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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Interview with Rebecca James, author of 'Sweet Damage'

In 2010 I read a book and was so wowed, I vowed to read absolutely everything else the author wrote. Lo and behold, Rebecca James has released a follow-up to her Beautiful Malice that has proven to be another bowl-me-over read! 
Sweet Damage is heart-in-throat incredible, and I was not only lucky enough to receive a review copy, but have the chance to pick Ms James's brain about her latest triumph... 
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
I’m a bit of a panster. With Beautiful Malice I literally started with the first line ‘I didn’t go to Alice’s funeral,’ and went from there. When I started writing I had no idea what had happened to make Katherine so angry at Alice and no idea what would happen next. Writing it was just as much a process of discovery as I hope reading it is. 

I wrote a synopsis for Sweet Damage – mainly so I had something to show my publishers – but I veered so far off track that the final product barely resembles the original idea. 

Right now, as I get ready to start on a third novel, I’m thinking of some vague set-ups, a few different characters, but I’m struggling to come up with a really firm plot. I think I just need to dive in, start writing, see where the characters and the current of the novel takes me. 

To be honest I do often wish I was more of a plotter. It would be great to have a clear outline of a book before I started,  I’m quite sure the whole process would feel less terrifying and impossible. I’d love to come up with a brilliant and polished novel idea and be certain that everything would turn out as planned ... but somehow I don’t see that happening.  

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Sweet Damage’, from first idea to final manuscript?
It took two years. When I first wrote the synopsis and showed my publishers and they all said ‘great, go for it’ I told them I’d have it ready in two months. Needless to say that plan failed and I spent the next two years writing and writing while all the time feeling quite frantic about it. At least now I know I can’t write a book in two months - and I will never suggest so again!

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
I think of the characters and the set-up. As mentioned above, with Beautiful Malice I came up with the first line and just started writing. I knew a girl called Alice had done something bad to my protagonist, Katherine, but I didn’t know what she’d done or why. I didn’t even really know who these characters were. 

With Sweet Damage I came up with the idea of a girl trapped in a big house. There’s nothing physical or concrete keeping her trapped, it’s her own anxiety, her own mind, that stops her from leaving the house. And then I had a well-meaning, unambitious boy called Tim move in. He’s baffled by Anna, can’t understand her, doesn’t even like her at first...

And then I added a few twists, a couple of devastating secrets and a big surprising mystery...

Q:  Your debut novel ‘Beautiful Malice’ came out in 2010 and was a smash-hit. How was it writing this second novel? More pressure, or was writing the second easier than writing the first?
I did feel some pressure, yes. While I was writing Beautiful Malice I was writing for fun. I did hope to be published one day, but it always seemed like a bit of a dream, an unlikely fantasy. There’s a certain freedom in writing when you don’t have a publishing deal. You can write anything you like, in any genre, for any age.

You definitely feel more pressure when you’re writing a second novel. Your publishers and your audience have certain expectations.  While writing Sweet Damage I was always conscious that a certain type of book was expected of me (a YA/crossover psychological thriller to be precise) and that made the writing process a bit trickier. I had to get it right.

Sweet Damage took a long time and I had to do a lot of rewriting and quite a few big structural edits. To be honest I felt quite despairing at times, as though I’d never get it done. I wondered once or twice if Beautiful Malice would end up being my only published novel. In hindsight it doesn’t seem to have been as bad, or to have taken as long, as it felt at the time, but I still hope that my next novel flows a little more easily and quickly. 

Q: The opening line of ‘Sweet Damage’ well and truly sucked me in: “I still dream about Fairview.” The line reminded me of Daphne Du Maurier ‘s ‘Rebecca’ and that famous opening: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” – and the two are definitely of the same Gothic genre. Were you inspired by ‘Rebecca’? 
In a way. I actually reread Rebecca while I was writing this book, as I knew that Du Maurier had rendered Manderley so beautifully that it felt like another character in the novel. I thought it would be worth taking a look to see how she did it. The truth is, though, that I didn’t enjoy Rebecca as much as I remembered loving it the first time around. I found the narrator irritating - she’s just so naive and spineless (--beware spoilers for Rebecca ahead -- ) and I wasn’t convinced by the easy way she accepted the fact that her husband was a murderer. In fact, she seemed quite happy about it. I found this a bit unbelievable and very annoying! 

Q: The house that Tim Ellison rents a room in is called ‘Fairview’, and it’s a rather magnificent, cavernous manor-house situated in a prime Sydney location (complete with views of the Harbour!) And Fairview really does become a character in itself . . . did you do some on-location scouting while writing ‘Sweet Damage’? Did you go hunting for a grand old house to get the details of Fairview just right?
The suburb and street are real, but the house itself, Fairview, is a product of my imagination. I know the suburb very well because I used to live there in my twenties. (Not in a mansion, unfortunately.) My parents still live around that area of Sydney and while I was writing Sweet Damage I drove down Lauderdale Avenue (the street in which the book is set) several times and pointed out potential houses. But none of them were big or old or gloomy enough to quite fit the image of Fairview I had in mind. 

Q: ‘Sweet Damage’ concerns a character called Anna London, who inherited Fairview after a terrible family tragedy that has also turned her agoraphobic. Anna is crippled by her agoraphobia and it’s fascinating to read about a character who has confined herself to a place that also holds sad memories. What sort of research did you go into this anxiety disorder?
I initially became interested in anxiety and agoraphobia as a condition because I’ve had anxiety myself. I started having panic attacks at a particularly stressful time in my life (my husband, Hilary, and I were running our own small business, we had four young sons and Hilary became quite seriously ill). There was a particular day I was so anxious I couldn’t make it to the supermarket to buy dinner. I was lucky – I had a good friend who dragged me to the doctor - and with a combination of medication and guided meditation, I was eventually able to get my panic attacks under control. 

Agoraphobia is a condition which results from really bad anxiety, or panic disorder.  In trying to understand my own anxiety - and avoid becoming agoraphobic myself -  I read a fair bit about it. And while I don’t consider myself an expert (I’m a novelist, not a doctor) what I try to get across in Sweet Damage is how debilitating and overwhelming anxiety can be, and the terrible sense of shame and helplessness you feel when panic starts to have a negative impact on your life. 

I was never as unwell as Anna but my experience with anxiety gave me a glimpse of the frightening possibility, of the potential for your mind to let you down, mess with your thoughts in such a way that normal life becomes impossible.  

Q: As with your debut, ‘Beautiful Malice’, ‘Sweet Damage’ is a psychological-thriller with heavy doses of lovely Gothicism. . . Are you a fan of the thriller genre, and do you read such books? Why do you think you’re drawn to rather dark subject matters in your novels? 
I’m definitely drawn to write about dark subject matter but I’m not entirely sure why. And now that I think about it I wonder why so many of us are drawn to read and consume such stuff in the first place. 

Maybe it’s cathartic? There’s definitely something enjoyable about feeling a range of strong emotions that aren’t caused directly by your own life. It’s somehow fun be moved by a drama that is removed from you, and can’t really ‘touch’ you. I guess it could be argued that fiction that scares or shocks or saddens provides a very safe thrill. 

I don’t really have an answer, I only know that enjoy reading and watching things that shock and surprise me, and keep me on the edge of my seat, or make me cry. And I’m naturally drawn to writing things that I would like to read. 

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves?
I’ve just started a new book. Everything’s very vague and unformed at the moment though I do have one character I’ve called Ella and another called Maggie. They are in their early twenties and haven’t seen each other for five years (ever since the last day of school when something unspeakably terrible happened). I have no idea what the unspeakably terrible thing was yet, or what’s next for these unfortunate characters, but it will probably be something quite nasty, going by what I’ve written in the past. I’ve literally written a couple of pages and so I have no idea when I’ll finish and even less idea when it will actually hit shelves. Hopefully within a year or two...

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Liane Moriarty, Anne Tyler, Wendy James, Anne Fine, Nicci French, Richard Yates, Charlotte Bronte, Helen Garner, Roxanna Robinson.

Q: Favourite book(s)? 
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (I’ve just read this - so brilliant!), Out of the Silence by Wendy James, Telling Liddy by Anne Fine, Easter Parade by Richard Yates, The Spare Room by Helen Garner, Villette by Charlotte Bronte, The Siege by Helen Dunmore, Cost by Roxana Robinson, The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. 

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Keep trying and don’t despair. 

 Sweet Damage is now available wherever good books are sold, and online!

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