When the publishing deal for your novel Beautiful Malice was announced, you became something of an overnight celebrity (at least to booklovers) with reports suggesting you may be ‘the next JK Rowling’. What are your thoughts about all of this public attention and speculation?
I didn’t anticipate any of this. I certainly didn’t expect Beautiful Malice to be taken up by so many publishers around the world and so, of course, never imagined that it would receive so much public attention — which is something that can take a bit of getting used to. For someone who is used to living a relatively quiet family life in the country, being interviewed by national newspapers and television crews can be quite confronting.
The fact that so many publishers were so enthusiastic about Beautiful Malice was thrilling, flattering, surprising and terrifying all at once. I still have to pinch myself when I think back to that time ( just over a year ago now) when all of this started….
Comparisons to JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer make me feel a bit uncomfortable to be honest. All our books are quite different and although Beautiful Malice has been very successful so far in terms of being bought by many publishers around the world, it’s a stand-alone book, not the first in a series, and as such is unlikely to have the phenomenal success of the Twilight or Harry Potter books. (And whether or not I would even want such massive success is another question entirely – I imagine it must come with some enormous difficulties, a lot of isolation, and be completely and utterly life-changing. I quite like being able to go to the supermarket without being mobbed!!)
You have said that Beautiful Malice is primarily about harmful relationships, how people get into these relationships and why they stay in them. Is it the built in conflict and the fact that so many people can relate to this issue that makes it work so well in a novel?
I suppose so. I think most people have experienced some kind of toxic relationship in their lifetime and I think we all find it fascinating to wonder just how damaging such a relationship could possibly get. Of course, Beautiful Malice is fiction, and a thriller at that, so I’ve made Alice a more sinister character than most of us will ever have the misfortune to meet.
One reader suggested to me that Beautiful Malice taps into the universal fear we all have of being betrayed by someone we have trusted with intimate secrets…
How do you get from an initial concept to beginning to put words down, or do you just write and do much of the planning as you go?
Every book I’ve written has involved a slightly different process from the last. When I started Beautiful Malice all I knew was that I wanted to write about toxic friendships. I started with the first line ‘I didn’t go to Alice’s funeral’ and went from there. I didn’t know what Alice had done to Katherine or how their story was going to unfold. In the second or third chapter it turned out that Katherine had a secret and I didn’t know what that secret was until I wrote about it. Beautiful Malice was very much a process of discovery for me — I had no idea what was going to happen until it happpened!
The book I’m writing now, Cooper Bartholomew is Dead, has been a bit different. I’ve had a much clearer picture of the entire shape of the story from the beginning. It’s all in my head though, I don’t write outlines or character plans or anything like that, I don’t really make notes (I’ve tried that and I always end up losing them) and so things tend to change a LOT as I write. I think that’s part of the fun though, letting the story take shape as you go…sometimes you surprise yourself!
What makes a great chapter in a novel, or what is an example of a great chapter and why does it stand out for you?
A Great chapter? Hmmmm…
I suppose I’d have to say that what makes a great chapter is the same as what makes any writing great. I think the most important thing is to engage the reader – to make them want to keep reading – whether that’s because the characters are so fascinating that they just want to know more about them, or the story is compelling, or the tension is so great it doesn’t really matter – as long as the reader wants to keep turning the pages.
Which works of fiction have most influenced your writing or do you admire most?
I’m not sure which works have influenced me. Of course I realise that I have been influenced, it’s just that it’s not a conscious process, and so I can’t say who or how or why. I don’t deliberately try to write like anyone else – although I do sometimes wish I could write as beautifully as another writer – but that’s slightly different, I think. And mostly I read for fun, because I want to, because it’s an activity I find enjoyable, and I don’t think much about process or the writer’s style, just let myself get taken up by the story. If I get bored I put the book down and read something else. (I used to hate doing that — but have since realised that there are so many great books out there that I’m not going to waste my time reading something if it feels like a chore).
Do you read much Australian fiction, and do you have any favourites?
Yes, some of my favourites include Helen Garner, Maureen McCarthy, Liane Moriarty and Kate Veitch.
You have said that the best advice for writers is to just do it, not to put it off and make up justifications to avoid writing. What other advice would you like to give for new writers?
It’s such a funny thing that in less than a year I’ve gone from being an aspiring author – someone who needed all the advice she could get – to someone who is constantly being asked for advice! To be honest I feel like a bit of a fraud giving advice – could you ask me again in ten years? When I feel more qualified?
What is next for your fiction writing?
Right now I’m working on finishing the second book in my contract. It’s called Cooper Bartholomew is Dead and is another psychological thriller. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do after that…
More on Rebecca James and her fiction can be found at www.rebeccasjames.blogspot.com.
The Australian Literature Review