Erin Kelly is the acclaimed British author of The Poison Tree. She’s so awesome Stephen King gave her an endorsement. How cool is that? I loved her first book, so I knew I had to read The Dark Rose when it hit American soil. Well, I read it, but you have to wait for the full book review until Thursday. Until then, allow me to introduce Her Royal Awesomeness Erin Kelly.
Bio: British author and journalist Erin Kelly is thirty-five. She studied English and European Literature at Warwick University and was a staff writer on the UK edition of Cosmopolitan for three years. Her first novel, The Poison Tree, was published by Viking in 2011 and has been shortlisted for the 2012 Strand Magazine Critics Choice Award. Her second acclaimed psychological thriller, The Dark Rose, is out now in hardback, and her third will be published next spring. She lives and writes in North London with her husband and three-year-old daughter.
How did you become a published author?
I’ve been a journalist since I was twenty-two, but all I ever really wanted to do was write fiction. But as a freelancer, I kept putting it off in favour of paid work. Then, in 2008, I got pregnant, and that was the focus I needed. For a few months, I eased off on my freelance work and spent my days furiously writing the book that would eventually become The Poison Tree. When it felt like a book, I did things the old-fashioned way, by writing off to agents with a short cover letter, a synopsis, and three sample chapters.
And then … silence. Months of it. I can’t even say I was rejected by agents, because in many cases they didn’t even bother to acknowledge receipt of my manuscript. I eventually signed with an agent a few weeks before my baby was due. We made a few structural changes to the novel, inserting a prologue at the beginning to pull the reader immediately in and polishing the characterisation. There was a flurry of interest from several London publishers (in fact, I did one interview with a potential editor while I was in labour), and it looked promising, but no offer was forthcoming. They all said the same thing: they weren’t sure how to market my book. Was it crime, literary, or women’s fiction? No one could agree. And the cliffhanger ending, which I had thought so clever, had polarised opinion.
I let myself wail and wallow for about twenty-four hours. Then I thought hard about what to do next and concluded that they were right about the ending: it was too open. I was always clear that this was suspense fiction, and one of the silent covenants the author makes with the reader in that genre is that there is a reward of some kind in the final pages. A few loose ends are good, necessary even, if the book is not to appear too contrived, but the big question that has been driving the novel so far does need some kind of resolution.
The new conclusion I came up with felt completely inevitable and right to me, and it actually became the major talking point of the book. What I was sure about was that I didn’t want to compromise on my tone or my style to make it easier for publishers to pigeonhole me into a genre. I could have stripped away some of the descriptive passages to increase its appeal to hard-boiled crime fans or played down the plot to pander to the literary snobs, but my voice is my voice: it’s the one thing I can’t change or compromise.
The gamble paid off: six months after those initial rejections, I had four publishers fighting over me. The funny thing was that the reason they loved the book was the reason it had been rejected at its first outing. Instead of seeing it as a book that didn’t belong on any particular shelf, they saw it as crossover fiction, something that could appeal to several different markets at once. It was a good welcome to the arbitrary and mercurial world of publishing.
Who is your favorite author?
(Deep breath) William Boyd, Ira Levin, Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Safran Froer, Chris Cleave, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Vine, Jean Rhys, Evelyn Waugh, F Scott Fitzgerald, LP Hartley, Tana French, Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt, Lesley Glaister. What my favourite writers have in common is that they can all make words dance and create true characters, but they aren’t afraid of strong narrative. I love to be caught up in books where I can’t wait for the next chapter to find out what happens, but the language makes me want to linger over every page.
What genre do you prefer reading?
I get sent a lot of books in my own genre, literary and psychological thrillers, from publishers who want to promote new authors, so the balance is skewed in that direction. But it would be dreary to read only books like mine; it would be like limiting myself to one food group. I don’t have a favourite genre and there is no genre I wouldn’t read.
One thing I am finding is that the more I write fiction, the more appealing non-fiction becomes as a kind of palate-cleanser. Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd have both written brilliantly and beautifully about my home city, London. Bill Bryson’s travelogues are my go-to comfort read. And I love rock biographies: Keith Richards’ Life, Dylan’s Chronicles. If you haven’t read Just Kids by Patti Smith I urge you to order it as soon as you’ve finished reading this interview.
Where do you spend your writing time?
In a sloping study above my bedroom. It’s not really a room so much as an attic with a skylight and a desk in it. You can only stand up in the dead centre of the room, and the acute corners between the wall and floor are slowly filling up with books. I think there’s a wasp’s nest behind one of the piles. I’m scared to investigate.
When have you ever wanted to give up on being an author?
I won’t deny that those early rejections were disheartening. Now that I have a couple books behind me, I’m plagued by different sorts of doubts. I feel like throwing in the towel about three-quarters of the way through every book. There seems to be an unavoidable phase where it’s nearly there, but there are one or two conflicts I just can’t seem to resolve. By then I’ll be about nine months in, tired and drained and longing to stop plotting and get on with the really fun bit, playing with the language. But it’s like running: you can’t stop when you hit the wall, or you’ll never finish the race.
Why do you think books are important?
There’s a complicity involved between reader and writer that doesn’t exist in, say, film; reading makes you do some of the work, from imagining the characters’ faces to finding your own themes and messages between the lines. That, along with the hours invested in a book, mean that the rewards are greater, deeper.
No other medium is as intimate as books. Nothing beats that borderline uncomfortable feeling you get when a writer describes an experience or opinion or emotion that you thought was unique to you: suddenly the roles are reversed and you feel like you are the one being read. I suppose only song comes close to doing that.
For more about Erin and her amazing books, visit http://www.erinkelly.co.uk/.