Today we welcome British author Colette McBeth to the blog to celebrate the US release of her second novel, The Life I Left Behind. Her debut, Precious Thing, received a lot of praise when it came out last year, establishing McBeth as a notable psychological thriller writer. We are so excited to have Colette join us today. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the conversation!
The Life I Left Behind is a suspense novel about a woman named Melody who has spent the last six years trying to get by as best she can after narrowly escaping death. When the man responsible for her attempted murder is released from prison and another woman found murdered, Melody is pulled into the investigation. Can you introduce us to your main character and share a bit more about what readers can expect in The Life I Left Behind?
On the one hand it’s a story about a woman who solves her own murder but it’s also the tale of an unlikely and redemptive friendship.
Eve is the kind of women you’d want as your friend; brave, determined, funny and borderline
eccentric. She’s also just been murdered by the same man who attacked Melody. Melody survived but now lives a closeted life, traumatized and utterly changed by her experience. The irony is that out of the two women Eve seems more alive. As the story develops and Melody gets to ‘know’ Eve she begins to question everything she believed about the night of her attack and the man who attacked her. And ultimately it’s her unlikely bond with Eve that saves her.
As a former crime correspondent for BBC News and Sky News, your professional experiences undoubtedly exposed you to a number of court cases and true crime stories. How much of The Life I Left Behind is drawn from actual events and how much is from your imagination? In what ways has your broadcast journalism background helped you as a novelist?
The idea for The Life I Left Behind came from a real life case where a woman’s body was found in a farmer’s field. She had been dead for a number of years but at first police struggled to identify her. Like many people I wanted to know who she was, how she got there and why no one had missed her. It occurred to me (and I know this is obvious) that we never get to hear a murder victim’s story, it’s left to everyone else to piece together what happened in their last days and hours. Because of that we rarely get a sense of who they are and what has been lost. In many ways I wanted to give the victim back some dignity.
That was when Eve’s character was born, a woman who all but solves her own murder and tells the story of the events that led up to her death.
My broadcast background has definitely shaped what I write. The most fascinating aspect for me as a journalist was the way people could hide themselves and their crimes from those closest to them. On a more practical level being a journalist helps with the discipline of novel writing. Most news stories have multiple strands but on TV you’ve got next to no time to tell the story so you have to work out what is the single most important thing going on and boil it down to its essence. If you know the essence of your novel you’re a long way to finishing it.
It’s been less than two years since your critically-acclaimed first novel, Precious Thing, debuted in England. How have things changed for you, as a writer, since then?
I write full time now and that’s a real privilege whereas before I would squeeze in a few hours writing here and there – it wasn’t unusual for me to take my laptop into the newsroom, hide away in a corner and write my novel on slow news days! It’s also quite strange that after working in a noisy, frenetic environment I sit alone in my study all day. I found the transition quite difficult at first but exercise has cured me; I do a morning boot camp with a bunch of friends to get my people fix before I hunker down and write. Apart from that the thing that changed with the second book was the weight of expectation. With the first one I worried that no one would want to read it and with the second I worried that people did want to read it. You can’t win!
The Life I Left Behind has three narrators: Melody, Eve’s ghost, and the police officer running Eve’s murder investigation. Why did you choose to tell the story this way? What were some of the difficulties writing each narrator?
Right from the beginning I knew there were two women, both victims of the same man, and the story was as much about their connection and influence they had on each other as it was a thriller.
The main difficulty was working out how Eve and Melody could connect given the fact Eve is dead. That gave me a lot of sleepless nights. I knew I didn’t want to write a supernatural novel where Eve would appear as a ghost so I had to find a different way. I wrote a lot of words and threw them all away before I came across the solution. After that it was a question of structure. Because each narrative picks up the thread of the story but tells it from a different perspective I had to do a lot of painstaking plotting. I have a system where I write every scene of the novel out on a piece of paper, move each one around until they are all in the right place and then I stick them down to a roll of wallpaper. That’s my plot and structure. At the end of the novel the roll of paper was about 10 meters long!
Both of your novels are psychological thrillers. What is it about this genre that appeals to you as a writer? Did you choose this genre or did the genre choose you?
It chose me definitely. Whenever a story idea proposes itself it begins with a ‘what if xxxx?’ (fill in the blank with something dreadful.)
I write psychological thrillers because I like plot, I like pace and a twist here and there too, so long as the twist isn’t the be all and end all. Mainly, I like writing thrillers because there’s nothing more fascinating (to me) than to imagine what’s going on inside someone’s head, or behind closed doors.
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