I have had the privilege of being a member of the brilliant Women Writer’s Network for many years now. As well as our work promoting the writing of others and our monthly Tweetchats, we get to share in each other’s success! The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell by Gail Aldwin had me picking it up in random places (while cleaning my teeth, feeding the cat) as I just couldn’t wait to find out what actually happened to Carolyn Russell. It’s incredibly clever in the way it’s written. We have the viewpoint of the girl herself in the past, which somehow makes it even more tantalising, as well as Stephanie in the present who decides to create a podcast looking into a local disappearance that was never solved in the 1970s after she loses her job.
It’s done very subtly, with a lot of side stories including the undercurrent of racism and sexism that still exists in this quiet backwater. And the way she builds and maintains tension is fantastic! It really had me gripped right up until the end.
I wanted to find out why she chose to include female friendship in her book, how she created such a tightly-plotted novel and how she changed between an older and younger narrative voice. Read on to find out more:
There are some lovely themes around female friendship and female safety in this book. Why did your characters and ideas focus on this and how did they develop as you wrote it?
One of the things I wanted to show in this dual timeline novel was how some things have changed over time and others haven’t. The grooming by teachers of teenage girls in plain sight in the seventies would never happen today. Yet, everyday racism in rural areas was prevalent in 1979 and remained the case in 2014. The mystery in the novel is solved by redundant journalist Stephanie Brett ,who creates a true crime podcast looking into the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Carolyn Russell. The loss of her day job exposes Stephanie’s isolated life with only her elderly neighbour, Mrs Walker, and her ex-boss to call friends. Stephanie builds her social connections when she lets her spare room to a local business woman. Beth is of Asian Ugandan heritage and Stephanie has to navigate tensions between Mrs Walker’s outdated attitudes to new arrivals and the developing friendship with Beth. This story continues my interest in intergenerational friendship which I first developed with a seven-year-old narrator in This Much Huxley Knows. It was through the process of redrafting that the themes became more apparent and the story more nuanced.
In the book you switch between an older and younger narrative voice. Why did you decide to write it like this and which voice did you connect to more easily when writing?
After the release of two coming-of-age novels, I set out to write a more commercial story. I struck upon the idea of using a podcast to link a contemporary storyline to a cold case and the two timelines developed from there. I was made redundant in my fifties, so I used my experiences to build Stephanie’s character. I loved the 1979 first person narrative of a teenager, especially exploring the changes in language use. Currently, we talk about being dumped not chucked… and nobody says hard cheese to express a lack of sympathy these days.
A mystery needs tight plotting! I loved the way you set up leads, secrets and ideas throughout the book and really raised the tension before we found out the ‘secret’ (which I won’t reveal!). How did you find the process of plotting and writing this genre of book as opposed to others?
I approach each project differently. I submitted my first novel The String Games as part of a creative writing PhD. In my studies, I looked at different ways of capturing young voices and experimented with ideas to develop a novel. This meant a lot of material never made it into the final draft. For This Much Huxley Knows, I plotted everything to the nth degree because I didn’t want so much unused writing. In preparing to write The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell I developed a few pages of bullet points which acted as a rough outline. I wrote each timeline separately and kept a three-act structure in mind. When I dovetailed the two narratives together, it was easy to identify where plot points should be placed which led to further drafts.
What was your route to publication?
I entered a pitch party on X (Twitter) run by Bloodhound Books and by this means I secured a publishing contract. The first stage was to write an elevator pitch which the publisher liked and then I was invited to send the full manuscript. These parties are a good way to bypass the slush pile and get your manuscript under the eyes of editors.
Any tips or advice for writers?
Persistence is all. This is the mantra that keeps me going through the high points and pitfalls of my publication journey.
Gail Aldwin has been writing for over a decade. In 2018, she was awarded a PhD in creative writing and still laughs whenever she’s called Doctor Gail. She has appeared at Bridport Literary Festival, Stockholm Writers Festival and the Mani Lit Fest in Greece. Gail splits her time between a tiny flat in South West London and a home overlooking water meadows in Dorset.