Jade Craddock spoke to the lovely Phoebe Morgan about her inspiration, her writing routine and latest novel, The Babysitter – one of our recommended reads for NB Magazine’s summer issue.
The title of your latest novel is The Babysitter and at the heart of the story is this age-old role, one that’s very familiar and ordinary in daily life but which becomes the centrepiece of the tragedy in the book. How did you come about choosing this central image and how important was it that the babysitter role is one everyone can relate to?
I used to babysit a little when I was younger, and always thought it was such a fascinating job – this idea of being in charge of someone else’s child – i.e. the most precious thing in their life. It’s a position of huge responsibility but it’s often given to people who are so young – teenagers even. In my book, this isn’t the case – Caroline is in her thirties, but looking after her friend Jenny’s child throws up lots of emotions for her and forces her to compare herself and her life to that of Jenny’s. So many people experience this I think – especially women, we are constantly comparing ourselves and there’s a lot of societal pressure to have children, so I wanted to explore this and it was really crucial for me that everybody could relate to Caroline and understand this strange role of the babysitter. I hope the word instantly triggers memories for people – of their own lives, and that the title really resonates with readers.
- There is a great cast of characters and the novel is narrated from several different perspectives, how much fun is it to inhabit such disparate characters? Were any more difficult/easier to get to grips with than others?
It’s so much fun! I always write from a few different perspectives and hugely enjoy it – I hope it makes the reading process more enjoyable, too. I like reading books with multiple narrators (though not too many that it becomes confusing!) and so I wanted to create something similar with The Babysitter. I found it quite hard to get inside Maria’s mind (towards the end) as she’s a much more closed, secretive character, and although Callum doesn’t have his own perspective, he was someone I needed to spend a lot of time thinking about as overall I find depicting male characters harder than female characters. Caroline’s voice came to me very easily; she was probably the character I related to the most, but Siobhan was more aspirational and I found her really interesting to write too – she’s a married mother of one, with a perfect home and an outwardly perfect family, but I had to pull back the veil and find out what she worries about, what’s lurking beneath the shiny exterior.
- The list of potential suspects had me guessing throughout, how do you create such believable suspicion and the various twists and turns?
So glad to hear this! I try to keep the reader guessing for as long as I possibly can, so making each character a little bit suspicious, and ensuring nobody is completely in the clear until the very end. I usually add this in at the editing stage – so once I’ve done the first draft, I go back through and look for places where I can add extra suspicion, to keep the reader well and truly on their toes. I usually end up writing flawed characters, so none of them are perfect, they each have their own motivations and obsessions and therefore it’s easier to make sure none of them can be crossed off the suspect list too early on. Creating twists is always quite nerve-wracking as I worry that they might be too obvious or may not pay off, and often I won’t think of the final twist until right at the end when I’ve almost finished writing. It becomes tempting to just add one more, but I’m conscious of how good readers have become at spotting twists so I always want to ensure they are really worthwhile, and not just there for the sake of it.
- How important was a plan when you wrote The Babysitter or is it important that the plot evolves organically as you write?
For me, the plot tends to evolve relatively organically, and actually in The Babysitter the ending changed quite dramatically after some notes from my editor, so the original plot I had isn’t what was eventually the final draft. I tend to begin with my characters, and a setting – so I knew I wanted to set this book between Suffolk (where I grew up) and France (I went on an amazing holiday to a villa like the one in the book last year which was a big inspiration). Sometimes, small parts of the jigsaw piece will come to me as I’m writing, and I try to keep an open mind rather than stick to a prescribed plot. Every writer I know works so differently, but I find it quite hard to plan rigidly so I tend to give myself permission to make it up as I go along and then go back and fix plot holes later on, once the first draft is down and the pressure eases slightly.
- The domestic thriller continues to go from strength to strength, what do you think the appeal is for writers and readers?
It does! I’m firmly of the belief that there is room for everyone in this area of the market, and although there are a lot of similar books, for me it’s so exciting discovering new suspense authors and a new voice can make even a similar plotline feel extremely different. I think readers love the sense of adrenaline and complete escapism thrillers provide – that unputdownable feeling that completely absorbs you and makes it much easier to forget about real life for a few hours. A good thriller should be really hard to put down, and as a writer it’s so important to think about how you end your sentences and your chapters so that you can ensure the reader wants to turn the page and read just one more page! Often, it’s about pushing the boundaries – so taking everyday scenarios or characters and making them more extreme, constantly asking ‘what if?’ and taking things to the next level. For readers, thrillers give them the opportunity to explore darker subjects that (hopefully!) will never play out in real life, and then of course there’s that wonderful sense of relief when you close the book and realise none of it is real or happening to you.
- This is your third novel to be published, how did the writing of this one compare to your previous two novels?
I go through a relatively similar process when writing all of my novels – I begin with great excitement and find writing the first 20,000 words or so relatively straightforward, then I have a complete crisis of confidence and convince myself that the whole book is terrible. I force myself to push on, perhaps with a daily or weekly word count, and then once I’ve reached 50-60,000 I finally begin to relax a bit because the end is in sight. I always tell myself that I can’t do it, but now that I’ve written three I am able to look back and remind myself that I’ve completed every book I’ve started in the past, so actually there is no reason that I wouldn’t be able to finish the next one – so that does help a little. Finding a readership has boosted my confidence, too – my books have performed better than I’d imagined and it’s always such a joy receiving a message from a reader telling me they liked one of my novels. Writing The Babysitter was overall a pleasurable experience, and actually the edits were less painful than on my previous book The Girl Next Door, so that was nice!
- As well as being an author, you’re also an editor at HarperCollins, how has that helped inform your own writing?
I hope that my day job as an editor gives me more empathy with my authors (the ones I publish) – as I completely understand the ups and downs and the anxieties that are part and parcel of the publishing process. Being a writer is scary – you have to put so much trust in other people – your editor, publicist, marketeer, cover designer, and it’s strange having something that began on your laptop suddenly out in the world. As an editor I obviously read a huge amount so I hope that gives me a clearer sense of the market – what does and doesn’t work, what readers respond to, and above all pacing – we get so many submissions and it really is true that you need to grip readers with the first line, so now I work really hard on perfecting the first part of my novel as sometimes that’s the only part an agent or editor might read.
- As an editor, you obviously look for certain aspects in a book, so what are the key things that are on your mind as your write?
The hook is key – in commercial fiction it’s about having that pitch, that one-liner than can convince a publishing acquisitions board or a retailer that this is the right book for them. It’s also about pacing – as I say above, editors do receive lots of submissions so we end up having to make relatively quick decisions, and if the opening isn’t great then it’s quite telling and becomes harder to want to read on. So I try hard to keep this in mind whilst I’m writing, too. For me, voice is so important, so trying to be as authentic as possible, writing characters I can visualise and that feel true to me – so that hopefully they come to life for my readers, too.
- How do you manage the editing/writing balance?
It can be tough at times, but I tend to write at the weekends as I work 9-6pm during the week. Sometimes I try writing after work but usually my brain is so tired by then that I find it much harder to write, whereas at weekends I can be much more productive. It does require discipline but now that I’m writing a book a year, I always have a clear deadline which makes things much easier as I hate the thought of letting my editor down by delivering late! I try to be quite kind to myself – so if one day I just can’t write I don’t force myself – as some days I can write a lot in one go if I’m in the right mood so that makes up for having days off. I know some people write consistently every day but I’m not one of them!
- You’ve worked with some fabulous authors in your career, how important have they been to your writing journey in terms of advice/inspiration/motivation?
Ah I find all my authors so inspiring, especially the ones who are really open about their own publication journeys (e.g. Cally Taylor, who blogs about it and discusses writing with me quite often). It’s an honour to work with so many talented people, and I’m lucky that they have been so supportive of my own writing – offering blurbs, support and plugging my own books alongside theirs, too, which I always really appreciate. I try not to ask them for direct advice as I don’t want to blur the lines of our relationships, but I do have other writer friends who are hugely helpful in this respect.
- And, finally, are you working on anything new right now? And, if so, what can you tell us?
Yes! I’m halfway through writing my fourth book, an as yet untitled thriller about a group of friends who take a trip to South Africa for a glamorous birthday party – only to find the safari lodge they’ve been invited to is completely deserted. I’m having so much fun Googling picture of luxurious lodges, and it’s a much more tight-knit, claustrophobic read than anything I’ve written before, too. It will be out with HQ next Spring (2021).
The Babysitter was out on 28th May 2020 and published by HQ (paperback)