I had no idea I was writing a thriller when I began work on The Mother Fault. I knew there was a woman – a mother – who was forced to flee her home and I had a vague sense of an authoritarian government in a near-future Australia that felt very much like now, but beyond that, there were just blank pages and endless possibilities.
As I began to explain the premise to a few people I got some odd looks – literary dystopian sea adventure with mother – it just doesn’t roll off the tongue with ease.
It was only when I began to fully inhabit the character of Mim, when I went to bed at night as worried for her and her kids, as I was for my own, and when I asked myself over and over again – What would I do if this were me? – that I realised how deeply invested I was. If I could make the reader care as much as I did about Mim and the kids staying safe, surely they too would be kept up late at night desperate to know what might happen next.
Any novel needs a compelling story question to drive the narrative and mine was pretty simple on a surface level – will Mim find her husband, Ben? But that one question can’t carry the story on its own. It helps to put your characters into increasingly difficult situations. When I teach young writers, I tell them to put their character up a tree and throw rocks at them. How a character reacts when they are tested reveals so much about who they are. In The Mother Fault, I continually up the stakes, sending Mim and the kids on the run, putting them on a yacht, throwing in a storm.
Of course, a little sexual tension never goes astray in keeping a reader turning the pages. As a reader, I’m a sucker for the ‘will they/won’t they’ story line, and I loved writing the shifting and often electric relationship between Mim and her old flame, Nick.
I needed a bunch of inspiration along the way to ensure I got the beats right for what was increasingly becoming a white knuckle ride (as a novel and a process!). A lover of all books and films, I shifted focus to crime, to big fat blockbuster thrillers, to films where there were guns and explosions and big juicy conspiracies. Writing a thriller is a brain bender, but it’s also an enormous amount of fun.
It’s really only in conversation with a reader, that a writer is able to fully recognise what they have made. So what did I end up with?
A love story.
A road novel.
A sailing adventure.
A thriller with heart, they tell me. And the very thought thrills me too.