Death in a Publishing House
Book editor and thriller writer SARA FOSTER has set her latest characterdriven crime novel somewhere very close to home: a London book-publishing house. ANGUS DALTON finds out more about Sara and her latest page-turner, The Hidden Hours.
Sara Foster is fresh from the Perth Writers Festival when I call her a few weeks before the publication of her fifth novel, The Hidden Hours. A standout speaker for her was American feminist author Lindy West speaking about her memoir, Shrill: Notes from a loud woman. Despite having five thriller and suspense novels under her belt, Sara says she’s often inspired by books outside the genre in which she writes; she cites James Bradley’s dystopian novel Clade and Charlotte Wood’s Stella Prize-winning The Natural Way of Things. ‘That book is incredible,’ says Sara. ‘It had me lost in thought for an entire week.’
The author, who migrated from England to Perth in 2004, says that often a particular book that she admires acts a ‘totem’ for her own novels that are works in progress. Daphne du Maurier’s gothic visions in the 1938 novel Rebecca, for example, were a driving force behind Sara’s third book, Beneath the Shallows. This mystery, which takes place on the wintry heaths of the Yorkshire Moors, touches on the supernatural and sinister, small-town secrets.
If Sara had to choose a totem novel for The Hidden Hours, it would probably be Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
‘It pushed me into different ideas of what you can do with a novel. Gillian Flynn is an incredible writer. I’m always interested in narrative development, playing with timelines and perspectives. In no way does Gone Girl align with The Hidden Hours in terms of content, but it was in my head as I was writing as an example of what could be achieved.’
Sara draws her inspiration from a wide range of genres, which might be attributed to her experiences while working at the publishing company HarperCollins in London. After taking a gap year around Australia after school – when Isabel Allende’s books accompanied her for much of the journey – she returned to the UK with a drive to write, but little confidence to realise that dream.
Serendipity delivered her to the stock department at HarperCollins, where she worked for a few months. But just before she left, a friend sent her an advert for an assistant position to the fiction director.
‘I got the job. It was a very secretarial position; I just did whatever the fiction director needed me to do. But he was very aware that I wanted to get into editing, and he would let me take part in that end of things as much as I could. He had people like Faye Weldon, Doris Lessing, Tony Parsons and Jeffrey Archer coming into his office. Massive names. I was answering the phones for these people. It was an incredible experience.’
During her time at HarperCollins, Sara discovered the novels of Nicci French – the mashed-up pseudonym of a husband-and-wife team who co-write psychological thrillers.
‘They were the ones who started me off. Those books showed me that thrillers and suspense novels could be very character driven and have more emotional resonance. It doesn’t have to be all raceagainst-time-to-savethe-world; they can be very deep and intense character studies.’
Eleanor Brennan, the focal character of The Hidden Hours, sits shivering in the waiting room of a psychologist, who is trying in vain to pry the trauma out of the fragile 15-year-old girl after two overdoses and bouts of self-harm. Six years later, she has moved from Western Australia to London. She’s working for her aunt, the curt and frosty CEO of venerable publishing house Parker & Lane. Eleanor is living temporarily with her aunt and uncle. But something is amiss between the couple; Eleanor hears them exchanging furious whispers with each other, and soon she starts to feel unwelcome in their home.
Within a few weeks of working at her aunt’s company, Eleanor and the rest of the Parker & Lane staff are notified that the well-liked and dedicated marketing director, Arabella Lane, is dead. Her body was found in the Thames on the morning after the company’s Christmas party. The news of her death draws Eleanor back to the reason she fled Australia – a harrowing memory from her childhood in outback Western Australia. Sara writes:
For a moment she is no longer 21. Instead she is nine years old again ... A body swings in front of her, his face obscured by flies, and the tips of his toes skim-kiss the floor ...
But how does Sara go about crafting such grisly paragraphs?
‘I do have to psych myself up a bit. I avoid them. I have to talk myself into doing scenes that are really tragic. I tend to skirt around them because I do find it very emotional and I feel very close to the characters as I write them. It’s tough; there are a few scenes that came later in the book that were incredibly difficult to write.’
Sara might find it emotionally demanding to create the gruesome endings that she inflicts on her characters, but she makes sure they are dispatched with accuracy. A friend who worked in coronial investigations both in Perth and for the Met in London is an excellent resource for helping Sara to infuse her books with true-to-life detail.
‘We had gory conversations about what happens to bodies that have been in water,’ Sara recalls. ‘We talked about the procedure to get a dead body out of the water, and what happens next. All those details are as close to fact as I can get them.’
The image of Arabella’s pale hair fanned out on the cold surface of the Thames bubbled up from Sara’s subconscious. She says that The Hidden Hours started to come together unconsciously as she walked the Waterloo Bridge in 2012. She was in the UK researching the Lake District for her previous novel, All That Is Lost Between Us.
When the death of Arabella Lane is announced, Eleanor makes haste to leave before the police race in to talk to the staff who interacted with Arabella in her last hours of life. But on the train home, Eleanor remembers that she did have a conversation with Arabella; they shared a cocktail together, and Eleanor remembers the woman sprinkling something into their drinks. She remembers watching Arabella march across the party and slap her husband. She remembers a few words: Eleanor, help me. Everything else from the night is wiped blank. Desperate as she is to extract herself from the death investigation as memories from her past charge to the forefront of her mind, Eleanor makes a discovery that entrenches her in the thick of the mystery – Arabella’s wedding ring is tucked into her purse.
The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster is published by Simon and Schuster.