The Vanishing: Q&A and reading group questions

A photograph taken by Sophia whilst researching The Vanishing

A photograph taken by Sophia whilst researching The Vanishing

Q&A with Sophia Tobin on The Vanishing

The Vanishing is your third novel, but your first with a first person narrator – why did you choose this viewpoint, and how did you find Annaleigh’s ‘voice’?

I originally intended to use third person narration in The Vanishing. It was the natural choice in my earlier books, especially because you’re dealing with plots that twist and turn – it allows you to hide a lot from your reader! But when I started writing, I felt a strong identification with Annaleigh and it was natural to write in first person. Her voice was very clear and strong to me from the beginning. I found myself trying to convert first person into third person, and it was definitely losing something, so I decided to go ahead and stick just with her voice. It was more natural for me to do so, and I think it gives the book emotional power. It also means that I am extremely protective of her – when readers criticise her, particularly some of her unwise decisions, I have to stop myself from arguing with them!

Why is Annaleigh a foundling and what impact does this have on the plot?

I have always been fascinated by the Foundling Hospital, which is now a Museum in London. When a mother couldn’t keep her child, she would take the baby to the Hospital in the hope that the Hospital would take them, but in the early days this decision was made by drawing different coloured balls from a bag. The painter William Hogarth was an early patron of the Hospital, and he took in some of the foundlings. I read that after his death, his wife returned them to the Hospital; that really struck me, and it was the seed of Annaleigh’s relationship with her adopted father.

A foundling did feature briefly in my first book, The Silversmith’s Wife, but for The Vanishing I wanted that sense of dislocation to be central. It gives Annaleigh a sense of being on her own, and an outsider, but there is also the knowledge that she has been loved, early on in her life, by her foster father, and that this has given her psychological resilience.

There are supernatural elements in The Vanishing, would you consider it a gothic novel?

I love the gothic tradition and I’m really inspired by elements of that. But I also want to tie it in with a sense of real life, and the uncanny which we often experience in our every day lives. Those things we can’t explain, but ‘feel’. I like the idea of ‘realistic gothic’, if that’s possible…

The master/servant relationship is explored in The Vanishing, as it was in many 19th century novels – what is the source of the fascination?

It’s fascinating because it is all about power, and although lots of people don’t really like going to work on a Monday morning, most of us these days do not have to live with our employers or feel that we ‘serve’ them (on a good day!). The Brontës wrote about masters/servants because it was their direct experience, and they realized that the master/servant relationship could be dangerously intimate. But there’s also the sense that the servant can turn the tables on the master – such as Nelly Dean, the famously unreliable servant narrator in Wuthering Heights; or the diary of a footman I read as part of my research, where he recounts how he told off his mistress.

This book definitely is about class – about whether you feel comfortable and safe in life, or whether you live constantly on the edge of a precipice.

What inspired you to set this novel in Yorkshire?

I visited Yorkshire in autumn 2014, with the idea of possibly setting a book there. We were riding across the moors on a bus, and it was a beautiful day – the moors looked glorious, colourful and benign. Then, a cloud went over the sun and the same landscape was transformed into something cold and menacing: the weather and the atmosphere turned on a sixpence. I thought: ‘that’s it!’ – the perfect setting for a novel.

How did you research the book – any unusual sources?

I took lots of photographs on that Yorkshire trip, and visited again and walked on the moors. In terms of secondary sources, I read widely on the times and various different subject matter, from traditional Yorkshire architecture to cooking. Primary source material was also very important: I read the Leeds Intelligencer, the forerunner of the Yorkshire Post, for contextual information and details like coach routes. I also read letters of the time and diaries, such as the diary of a 19th century footman, which had a strange consequence – it meant I could use the word ‘spewing’, because he had used it. At the editing stage I was asked if it was too modern, but I had the proof…

What are you working on now?

My next book, A Map of the Damage, two intertwined love stories set in 1841 and 1941 in the heart of the City of London.

Reading group questions

  • The Vanishing is mainly set on the Yorkshire moors. What does this add to the reading of the novel, and how does it affect the behaviour of the characters?
  • Do you think this is a ‘gothic’ novel?
  • What are the main themes of The Vanishing?
  • What did you think of the portrayal of motherhood in The Vanishing? How does it compare to present day depictions of the same role?
  • Which character did you find most appealing, and why? Is there anyone you particularly dislike?
  • Did you find Annaleigh a sympathetic character, or do you feel she is the author of her own misfortune?
  • How does illness and the use of drugs affect the plot of The Vanishing?
  • Do you think The Vanishing has a happy ending?