Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Exclusive Preview Interview on her forthcoming NEW Novel - with Claire Kendal, author of The Book of You

I first came across Claire Kendal's writing in 2015 when I read The Book of You and thought it was brilliant. Not surprisingly, it was a Sunday Times top ten bestseller and Richard & Judy pick. You can read my book review, HERE - personally it is one of the creepiest psychological thrillers I have ever read. The review tells you why.

As an avid admirer of Claire's writing talent (to the point of profound envy!), I was over the moon when she very kindly agreed to let me fire my own personal questions at her about her writing process and her forthcoming new novel! 

And for those of you who are new to Claire's books, her second novel, The Second Sister happens to be in a Kindle SALE right now, for the price of only 99p/99c.  Grab it now HERE, while you can!

Without further ado, I'm very excited to present our interview:

1. First of all, just give us a glimpse into your eagerly anticipated new novel:

I have just given my editors the first full draft of my next novel, which is called I Spy and is publishing in 2019. It’s about a woman who wants to be a spy, fails to be a spy, but then gets recruited to be a spy. The catch is they want her to spy on her boyfriend, who has a missing first wife. And who, though extremely charismatic, has a very dark side. When my heroine, Holly, is asked to do this, her handler doesn’t realise that Holly is in the early stages of a pregnancy with this man. It isn’t a spoiler for me to say that the reader learns early on that something has gone spectacularly wrong with all this, and Holly has had to run away and start a new life under a new identity.

2. One of the aspects of your writing I admire is the way you avoid genre formulas and especially avoid ‘melodramatic’ writing. Nevertheless, you seem to reach a depth of foreboding and terror for your characters (and therefore the reader!) that is rare in other thriller authors. I imagine it takes considerable courage for a private and sensitive person to dig so deeply into murky psychological territory – can you explain a little about how you do this?

You have been very thoughtful and generous about my writing. Thank you, Alison – your questions are lovely and I really appreciate how specific they are. I will do my best to answer this one.

I tend to start with a feeling or experience that is familiar to me and therefore I hope will be one that others will care about too. The next thing I do is to imagine that situation at extremity, to envisage it at its very worst. In I Spy, I was thinking about the boundaries between intimacy and intrusion, and the ways in which our surveillance culture has made these borders more permeable and dangerous. At the same time, I was just so powerfully interested in thinking about what it is like to be a spy, what the personal costs are to relationships and to identity, and what it means to be forced to walk away from your life as you know it.

There’s an element of fantasy in this, but of deep fear, too. I was thinking especially about the stories in the news concerning undercover police officers who ended up having children with the women they were spying on. These officers – at least in the stories I’ve read – have all been men. In a few cases, these officers suddenly disappeared out of the lives of the new families they’d made in the course of spying, leaving their partners (who were also their targets) and children in uncertainty and despair. I started to wonder what the story would look like if a woman became a spy like this.

In terms of your point about murky psychological territory, something happened with I Spy that hasn’t happened to me before. With my previous two novels, I dealt with very troubling subject matter but didn’t actually get upset until after I finished – that was when I had a few weeks of a kind of emotional exhaustion. With I Spy, this happened throughout the writing. Though I was addicted to getting the story out, drawn to it the instant I woke up and not wanting to stop for sleep, I did weep while writing some of the scenes. I had to do a great deal of research, because the material is so sensitive that I was really nervous about doing it justice. The whole time I was writing, I felt extreme levels of responsibility – probably more than I ever felt before – to deal with the subject matter truthfully and realistically, as far as I was able.

Touching on what you say about genre, one really important thing to me is that while my novels have been described as psychological thrillers or domestic noir, and I think these terms are accurate to what my books do, I also see my books as realist novels. In the case of I Spy there is a bit of spy thriller thrown into the mix, too, though I have made this element much more intimate than is typical. This point leads really well to your next question…

3. You stated in interview that you don’t set out to write ‘suspense’, yet you create scenes full of immediacy, realism and urgency. Where have you gleaned the technical skills for putting together a ‘psychological thriller’?

This is a very kind thing to say. I tend to look to novels I love and admire, novels that have obsessed me, to try to teach myself these skills. I always think that other novels are the best guides for writers. The plot of I Spy owes something to Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which has two time frames and utilises the diary form to tell the story. Bronte’s novel is filled with the elements of the spy story and psychological thriller that are integral to my own, but it’s also a realist novel about domestic abuse. One way of summarising the plot of I Spy – and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – is this. A woman is forced to conceal her identity in a world where she is closely watched and monitored, and in turn needs to watch and monitor others, all the while trying to protect her child.

Some of my favourite novels utilise forms that have an inherent immediacy and urgency, such as letters or journals. These can have such force when describing events that are dramatic and dangerous. It may also be worth mentioning that when I first started trying (secretly!) to write novels, I was an English academic and literary critic, so I spent many years as a would-be maker of books who was trained to a fairly high degree in close reading. I was tearing apart novels not just to write scholarly articles, which was what I supposed to do in my job, but also because I wanted to learn how to tell my own stories, which was a private motive of my own.

4. Are the titles of the books your own? Did they have other titles when you were working on them?

My three novels had very different paths to their respective titles.

In The Book of You, Clarissa, my heroine, has this to say. ‘Every story has a true name. I wish this story’s name could be different, but nothing can change it. This story is The Book of You.’ My agent’s assistant, Pippa, found this sentence, and said, ‘Here is the title. It was there all along.’ The Book of You was originally called The Drying Room, but I think The Book of You is the perfect and only title for that novel, and Pippa is a genius. The title was there from the start, but wasn’t discovered until the end. I wrote the words ‘The Book of You’ but it took someone else to see them.

The Second Sister didn’t have a title until after it was finished and in production. My first idea was to call it Eyes Like Yours, but there were concerns that perhaps this didn’t tell the reader clearly enough what the novel was about. We considered The Good Sister, which my agent also loved, but then we learned that my Canadian publisher was bringing out another novel with that title around the same time. There isn’t a copyright on titles, but it didn’t seem right to use it. So I started to think of another alternative. The weird thing is, I said to my husband, ‘What about The Second Sister?’ A few minutes later, my editor sent me an email – and she had written The Second Sister in a list of about five possibilities.

I Spy is the first novel that had its title before I even started writing. My agent and I were talking about my early ideas for the story. During that conversation, he said, ‘How about I Spy?’ I instantly, deeply loved it, and knew it was right. With every word, it has grown more so. It is definitely that novel’s true name, to steal Clarissa’s phrase, and I am very excited about it.

5. The world of publishing has changed enormously in the last ten years with publishing houses no longer ‘keeping’ authors for life. How do you feel about the expectation for authors to promote their own books and present an online ‘platform’ for their readers?

I never had any expectation of a publisher keeping me for life – I was amazed to publish a novel at all, given that I had already written several which hadn’t got anywhere. So I hope it makes sense that for me, each published novel seems like a miraculous bonus, a real gift.

For the other part of your question, I’m not sure how good I am at self-promotion. It doesn’t come naturally to me – I’m actually quite shy and private. But I am also extremely grateful for everything the publishers do to support my writing, and I try my serious best to contribute to that. I see it as a professional responsibility and one that I am privileged to have.

The best thing about social media is the contact with readers that it brings – I love it when readers get in touch with me that way, and I have had some very moving messages. The individual conversations I get to have are what makes sense of social media for me. I wish I were better at initiating posts, though. Maybe in time…

6. Can you share a little of your writing process – such as how you structure your day when you’re in the thick of a first draft?
I started I Spy in Cornwall, because the novel is partly set there and I wanted to immerse myself in the location. I went away for seventeen days, and just walked and walked and wrote and wrote. It was a kind of do-it-yourself writer’s retreat and research trip. It gave me a huge boost to get I Spy going, and was one of the only periods of my life where I had the luxury of doing nothing but writing from the minute I woke until I went to sleep. It was one of the most special things I’ve done, and in a part of the world that I deeply love. But of course I couldn’t stay in Cornwall forever.

So here is a much more typical writing day for when I’m in the thick of a first draft. I get up early to go to the gym, and watch a film or box set while I’m on the cross-trainer (this distracts me from the fact that I am exercising!) – if I don’t do this I end up feeling stiff and cross. I swoop home to pick up the children and take them to school. I spend a few hours or the whole day on a selection of the following things, and sometimes on all of them – reading student work, answering university emails, going to meetings, having tutorials with my students, dealing with admin. I eat with my family (my husband and I alternate shopping and cooking weeks) and help with homework and the other things the children need. Then I write write write until late at night and I am too tired to write any more. What isn’t on this list is cleaning – I live in a very messy house.

Bite-sized questions:

Can you share two ‘golden keepsakes’ – two special mementoes in your home that you’ve kept for a particular reason?

1) Two companion drawings that my grandmother made of my sister and me when we were very little girls, and another she did of my brother. (This is technically three keepsakes, but I think of them as a single set!)

2) The baby and toddler clothes I sewed for my daughters.

What are your three favourite items of clothing?

All three are associated with special times in my life.

1) An old maternity dress – now washed so many times it has holes in it – made of cream-coloured cotton and printed with pale gold wildflowers. I wore it more than anything else during my first pregnancy.

2) A dress of midnight blue silk that I wore to the launch for The Book of You.

3) My wedding dress, a floaty tent worn when I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with twins and chosen that morning because it was the only pretty thing in my wardrobe that fit me.

Thank you to Claire for a truly insightful and inspirational interview.

You can follow Claire Kendal on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


AJ Waines is a No 1 International Bestelling Author

All books can be read in any order 
(including Inside the Whispers (Bk 1) and Lost in the Lake (Bk 2) which are also in a series)
  •  Over 450,000 books sold worldwide
  • Girl on a Train  #1 Bestseller on Kindle in UK and Australia (2015 & 2016) 
  • No Longer Safe  #1 in 'Crime Noir' [30,000 sold in the first month]
Awarded Kindle KDP Top 10 'most-read Author' in UK 2016 & 2017