Sunday, September 24, 2023

Q&A with Gail Aldwin




Gail Aldwin is the author of the new novel The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell. Her other novels include The String Games. She lives in Dorset, UK.


Q: What inspired you to write The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell, and how did you create your characters Stephanie and Carolyn?


A: The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell is a dual timeline psychological suspense focusing on the disappearance of 16-year-old Carolyn in 1979 and the experiences of journalist Stephanie Brett who creates a true crime podcast to investigate the cold case in 2014.


The idea for this novel came in 2020 when I began listening to true crime podcasts while living in a remote town in the northwest of Uganda and volunteering at a nearby refugee settlement.


The power supply was very unreliable and cuts happened most evenings at 8 o’clock. With no light to read by, I was often in bed and under my mosquito net around the same time.


The nights were long and hot so I spent many hours listening to the podcasts I’d downloaded at a local hotel. I developed a fascination for crime stories from around the world, but it was the series podcasts that allowed me to tune into the twists and turns that created crucial listening.


One podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, acted as really good research in that it covered the case of a missing wife from 1981. Listening to this, I was able to reimagine the norms of the time and give voice to Carolyn Russell. To create Stephanie Brett, I modelled her experiences on the investigative journalists who presented the podcasts.


Q: As you mentioned, the story is told along two timelines--did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one time frame before turning to the other?


A: I drafted the 1979 timeline from beginning to end and then started on Stephanie’s chapters. When both were complete, I wove the two storylines together.

The novel starts with two chapters from Stephanie’s viewpoint, to lodge her importance as the main character in the reader’s mind. Following this, the chapters alternate between Carolyn and Stephanie.


The structure was a blessing and a pain. At one point, I decided to delete an entire chapter and this disrupted the alternating pattern until I came up with a solution to fill the gap.


Q: As you mentioned in our previous Q&A, crime fiction is a new genre for you. Was your writing process any different with this novel?


A: I take a different approach for every writing project. For my coming-of-age debut, The String Games, I wrote by the seat of my pants and did very little planning. This meant a significant amount of material was cut during the various drafts.


To save the pain of writing and then cutting masses of words, I planned my next novel, This Much Huxley Knows, to the nth degree.


For The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell, I knew where the story was going and developed several pages of bullet points for each viewpoint before launching into the first draft.


The true crime podcasts I’d listened to acted as research. I also tuned into BBC Radio 4’s My Teenage Diary to develop the teenage logic that drives the 1979 storyline.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Many of the themes from my earlier books, including the value of intergenerational friendships, the effects of racism, and the importance of fresh starts and new beginnings, also appear in The Secret Life Of Carolyn Russell.


I hope readers will be able to recognise Stephanie as a resourceful woman who is able to adapt to the challenges of middle age.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My current manuscript is psychological fiction. I’ve used my experience of living in Uganda to imagine and populate an African island which is visited by rich tourists.


When Ashley’s controlling husband books a holiday there, she finds the tropical island empowering but tensions exist between islanders and visitors.


Determined to build friendships with locals, Ashley is unaware that her husband stokes the conflict. Following an incident where they’re targeted by youths, Ashley’s suspicions are aroused. Can she get to the bottom of what’s going on?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I secured the publishing contract for The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell through a pitch party on Twitter/X. I’ve developed a workshop on the strategies I used to gain interest from Bloodhound Books in the project and will deliver this at the Mani Lit Fest in Greece later in the year.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gail Aldwin.

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