Holly Williams chats to novelist Alice Sebold about acclaimed stage drama The Lovely Bones and Bryony Lavery, who adapted it for the stage

“Your characters never really go away – of course you feel a fondness towards them.” Novelist Alice Sebold has recently had reason to revisit the characters of The Lovely Bones, her 2002 globally best-selling novel about a young girl, Susie Salmon, who watches her family from heaven after she’s raped and murdered by a serial killer.

For those who’ve never encountered the novel, it might sound like grim reading. In fact, The Lovely Bones found a huge audience due to its tenderly drawn portrait of a family coming to terms with grief. Millions of readers felt a fondness of their own for Susie and the Salmon family.

Now, they’re coming to life onstage. Bryony Lavery has adapted the novel, for the first theatrical version of The Lovely Bones anywhere in the world.

What was her initial reaction to being asked to turn this smash hit book into a stage play?

“I think it was ‘yikes!’” laughs Lavery. “It’s not a straight narrative – it’s like loads of paths through a rather beautiful and disturbing forest. Which doesn’t make it easy to adapt at all…”

Still, the playwright is no stranger to crafting stage versions of classic novels, from Brighton Rock to A Christmas Carol to 101 Dalmatians – and she’d add The Lovely Bones to their rank. “It is a classic. It always brings us comfort, because of its strength and its honesty and its toughness, actually.”

But what did the American writer think of her novel being turned into a play?

“I liked the idea – I think there are things you can do onstage that you can’t do in any other medium,” says Sebold. She’s been reading drafts and offering feedback, but she’s happy to cede control of the material. “I just trust the people who are performing it and directing it – they know what happens to words when you put them on stage, and I don’t.”

Plus, part of the appeal was that Sebold couldn’t imagine quite how the story, which moves seamlessly between heaven and earth, could actually be realised on stage.

“For me, it’s going to be amazing to see: how do they have different levels, heaven and earth, and the various places that are in the novel? How do they make it real, but not too real? That’s one of the reasons why I think theatre can be fascinating: there are lots of imaginative recesses for the audience to fill.”

The process of adaptation is something Lavery gets great satisfaction from – partly because of the need to solve these challenges. “I love it. I get to be the junior writer to great writers. But the main thrill is to make it a theatrical-shaped piece of work rather than a novel, and each one has different problems and different joys.”

Lavery’s initial idea for staging this story was to have very defined heaven and earth spaces on different physical levels. But after workshops with actors and the show’s director, Melly Still, they discovered that heaven could be everywhere – because “that’s the magic of theatre.”

“The most wonderful thing about it is our Susie wanders through her family [on earth], but of course they can’t see her,” explains Lavery. “So one feels incredible empathy with her, because she’s this child that’s being ignored.”

This adds a degree of poignancy – but also, a degree of humour. This Susie has a very familiar teenage stroppy exasperation with her situation in the afterlife, and at her family not listening to her.

“That yields a lot of comedy and texture, because she’s so furious about it; she’s a wonderful pouty teenager at times,” Lavery says. And she adds that laughter is really necessary in this often dark story.

“You can’t hold your breath for two hours; you need to open a steam valve and let something out.”

Working on dark material can be harrowing – but the process here has, in fact, proved to be really rather good fun. Because of this, Sebold has ended up being rather more involved in the production than she had expected.

Speaking warmly of pinging emails back and forth across the Atlantic with Lavery, she says; “One of my favourite words is ‘moxie’, and she seems to have quite a bit of it…”

For Lavery, it’s not so common to be adapting material where the original writer is still with us. But working with Sebold has been wonderful, she says. “I was quite daunted at first, because Dickens and Graham Green and people don’t send notes… but a writer’s notes to another writer are always thrilling and challenging.”

Is she looking forward to Sebold seeing it? “Of course – because she sounds fun. But I’ll be as nervous as anything.”

How does it feel for Sebold, handing over her much-loved characters to someone else?

“There are some authors who like a sense of control where those things are concerned, but I really enjoy seeing what other people do with my stuff,” she says sanguinely.

Still, in revisiting The Lovely Bones Sebold must also revisit a very real trauma of her own. In 1981, when she was a student, she was raped and beaten while walking home one evening.

The novel is certainly not about her, but the attack was a spur.

“When people say ‘it’s autobiographical’ the first thing I say is ‘but I’m not dead’,” she comments dryly. And while she acknowledges that, without that experience, she might not have written The Lovely Bones, she says that her true inspiration was “all of those girls who never had a voice because they died, unlike myself.”

She recalls how, in the Seventies – when the story is set – there seemed to be “so many serial killers”, and so many young female victims. “And we were fascinated by serial killers like Ted Bundy, but we didn’t really know anything about the women he killed. I was very aware of this voiceless mass of women – that was pretty much the inspiration for me,” she says.

Sexual violence is certainly not something we’ve done away in the intervening decades. But The Lovely Bones has also proved a timeless story, and one worth revisiting for altogether more hopeful reasons.

There is something comforting in the balanced structure of the story: not only do the family on earth slowly come to some acceptance of their grief – a process anyone who’s lost anyone will recognise - but in heaven, too, Susie must go on the same journey of letting go.

“It’s not about murder; it’s about redemption,” agrees Lavery. “’The lovely bones’ refers to the lovely new bones that grow around this reconfigured family. It’s a tough book – it doesn’t do ‘oh the murderer’s going to get caught and everybody’s going to be happy’ – but it's about reconstruction after terrible disasters.

“And it’s about family – even if one of them is in heaven.”

Sebold still often hears from readers that the book provided solace when trying to come to terms with a death in the family, even if in very different circumstances.

“That was a wonderfully unexpected result of writing the book,” she says. “It’s like a play being written: you just can't predict where your work is going to go.”

n The Lovely Bones, Northern Stage, Newcastle, October 9-20. Tickets and Information: 0191 230 5151 or online at northernstage.co.uk