Mark Edwards writes psychological thrillers in which terrifying things happen to ordinary people. His first solo novel, The Magpies (2013), reached the No.1 spot on Amazon UK as did his third novel Because She Loves Me (2014). He has also co-written various crime novels with Louise Voss such as Killing Cupid (2011) and The Blissfully Dead (2015).
Mark grew up on the south coast of England and starting writing in his twenties while working in a number of dead-end jobs. He lived in Tokyo for a year before returning to the UK and starting a career in marketing. As well as a full-time writer, Mark is a stay at home dad for his three children, his wife and a ginger cat. Mark speaks to Fully Booked about his life and his writing.
As a six word story, explain what The Devil’s Work is about.
Dream job becomes a terrifying nightmare. (My original pitch was ‘The Devil Wears Prada rewritten by Stephen King’ but that’s eight words!)
As opposed to other types of fiction, what do you think is the appeal of psychological thrillers?
Psychological thrillers are hot right now because readers want to connect with stories in which they can imagine themselves. Marriage, relationships with friends and children, co-workers and lovers…Psychological thriller writers take ordinary situations and add a layer of fear and darkness – from the toxic marriage in Gone Girl to the everyday voyeur in Girl on the Train, readers like those familiar situations and characters and thinking about what they would do if it were them. I think it’s a reaction to the Dan Brown years, which were followed by the Stieg Larsson-fuelled Scandinavian noir period – we’ve gone from worldwide conspiracy theories and outlandish situations to what is now called domestic noir. It’s not new but it’s never been more popular.
What made you want to set the majority of this novel in a publishing house?
I used to work in publishing, although we didn’t publish fiction. Like Sophie in The Devil’s Work I was a marketing manager. More importantly, I have been involved in the world of fiction publishing, as a writer, for years, so know that world well. I think it’s a world that readers are interested in too. It’s certainly more interesting than reading or writing about an insurance company. The thing that unites everyone who works in publishing is they loves books. They love to read, and they love books as objects. I’m like that too. If I wasn’t a writer I would want to work on the other side. People who work in publishing are like kids who say they want to work in a candy factory, doing the job they always dreamed of. But, of course, I needed something nasty to be going on in the background of my publishing company.
What was the most important aspect of The Devil’s Work that you hoped to get right–the characterization/the thrill/the mystery?
I wanted to ensure all of the elements of the book worked, but it was particularly important to get Sophie’s voice right. This is the first novel I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, and I knew the whole book would fall apart if Sophie wasn’t convincing. I read a lot of books by female writers, with female protagonists, and noticed there are a number of differences between male and female narrators. For example, women tend to write more about how they feel physically, especially if they feel discomfort. That’s just a small thing but as most of my readers are women I was determined to ensure nothing about Sophie’s voice jarred.
Which authors inspire you?
I read a lot of my peers’ novels and am constantly inspired by great writing, interesting characters and original ideas. I’m always trying to improve my writing and love reading books that make me feel the need to raise my game. An example would be I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh; the twist in that book made me feel inspired to come up with a really great twist in The Devil’s Work.
My writing heroes are Stephen King, Ira Levin and Donna Tartt. King for how he puts normal people in scary situations, and because he’s had such a long, prolific career. Levin because he came up with the most fantastic concepts and executed them brilliantly. Tartt because she is so good at creating atmosphere and flawed by likeable characters. The Secret History is my favourite book and it inspired me to start writing again in my twenties.
You’ve written multiple thriller titles–did you approach The Devil’s Work differently?
The Devil’s Work is one of my ‘from hell’ books – I’ve done neighbors from hell, relationships, vacations and now co-workers – so I approached it like those. I always start out with a person or couple in an idyllic situation, full of hope and optimism, and then begin to dismantle that until everything goes horribly wrong. But with each book I put pressure on myself to get better, to create creepier situations and surprise the reader more. This book was the hardest to write because it had the most complex plot and it’s the first one I’ve written with two timelines that interweave. That was challenging. I actually wrote all of the university chapters first, and then started to write the present day story. That meant that by the time I started to write the main narrative I knew Sophie really well.
What type of advice would you give to an aspiring thriller author?
I’d give any aspiring writer the same piece of advice: only do it if you are absolutely driven, if it’s an itch that you have to scratch. Writing is hard. All the stuff that goes with writing – rejection, disappointment, criticism – is even harder. All the writers I know, no matter how successful, are dissatisfied but we can’t help ourselves. If I was unable to put them off, I would advise reading as much as they can. That’s the best way to learn.
What is the most surreal thing about being a published author?
The most surreal thing about being a writer is how ordinary it is. I used to have this idea that it would be glamorous, but it’s the exact opposite of that! I get up, drive the kids to school, sit in my dining room (I don’t have my own office because it got turned into a nursery) with a view of a derelict building and a busy street, fending off demands from my three-year-old for snacks. Sometimes I go and write in Starbucks, so I at least feel like Carrie in Sex and the City. Having said all that, going to festivals in places like New Orleans, or having lunch with my publisher, the time my agent held a champagne reception for me after I sold my millionth book…that’s when I feel like a proper writer. But most of the time I wonder when I’m going to get the keys to my ivory tower (answer: never!).
You’ve traveled and lived abroad. Do you think aspiring writers should move outside their comfort zone in order to better their writing?
Living through difficult situations definitely helps you write better. It’s harder to write convincingly about emotions, places and relationships without experiencing them in some way. However, you don’t need to be well-traveled to write about the world, and you don’t necessarily need to have suffered to write about pain. The imagination is a wonderful thing. But I think that writers who have stepped outside their comfort zone and felt daunted or scared can draw on those feelings to give their books an air of truth that might otherwise be lacking.
Having said all that, writers can make the mistake of doing something they think was interesting and assuming the rest of the world will be fascinated. I tried to write a book about my year in Japan and it was the worst thing I’d ever done. It read more like a travel diary and was only interesting to me. It’s like showing someone your vacation snaps. Readers want stories they can relate to. You should only write about your true-life experiences if it makes a great story; otherwise, it’s better to take something from it and use that to invent a story around it.
What is one thing you’d love to write but haven’t gotten around to it yet?
I’ve had this idea floating around in my head for years. It’s high concept, a speculative fiction novel, with what I think is a great hook. I just haven’t figured out what to do with it yet, or where it goes. This sometimes happens: an idea can gestate for years. Sometimes they go nowhere. Or maybe I’ll suddenly work out what to do with it. But I have a feeling this particular idea could turn into something epic if I ever have the flash of inspiration that will bring it to life.
What is the most important element of a story to you that must be in every novel you write?
All of my books are about ordinary people in scary situations, so it’s important that the story is grounded in a reality that readers can identify with. The main character needs to be an everyman or woman, not a chiseled action hero or superstar. The most important element in my books is that I make these identifiable characters confront terrifying situations. It’s also important that, although there are hints of otherworldly goings-on, nothing is supernatural. There is always a rational explanation for everything that happens – otherwise it would feel like cheating. Each of my books describes a nightmare that could happen to anyone. It could happen to you.
Are you secretive about your writing or do you need to share and bounce ideas off of people?
I find it essential to have someone to discuss ideas with – particularly problems. My wife, who studied creative writing and is very well-read, is great for this. She works from home too and quite often, during the working day, I will seek her out and describe how I’m stuck, or run ideas past her. Sometimes the very act of verbalizing the problem helps me solve it. She just has to sit there and listen. But often we will talk it through and she will help me figure it out. Apart from my wife, I don’t let anyone else see what I’m working on until I feel it’s ready, usually after I’ve written two or three drafts. I discuss initial ideas with my editor and agent and then vanish until the book is finished.
The Devil’s Work and Mark’s author page can be found on Amazon.