In conversation with... Sanjida Kay

Hi Sanjida! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of My Mother’s Secret. Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you! My Mother’s Secret is told from the point of view of three women: Lizzie Bradshaw, Emma Taylor, and her teenage daughter, Stella. Stella thinks that her mother has a secret. She knows her mother had a traumatic childhood, and that she’s an unusually anxious person, who sometimes has panic attacks. But she believes her mother is hiding something bigger, and Stella is determined to find out what it is. As Emma tries to keep her secret, Lizzie is caught up in a terrible crime… and Stella’s investigations will uncover something truly shocking that could shatter all their lives.

I write, ‘My mother has a secret.’

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: I write a book a year - for My Mother’s Secret, that meant 2,500 words a day during school hours. If I didn’t hit my word count, the walk to pick my daughter up from school would be filled with figures - I’d calculate that tomorrow, I’d need to write 3,500 words, and if I didn’t hit that word count, the day after would be…well, tricky, to say the least.

I do write fast but what enables me to keep up this word count is because, before I begin, I spend a couple of months plotting my novel, scene by scene, until I have an outline of between 6 and 10,000 words.
In the synopsis for My Mother’s Secret, some of these scenes were pretty sketchy. Scene 52: Stella and Adam getting closer. I didn’t know how these two teenagers would get closer, but I knew they had to, and they had to do it at that point in the story. But finding out, when I got there, how Stella and Adam grow closer, is part of the joy of the process and the magic of writing.
How did you choose the locations that are featured in the novel, which are almost characters in their own right?
A: Thank you! The settings in my novels are extremely important to me. A detailed backdrop in fiction helps create a tangible world for one’s characters, as well as being a tool the writer can use to heighten tension or thicken the atmosphere. For instance, my main character, Emma Taylor, lives in a leafy suburb of Bristol: Long Ashton. The ‘world’ this woman inhabits tells us a lot about who we think she is: middle class, comfortably off, the kind of person who shops in M&S for a treat and takes her youngest daughter to ballet lessons. It seems calm, safe, secure. Emma, though, is tense and anxious: she’s hiding a secret from everyone she knows, so Long Ashton appears the perfect place for her.
Belle Isle in Leeds city centre, where Lizzie Bradshaw works, really is a dark and dangerous place and is a great contrast to the wild freedom that Lizzie has when she returns to the Lake District where she lives.
Stella, Emma’s fourteen-year-old daughter, is determined to discover what her mother’s secret is. She’s a spiky, book-obsessed girl, and constantly reads Jane Eyre to make herself feel less anxious. Many of the Bristol scenes take place at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion near Long Ashton. The architecture and the claustrophobia of the rooms mirror both Stella’s gothic obsession, and the escalating tension in Emma’s life.
And, of course, in a thriller, nowhere is safe and the places we feel most secure are often the most dangerous.
Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?
A: It was a challenge to write this novel because I didn’t want readers to guess what Emma’s secret is too early; but then the second half of the book relies on the reader knowing what the secret is, but then some of characters aren’t aware of it. I loved writing about cake though, particularly as I can’t eat gluten and try not to eat much refined sugar!
Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?
A: No, I added more! This is the longest novel I’ve written. Even after I’d handed it in to the publishers, they wanted some tweaks, which made the novel longer.
If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?
A: I’m writing another psychological thriller for Corvus Books, provisionally called The Anniversary. It’s about a family whose three-year-old daughter drowned a year ago. The mother, Amy, wants the whole, extended family to go away for the anniversary of her daughter’s death to try and heal. She books a house on a tiny island in Italy though an online company… but the holiday goes dangerously wrong. My inspiration for this one was the rise of online holiday companies, which might not always be the safest option for travellers…
I lean on the windowsill to look down at the swimming pool, and something sharp digs into my palm. I wince; embedded in the heel of my hand is a human tooth. It’s tiny with a sharp point, a dull ivory, with a hollow where it once grew in a child’s jaw.
Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?
A: I like connecting with readers and trying to think laterally - I mean, writers look very boring as they sit at a desk pretty much all day - so trying to make Posts and Tweets and Stories interesting and diverse is an enjoyable challenge! Having said that, it takes away from the ‘flow’ of writing, so I try and engage with social media at set times so I don’t get distracted.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: I’d say, make time for your writing. Schedule it in to your day as if it’s an appointment that cannot be missed. Before I was a full-time novelist, I used to write for two hours early in the morning before I went to work. I’d also suggest getting some help, either by going on an Arvon retreat, which can be hugely inspirational, as well as giving you the time and space to write, or signing up for creative writing tuition. I view myself as a work-in-progress and have recently completed an online course at masterclass.com with James Patterson. The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and Story by Robert McKee are incredibly useful books on writing.
Thank you for your time!
A: Thank you for having me!
In case you've missed it, here is a link to my review of My Mother's Secret, which was published on May 3rd, plus the chance to win a copy of this book.

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