Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Author Interview: Rachel Abbott

Today it's my stop on the Stranger Child blog tour and I'm delighted to welcome Rachel to the blog for a chat about places, characters and dark themes.

Rachel Abbott was born and raised in Manchester. She trained as a systems analyst before launching her own interactive media company in the early 1980s. After selling her company in 2000, she moved to the Le Marche region of Italy.

When six-foot snowdrifts prevented her from leaving her house for a couple of weeks, she started writing and found that she couldn't stop. Since then her debut thriller Only the Innocent has become an international bestseller, reaching the number one position in the Amazon charts both in the UK and US. This was followed by the number one bestselling novels The Back Road and Sleep Tight.

Rachel Abbott now lives in Alderney and writes full-time. Stranger Child is her fourth novel.

You seem to live a rather nomadic lifestyle – part time in Italy, and part time in the Channel Islands. Tell us all a bit about the two places.
At the moment I am living mainly in Alderney – one of the Channel Islands, part way between England and France. Alderney is a tiny island – only 3.5 miles by 1.5 miles. There are fewer than 2000 people, and absolutely zero crime. I leave my door permanently unlocked, my keys in the car – it’s a wonderful place to write. 

However, I still own property in the Le Marche region of Italy, and try to spend some time there each year. It is a beautiful part of Italy, with friendly people and scenery to rival Tuscany. The difference is that the towns still retain their original charm – there are very few tourists, and it’s very ‘Italian’. I love it there. Anybody coming to Italy who wants to see the ‘real’ Italy should consider Le Marche – whether its walking in the Sibillini mountains or staying closer to the Adriatic coast. Mind you, like everywhere in Europe, I would avoid the in the peak holiday season. 

Your life has no doubt changed exponentially in the past three years. What’s been the biggest change, and how did you cope with the demands of your being a successful writer?
It has certainly been a very interesting period! I had taken (very) early retirement some years previously. I used to run an interactive media company, and we sold it. I decided it was time to move on, and I suppose I was ready for the next challenge. 

The biggest change has been that I am permanently attached to my computer! I am either writing – which I really, really love – or plotting, or marketing.  Nearly every day is different. One thing that has changed, though, is that I’ve put on a ton of weight – which I am less than happy with! That’s due to being welded to my chair – and when I need inspiration I tend to eat biscuits. Not a good outcome – but everything else that has happened has been terrific. 

The atmosphere of place is very strong in your novels.  I know those villages - I've met those people.  How do you get that atmosphere?
I am a bit fanatical about planning when I write. By the time I put pen to paper, figuratively speaking, I know exactly how every place looks. Take the prologue scene in Sleep Tight for example. A girl is walking home from a pub where she has been drinking with fellow students. I knew that this was Manchester, and I knew the kind of streets I wanted her to walk down – so I got onto Google maps and found an area where she might live. I then went into Street view and I actually walked her route so I could describe it. 

That way, when I write I’m writing about places that I know as well as my own home. Even for the dinner party in The Back Road, I created a seating plan. I need to know who has to lean across somebody else to speak to another person.

When I write about a village, I work out where the shops are, and get photos of villages if I don’t already have a visual image. With regard to the people, obviously the main characters are very fully worked out before I start to write, but some of them do evolve. Leo, in The Back Road ended up taking a much more prominent position than she originally had, because I just love her. 

When it comes to the villagers, though, these are people that I’ve really met. I don’t mean that each of them is modelled on a specific person, but there are characteristics that I have picked up and used. I observe people all the time (probably quite spookily) and love it when I see an interesting quirk that I can add to a character. 

How do you name your characters?
In a strange way, names have always painted pictures of people in my mind. In Sleep Tight my main character is called Robert. The reader isn’t sure what to make of him to start with – is he a good guy or a bad guy? Robert is a straightforward name that people can’t really have strong feelings about, and that was important. It had to be a name which gives no clues. Hugo from Only the Innocent couldn’t have had any other name, really, given his background and his obsession with wealth and position.
I think my favourite name ever is Danush Jahander – a character in Sleep Tight. Just saying the name gives me huge pleasure.

But on the whole I look up names in lists and see which of them matches my characters. I do very detailed character profiles, which include images and information about their likes and dislikes – so the name has to go along with everything else that I’ve worked out for them. My biggest challenge was finding Romanian names for three girls in Only the Innocent. I didn’t want readers to struggle with the pronunciation – but I think I chose some that work really well. 

Your books, being psychological thrillers, cover dark themes. Are there any topics you wouldn’t portray in your writing, and if so, why not?
I don’t think in general that I would write about gory acts of physical violence. There may be dead bodies – there may be some elements of violence. But I don’t see myself writing about cutting open people’s stomachs and wrapping intestines around the victim’s neck. That sort of sickening violence should be reserved for those who write it considerably better than me. It’s mainly in the mind in the case of my books.

Give me five trivial facts about Rachel Abbott

  • I can recite the alphabet backwards just as easily as I can say it forwards
  • I’m really bad at parking the car – and getting worse
  • I’m addicted to chocolate
  • I love cooking and eating curry – the spicier the better (just like Tom Douglas in my books)
  • I once made a record – a vinyl album (an LP, for those old enough to remember) – as part of a folk singing duo.

One Dark Secret. One act of revenge. 

When Emma Joseph met her husband David, he was a man shattered by grief. His first wife had been killed outright when her car veered off the road. Just as tragically, their six-year-old daughter mysteriously vanished from the scene of the accident. 

Now, six years later, Emma believes the painful years are behind them. She and David have built a new life together and have a beautiful baby son, Ollie. Then a stranger walks into their lives, and their world tilts on its axis. Emma’s life no longer feels secure. Does she know what really happened all those years ago? And why does she feel so frightened for herself and for her baby? 

When a desperate Emma reaches out to her old friend DCI Tom Douglas for help, she puts all their lives in jeopardy. Before long, a web of deceit is revealed that shocks both Emma and Tom to the core. 

They say you should never trust a stranger. Maybe they’re right.

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