Your first novel, Beyond Fear, was officially released on March 1st. How did you come to write Beyond Fear and get it published?
When I started Beyond Fear, I’d been writing and trying to get published in another genre for around seven years. I’ve always loved crime and thrillers but never had the confidence to try one of my own. I was at a point where I thought I might never get published so I decided I may as well write to entertain myself. When I finished, I pitched the story to a literary agent at a writers’ conference then, after so long trying to get my work onto an editor’s desk, things moved very fast. I was signed up by my agent. She submitted the manuscript to a number of publishers and it became the subject of a bidding war before I eventually signed a two-book contract with Random House. Since then, Beyond Fear has sold in Europe and in the next year or so will be translated into four languages.
Both Beyond Fear and your second novel, which you are currently writing, are psychological thrillers. What tends to make a good psychological thriller, or what do you tend to enjoy most when reading them?
I love a gripping story, one that keeps me guessing, that puts me in the shoes of the main characters and takes me on their emotional ride. When it comes to psychological thrillers, I enjoy getting inside the heads of the characters with the most to lose – the one whose life is at risk or who has to save the day.
You have spent 12 years working as a journalist for print, radio and television. In what ways have your journalistic skills helped with your fiction writing?
My journalistic skills helped enormously with the technical side of writing fiction. Things like structure, pace and flow came quite easily. Years of listening and quoting also seemed to help with dialogue and finding a different voice for each character. I also had a reporter’s ingrained sense of a story, so when it came to fiction, I had a pretty good idea of how to turn my series of ideas into a compelling tale. The sight of a blank screen didn’t frighten me, either, which is a huge asset when you’re starting out.
As a journalist, I also met a lot of interesting people and heard a lot of stories, and for my fertile imagination, that opened up a world of ‘what if’ ideas. That’s not a journalistic skill but I think it gave me a great basis to start writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
There was plenty more to learn, though. After the confines of writing for news, I had to learn how to let go of the rules and allow myself to write expressively and to be introspective. And I had to start from scratch with characterisation, plot and the story arc.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing Beyond Fear?
Beyond Fear is about four women on a weekend away who are terrorised at an isolated farmhouse. The main character is Jodie Cramer, who survived a brutal assault as a teenager and at 35, still carries the burden of survivor guilt.
I started with a few ideas for setting and character. I’d been going away on girls’ weekends since my children were small and I’d always thought it was a terrific setup for a story. For a thriller, I thought what better time to turn a few lives upside down. The story is set in the NSW Hunter Valley, where I live, outside the small town of Dungog. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place surrounded by lush, rolling hills, which seemed a good contrast to the unfolding fear and violence.
I wanted to a heroine who was an ordinary woman, not a cop or PI but a 35-year-old mother of two who is pushed to her limit. And I wanted to write her like a hero, not someone who is rescued or helps or a side-kick but the one who gets to save the day. For her to do that and be believable, she needed to have a good reason to be physically and mentally up to it. I’d read a newspaper article thirty years ago about a teenager who’d been assaulted near where I grew up. She was stabbed repeatedly but managed to escape. I began thinking about the kind of person who would survive an experience like that, what she might be like 20 years later and what it affect it would have on a terrifying situation. And Jodie came from that.
Once those pieces were in place, I devised the major plot points and started writing, which worked well right up to the point when Jodie decided she wasn’t going to play along. It happened about three-quarters of the way through the story and at the turning point of the action. I spent several weeks rewriting the scene before I finally decided she wasn’t going to do what I wanted. From then on, the ending was a black hole. I had no idea how it would turn out and just had to trust that I knew the characters well enough to write their ending. I think they did okay!
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading and do you have some favourites?
I read mostly crime and thrillers, both for research and enjoyment. I love a story that goes somewhere unexpected but I also love delving back into the world of a character I know well. I have both favourite characters and authors. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone are at the top of my list of characters and I’ll read anything by Michael Robotham and Nicci French.
What is one of your favourite suspense/thriller or horror movies and why?
One of my favourite suspense movies is The Bourne Identity. It covers all the bases for me – the intensity of Bourne’s search for identity then the horror of what he finds, the bigger picture of a government bureau without boundaries and the woman who gets caught up in the deadly game between them.
I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on the adaptation. I’ve heard it’s quite different but I don’t want to read it in case it ruins the movie for me.
Have you ever written short stories? (If so, how did they turn out? If not, do you think you’ll try it in the future?)
I’d love to be able to write short stories, partly because a novel is such a huge project. I know when I start that it’s going to be at least a year before I can think of anything else. But after a brief attempt at short stories years ago, I decided my internal story teller is set at novel length. It’s an art to be able to flesh out characters and weave a compelling narrative in 3,000 words. I don’t seem to be able to finish inside 100,000 words and while I’m enjoying that, I think I’ll stick to it.
What is the top piece of advice you’d like to give for new writers starting to write their first novel with the goal of getting it commercially published?
Hang in there! Sorry, it’s not technical advice but perseverance is what gets you there. It’s incredibly easy to get disheartened and to doubt yourself, especially when you start out and the project seems never ending. But sticking with it, chaining yourself to your computer, being ready to try and try again, and not losing sight of your goal is the way to getting published.
What’s next for your fiction besides your second novel, or is it too early to tell?
I’ve always got a bunch of ideas running around in my head. There are fragments of a third thriller stewing away and I’d love to write a series at some point but for the moment, I’m concentrating on finishing my second book, a thriller called Scared Yet?