Author interview: Rebecca Whitney
Readers are being treated this winter to a new wave of thrillers coming mostly from the UK. One of these exciting new writers is Rebecca Whitney, whose debut novel The Liar’s Chair, was published by Mantle, an imprint of Macmillan, on January 15th. The novel was featured in the prestigious Sunday Times and The Observer just prior to it’s launch, and Whitney herself has recently had articles published in The Independent, Telegraph, Hunger and Buzzfeed. So I’m totally thrilled she has agreed to do an interview for Writer’s Notebook.
1. Congratulations on the publication of The Liar’s Chair Rebecca! Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
The story follows Rachel Teller, an affluent and successful women who is going off the rails, but she has no idea why. After spending the night at her lover’s house, and still drunk from the night before, she drives to the luxury home she shares with her controlling husband David. The weather is terrible and she drives too fast, and she knocks over and kills a homeless man on a country lane. In her panic she decides to hide the body. Later her husband coerces her into telling him the truth, and he convinces her to return to life as normal. But guilt begins to unravel her, and she seeks out old addictive habits, and self-destructive behaviour, which tips her marriage into the danger zone as she tries to atone for the crime she has committed. In the process she begins to have insights into her forgotten past, revealing some of the reasons she has made so many mistakes.
2.Rachel, the main protagonist is a rather dark character, some might say unlikeable. I ultimately found her to be sympathetic. Did you intend to make her as dark as she is, or did the plot force your hand on the way you portrayed her character ?
It’s up to the reader to make up their own mind about who and what is excusable, but I didn’t intend Rachel to be so ‘un-liked’. I did however intend her to be deeply flawed and difficult to empathise with at the beginning of the book. The point being that, towards the end, as you understand more of how she came to be the person she is, the reader gains some sympathy and connection with her as we see her strength in making it as far as she has. It’s about reassessing the judgements we all make about people when we first meet them; everyone has junk in their past, and much of that baggage goes towards the decisions and actions they make in the present.
The plot did very much force my hand as I wanted to show a person unravelling, who chose the most damaging path possible with her warped and personal idea of justice. Some of the decisions she makes are extremely questionable, and they create a character who has ruffled a few of my reader’s feathers. But I am happy that she inspired big reactions rather than none at all. Ultimately she is interesting, and it is compelling to watch her descend to the depths she does, and hopefully that hooks the reader into the story, so it shouldn’t matter if a character is liked to make the book readable.
3. I liked that you included the issue of domestic abuse into the thriller genre, which is very unusual and gives the novel much more depth. Why did you choose to include this issue and what in general triggered the novel?
The issue of domestic abuse is very important to me as I think it’s still a vastly understood area. Many people question why a woman (or indeed a man) would stay in a relationship where he or she is being subjected to such coercion and often violence. I was keen to demonstrate the mental manipulation and self-esteem bashing that goes towards stopping the victim from leaving. Many women who are subjected to this kind of abuse fear for their safety and they cannot get away without serious protection, but it is very hard to translate this torment to the outside world without people thinking the victims are somehow colluding in the abuse simply by remaining in the relationship. Often these women are very strong as they are battling constant assaults on their psyche.
What inspired the novel was the idea of how a single tragic event can change the course of someone’s life completely. I was interested in how an external force can compel us to take a good look at ourselves, to address issues we’ve been avoiding, and how sometimes that event can feel quiet random, but strangely timely. My thinking is that often we play a part in the process, even if we don’t know it. In Rachel’s case, she didn’t have any idea that the man would be walking the road that day or that the weather would be so bad, but she chased the disaster by her reckless and extreme behaviour. She is the kind of person who has to reach rock bottom before she can make the changes she needs, and on a subconscious level, that is what she is seeking.
4.How does it feel to have your work published and in the hands of your readers?
It’s great and also terrifying. When people talk to me about the characters in the book, it can feel very strange as I’ve lived with these beings in my head for such a long time now, and suddenly they are out in the world and open to critique. But it’s also very satisfying when readers connect with the characters or the mood or the plot or the prose. It makes all those tortured hours at my computer worth it!
5. Many writers consciously choose the route of self-publishing, but you decided to go with traditional publishing. What made you decide to go that route, and was it hard to find an agent?
I hadn’t considered the self-publishing route, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t have gone down that road if I felt that the traditional route wasn’t open to me. I was very keen to have professional input on my work, as for me it was validation that I was doing it right. Also, since I received representation, the book has gone through a couple of big edits with my agent – Sue Armstrong at Conville and Walsh – and then my editor – Sophie Orme at Mantle – and it has definitely improved. I’m obviously extremely lucky to be working with professionals who’s judgement I trust, but I do think having an outside opinion can build on what you already have and make it much more marketable.
I found an agent on my first round of submissions which was really wonderful, and part of that I believe was making the manuscript as polished as it could possibly be at that point. There really was very little else I could have done without professional input. Also my agent said that the title caught her attention, and that’s why she picked it off the pile.
6.It’s early days, but can you tell us what support you have had in going the more traditional route that you would not have had if you were self published? Perhaps you can tell us from the point at which you found an agent.
Being guided through rewrites by supportive and clever people – my agent and editor – was brilliant. My agent knew which publishing houses to approach, and which editors were keen to look at the kind of work I had produced. Both agent and publisher are always available for any questions, and have been very helpful in placing my book in the genre it’s in, guiding me through that process. Having a marketing and press department behind me has also been invaluable, without which my novel wouldn’t have received a fraction of the coverage it has. My publicist – Sam Eades – has set up lots of events as well as sending the book out to reviewers and contacting press to commission the features I have written. I wouldn’t have known where to begin doing it on my own.
7.What are a couple of favorite authors you enjoy reading?
I love Helen Dunmore, Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, Alice Monroe, Richard Yates to name just a few.
8.Who do you feel was your biggest influence in writing The Liar’s Chair?
That’s such a difficult question, as it’s been such an eclectic process. I love films, theatre and music as well as literature, and because the time it took to write the book was quite long, many of these things came in to play at various points as an influence over the whole.
9.What are you working on at the moment? When can we expect to see your next novel?
I’m working on another contemporary psychological thriller but it’s not a sequel to The Liar’s Chair. It’s about a new mother who is struggling with PND, and she thinks she witnesses a serious crime. She has to make the decision between not bringing any more questions upon her sanity and ability to care for her child, or whether to discover what she has seen is real, and attempt to bring the crime out into the open. Realistically it will be out late 2016 or ’17.
10.Where can readers connect with you or where can they find The Liar’s Chair?
You can contact me through my own website http://www.rebeccawhitney.co.uk/and I have an Amazon Author page, and I’m on Goodreads . For social media sites you’ll find me on: Facebook, Twitter @RebeccaJWhitney, Pinterest, Spotify and Pan Macmillan Author Page. I’m hoping soon to have a US publisher, but in the meantime, you can buy the book from Amazon. (see link below). UK customers only can also buy the The Liar’s Chair on Kindle.
What’s your opinion of traditional publishing v. self-publishing? Which would you choose? What do you think of using a psychological thriller to raise the issue of domestic violence?
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