Questions from PGC
This is a different sort of love triangle, the girlfriend, Cherry, isn’t competing with a lover but the potential mother-in-law, Laura. What made you choose this dynamic to write about?
I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that two women who are complete strangers are suddenly thrust together in a very intimate relationship for the rest of their lives – just because one starts to date the other’s son. It’s a bit weird and great territory for emotional stress and anxiety. Will she like me? Will I like her? What about for the next forty years?!
I really wanted to write a book that gave both the mother’s and the girlfriend’s point-of-view as each woman’s love for the same man is, although very different, of equal weight and importance. Pit these two loves against each other and who would win? I wanted to create a story that would get readers talking, debating which of the two women might be the more ‘wronged’ and the more justified in their behaviour.
There are times in the book where it’s easy to dislike Cherry and Laura! Did you feel empathy for them even though they both do some pretty bad things?
I find it hard to dislike either of them – particularly in the beginning. I want to shake Cherry and tell her to relax right at the start of the book and stop worrying so much! It’s sad really, she genuinely cares for Daniel (even though she does also like his money) and if she’d just stopped fretting about what Laura thought of her, things might have worked out very differently. And Laura does the most awful thing but she has been told by the doctors that Daniel has days – possibly hours – to live, and I can’t help but understand her actions as she’s about to lose her second – and only remaining – child. Both women have moments of possession and jealously and they are ugly, dangerous emotions that make them do despicable things. But as people I feel sorry for them both in many ways.
Part of the fun of The Girlfriend is trying to decide which of the characters’ behaviour is worse! Did you always intend for the story to be so morally ambiguous?
Yes, absolutely! I really wanted to test the characters, to see how far they would go, and importantly, try and make their actions justified – at least in their eyes. I think that in some cases, particularly with Laura, even though she does some awful things, she genuinely believes it’s for the right reason. Sadly, with the combination of both Laura’s and Cherry’s individual backgrounds and the situation they now find themselves in, mixed in with the paranoia and nerves, things start unraveling quite quickly.
How was writing for a novel different from writing for film and TV?
Well in TV, someone else does all the work! My work in television has been nearly all in producing and script editing (although I have attempted a script or two along the way). There are lots of key differences. The most obvious is length (!) – a script has about 12,000 words, a novel 100,000. Writing for television is also a very collaborative affair – certainly in the UK. There will be tiers of editors, producers, executives and commissioners, all with an opinion, that the writer will either embrace, or will need to successfully argue is invalid.
Things – mostly – happen on screen fast. A very respected UK producer once told me to ‘burn story’. Help, I thought, if I tell the writer to use that story beat in the first five minutes of the episode, what the heck are we going to do just before the ad break? But actually, it’s extremely liberating. It’s a bit like a natural disaster. The occurrence of one thing will set in motion other things, for example the earthquake will set off the tsunami. It’s the same with story – and more to the point, characters. Making things happen often triggers other things to happen.
I’m stating the obvious here but television is a visual medium. But so is a reader’s imagination. In TV, you would look to cut scenes against one another that can help to tell the story. For example, a cop might be talking to a colleague wondering who could be the culprit. Cutting to a new scene featuring a particular individual can make the audience think that individual is the guilty party. The use of visuals – and descriptive prose – cut against each other can create all sorts of drama. It can build tension, create cliffhangers, increase mystery, explain secrets. This is true of novels just as much as of television.
What inspired you to write a thriller for your first novel?
Personally, I wrote a thriller because that was the story nagging at me in my head wanting to be told! The darker side of our psyche and how far we’ll go when pushed fascinates me. Also, the dynamic between mother / son / girlfriend is a universal story that touches on a lot of people. Plenty of my girlfriends had tales of woe about their mothers-in-law. During the course of writing the novel I also heard a radio program about the difficulties some women were having with their new daughters-in-law and one story particularly affected me. A heart-broken woman had phoned in and was in tears speaking of how she was excluded to the extent she hadn’t even known her son and his new wife had had not one, but two children. She had discovered that her grandchildren existed by accident. It reinforced to me that it’s a universal relationship that can affect a lot of women and cause a lot of distress – to either party.
What was your writing process like?
I tend to see writing a novel as a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle. After shaping up the characters, I generally start with the foundations of the story, the big plot beats and twists (which I liken to the straight edges of a puzzle). Then I will fill in some of the more detailed beats in the first few chapters only – and then go ahead and write them. Once they’re complete, the characters will be starting to tell me where to go next, and so I’ll write the next section, and this continues until I’m near the end, where hopefully the jigsaw pieces are slotting in faster than I can write them!
I write everything out by hand first in a series of notebooks and once I’ve completed the day’s word target, I’ll then type them up, doing a mini-edit along the way. I like the sensation of pencil on paper and find it more liberating.
The Girlfriend has already been optioned for a film adaptation (congratulations!). Are you excited to see how your story will be adapted for the screen?
Very much so. Having worked in TV for so long, I’m aware of how you can have two different writers take the same source material and end up with two wildly different scripts. I’m excited to see a filmmakers’ take on the novel and watch his or her vision take shape. This also applies to casting – it’s fascinating to try and imagine different actress’s versions of Laura and Cherry!
Are you working on another novel and if so can you tell us anything about it?
Yes, it’s another psychological thriller, which is set in the world of the maternity leave replacement. The mum-to-be is a TV producer who tries to like her temporary replacement, but can’t help thinking she’s got a hidden agenda. Is she after her job – or something else entirely?
I hope you like this interview! I decided to add the PGC questions to keep things interesting! If you have a chance, pick up “The Girlfriend” and let me know what you think!