Wednesday, 18 December 2019

A Perfect Life Unravelled - interview with Emma Curtis

I am delighted to welcome Emma Curtis to my blog this week as part of my psychological thriller author series. I've so enjoyed discovering more about my fellow thriller writers and, however well I know the author, I always find out something new. I had the pleasure of meeting Emma for the first time this year and I'm delighted that she agreed to be interviewed as part of the series.

You’ve written several psychological thrillers. Have you always written in this genre?

When I started out, I wanted to write romance, because I loved romantic novels; in fact I rarely read anything that didn't have an element at least of romance in it. I tried very hard; submitted several efforts to agents but got nowhere. The book that secured me representation, was a quirky story about a woman's childhood imaginary friend coming back to haunt her after she was involved in an accident. Unfortunately, it proved very difficult to follow that up!

Like many authors, getting published after the massive success of Gone Girl changed the landscape, and I was steered towards psychological suspense by my then editor. I had never heard the term before and was ambivalent at first. However, since my first love, romance, had never worked for me as a writer, I was relieved to find that I had a talent for this particular genre.

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the idea for your latest novel came to you?

I wish I did, but I had several germs of ideas milling round my brain and I kept switching between them, trying to work out not which I liked best, but which had the legs for a novel. 

What sparked the idea was an incident at St Thomas's hospital about three weeks before I gave birth to my son there in 1989. A child was stolen. She was found quite by chance about three weeks later, but what struck me was that back then the woman who took her might just as easily have got away with it. Then I thought, what would life be like for the kidnapper, the parents and that child sixteen years later.

Are you a plotter or a pantster and how long does it take you to write your thrillers?

I was never a planner; I don't think many writers are naturally. However, I've had several false starts and two novels written and rewritten that have been rejected by my editor, so now, both for my sanity and my publishers, I write a detailed proposal and get that agreed before I begin. I wish I didn't have to, because it means coming up with a fully realised plot rather than letting it develop organically, but psychological suspense has to be so tautly written, so twisty and pacey, that the chances of getting it right without planning are slim to none.

Could you describe your typical writing day?

My best writing day includes an empty house and uninviting weather! I like to start at 6.30am and work through till lunch, go for a long walk to mull over what I've done, then make any fixes. I have to finish a chapter a day, whether it's to my satisfaction or not, so my first draft is far from perfect. What I get from that is the momentum and pace uninterrupted writing brings to the story. 

I’m sure my readers would love to hear about your road to publication. Was it long and winding or did you take a short cut?

I’ve had loads of rejections! There are several unpublished and unpublishable novels knocking around. I was banging my head against a brick wall until I discovered short story competitions. I wrote and entered as many as I could – I had a spreadsheet! My hit rate of first, second, shortlisted and longlisted placements was about twenty-five percent, and this gave me something to mention in my cover letter to literary agents. The first time I won a competition I was so euphoric I emailed my entire workplace! Nowadays aspiring authors are up against graduates of MA courses, journalists and people connected in some way to publishing – you only have to look at authors’ bios to see how many arrive via these routes. Short story competitions gave me those credentials.

With my previous novels I would send out to, at the most, six agents and after getting six rejections I’d be too demoralised to send out more. With my debut I avoided that scenario by submitting to around thirty within a space of three weeks so that all my submissions would be out before the rejections started tumbling into my inbox. It paid off.

Do you ever struggle to find inspiration?

Inspiration strikes too often. I have so many premises for books that excite me. It's when you get to the nitty gritty of working out whether there's a book length story in them that things get tricky.  Sometimes it's the best premises that let you down, sometimes they're just too far-fetched to be usable – those are better for short stories.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I walk, read, do housework, cook. Anything to keep me away from the computer for a while.  Repetitive Strain Injury is a real problem, so I have to make sure I give myself a physical break from writing as well as a mental one.

What does your family think of your writing?

My family has been amazing. Right through the years when I was trying to get myself an agent and suffering rejection after rejection, they never once suggested I give up or that I was wasting my time.

When my first book came out in 2015, my son was twenty-six, my daughter twenty-four, which made it easier because they were long past the age when they could be embarrassed by their parents.The lovely thing having about having adult children when you're a writer, is that their friends support you too.

My husband has been brilliant. I gave up my job as a school secretary in 2012, telling him that I just needed one year to give my writing a big push and then I would go back. Just one little year! Six months after I left my job I was taken on by Victoria Hobbs at AM Heath and two months after that Transworld agreed to publish me; so I never did go back. He has supported me and backed me ever since and I owe him such a lot. I honestly wouldn't be where I am now without him.

What suggestions do you have to help a writer write better?

There are so many things that you need to know, even if you write well. Less is more. Cut to the chase. Remember to love your bad guys as much as your good guys. They have souls too.

If you feel strongly about something, whether it's environmental, political or personal, your characters may well feel the same way, they may even have a bit of a rant about the subject from time to time. For God's sake, don't let them! A reader can spot an author's pet issues a mile off and it's not a good look.

Make sure everything your characters do has an iron-clad motivation. It's all too easy to make them do something exciting for the sake of it, but an editor will pick up on that immediately, as will a reader. Lack of sound motivation weakens a book.

Think about when you are at a drinks party and you get talking to someone. There are two types of big talkers at parties; those that talk at you, telling you the story of their marvellous achievements in a way that makes you feel bombarded, trapped and bored, and there are those who tell you about themselves in a way that makes you feel included, important to them and interested, so that you hang on their every word. They may not be telling the greatest tale, they may not have had the most exciting life experiences, but they are talking to you in a way that engages you. Whose book would you rather read? Always consider your reader when you're writing. Your first job is to entertain them.

What next for Emma Curtis?

Well, I've recently submitted the second draft of my book for 2020 and I'm busy playing with various premises for the next book. I don't write notes, I work things out on paper and if I do write something down it's an illegible scribble, so I rely on my memory to sift for potential. I spend a lot of time thinking about the stories and the characters and seeing what rises to the surface.

Once you're into the rhythm of writing and have several books under your belt there is so much to juggle. The Night You Left needs attention in terms of publicity, next year's book needs bringing up to the next level, and I'm waiting for the light bulb moment for Book 5. I have to admit, I sometimes get confused!

You can buy The Night You Left here

Emma Curtis was born in Brighton and brought up in London. Her fascination with the darker side of domestic life inspired her to write One Little Mistake, her first psychological suspense. She has since written two more thrillers for Transworld, When I Find You and The Night You Left. Her fourth, Keep Her Quiet, will be published in 2020.  An empty-nester living in Richmond with her husband, Emma is a workaholic and a believer in the benefits of chocolate and a good night's sleep.
twitter: @emmacurtisbooks 

instagram: emmacurtisauthor

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