There’s something special about finding a writer who is passionate about the same things you are and brings them into their books. Susan Elliot-Wright’s novel The Flight Of Cornelia Blackwood is a tense and gripping thriller. But at its heart, it’s an exploration of the devastating impact loss can have and the mental health issues early motherhood can cause. Seeing as so much of my writing focuses on women’s experience and mental health, I was delighted to have the opportunity to read this book and talk to the author about it.
From the moment we begin the story, we are drawn into Leah’s world and its strange, unanswered questions. Slowly, her past unravels and lays bare the difficult situations that led to her current situation. Its engaging characters and intriguing narrative make it hard to put down, while its underlying ideas leave the reader with a lot of questions and thoughts about mental health and its impact. A powerful novel with troubled issues at its heart.
The book contains references to stillbirth and postpartum psychosis, do keep this in mind when reading.
I wanted to find out how she made her characters so vivid, and what drew her to postpartum psychosis as a topic for the book. Read on to find out more.
I think the thing I found most enjoyable about reading your book was the different relationships within it. From the outset, we have a sense of how deeply the central character relies on others, and we go on to see her form attachments with others. How did you capture these characters and relationships in your writing?
I like my characters and their relationships to develop as organically as possible, so I never think about things like what the character likes to eat, what colour eyes they have or what their favourite film is. I just stick them on the page, make them do what I need them to do and let them tell me about themselves.
The only thing I knew in advance about Cornelia’s relationships with other characters was that she was very much in love with her husband, and that she was going to engineer a friendship with Cassie. I wanted her and Adrian to be madly in love because I was putting Leah (Cornelia) through so much that I thought she deserved at least some happiness! And when it came to Cassie, I knew Leah would engineer the friendship but what I didn’t know was that she would grow to genuinely like Cassie, so that was a surprise. I love it when my characters surprise me!
A striking image the writer looked at often while writing the book
The issues that you deal with in the book are challenging – stillbirth and postpartum psychosis. Why did you decide to include these in your novel and why do you think they are important for readers to understand and engage with?
The inspiration for the whole story was my own experience of postpartum psychosis, although I didn’t know what it was back then. The few weeks following the birth of my first baby were so difficult and terrifying that the experience still haunts me almost forty years later, so writing the novel was cathartic in a way.
Back then, maternal mental illness was rarely talked about and there was a massive stigma attached. Some of that stigma is still around today. Postpartum psychosis is much less common than postnatal depression, but it still affects significant numbers of women and the more it’s talked about publicly, the more likely it is that the new mum, her partner, relatives or health professionals will recognise the signs and makes sure she gets some help.
Thankfully, I haven’t had the horrendous experience of stillbirth, but it’s another thing that isn’t talked about enough. I wanted to bring that, along with the more common experience of miscarriage, out in the open a little more.
From a writer’s perspective, the other thing that struck me about your novel was the way you created tension and very tight plotting. How did you go about constructing such a tense narrative? Was there a lot of planning involved or did it evolve over different drafts?
I find planning difficult, so usually it’s a combination of planning and writing to see where it takes me. But I did plan this one more tightly, writing a five-page outline before beginning the first draft.
The book was drawn in part from the writer’s own experiences
It feels like I cheated a bit, though, because the book started life about twenty years ago as a short story called When the Bough Breaks. I’d almost forgotten about it until I was working on an idea for a novel about a woman who covets another woman’s child. I got stuck because I couldn’t pin down the character’s motivation.
Then one day it just hit me – I thought, ‘I know who this is! It’s Cornelia from the short story, and I know why she covets the child!’ So it felt really as if a huge chunk of the book was already planned – I just had to fit it all together. In terms of creating tension, I tried to set up questions for the reader so that things that happen in the ‘now’ sections make you want to see what happened in the ‘then’ sections to lead to them. So for example, the readers first question’s might be something like, why is Leah afraid of crows? And why does she now walk with a stick?
How did you go about getting your book published?
This was actually the second book in a two-book deal, so the process was fairly straightforward in that I just had to provide a synopsis that my editor was happy with. After I’d written the first draft, my agent and editor read it and then we had a meeting during which they gave me feedback. Then there was the usual tweaking and twiddling until I got a draft we were all happy with.
Her new book is out now! A ‘domestic noir’ that also contains themes of motherhood and mental health
To my delight, they decided to publish in hardback first, then paperback. I absolutely love the hardback cover! I’m less keen on the paperback – I don’t know why it ended up being so different from the hardback. As for how I got the two-book deal in the first place, I queried agents five at a time, and after about 25 rejections, possibly more, I was offered representation by two different agents.
What advice do you have for other writers, or do you have any good advice that you’ve received that you’d like to pass on?
My advice, especially to those writing novels, is to write little and often. You really do achieve more in the long run by writing for twenty minutes a day every day than by spending the entire weekend glued to your laptop and then not touching your work again until the following weekend.
Thing is, if you write every day, you keep the story in your head. Don’t worry about quality, or whether you’re writing the next scene – just write anything that’s related to the book – a character sketch, a bit of dialogue. It doesn’t even need to necessarily end up in the book – the point is to keep the story alive.
Susan Elliot Wright is the bestselling author of five novels, most recently, All You Ever Wanted, which came out in October. Her fourth novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood was published in 2019 to critical acclaim. Susan has a keen interest in maternal mental health and has touched on this in all her novels. She is published by Simon & Schuster. Her previous jobs include civil servant, barmaid, cake decorator, market researcher and chef. She now writes full-time and is a Royal literary fund writing fellow. Susan grew up in south-east London, but now lives in Sheffield with her husband and a lab/collie mix called Norman.
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