WRITERS TELL ALL
Susan Allott talks hard work and drawing from history for her brilliant novel, THE SILENCE
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Susan! I’m so excited to talk about your upcoming novel, The Silence. Before we begin talking about the novel, would you mind telling me a little about how you got into writing, and how hard it was to sell your first book? What were some obstacles you faced, and which were the toughest? Did you ever almost give up on writing all together?
Susan Allott: Hi Matthew! I started writing The Silencethe year I turned 40, which was also the year my youngest child started school. I’d been trying to write before that, and had always wanted to write a novel, but it was the peace of the empty house that allowed me to finally get started. The obstacles included trying to keep going with the book during those busy years when I was working part time and raising my kids. Writing requires you to be selfish, to forget about everyone and everything apart from your fictional world, for long stretches of time. Sometimes it’s hard to justify that, especially when you doubt you’ll ever be published.
I never wanted to give up on writing altogether, but I came close to giving up on The Silence once or twice! It’s the first novel I wrote, as well as my first published novel, and I taught myself to write with this book, making all sorts of mistakes in the process. It took me 7 years to write The Silence,and I guess all the hard work paid off because when my agent submitted the manuscript to publishers we had interest from Harper Collins within 24 hours, and they went on the buy the book.
MT: Will you tell our readers about The Silence—a novel about multiple crimes, even though you manage to stick to a phenomenal story with so few characters? What inspired this story, and how did you come about developing this novel in its complex, emotionally riveting, expertly spun form?
SA: The Silenceis about the investigation of a missing person which brings all sorts of secrets to the surface; family secrets but wider historical ones too, all of which have been hidden in plain sight for a long time. The novel was inspired by my failure to immigrate to Australia in the nineties. I left and went back to London, and promptly fell in love with an Australian man who I went on to marry! So the Australian setting came out of those experiences. It felt sometimes like Australia was forcing me to make my peace with it, like it wouldn’t let me go.
I’d written several chapters of The Silence, and had a whole cast of characters, when I read a book called Australia, the History of a Nationby Philip Knightley. He mentions a policeman living in Victoria, a southern Australian state, who gets home from work and cries on his veranda because part of his job is to remove Aboriginal children from their families and take them to state institutions. I already knew about the Stolen Generation but hadn’t thought of writing about it. But this policeman and his personal conflict felt like a way in. I wanted to know how someone would cope with realizing that something they believed to be right was in fact wrong, and had caused untold pain. It also helped me to develop the theme I was already tackling, about the enormous pull of home.
MT: What was it like writing from not just multiple points of view, but multiple timelines and managing to keep the mystery alive and the tension high? You do everything so expertly, and I was amazed at how despite jumping around to different decades and people, I was glued to the book. That takes real talent.
SA: Thank you! I wrote the 1967 timeline first, and for a long time I thought it would all be set in that time period. It dawned on me quite late in the day that I needed the 1997 timeline to give the book the mystery and suspense I wanted. When I came to write Isla as a 35-year-old I found that I knew her already, because I knew her so well as a child. I knew all her formative experiences. So it all came together at that point.
I used a program called Scrivener to plan out the book, and I think I’d have been quite lost without it. It helped me to manage all the different points of view and fit the 1997 chapters around the 1967 ones. It also allowed me to move chapters around so the reveals came in at the right place, and to make sure the timelines were balanced correctly.
MT: While set in multiple places outside of the U.S., what do you think U.S. citizens could learn from The Silence? I imagine a lot of people may read the book and finish feeling they understand the world in different ways, or are at least thinking about the world when the book was set and now in different lights.
SA: I think a lot of the themes inThe Silenceare universal. The characters are all trying (with varying degrees of success) to manage the good and bad in themselves, learning how to face up to their flaws; these things aren’t country-specific.
But quite a few reviewers outside of Australia have commented that they didn’t know about the Stolen Generation and they were shocked that it happened at all, and that it continued right through the 1960s. I think there’s a commonly-held idea of Australia as a country blessed with good weather and space and abundance, where the common man can have a high standard of living and enjoy the great outdoors. But there is a much darker side to Australian history, which is inextricably linked to the legacy of British invasion and colonial influence. I think it’s an interesting aspect of history and it provides a good backdrop to a story about shameful secrets.
A few U.S. reviewers have also commented that there are some parallels with the way native Americans were treated by white settlers, so I think there’s a lot for U.S. readers to connect with and reflect on.
MT: You did not set the book in today’s world, but instead in many other different time periods, from the late 60s and 90s mostly. Were you able to remember or know enough about these times in order to write about them successfully, or did you ever have to research to get a particular fact or issue with the story straight?
SA: The 1960s timeline needed a lot of research as I wasn’t born then, but luckily there’s a lot of material to draw on and I was able to find a large number of books, films and images from that period. I also went back to Australia a few times to visit my in-laws and took dozens of photos and visited places that were significant to the book. My husband’s paternal grandparents immigrated to Australia in the 1950s so the family history was quite helpful.
In comparison the 1990s timeline was much easier as I lived in Sydney for a while in the ‘90s and had some strong memories of that time. But I still had to research things like what an Australian police uniform looks like, for example. I spent a lot of time on google earth mapping out the route from Sydney to Ropes Crossing; things like that. And I had it all checked by several Australian readers too, including an Aboriginal man based in New South Wales who gave it his approval.
Easily the most important source while writing The Silencewas the National Library of Australia oral history project, where Aboriginal people who were removed as kids, or whose family members were removed, talk about that experience. There are hundreds of recordings and I listened to some of them several times.
MT: Is it ever hard to kill off a character, or give a character a particularly unfortunate ending, history, etc.?
SA: There were a couple of scenes that I found hard to write. I knew what I needed to happen so I wrote those scenes relatively quickly with the help of some strong coffee which, combined with what I was writing, made my heart pound! I did go back and edit those scenes but actually they didn’t need too much revision. I think it’s important to let bad things happen to characters sometimes, if that serves the story. A few reviewers have said there’s a particular scene that made them cry and I’m quite proud of that.
MT: Did you always know the solution to the mystery, or the end of the novel? If not, when did the answers present themselves to you?
SA: I didn’t know the solution to the mystery from the outset. I allowed myself to be open minded about it, and for a while there were a few possible outcomes in my mind. Once I’d made my mind up I was able to steer everything in that direction. The reader has come a long way with these characters by the time they get to the closing chapters, and I wanted them to have a rewarding finale. An ending needs to answer the questions that the book sets up at the outset, to hold some surprises but also to have a sense of inevitability to it, so the reader thinks, ‘of course!’
I re-wrote the ending a few times, without changing anything from a plot perspective, but just trying to get the pace right. I wanted the ‘what happened to Mandy?’ question to be resolved at the same time as the questions Isla needs to answer about her family and herself, and I needed Isla to figure it all out in a way that held the tension between what she knows and what the reader knows. I was still re-writing those chapters in the very final round of edits with my publisher.
MT: Other than books, are there major things which influence your writing? How do you write or edit to avoid being influenced by these issues, or to rewrite scenes or whole chapters, etc., to keep the book flowing seamlessly?
SA: I don’t really have a problem being influenced by external things. It’s good to be inspired by books, movies, music and so on, but once I sit down to write I can usually trick myself into believing nobody else exists (not even me). I do it by absorbing myself in my fictional world, and the deeper I get into that world the easier it is.
The thing I found very difficult was the transition I had to make once I knew my book was going to be published. There was a period of about a fortnight during the first round of edits with my publisher, where I was totally frozen with fear and self-consciousness. I couldn’t get myself into that zone of believing entirely in the world of my book. I kept thinking ‘what will my dad / friend / sister think of this?’ It was awful! I got through it by going to a friend’s house and editing for a day in a new location. It got me into a different mindset, just by physically leaving my kitchen table. It got gradually easier after that.
MT: What was your worst fear and greatest hope when writing the book? Did you write for yourself, something you knew you would like, or were you ever pressured to write something you, your agent, your editor, etc. might think would sell? I know it’s a tough question, but would you mind talking about the two, and which might be harder for you or other writers?
SA: I did write for myself, and focused on trying to write the kind of book I was always looking for as a reader, which I could only describe as ‘a well-written page-turner.’ By which I meant a good plot andgood prose. I love literary fiction, but it does frustrate me when nothing happens at all for pages and pages, with no suspense or jeopardy. And I do sometimes find that plot-driven books lack the quality of prose that I love. So I wanted to write something that brought those two things together.
Luckily the kind of book I love to read turned out to be the kind of book that sells, so I didn’t have that conflict between what I wanted to write and what my agent / editor wanted. I don’t know what I’d have done if they’d wanted me to change the book in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was always just a matter of bringing out the potential of the book, and I agreed with everything they suggested.
Regarding my hopes and fears. For such a long time all I dreamed of was to get an agent! It’s so hard to get an agent that for years I honestly couldn’t imagine anything beyond that goal. Now that I’m on the brink of publication I guess my dream is that I’ll get reviewed favorably and that readers will connect with it. My fear, conversely, is that it will sink without trace. Publishing into a pandemic is unchartered water so that fear isn’t without substance.
MT: Which character did you identify with most? I know you’ve had experience living in many places, correct? Did you feel the same sort of disconnect a lot of the characters felt when writing the book, a displacement, along with the feeling some characters have of not being able to return home again?
SA: The character I started with was Louisa, Isla’s mother, who is a British woman living in Australia, suffering terrible homesickness and unable to convince her husband that they should return home. I identified with that, having gone through something similar myself, and in the early drafts Louisa’s story was more central to the book. I came to the conclusion in the end that Louisa wasn’t working as a Point of View character, perhaps because she had too much of me in her. My most convincing characters are the ones who are less like me; I imagine them more fully.
Having said that, I think they all have a bit of me in them. I loved writing the chapters where Isla returns to Sydney after ten years in London, because I was able to describe the culture shock that I’d experienced myself as a Londoner in Sydney, feeling that my clothes and my temperament weren’t suited to this bright, upbeat city that was so incredibly far from home.
MT: What inspired you to keep writing the most? When you were having a bad day, writer’s block maybe, or just felt you were done, what kept you going? What is your writing process like generally? Are you a morning, afternoon, evening, night writer? Do you mind letting us in a little on your craft—and, hopefully, some secrets?
SA: I did quite a few creative writing courses and retreats over the years, and they were amazingly helpful for my confidence as well as for my writing. A good teacher or fellow writer telling you that your work is good is such a tonic. I have some good writer friends who I met along the way and we keep each other going.
I’m definitely a morning writer. I don’t have my usual routine at the moment because we’re in lockdown, which is a challenge, but usually I start work once everyone’s left the house, drink a gallon of tea, and don’t look up until they get home. On a good day I’ve forgotten to eat or get dressed. On a bad day the house is clean and I’ve made a casserole.
MT: If you have writer’s block or a bad day, who are the authors or what are the books you turn to in order to inspire you? What are the books which defined you most growing up, during your formative years, and as a writer?
SA: I’ve always been a big reader, and I studied English Literature at University, but I didn’t discover the books that got me writing until I was in my late twenties. My most re-read book is Behind the Scenes at the Museumby Kate Atkinson. I remember when she won the Whitbread prize (now the Costa) in 1996 and I thought, maybe it is possible for someone like me to do something like that. I didn’t gather the courage to try for a few more years, but it stayed with me. I was also inspired and influenced by Gillian Flynn’s early books, especially Sharp Objects. And The Slapby Christos Tsiolkas, which I admire for his incredible empathy, his skill at getting under a character’s skin. Beyond that, I devoured everything by Tim Winton when I was writing The Silence, because of his genius use of the Australian vernacular and the incredible sense of place in all his books. I was just starting to write about Australia when I discovered his writing and it was a huge inspiration.
MT: What do you feel is the most important trick to writing a mystery other people haven’t figured out yet, or perhaps may not know of? What are the mystery novels which have particularly blown you away, and what do you think made them so interesting and well done? Do you think you need a complex plot to write a great crime novel?
SA: I think the most important things with a mystery are atmosphere and pace. It should feel totally immersive. Certain questions need to be dropped in at the start and resolved slowly. You have to unwind the plot, dropping hints that are subtle but not too subtle. And I do think a mystery needs strong characters as the pace won’t be as fast as a thriller; we need to spend a bit more time with these people so we really care about their world and the questions the plot is building up around them.
I’ve already mentioned her but I think Kate Atkinson writes superb mysteries and she knows how to layer her plot, giving us depth as well as momentum. I also have a soft spot for Barbara Vine, which is Ruth Rendell writing under a pseudonym. A Fatal Inversionis possibly my favorite of hers. And I loved Elizabeth is Missingby Emma Healey, which was made into a brilliant TV drama starring Glenda Jackson. Personally I don’t need a complex plot, in fact simplicity can be very striking. But I do need to be compelled to keep turning the pages, and a pervasive sense of unease.
MT: Can you give us any clues as to if you have a work-in-progress, and what it might be about? This is such a great novel, and I imagine people cannot wait to see how you follow it up!
SA: My current work-in-progress is a spooky mystery set in London about a young couple whose house renovations unsettle the history of a building, unlocking a pocket of time that starts to bleed into the present. They need to stop history repeating itself if they want to avoid the fate of the previous inhabitants. I’m enjoying writing about my own local area this time around – no need for google earth! – but it’s just as challenging as writing about the other side of the planet in many ways!
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Susan. I loved The Silenceso much. It’s sure to be a hit, and I encourage all of our readers to preorder the novel immediately. The book sucked me in. Please feel free to leave any lingering thoughts or questions you have, or anything you might want to say to the readers. Thank you again. It was such a pleasure reading your work!
SA: It’s been a pleasure for me too! I’m very excited to be published in north America. I hope you all enjoy the book! If you want to be kept up to date you could sign up for my newsletter on my website: www.susanallott.com
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