What drives me to write is the same thing that makes me love reading: an obsessive curiosity about people. I’m always wondering why they say what they say and do what they do, whether it’s someone close to me, or a complete stranger. I’m a terrible over-analyzer and often go away from social interactions wondering about secret hidden meanings and Twin Peaks-style intrigue.
Equally, if I see a story in the papers about someone doing something bad – committing a crime, for instance – I find myself first empathizing with the victim of the crime, then trying to put myself in the shoes of the accused person. How does it feel to be them? Why did they do it? Are people ever really simply good or bad, or is everyone occupying a moral grey zone that gets tipped one way or another by the hand life deals them?
I think psychological thrillers often occupy this moral grey area, veering between insights into the internal life of a victim and that of the person who goes after them, or perhaps creating suspense for the reader about which the protagonist is: victim or suspect.
This is true of my first psychological thriller, The American Girl, in which exchange student Quinn Perkins stumbles out of the woods near a French town. Barefoot and bloodied, her appearance disturbs the town’s inhabitants, especially since her host family has mysteriously disappeared. A do-anything-for-the-story reporter from Boston, Molly Swift, is drawn to the story and will do anything to discover whether Quinn is really an innocent abroad, or a killer intent on getting away with murder. Molly herself is not entirely to be trusted, either.
Both main characters are in some sense unreliable, although the focus is mainly on Quinn’s guilt or innocence, a fact that made writing her perspective a particular challenge. I wanted to chill the reader, to frighten them, and to make the twists and turns unexpected, but I also wanted Quinn to remain a sympathetic character, whatever doubts others around her might have.
I think this is the reason the chronological shifts in the narrative came about, as well as the mixture of Quinn’s blog entries and video diaries. At different points in her story, various versions of events come through, as well as different aspects of her psychology. Part of Molly’s role is to piece these fragments together enough to be able to see the whole picture of Quinn.
The second challenging aspect to creating Quinn was the fact that parts of her story were drawn from my own: one summer in my early teens, my parents sent me to France on an exchange. I went to stay with a family who lived in a little town near the beach and had barely any communications with my own family back home. I was bold, in the way that teenagers are, but also afraid.
The town – on which St Roch in the book is based – was remote and rural and always seemed full of secrets under the surface, gossip I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of, because of my young age and because of the language barrier. The family of three, a mother, sister and brother, were complete strangers. Dark woods stretched out beyond the little villa and older kids partied there. The schoolhouse attached to the villa was empty all summer long and I have vivid memories of the roof beams and floorboards creaking at night as I tried to sleep. In retrospect, it seemed like the perfect location for a psychological thriller.
I used my diary of that summer to recapture the sense of being a teenager far from home and living through various rites of passage in another language. I was also lucky to be invited to stay for a while in a different house in the South of France while I was working on the novel, which gave me the opportunity to visit local bars and beaches, swimming pools and woods. That more recent stay provided an atmospheric location that seemed to be simultaneously alluring and remote, beautiful and sometimes, in the stillness of night, with only the crickets chanting outside… extremely creepy.
How to make my own teenage experiences into the first person story of a potential murderer, though? For all the mischief I got up to that summer long ago, I’ve never done anything actually all that bad. I’m consequently disappointingly lacking in personal darkness. I’ve read an enormous amount of true crime, though, which often provides a lot of insights into the criminal mind, and a lot of crime fiction, especially psychological thrillers. I’m also addicted to books about psychology and to taking tests online, since there are an unsettling number of multiple choice questionnaires that claim to gauge whether the person taking them is displaying the “Dark Triad” of personality traits: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151123-how-dark-is-your-personality
Between you and me, I tested as a bit of wimp on most of these, though with some disturbing elements of Machiavellianism (probably because writers are such practiced liars). A combination of all of this research fed into the novel’s two intertwining narratives and soon I found myself unable to stop thinking about what it would be like to be accused of a horrific crime with no way out of the situation, especially if, like Quinn, you couldn’t remember all the circumstances. While writing, I scared myself on a regular basis, becoming so caught up in scenes and the mindsets of characters that I’d find it hard to let go. The main idea underpinning the novel is that not everything in life and experience is quite as it seems, so maybe that Machiavellianism came into play after all.
One of the best moments that came to pass after I finished the book was when I went to visit the Harper Collins office in London and the lovely editor I met with told me how incredibly creepy she found my novel. She looked genuinely uneasy when she said it, too, as if chill fingers were at that very moment wandering down her spine. I was so pleased to hear that all my hard work trying to give people nightmares had finally paid off…
(c) Kate Horsley
About The American Girl by Kate Horsley
A MISSING FAMILY
Barefoot, bloodied, with no memory of what has happened to her – Quinn Perkins stumbles out of the woods in France and discovers that her exchange family have mysteriously disappeared.
A SMALL TOWN SEEKING REVENGE
Journalist Molly Swift is drawn to the mystery and prepared to do anything to learn the truth, including lying to get close to Quinn. But when a shocking discovery sparks fury in the town, Quinn is arrested for murder.
DARK SECRETS DRAGGED INTO THE LIGHT
As a trial by media ensues, Molly is left to unravel the town’s disturbing past and clear Quinn’s name – but is she really innocent? Or is she a cunning killer intent on getting away with murder?
The American Girl is in bookshops now – or pick up your copy online here!
Kate’s first novel, The Monster’s Wife, was shortlisted for the Scottish First Book of the Year Award. Her second novel, The American Girl, is out with William Morrow (US) and HarperCollins (UK) in autumn 2016. Her poems and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines and anthologies including Best British Crime Stories and her work has won awards. She is represented by Oli Munson at A.M. Heath.
For more, check out www.katehorsley.co.uk