𝖓.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers – for those seeking that same surreal feeling?
I hope it doesn’t sound excessively sobering, but my advice would be to let go of preconceptions of what a writer’s life looks like and discover it for yourself. Obviously, I can only talk from my own experience, but there’s little glamour to the writing process, and by that I don’t mean the old definition of glamour as in enchantment, because that is indeed abundant in writing. It ultimately comes down to getting a story on paper and breathing life into something that had previously existed only in your head. It sounds deceivingly easy but it’s the hardest part. On a lighter note, do not underestimate the power of coffee/tea and snacks. Make sure you have plenty of those at hand for when you might need a motivation boost.
And for those who prefer reading, where can your book be purchased?
My book is available [in] paperback and eBook [formats] at Amazon. You can also read it for free with Kindle Unlimited.
What’s next? Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m currently editing an older manuscript. The story is set in ancient Dacia and draws heavily on the lore of that land.
Historical fiction? Awesome! And in the meantime, where can people read more of your work?
Several poems and a short story have been published in various anthologies, e.g. “With Lyre and Bow” (2016, Bibliotheca Alexandrina). I also love to share snippets of my work on Instagram.
My copy of Hiraeth was won in an Instagram competition, and was not an ARC (author review copy) – my opinions are my own, and are expressed with sincerity! Share yours below.
This post is part of my Gothic Psyche series, exploring the mind and madness in a gothic setting. Continue reading with An Unutterable Wretchedness of the Mind: Jane Eyre, and Everything was Brightness, or Dark: Wide Sargasso Sea.