Interview with Rachel Abbott, author of Only the Innocent

KD: Not many thrillers deal with a woman killer, what was the inspiration behind Only the Innocent?

RA: I think it started with a programme on television about the percentage of criminals by gender. Whilst the number of female murderers is quite low, it does actually happen from time to time. So I started to wonder what would be so bad that a woman would actually have no option available other than to commit murder. For it to be a cold-blooded murder, it would also have to be a very clever plot with precision planning. So what combination of circumstances would make it impossible to just walk away from a problem? I explored lots of theories, and then tested them on myself. Would I commit murder for that? If the answer was 'no' then it wasn't good enough. I should just point out, here, that I have never committed a murder – and have no plans to do so!

KD: What sort of research did you have to do for this story?

RA: The range of the research was fascinating – and my husband was constantly expecting a knock on the door from the police who might have been tracking my rather obscure web searches. In the first place I had to have quite a lot of help understand police procedure – and a very kind policeman friend was invaluable. But Only the Innocent features Eastern European prostitutes, so I had to understand the size of the problem in the UK. It is very worrying, and I can't tell you how horrifying some of the information was. The next thing I had to do was to decide how my victim was going to die. Again, I had to think about what a woman might be capable of – and I knew that most would find it difficult to stab a person, and probably wouldn't know where to find a gun. So I had to think of something else that would be quick. I had some ideas, and I just followed them up. I can't say more here without giving too much away. Then there was Rohypnol – when did it first appear in the UK? When was it very first mentioned on the internet? The first case I could find in the UK was that of serial rapist Richard Baker in 1998. But anybody following my research trail would have had serious doubts about me, I think!

KD: There are a lot of complex characters in this novel, who was the most fun to write? Any that you identified with?

RA: I love the Beatrice character – but she doesn't appear until very late in the book. She was modelled on somebody who I used to work with who I thought was brilliant but most people were terrified of because of her outspoken nature. Writing her small part was really good fun. I also enjoyed Annabel – the ex-wife. I had such a clear image of her in my head. But I suppose I identify most with Laura. Whilst thankfully my life has been very different to hers, it was necessary to immerse myself in her character in order to think how would I behave in these circumstances? .

KD: Where there any scenes that were harder to write than the others?

RA: Yes, most definitely. I know it's important in writing to show, not tell – but at the same time I think that the reader's imagination is very important. So I wanted to use imagery that would allow the reader to conjure up a picture without being so explicit that no thought was required. This was particularly relevant in any of the scenes with a sexual context. I specifically didn't want to dot every i and cross every t – not because I was being coy, but because I think that the reader's ability to visualise the scene is far stronger than a precise definition. To give an example, I can remember clearly seeing the film of The Godfather. In the book, the horse's head in the bed was the scariest thing I had ever read. When I saw it on screen, it was nothing. So I don't want to paint the complete picture. I wanted to create the atmosphere and sketch the details so that the reader can complete the image.

KD: What draws you to the thriller genre? What makes a good thriller?

RA: Thrillers give a writer the scope to incorporate the maximum number of emotions. Fear and anticipation are obviously key emotions, but the cast of characters also gives scope for showing love, happiness (in short bursts!), hatred and dread.  I think it's important to have a good range of characters with their own unique attributes in any book, but in a thriller you can explore what makes each and every one of them tick – because any or all of them might be suspects. Only the Innocent was based on a slightly different premise than most thrillers I have read. The vast majority are based on catching the perpetrator of a crime. Only the Innocent is based on understanding why the crime had to be committed in the first place, as well as finding out who did it, of course.

To me, a good thriller is all about the complexity of the plot and a developing story. Questions need to be posed all the way through which drive the reader onwards, wondering what it all means. There needs to be an ending that surprises, but at the same time, doesn't surprise at all. Now I appreciate that this sounds very odd, but what I don't like is when something comes completely out of the blue – just in an attempt to make the end more interesting. There have to have been hints and small pointers all the way through. I don't like any loose ends either. The tension should build to a climax, and every thread should be accounted for within that climax.

KD: Have you written anything else? Other genres?

RA: I started to write a book for young teens, about a gypsy boy. I did all the research (really fascinating stuff) but when I wrote the first few chapters I realised that although I believe the underlying story was good, I didn't have the right 'voice' for the market. I have written several scripts during my working life, and although these have been filmed as drama they have mainly had an underlying training theme. I have also written a number of short stories – but just for my own pleasure. I've never tried to get them published.

KD: How long have you been writing? 

RA: I have been writing in one form or another for at least 20 years now. But unfortunately I didn't have time to start work on a novel until a few years ago, when I sold my business. I used to be Managing Director of an interactive media company, and in this role I had to write all the time. Some of it was the usual management stuff – but a lot of it was very creative. For example, I had to devise and develop ideas for interactive educational programmes all the time, and then write a proposal which 'sold' the idea to the client. That was good training. But my writing was tested to the extremes when we developed interactive dramas. Sometimes these were for training purposes – but nonetheless had to be of television quality in terms of the drama. Others were for entertainment, including the first interactive CD version of Cluedo (Clue in the US). And this is where I learnt to plot very carefully. In interactive dramas it is often possible to see scenes in different orders – and they still have to make sense. So designing the flow of information and crafting a script which didn't give too much away at the wrong time was critical to the success of the programme.

KD: When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up? 

RA: That changed on an almost weekly basis. I thought seriously about becoming a nurse, and then a teacher. Both nearly happened – but for one reason or another I didn't follow it through. Then I toyed with the idea of being a social worker. In the end, after a few good but uninspiring jobs, I went for some job counselling. The counsellor suggested all sorts of jobs that would match my skills, but I was completely uninspired. Then, just as I was about to go, she mentioned computer programming. I had no idea that I could train as a programmer, and was really excited for the first time. I actually became a systems analyst (with a bit of programming thrown in), and then within a year I had started my own company which combined all of my skills. Programming, a genuine interest in education, lots of experience in training and office management – it all just came together and I carried on until I sold my business and moved to Italy.

KD: If you could have a one-on-one session with any author, living or dead, and pick their brain about the craft, who would you chose? What advice do you think they'd give you?

RA: This is a really tough question! It would have to be Daphne du Maurier, if for no other reason than she wrote Rebecca which is one of my all time favourite novels. I think that she would say that it is important to focus on the characters and develop their personalities. The plot of Rebecca would be nothing without the unexplained aloofness of Maxim de Winter, the mesmerising and wild Rebecca, and the eerie but ever-present Mrs Danvers. The fact that the narrator's name is never known is almost irrelevant because her insecurities are right there on the surface. Du Maurier explores human character and its depths to produce a tantalising story.

KD:  Are you currently working on anything? 

RA: I have started my next novel. It's another thriller, and it's had several names up to now but I probably won't settle on one until the very end. Just like Only the Innocent it will focus on relationships that drive people to behave out of character, and individuals will be pushed to the limits. I like the majority of people in my novels to start out as ordinary, everyday people who I might be happy to have as a friend. It is circumstance, accident or poor judgement that makes them change and behave in extraordinary ways. Of course, there has to be one really rotten apple in the barrel – but it's not necessarily going to be apparent who that is from the outset.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Rachel, oh, and for the wine! It was perfect! Don't be surprised if me and my three blog followers show up at your doorstep in Italy. 😉