WRITERS TELL ALL
"In a way, she groomed her as I believe some powerful people do with those who serve them." Renee Knight on THE SECRETARY
Matthew Turbeville:Renee, it is so nice to talk to you about this amazing novel. I really loved the anticipation and dread you created, the idea that you know something bad is coming but you can’t stop it. A slow-motion car accident, a slow burn. Can you talk about how your writing has evolved to get to this novel, and where the idea for this novel originated?
Renee Knight:My starting point for this novel were the two main characters rather than a premise. In my first novel, Disclaimer, I began with the idea - what would it be like if you came across yourself as a character in a novel? With The Secretary, my starting point was the relationship between two women - a secretary and her charismatic employer.
The idea came from recent high profile court cases in this country and in the US, involving celebrities and their personal assistants. I was struck by how a secretary could bring down their boss, or equally, be the one to save them by standing up in court and providing evidence to back up their story. What interested me was, not so much the crimes themselves, but the close relationships between the secretary and their employer, particularly when the employer was a woman. It seemed to me that the boundaries often became blurred - as if the secretary was at times treated like a friend, but a friend who could never say no. Ultimately, the secretary was there to do as she was told. It made me question the limits of loyalty: How far would you go for your employer? Particularly if you became bound up in their life. It seemed to me that these relationships were often unhealthy ones of co-dependency. And that is what The Secretaryis about. In my book, the secretary's whole identity is caught up with her employer's - she has an overwhelming desire to be needed. And the more she is needed, the more her boss depends upon her. It was this dynamic between two women that interested me.
MT:For the aspiring writers reading this, what was the road to becoming a great writer like for you? Did you always have a passion for books, or did the love of books and writing come later? Did you always know what genre you would want to write, or did you stumble into it?
RK: As a child, reading was always my favourite past-time and has continued to be so. The passion for books was always there, although it was only in middle-age when I found the confidence to tackle writing my own. My career had been in making television documentaries and so, when I started writing, I began with scripts and then moved onto novels. I have always been drawn to narratives that explore human psychology and delve into the darker side of how we behave as humans. I didn't consciously set out to write psychological thrillers, but this is where the characters I created led me.
MT: Everything about this novel felt so authentic, and while there isn’t an outright murder or some outrageous opening scene, we are drawn in to this irresistible novel, possibly through your writing alone but it feels like you’ve done a really great job at using a lot of different elements to pull the reader into the novel. Do you mind talking about how you are able to draw a reader in without a shocking opening, and how that also benefits the reader as we feel the suspense throughout the entire novel?
RK: I think it was by digging as deeply as I could into the character of the secretary, Christine Butcher. She holds the story - she is the one telling it and so we know that we, the reader, are in her hands. We know from the start that Christine is a damaged woman, although she is trying to hide it from us. She has been treated badly and her obsession with her past and with her employer, Mina Appleton, makes her an uncomfortable companion. I resisted having a prologue to the book with a shocking incident because, in my view, this can be over-used in thrillers and at times feel a bit of a cheat. If the first chapter does not draw the reader in, then that first chapter is not working as well as it should be. From the start I tried to make Christine's voice clear and to create an atmosphere that was claustrophobic with an underlying sense of dread.
MT: What books did you often turn to in order to write this novel? Were there certain authors novels you turned to in order to get inspiration for this novel?
RK: Years ago, I read Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller - a book I loved and that stayed with me. I went back and re-read it while I was writing The Secretary. Apart from that, no. I read a lot of newspaper articles about secretaries and court cases, and I spoke to two very experienced personal assistants.
MT:When creating the main character, Christine, what did you have to do to find her voice, and how do you view her overall? Without giving away spoilers, do you think you can talk about whether you think Christine is a villain or victim, culpable or innocent? What about her boss, Mina?
RK: I first wrote the novel in the third person and then re-wrote it in the first and when I did that Christine's voice came. I knew who she was when I started, but it was only when I moved from third to first person that her voice really came through. I see Christine as a victim, although she is not entirely innocent. She was damaged and vulnerable when she met Mina her boss and, Mina knew this, although she underestimated the danger in betraying a person as fragile as Christine. Mina wanted someone who she could mould to fit her needs and she saw that person in Christine. In a way, she groomed her as I believe some powerful people do with those who serve them. They need to be surrounded by people who won't question their orders or their authority.
Mina is a charming and seductive personality. Someone who might make many of us, if we met her, feel better about ourselves. It is all surface though - underneath, she is ruthless. So, in the end, I see her as manipulative, entitled and, yes, the villain. She abuses her position of power and pays the price for it.
MT: What do you think is so seductive about Mina, even to Christine? What would you say is the thing that draws Christine to Mina again and again, often turning away everyone in her life for this job?
RK: Mina is powerful and yet she succeeds in disguising her hard core in a veneer of caring. She can seem, and is at times, thoughtful to others although we learn these moments are never without calculation. She is able to make herself appear vulnerable - as if she needs to be protected. She makes Christine believe that she needs her above everyone else, and although she never says this to her directly, she implies it in the way she appears to confide in her. And yet, in truth, Christine knows very little. Christine's fatal flaw is that she has an overwhelming need to be needed and Mina provides this for her. She also finds it easier to put order into Mina's life rather than her own. Domestic life can be unpredictable and messy, and Christine finds that hard to deal with and so she gradually cuts herself from her home-life and, instead, turns her focus to Mina.
MT:There are often incidences in the book where Christine is forced to question who she is—her dying father, her daughter, her former husband—who they are to her, and what Mina is to her. At one point, Mina brings up a problem with Christine, but pulls up different problems that Christine viewed differently. Sometimes, we see Mina as vindictive, cruel, someone taking out her anger on Christine, but other times we have to ask how reliable is Christine as a narrator. I love the layers you add to these parts of the novel. How did you construct the relationship between Mina and Christine—was it already planned out, or something that grew from multiple drafts and rewrites?
RK: A bit of both. I understood their relationship pretty much from the start, but when I wrote and re-wrote I was able to build up the layers. I wrote about six drafts of this novel, three in the third person!
MT:There are many moments in the novel where Christine feels powerful, and many moments when she feels powerless. The positive and negative charges really balance the novel out, but as a character I have to ask if you think Christine has a need to have both, possibly at once, but at least each feeling at a certain time? Both feelings can have a positive or negative impact on her, but at the end of the day they feel necessary to Christine.
RK: I see Christine, as I said earlier, as a victim, but not innocent. Her identity is very much bound up with Mina's need of her, and with this comes her own sense of power. She feels she has an influential place in Mina's life and she likes that. She also enjoys the privileges of being Mina Appleton's personal assistant - being invited to her home, travelling first class on business trips, having a special relationship with her children. She is not without vanity.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this novel, and what kept you writing, revising, rewriting, and moving forward with the novel? Do you have any regrets about any elements of the novel now that it’s been published?
RK: The hardest part was resisting making the crime in the court case more than a white collar crime. I was determined from the start that this book would be about a toxic relationship and an abuse of power. It was a challenge to maintain the tension throughout the novel and I hope I have succeeded. This is the book I wanted to write and so I have no regrets.
MT: The ending, as well as the rest of the novel, is so great. The ending both has a strong effect on the reader and also feels inevitable in many ways. Did you ever struggle with writing the ending? What do you think is important about ending a great novel of suspense and crime like The Secretary?
RK: I did try out several different endings, although this was the one that was always in my head and that I kept coming back to. It felt inevitable to me too. I'm happy that you think it works. As you say, The Secretary is a slow-burn and so needed to deliver fully at the end. The end, to me, is so important. It cannot only be about the journey. If the destination is predictable or pulled out of a hat, then ultimately the reader is left disappointed. All roads must lead there.
MT:What is coming up next for you, Renee? Do you have a book in the works, a work in progress? I know I’m eager to see what you write next!
RK: I have another book sloshing around in my head at the moment, so I am thinking about it, doing some research and then, over the next couple of weeks I will sit at my desk and begin to work in detail on the plot. Once I am confident in the idea, then I will start to write, but only once I am sure that it is a story I want to tell. For the moment, I don't feel ready to share it - sorry.
MT: Renee, I really loved The Secretary, and I look forward to reading more from you. I really encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this book—it was phenomenal, a brilliant slow burn that really delivers through and through. If you love a great literary mystery, a story about complicated relationships, and ultimately a book that feels so incredibly dark without the need for so much gore, you will really love this book. Renee really pulls off some amazing feats with this novel. Thank you so much, Renee, and feel free to leave us with any closing thoughts!
RK: Thank you for such stimulating questions. Writing is a solitary occupation and so it is such a pleasure connecting with readers. Reading is much more of a commitment than watching a narrative play out on a screen and so it feels, to me, a privilege every time someone picks up my book and reads it.