Making Space: interview with author Philippa East

Philippa East grew up in Scotland and originally studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating, she moved to London to train as a Clinical Psychologist and worked in NHS mental health services for over ten years. Philippa now lives in the Lincolnshire countryside with her husband and cat. Her first novel Little White Lies was published in 2020 and was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. Safe and Sound is her second novel.

Can you tell me briefly what your book is about and provide a short extract?

“Safe and Sound” is my second novel, and like my debut (“Little White Lies”) it’s a domestic suspense book that draws a lot on my background as a psychologist. Here is the blurb:

In a small London bedsit, a radio is playing. A small dining table is set for three, and curled up on the sofa is a body…

Jenn is the one who discovers the woman, along with the bailiffs. All indications suggest that the tenant – Sarah Jones – was pretty, charismatic and full of life.

So how is it possible that her death has gone unnoticed for ten whole months?

Safe and Sound was inspired by the true-life case of Joyce Vincent, a woman in her thirties who died at home in North London in late 2003, and whose body was only discovered in 2006. Around 2013, I saw the docu-drama that filmmaker Carol Morley made about Joyce’s life and death, and that was the ultimate inspiration to write my own (fictionalised) version of events. Here is a short extract from Chapter 1:

Last night, I began to worry about Charlie again. An appointment letter arrived yesterday, blue and white logo at the top. Maybe it was because of that letter that I lay in bed, unable to sleep, staring at the ceiling, thinking about him. Replaying every one of his actions and movements from the week, checking them in the slow motion of my mind. Did his speech ever slur, did his thinking seem confused or slow, did his emotions wander out of control? I went over it again and again, trying to assess him, and myself, feeling the tightness take hold of my ribs.

This morning, though, in the bright light of day, Charlie seemed absolutely fine. His chatter over breakfast was so clear and clever, and when I got him to reel off everything I’d packed into his schoolbag — my own tiny, reassuring test — he didn’t miss a single thing. I kissed him well done, feeling ridiculous for worrying.

But even now, as I hurry down the hill from his primary school, I can’t quite seem to make the thoughts go away.

What was the hardest thing about the process of writing this book?

Probably the fact that it took me so long to answer my own question! What did happened to Sarah Jones? The book was originally contracted by HQ/HarperCollins on the basis of a one-paragraph pitch, but really I had no idea what the actual story was. I wrote three completely different outlines for the book (and I mean, completely different), and it took me months and months to even vaguely work out my storylines. Even then, after I wrote my first draft and sent it to my agent, we both agreed that it would need to be almost totally re-written. Massive re-writes are turning out to be par for the course for me, but “Safe and Sound” has been the hardest to pin down so far.

Did writing it change you?

I think every book I write changes me in some way, though I wouldn’t necessarily know exactly how! In fact, maybe it would sort of break the spell to delve too deeply into that? The way I feel is that writing a book is getting something out of my system – some kind of question or discomfort that I’m internally grappling with that I need to resolve on the page, through my story and the characters’ journeys. When a book is “birthed”, maybe I feel I can let go of something? And then I’m ready for the next book, and to repeat the whole process over again.

Tell me about your writing space [image in gallery]. How long have you been writing here? Was it specially designed or just a corner of the house. Does it work for you?

My husband and I moved home in August 2019, and a big selling point of our new house was that it has a little office tucked away from the rest of the rooms, up its own little flight of stairs. It is the perfect space for me to write in – personal and private (Virginia Woolfe would approve!). It can get a bit chilly in winter, so I often take a hot water bottle in with me, but it really is a special place. Only my cat Mimi ever really goes in there, other than me.

When do you tend to write – morning, afternoon? And when do you feel most creative?

I generally write (or start writing) in the mornings. When I was working full time, I used to get up and start by about 8.30am, finish by noon. These days – for some reason – I start and finish a bit later. Maybe start at 11.00am, and finish around 3.00pm. Especially when I am writing (drafting), I cannot work for long periods. I try to write 2,000 words a day, and I can manage that within about two hours. After that, I’m wiped! In terms of when I feel most creative, I’m not sure – it can vary. Sometimes the ideas and words flow, and sometimes they just don’t. To be honest, I try to just sit down and put in the grunt work regardless of how inspired I feel.

Do you use a computer to write, or pen and paper?

I do most of my planning and brainstorming with pencil or pen (coloured pens!) and paper. That way, it’s so free-flowing, and doesn’t need organisation or structure. Sometimes I’ll get a huge sheet of paper and just “mind map” all over it. I find unexpected connections and nuggets emerge that way. I usually then then force myself to type up an outline: this pushes me to ensure I have a proper beginning, middle and end. The writing of the manuscript itself I always do on the computer – Scrivener with a first draft (because it’s so easy to move scenes around), and then Word after that.

What do you drink while writing? Tea, coffee, wine?! Any writing snacks?

Mostly tea! Generally “builders’” tea, and then I switch to Redbush in the afternoons, as I get a bit jittery with too much caffeine. I usually have fruit for breakfast on my writing days (so I don’t feel too sluggish), but then I usually have a bowl of crisps or peanuts for lunch as I write! So it all nicely balances out.

Do you have a writing soundtrack, or do you prefer silence?

I have a rather naff classical compilation CD that I listen to on repeat: the same album, round and round. It locks me in to the writing zone, without distracting me with variation. I couldn’t listen to music with lyrics, I don’t think.

Are there any objects in your writing space that are particularly significant for you?

One of the nice things about having my own room is that I can fill it with whatever I like! I suppose two things that are special are, firstly, the certificate of my CWA shortlisting for “Little White Lies”,[image in gallery] and, secondly, what I call my “writing trousers” (although they don’t “live” in the writing room!). These are a pair of loose, soft trousers that I wear on my writing days and which again help me feel in the writing “zone”.

Are there any books in your space that mean a lot to you, or have influenced your latest book?

I have a number of journals where I’ve had short stories published, and also books on the writing “craft”. My favourite one of these is probably “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne [image in gallery], which I came across via the podcast series that he does with Tim Grahl (“The Story Grid Podcast”). The Story Grid methodology completely revolutionised the way I understand story structure, from the scene level to the story arc, and it influences everything I write now. It’s probably something to come to once you’ve got the basics firmly under your belt (show and tell, point of view, etc.), but if you’re interested, I’d definitely recommend the podcast series, starting with the episode “Shawn Rips Tim’s Scene Apart” (!).

Can you pass on one writing tip?

I will keep this one short and sweet: read.

Making Space: interview with author Zoe Wheddon

Zoe Wheddon’s book ‘Jane Austen’s Best Friend: the Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd’ offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. The two met when Jane was thirteen and Martha 23, beginning a lifelong friendship. Martha even lived with Jane and her sister Cassandra for a period of time and the two shared many interests from walking to fashion.

Zoe’s book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both:

Making Space: interview with author Frances Quinn

I interviewed author Frances Quinn about her writing space, her process and her historical novel The Smallest Man. Set during the English Civil War and inspired by a true story, it tells the story of Nat Davy. In 1625, Nat is 10 years old, still as small as his baby sister and beginning to realise that he will never grow any bigger. Narrowly escaping life in a freak show, he is plucked from his family and presented as a gift to the new young queen of England. Spanning two decades that changed England for ever, The Smallest Man is a heartwarming tale about being different, but not letting it hold you back.

Frances spoke to me about the challenges of writing historical fiction spanning the complex decades of the Civil War, the benefits of keeping a treadmill in your study, and writing tips borrowed from Abba.