Our six-week online Writing a Psychological Thriller course is led by bestselling novelist Erin Kelly. Erin’s first novel The Poison Tree became a major ITV drama and a Richard and Judy bestseller, and she has since written six novels including the Sunday Times bestseller, He Said/She Said and the official novel and short story series of the hit TV series, Broadchurch. Her latest book Watch Her Fall was published in 2021.
We caught up with Erin to talk about writing and reading psychological thrillers as well as what it was like filming a creative writing course during a pandemic…
What first drew you to psychological thrillers? Thrillers are popular with readers and often rely on an unexpected reveal or twist. How do you keep your ideas fresh?
I think lots of us have an imprint of our favourite story, just as we might have a ‘type’ that we repeatedly date. For as long as I can remember, mine has been a murder mystery with some kind of long-ago gilded youth: The Secret History, A Fatal Inversion. My first novel, The Poison Tree, falls into that category, and was me trying to get my love for those books out of my system apart from anything else. Even now, I can’t resist the idea of a buried past coming back to haunt a settled present and threaten the future. That’s basically the template for 90% of current psychological thrillers and it’s a winning formula.
I’ve used the word formula and while there are certain conventions the genre has to follow – peril, mystery, misdirection and reveals – I don’t believe thrillers have to be formulaic. If you read a lot of psychological thrillers they can get a bit suburban and samey, so I try to keep my books fresh by writing about things I haven’t seen done before: for example, the plot and structure of He Said/She Said revolves around total eclipses of the sun, amongst other things. It kept me interested and offered something new for my readers.
Your 2019 novel We Know You Know deals with mental health issues and your novels often handle quite difficult or taboo subjects. How do you sensitively write about these issues? Do you do anything to protect your own wellbeing?
I usually find my research enraging rather than upsetting, and I let that power me through the writing. Once the research is done, though, I don’t let the subject matter get to me otherwise I’d end up writing a polemic, not a thriller. The threat to my own wellbeing is far more likely to come from my own plot holes than anything else. I’m a master at painting myself into corners.
Which writers do you admire and what are some of your favourite psychological thrillers?
When I was young, I devoured Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Patricia Highsmith and Nicci French. I still re-read their books now and feel as though those writers are my mentors: that through them I absorbed the essence of storytelling and suspense, without realising I was learning at all. These days I still love Nicci French and also really respect Louise Candlish, Gillian Flynn, Sarah Hilary, Wil Dean, Megan Abbot, Dennis Lehane, Eva Dolan – I could go on for days. The brilliant thing is that new writers are coming through all the time.
What inspires you to write? Does a certain type of music or activity trigger your creativity?
I write with earplugs in, especially at the moment (I’m typing this in week 13 of lockdown, with two children yelling outside my study door). But long walks listening to music at the end of the day are part of my process. I’m currently writing a book set in the ballet world and I’ve listened to the Swan Lake score nearly every day for a year. The music is so emotive it seems to unlock things about my characters as well as the plot.
Are there any tired tropes that you’d like to see less of and what would you really love to read and see more of?
Nothing is off the table as long as it’s done well. Psychological thrillers are littered with duplicitous husbands and amnesia but if the characterisation is strong and the sentences work hard and the plotting is skilful then you can get away with it. The only thing I really can’t stand is laziness: novels concocted from tropes rather than coming from the heart.
I want to see more writers of colour come up. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a genre dominated by white, middle-class women like me and I’d like to read more books like Rachel Edwards’ Darling, which explicitly tackled racism in a family thriller. I receive four or five advance copies a week, and maybe five or six of those in a year are from non-Caucasian writers. At the time of writing, Black writers are filling up the literary and non-fiction charts and about bloody time, but we’re not seeing those voices in psychological thrillers, or not in significant numbers. I’m hopeful that will change.
We’re excited to have you on board as the leader of our brand-new Writing a Psychological Thriller course. What’s your favourite part of teaching?
There’s nothing better than seeing a book take shape. I never get tired of it.
Filming this course was a new challenge for the CBC team as we had to be socially distanced. What was your favourite part of creating and filming the course?
Creating the course gave me a chance to pause and reflect on my career so far. Not the external stuff, like sales and publicity and festivals, but the process of writing itself. Going through old manuscripts and notebooks reminded me that while every novel is different, there is always a point at which I want to give up, and that there are no shortcuts to success. It is always a question of time with, and attention to, the manuscript. It was really satisfying to realise how far I’ve come as a writer, and share the lessons I’ve learned.
Filming was hard work – I have a new respect for TV presenters – but great fun. Even in normal times, I find that I really need to offset the isolation of writing with more sociable work, or I fall down the rabbit hole of my own mind, which if you’ve read my books you’ll know can be a pretty dark place. It was a breath of fresh air to be around colleagues again rather than imaginary friends. Even if we were all in different rooms, communicating by walkie-talkie.
Finally, could you share your top three tips for writers who want to write a psychological thriller?
Read scripts as well as novels to hone your plotting and pacing skills. There are hundreds of thriller scripts available to read for free online. Screenplays take an hour to read and it’s very easy to see the bones of a plot, and analyse its structure, without all those pesky words slowing you down. Check out the BBC writers’ room and The Daily Script websites.
Finish your book. It sounds flippant: it’s not. The only thing all published writers have in common is that they finished writing their books.
Read widely and read beyond what’s on the supermarket shelves because then you risk your book becoming a pale imitation of everything else out there rather than something original and different. Go back and read the greats, the 20th century authors I mention above. Scribble in the margins, underline your favourite passages, make notes about viewpoint changes, chapter length, where the cliffhangers are. The greatest compliment you can pay an author is to take their book apart, to help you understand how to build your own.