In this age of technology, many dream of running away to a cabin in the woods where they can live off the land and get back to nature. Pearl’s community of Seed offers that reprieve. Tucked away in a lush woods and near beautiful lakes and valleys, Pearl believes that she lives in a utopia. But it takes an outsider to make her realize that the world she loves so dearly is being controlled by a dangerous man. Lisa Heathfield’s debut Seed takes readers into the mind of a girl who grew up in a cult and didn’t realize until it was almost too late. Here, we talk with Heathfield about her fascination with cults, the inspiration behind Pearl’s worship of nature, and the dark but important themes that the book touches on.
Bookish: Pearl is incredibly naive, which is exactly what Papa S. wants and intends his followers to be. What were the challenges of writing a character who is afraid and at times unwilling to see the truth?
Lisa Heathfield: I was lucky, as Pearl was very easy to write. I was working on another book when she appeared one day and wouldn’t leave me alone until I told her story. She’s as real to me as anyone I meet, so it didn’t really feel like a challenge to write her. I don’t feel that I had any control over aspects of her character: She’s naive simply because she is. She’s unwilling to see the truth because Seed is all she’s ever known. Initially, when Ellis tries to open her eyes to the evil surrounding her, she’s blind to it, as it’s completely beyond her understanding of reality.
Bookish: There are many different types of cults: religious, doomsday, political. What was behind your decision to choose nature as the thing Seed most worshiped?
LH: When Pearl appeared to me, she brought Seed with her. It’s the place she’s grown up in, so they’re intrinsically linked. For me, there was no conscious decision—nature is what they worship at Seed.
I’m pleased it’s not a religious cult though, as they so often are. I have a strong faith that’s very important to me and I wouldn’t want it linked in any way with the darkness at Seed.
Bookish: You credit the “500 words a day” rule with helping you write. Can you tell us about what made you start using this method?
LH: A friend told me to write 500 words a day as a New Year’s resolution. I was so busy—I have three young children and was running a cafe, but I knew I needed to write and 500 words a day felt manageable. I was really strict with myself, but to be honest it was easy to stick to because I loved it. I’m now a full-time writer. The cafe has gone and my boys are at school, so I’m lucky enough to have the time to write much more than 500 words!
Bookish: So you’d recommend this method for other writers?
LH: I totally recommend the rule for other writers. It’s so important to get into the habit and my writing improves massively when I’m consistent with it. So many people have a novel inside them, but they just need a push to get started.
Bookish: Seed is an uncomfortable read at times, with themes of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. As a writer, where did you choose to draw the line with what you would reveal and what you would leave up to speculation?
LH: I was always very aware that I was writing for young adults, therefore I had boundaries I didn’t want to cross. It was good to think about what, as a mom, I’d be happy for my sons to read as teenagers (my eldest isn’t far off now). It’s difficult though, as cults, by their very nature, are about power and the abuse of that power. Unfortunately, in circumstances like these, it’s very easy for mental, physical, and sexual abuse to creep in. So it was important for me that these found their place in the novel. They’re hard-hitting issues, but they’re relevant and they shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.
Bookish: Did you pull some of Seed’s practices (cutting palms, the hole in the ground, etc) from cults that exist or have existed in our world?
LH: I didn’t pull Seed’s practices from other cults, but I can definitely trace the roots of some of them. The cutting of palms is a more advanced, sinister version of being someone’s blood sister in the playground at school (thankfully, I don’t think that is practiced any more!). Pearl being put in the hole in the ground was directly influenced by my reading of Natascha Kampusch‘s horrific confinement in 3,096 Days. I’m sure that the kissing of palms and holding them to the sky, is linked to Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale, which made a huge impression on me at a young age.
I’m not sure where the others came from: Dawn Rocks, the blindfolds… I have no doubt that they were in my subconscious from books I’ve read, or stories I’ve heard, but I don’t know which!
Bookish: Even as the book ends, there are so many unanswered questions. Are you considering a sequel or prequel to cover the events after the book ended or before it began?
LH: I’m writing the sequel now! There seem to be a lot of people who want to know what happens next, including me! I’m loving spending time with Pearl again.
Bookish: The readers aren’t given much insight into how Seed was formed, though we do get a glimpse of the recruitment process when Ellis talks about how his mother was convinced. What sort of research did you do to find out how and why people join cults?
LH: I didn’t do any specific research for Seed, but I have been interested in cults for a while. I remember being very envious of a friend who was able to write her university dissertation on cults. I find it fascinating how people can have such control over others, how grown adults can hand over their minds to someone else. There are small cults all over the world and it’s truly frightening.
Bookish: You work with hearing-impaired children, who have their own closed community of sorts. Did your work with them have any surprising influences on this novel, such as the relationships between the children who grew up together at Seed?
LH: I had never thought of that! I haven’t worked with hearing-impaired children for a few years now, but it’s definitely an interesting idea. I learnt about Helen Keller when I was a child and she left a strong impression on me. And now, years later, I’ve written about a character who can neither see, nor hear, the horror that’s unfolding around her. I shouldn’t really be surprised. I believe that everything I’ve ever read and everyone I’ve ever met is stored in my subconscious. I love seeing what my writing spirit picks and chooses to put into my own books!
Lisa Heathfield is a former secondary school English teacher, specializing in working with hearing-impaired children. Seed is her debut novel. She lives in Brighton, England, with her husband and three children.