Rachel Abbott is the Amazon UK #1 bestselling author of psychological crime thrillers, Only the Innocent, The Back Road, and her new release, Sleep Tight.
In this interview, we discuss:
- How Rachel’s own experience with stalking inspired the book
- The themes that Rachel returns to in her books
- On writing twists to keep the reader guessing
- Rachel’s research process for the books, including interviews with the police
- Island life as Rachel lives on Alderney in the Channel Islands and how it features in the book
- On reading and writing different things
You can watch the video below or here on YouTube, and the full transcription is below the video.
Interview transcription with Rachel Abbott, bestselling crime author
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m thriller author J.F.Penn, and today I’m here with Amazon UK number one best-selling author, Rachel Abbott. Welcome, Rachel!
Rachel: Thank you, it’s nice to see you.
Joanna: Yes, it’s great to have you back on the show. Now, Rachel is the author of psychological crime thrillers, Only the Innocent, The Back Road, and her new release, Sleep Tight.
Tell us a bit more about you and your writing background.
Rachel: Well, I didn’t really get into writing until quite late on in life. I’d always written at work, obviously, as part of my job I had to write a lot of things, but they were generally quite boring sort of board reports and things like that. But I did have to do quite a lot of creative treatments for clients, and that was always very interesting. But I’d always had the idea for a book in my head, and it wasn’t until I’d actually decided to give up work and just enjoy life that I found the time to sit down and write. I wrote Only the Innocent, and the rest is history, really. I’d never really planned a second career, but here we are, and I’m loving every minute of it!
Joanna: That’s fantastic! Now, Sleep Tight is a brilliant book, I really enjoyed it, and it’s twisty-turny, which we’re going to come back to.
It’s based on stalking taken to extremes, and I read in another interview with you that it’s based on personal experience. I wondered if you could share that story?
Rachel: Well, the stalking element of it doesn’t really come out in the book until quite late on, when you realize what has been happening in the past. But when I was quite young, probably about 22, somebody stalked me. And at that time, it wasn’t actually illegal: stalking wasn’t illegal, and so it was a very tricky and very difficult situation, because for a long time I didn’t know who it was, and I used to find notes stuck under the car windscreen wipers, and the occasional flower on the front doorstep, and it was really weird. In the end, when I did find out who he was, it was quite a difficult problem to get rid of: it took a friend of mine to intervene.
I think if you’re stalked for quite a long time, it wears down your resistance; you begin to think that whatever you do, it’s going to be a disaster, and so I’d reached the point where I didn’t know what to do, and so this friend stepped in and sorted it.
Joanna: Which is really interesting, because I was wondering about the theme, I’ve read all of your books, and they’re all great, and women who are under these kind of difficult situations seems to be one of your themes. Because they are slightly linked, aren’t they.
How do you see the books and the themes linking together?
Rachel: I like to think about my books as posing dilemmas for people. So people getting into difficult situations that they don’t necessarily know how to get out of, and sometimes it forces good people to do bad things, basically. It’s kind of how far would you go to hold on to the people that you love: what would you do to protect the people that you love? And so there is a huge amount of that in my books, people trying to do the right thing, but sometimes the right thing isn’t that easy. So my books are about dilemmas and relationships, and the crimes are almost incidental.
Joanna: Which is interesting. Even though the crimes are incidental, there’s still some violence in your books!
Joanna: Just a bit, we are calling them crime thrillers, I guess. I write violence as well, and plenty of it.
Why do we as writers write this stuff when we haven’t necessarily experienced it ourselves?
Rachel: I think that there’s an element of trying to put yourself into a position: what would I do in these circumstances? That’s certainly why I do it. I think about a set of circumstances that I would find very, very difficult to deal with. So, for example, Only the Innocent, my first book, the underlying thinking behind that was: What set of circumstances could be so bad that a woman would have no choice but to commit murder? And I had to then think, what would make me kill somebody? I haven’t ever done it, by the way, just to be clear about this!
But I did kind of think to myself: What would be so bad that I really wouldn’t have any choice? And so I do try to think about dilemmas, and I do try to think from a woman’s perspective, usually, what would I do in these circumstances? So, it’s more about that: It’s more about why the crimes are committed than the crimes themselves. And sometimes, yes, there is violence in there, but the violence is almost a by-product, if you like.
Tell us a bit more about the problems posed in Sleep Tight, so people know about that.
Rachel: It’s quite a difficult one to talk about without giving too much away of the story, to be honest.
Joanna: I was struggling with questions, I was, “I can’t ask that, I can’t ask that.”
Rachel: I know, the reviewers have really struggled, actually, to write about it without giving too much away. But it opens when Olivia Brookes calls the police because her husband took the children out for a pizza and several hours later, he hasn’t come home. So, you know, has there been an accident, but she doesn’t think that’s what it is at all, and the trouble is that she’s already known to the police, because just seven years earlier, she had to call the police when her boyfriend, and the father of her first child, had phoned her to say he was on his way home and he never arrived, and she’s never seen him since.
And so that’s how it all begins: it begins with the husband and the three children going missing, and then it develops from there. And I can’t say any more, because then you’d know what happened at the end of the first part.
Joanna: It’s a tough one! I mean, there are a lot of twists in the book, so a more general question is,
How do you know when to twist?
When do you go, “No, that’s too obvious”? Is that when you do it? Because it’s not just one twist, is it?
Rachel: No. I think there is always the main twist: all the other twists are there to support the main twist. And again, it’s really hard to talk about this, isn’t it, without ruining the story for everyone, but there is a kind of a significant twist at the end of the book, as you said, and all the other bits that come along are there to support that: it’s almost like creating a thread, and little bits of it start to become apparent.
What I hate is books where you get all the way to the end, and then somebody comes out of left field who you’ve never come across in the story before, and you don’t know that this person exists, and yet suddenly this person turns out to be the villain. And I hate books like that, because where have they come from? So, along the way, I like to make sure there are hints that all is not as it might at first seem.
Joanna: OK, we can’t really go into that any more. So, then, the police procedural aspect: I wouldn’t describe your books as police procedural, but there are police in it, aren’t there.
So, how do you research?
Have you spent time with the police? How do you know all that stuff?
Rachel: Well, I’ve got a friendly policeman in England who is a friend of one of my step-daughters, actually, and when I was doing Only the Innocent, I started to chat to him. Actually, I think it was at her wedding that I started to chat to him. And he said, “Well, if you want any help, I’m happy to help you, just on a completely informal basis.” And so he has done, and he said each time, “No, I really enjoy it, it’s really interesting,” because I ask him questions that sometimes he’s never been asked before, so he finds that quite interesting.
And then, living on the island of Alderney, I also spoke to the Sergeant from the Alderney Police – there’s only two policemen on Alderney, you know, we don’t need any – so he’s been amazingly helpful. He stopped me from falling into a massive trap, because Alderney is a Crown Dependency, so it’s technically part of the UK, but a British policeman cannot come here and arrest somebody. And I hadn’t realized that, and that was very nearly a major mistake. But he just said to me, “They can’t do that,” and so, “Oh gosh,” and I had to make a few changes. But he’s been amazingly helpful, and he’s now retiring in about two months, and has said that he will continue to help me in any way that I want. Even though there’ll be nothing based here again, because that would just be too weird, because there’s no crime here at all. But he has actually been trained in UK law as well.
Joanna: It’s like that Midsomer Murders, the lovely little village where everyone dies! There is an island in the story, obviously. Could you give us an insight into island living, because I imagine people listening are going, “Ooh, what’s that? Where does she live?”
Where on earth is it, anyway, for a start, and then what’s it like on the island?
Rachel: Well, Alderney is one of the Channel Islands, and it’s the closest Channel Island to France, so you can see France from the beaches on one side of the island. Beautiful white sand beaches, turquoise seas, less than 2,000 people live here, and yes, I’ve got the best social life I’ve had since I was probably 20. It’s amazing! I think because there isn’t anything, everybody makes their own fun, really. So this weekend, for example, the Alderney Literary Trust have set up a creative writing course, and they’ve invited an author, Simon Scarrow, who writes historical novels, so he’s here this weekend, and he’s running the course, and I’m helping out on Sunday. So, tonight, because this is on, they’ve invited anybody on the island who wants to come, can come to a drinks reception first, and loads of people will turn up.
I had a book launch here, and about 60 people came, you know, it’s just everybody makes their own fun and enjoyment, and boy, do they do that. It’s great.
Joanna: How do you get any writing done with all that socializing?
Rachel: It’s quite hard! Honestly, last week, I was out every single night, and one night, two things I had to do: I had to go from one to the other, because there’s just so much, people are so friendly and welcoming and “Oh you must come for dinner”, “You must come for coffee”, and so it’s great. I really love it.
Joanna: And in terms of a setting, is that the island you use in the book?
Rachel: Well, there are two islands actually in the book, because Anglesey is one of the settings. I used to go to Anglesey as a child, and I liked the idea of Anglesey and Alderney being quite similar in terms of, not the places themselves, but they’re quite similar in terms of the spelling and the names of them, which is actually quite important in the book, as you will know. But, yes, writing about Alderney in that particular part of the book, it’s very, very similar. Basically, it says in one part of the book that as they drive from the airport, they realize that everywhere they look, they can see the sea, and that’s what it’s like. It’s only three and a half miles long by a mile and a half wide, so pretty much everywhere you can see the sea.
Joanna: Wow. And then you used to live in Italy, didn’t you? Is that going to appear in one of your books?
Rachel: Italy appeared just a little bit in Only the Innocent, but I’m still going to go back to Italy for some time in the summer, but mainly I’ll be based here. I’m about to move into an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea – it’s gorgeous.
Joanna: I want a writing room that overlooks the sea!
Rachel: You’ll have to come and visit me!
Joanna: I’m in a London basement! People listening, Rachel’s life, this whole kind of socializing: I’m pretty sure it’s not your average author’s life!
Rachel: Well, I think what’s happened is, because it’s such a small island, people have been so supportive of me, so when my last book, Sleep Tight, was launched, they arranged all kinds of coverage for me, so BBC Guernsey, BBC Jersey, BBC Channel Islands Television, all the local magazines, all the local papers, posters of me all round the town (an absolutely hideous photograph, but that’s not really the point). And so, everybody’s been really supportive. And they just say, “Oh, why don’t you come for a drink”, or, “It’ll be really nice to meet up”, so everybody’s just going out of their way to be friendly and supportive; it’s fantastic.
Joanna: Until you start murdering them in your next book! We just can’t help but pick up ideas, can we, from all these places!
Rachel: That’s always the way. I mean, I love people-watching, that’s one of my things, and getting to know people who’ve got peculiar quirks of personality, because although I never, ever base a character entirely on one person, picking up odd things that people do, people have got to seem real, the characters have got to seem real, and the situations have got to seem like, on the whole, situations that you might find yourself in.
Joanna: So, where do you do your people-watching?
Rachel: Oh, anywhere, really. Airports, trains, local bars round here (not really, because I know most of the people, so that’s slightly different) but I do tend to – when I say study people, that sounds a bit odd, but I’m always quite interested in people’s reactions to things. I’m also, I’ve noticed – you may have noticed this yourself – I’m also much more interested in my own reactions to things since I’ve been a writer. Because when you’re writing, you actually have to describe feelings, you have to describe how you feel, sometimes physically how you feel, I sometimes find that I’m more concerned with how I’m feeling than what I’m feeling, if you know what I mean. I’ve not explained that very well.
An example: I was sitting in my sitting room. Nobody locks doors here, because you don’t need. And I was sitting there, and there was a big thump came from upstairs, and every little hair, every little follicle stood on end, you know, it was like an instant, sharp fear. And do you know, I sat there and I thought, “How would I write that?” I hadn’t even thought about what it was! It was only a mirror falling off the wall, actually, but I was more interested in my physical reaction to fear, and how I would describe it, than I was in the actual fear itself, which is weird. I’m becoming weird!
Joanna: I think we all become a bit weird with this writing life! I go round saying to people, “Oh, I just spent the day in the graveyard, writing a scene in a graveyard, I love graveyards!”
Rachel: Sometimes people say to me, “What do you do for a living?” and I say, “I kill men”!
Joanna: That’s very cool.
So, who do you read?
Who do you read for pleasure, what are the writers you like to read, or what are you reading at the moment, because I know it’s always a tough question.
Rachel: No, I do really, there are some writers that I will always read. I love books by – well, she used to be known as S.J. Bolton, but now she seems to prefer to be called Sharon Bolton.
Joanna: Sharon, I didn’t know that.
Rachel: Well, yes, apparently she’s changed, because when she was first published, they told her that Sharon didn’t sound quite right – she’s written a blog post about it, so I’m not speaking out of turn – she said that they thought that Sharon wasn’t necessarily the appropriate name for a thriller writer, but she’s decided that she’s going to be Sharon now. So, good for her. Her books are great: they’re quite dark. And I always like people like Val McDermid, Minette Walters, people like that.
But I’m now in a book club here on Alderney, and I’m trying to read things other than thrillers, because, you know, I think that it’s so easy to become obsessed with one particular type of book, so I’m trying to read other things as well.
Joanna: I’m reading the Game of Thrones series right now. I’ve almost finished Book Three, which takes me up to the end of the TV programme. And I’m like, “I want to write a big saga”! Which is kind of big. Your books are very close, I guess you do some island-hopping, obviously, but they’re not kind of global-hopping.
Rachel: No, and they’re short periods of time, usually, as well. Everything happens within a relatively short period of time.
Do you feel like you want to write any different kind of things?
Rachel: Ah, interesting question, that. Sometimes I do, but they would still be relationship-based. What happens with my books is that they tend to be relationship-based, but then there is some inciting incident, if you like, something that happens that changes how people behave and what people do. And so I sometimes think I would just like to do something that is purely relationship-based without somebody having to die, really! Which is how the second book started, but then it ended up moving on.
Joanna: Yes, you can’t really write a crime thriller without death.
Rachel: No! I’ve thought about writing more sort of family-type saga-type things, but I think I’ll stick with this: I like the high-tension scenes, the high-drama scenes.
One of the things you mentioned is about the whole kind of what are my obsessions, do I keep coming back to a similar theme?
And I think that my obsession is writing about why people commit crimes.
So it’s more important at the end of the story, of anything that I write, that the reader is able to say, “What would I have done? Would I have done that? Was that the right thing to happen?” There was a lot of split with Only the Innocent, well, a very small amount actually, but there was a complete set of people who wrote to me and said, “It should not have ended like that: that was wrong”, and I thought that was really interesting. I like it when people think things should be different.
And I think, with Sleep Tight, what I wanted to avoid at the end, because as you’ve said, there’s a lot of twists, what I wanted to avoid at all costs was a detailed breakdown of everything that had happened. Everything is there, but it’s all there, maybe, in the last ten percent of the book there are indications about each of the little twists. And one or two people haven’t quite grasped all of them, and have emailed me – which is fine – saying, “Well, what happened to this, I wasn’t sure, was it this?” And they’re nearly always right, but they’re not quite sure enough. But I really don’t want to do a detailed breakdown at the end. I think hopefully, if it’s written properly, people should get most of it, if not all of it.
And I also like people to think, “Just what was that? How did that happen?” and then think about it, rather than you finish the book, you close the book, and then you move on kind of thing.
Joanna: Yes, because our books are finished in the mind of the reader, I don’t know who said that, that’s a quote from somebody. But we start it, it’s a combination of our mind, and then what we put on the page, and then what’s in the mind of the reader finishes the book for them, and it’s a different book for them than it would be for somebody else.
Rachel: Yes, yes, absolutely. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to let go, they’re like my children, my books. And so I kind of almost don’t want to let go of them: I want to carry on tweaking and messing, “Oh, I’ll just change this bit.” I find it really hard to say it’s finished.
Joanna: Well, we’ve got to move on!
And talking of moving on, do you have a next book in the pipeline?
Rachel: I do. I’m working on it at the moment. I’ve not started writing yet, I’m still working out all the plot twists, and I’m trying to simplify it, because at the moment, it’s so twisty. And one of the things that wouldn’t be giving too much away, one of the things that does happen in Sleep Tight is that Tom Douglas, who’s been the policeman in all of the books, his house is broken into, and some papers are stolen that belonged to his brother. Now, in each book, his brother Jack has been mentioned: in the first one, it was mentioned that he was killed in a speedboat accident, although his body was never found; and he’s been mentioned in all the books.
And so I think in the next book, we have to find out what happened to Jack. People have been trying to steal his papers in Sleep Tight, but that’s never resolved: at the end of the book, that’s not resolved, because he hasn’t had time to resolve that, he’s been too busy with other things. And so he does say in the end of Sleep Tight, “I think when I’ve got some time, I’m going to start going through Jack’s papers and try to understand why people are interested in them.” So, that will be a part of it, but I don’t want to make the whole book about him, because then it will just be a straightforward police procedural, so it’s got to have another dimension.
Joanna: Fantastic, that sounds brilliant: we’ll have to look out for that. So, tell people where they can find you and your books online.
Rachel: At the moment, they’re all on Amazon, either on Kindle or as a paperback.
Joanna: And your website?
Rachel: My website is at www.rachel-abbott.com
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Rachel, that was brilliant.
Rachel: It’s really nice to speak to you, thank you.