The Stepmother

The Stepmother

1. In another life, I’d love to be a figure sculptor. In preparation for The Stepmother, I joined a short course to learn the basics of sculpting a portrait head. The process was so satisfying, thrilling even, that I was tempted to give up writing and take up a new career. It was fascinating to note how each student had a different way of seeing. We had wooden and metal implements to help us shape the fine features, but I preferred to rely on my hands, enjoying the sensual pleasure of working directly with clay. By the time I had finished the course, I knew my protagonist so much better.

2. I didn’t need to do much research for my debut novel The Pupil because I was a barrister myself for 12 years. I never had a pupil like Natasha but, as with most of my characters, she sprang from a mixture of people I had met, sometimes only for a few minutes; books I had read, notably Vanity Fair; and my own smothered desires to behave badly.

3. Apart from a couple of short courses, I have never formally studied creative writing. But I was lucky to work in fields where I was a constant witness to high drama: the family courts and also the theatre. I was a theatre critic for several years. I learned that good dialogue can feel like a physical tussle. Brecht called it a boxing match.

4. I don’t write about psychopaths. I like to understand the motivation of all my characters, even when they do some very bad things.

5. I have written stories, plays and poems all my life but I have always worked at other things and I have no regrets about coming to publication late. Everything I have seen and done feeds into my writing now. While in full-time work I tried the 5 am start for a while, but I was often starting at 5 anyway to prepare my cross-examination before getting the children to school. That aspect of Mel’s life in The Pupil is pretty autobiographical.

6. There are two unpublished novels in my drawer. One will definitely stay there. The other, a historical saga based in seventeenth-century America, still haunts my imagination. It looks like I’ll be writing thrillers for a while but, now that I have a better idea of how to structure a book, I may go back to it one day.

7. Lockdown was great for a while. It gave me time and solitude in which to write The Stepmother. Finishing was hugely satisfying but also painful. The characters had kept me company for the last year and starting something new was not so easy. I was desperate for a holiday. I am not a great planner. Once I have a premise and a general outline, I prefer to write from the hearts of my characters. It can take a while to get them moving, but I am glad to say that after a few good long walks, and much agonising I am now well into book three.

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I had no idea I wanted to be a writer until I wrote my first novel. I didn’t even write: no short stories, no blogs, nothing. As a child I always enjoyed writing. When I was about seven years old I wrote a story about three little white dogs. I have an extremely vivid memory of yapping on about the audiobook – I was obsessed with there being an audiobook – but since then, nothing. As soon as I started writing my first novel though, I was obsessed and couldn’t stop.