Rose McClelland, author of Under Your Skin interview
By Conor O’Neill
She’s topped the Amazon booksellers’ list, been on nearly every radio station in the land and across the water, and been interviewed by all the papers and glossies in Northern Ireland. I read and reviewed the book and loved it, now I finally get to talk to the writer. Here’s Belfast’s own, Rose McClelland, on writing, how and why not to get too worried about it, the move from chick-lit/rom-com to psychological thriller, plot and character development and a few tips for those starting out into the daunting world writing a book.
Rose, with all the press you’ve had over the last few months and the success of the novel, do you in anyway feel overwhelmed? Did you think the novel would turn out to be such a hit?
“Thanks so much for your lovely comments! No, I had no idea that the book would get such a great reception, I’m obviously pleased and surprised. When I sat down to write the book, I only hoped it would be entertaining and have plenty of twists and turns. I studied a lot of best sellers in advance and noticed what worked for them in terms of plot and character. Then I tried to replicate that.”
So, what got you into writing?
“I’ve always been interested in writing. I can remember when I was about 10-years-old and telling my mum I wanted to be a writer, I’ve always loved reading and I can remember as a child my mum would have taken us to the library every Friday and I’d have most of them read by the time we were home.
“I later went on to study English and drama at de Montfort university in Leicester, after that I did various creative writing courses. I’ve always had that interest to write. Then I did this course called The Artist’s Way which is basically about starting your book and finishing it. I’ve just always had that interest and it’s always been there in the background.”
Writing is a precarious career, did you think you’d ‘make it’ or did you do other jobs?
“Yes, I have a job and I write part-time. I’m a personal assistant and secretary and my boss is very supportive about my writing. I tend to incorporate my writing into my daily day. It’s extremely difficult to get your foot in the door with writing, so it is precarious move. There have been so many times when I’ve thought, ‘I couldn’t be bothered with this’ or, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore’ and taken the hump and had those dark periods when I haven’t done a thing, but I always find I end up going back to it. I think if you’ve got a love for something you always end up going back, no matter how hard it is.”
Your previous three novels were in the rom-com genre, why the change to psychological thriller?
“I felt my tastes were changing. The kinds of books I was reading had changed and by the time I was writing the third book things were becoming a lot darker. A friend said to me, ‘This book could have become a psychological thriller if you’d gone about it a different way’. I started to realise that although I had been writing romance I tended to write stories with strong female characters and I really struggled writing the happy ending where boy meets girl and everything is hunky-dory at the end. I just felt that that’s not like real life. I just wasn’t feeling it.
“I was reading darker stuff, I was enjoying the darker writing and I wanted to try it. I did that and loved it, and found it was the genre for me.”
I’m interested in writers writing habits, some write to music, some in complete silence, some from a set hour and a set word count, what’s your approach?
“I have to have complete silence. I think because there’s so much going on in my head already that I need silence; so much so, that if I hear kids playing outside in the street I have to use a pair of earplugs, otherwise I just can’t think straight. I also write first thing in the morning. When I get up and have my morning coffee I find I write much better, my concentration is far better. I set myself a time limit, put my phone away and avoid any distractions and just focus entirely on the writing. When I’m finished, I put it away and can then enjoy the rest of my day guilt free.”
What about a wordcount?
“I set myself a wordcount of 2000 and it usually take me about an hour and a half to two hours to get that. I make sure I’ve a three hour slot marked out but I usually finish the writing a lot quicker than that, but knowing I have that time lets me relax into the writing.”
How do you know what of those 2000 words is to be kept or rewritten?
“I usually write the first draft from beginning to end. When I sit down to write it’s like coaxing a child. I think to myself, ‘It’s only a first draft, don’t be worrying about it, I’ll be going back to edit it later’, because if you sit down and think what you write has to be perfect you’ll end up writing nothing at all. Knowing it’s a first draft takes the pressure off and later you can go back and play about with it. I don’t think about what I’ll keep. I just go back and see what works and what doesn’t.”
Under Your Skin is very dark and deals with male on female abuse and came out just after the ‘Me Too’ movement was in full flow, do you think you were tapping into that or responding to it in any way?
“I think if I was tapping into the ‘Me Too’ movement it must have been on a subconscious level. I was writing a lot from experience because a close friend of mine who had a very similar experience of that of Hannah’s [The main female character in the novel] and I was with her every step of the way. It’s a very real experience that I know about, so really, I was writing about real life. Unfortunately these things do happen. I was just me digging deep into my own experiences.”
Your style of writing focuses mainly on the active voice. Is that intentional or something you’ve learnt along the way?
“It is intentional and it is something I’ve picked up. I read a lot and when I read a book I look for things like that. I love a really good narrative voice that’s in the first person because it’s so much more intimate and personal. It feels like the character is actually talking to you when you’re reading it. That’s the style of writing I like to read. It’s also a lot easier to write because when writing it you feel much more involved too.”
What sparks an idea for a novel?
“First of all I think about a theme I want to write about. For this one it was domestic abuse and mental health, then I think about what the characters that would best show that theme. So it’s theme first, then characters and then what twists and turns I can put into it and that’s the way I go about it.”
When you’re starting a book do you have a vague plot scenario? Do you have a rough idea of the start, middle and end?
“Yes. I work with a start, middle and end in mind. Then with the middle I look at twists and turns and different ways the plot could change; I then break it down into each chapter. Once I’m writing a chapter at a time I’m allowed to flow and things could change from the original plan, but as long as I have an idea in my head of how things will probably end that gives me a good start, but it usually changes as I get more involved in the story and who the characters are.”
You detail little idiosyncrasies that make the characters so abundantly real. Do you note little quirks in maybe yourself or other people and add them to fictional characters?
“If I do, it’s all done subconsciously. I think when anyone sits down to write, they can’t help but draw from their own past experiences. Sometimes I might write about a person I’ve met in the past, but I will turn up the volume on their defects to add more conflict to the story.”
The shortest chapter in the novel is just four pages long, yet it’s snappy and intriguing, is this also intentional?
“It’s just the way it works. I would love to write longer chapters. I remember even back in school writing English essays and my teacher was always saying that I should write with more detail, but it’s just the way I write. Everything happens quite quickly and I wish I could slow down a bit and put in more description but it’s just the way it comes out.”
What would be your advice to those starting off into the world of a novelist?
“The thought of writing a novel can be very daunting and such a huge and overwhelming task. What I do is think, ‘What can I do today to bring myself closer to my dream, what can I do this week, this month?’ and then tick it off. I still do this to this day and just take one day at a time. There are days when I get up and think, ‘I couldn’t be bothered or I don’t know where to start’ but then if I do just a few small things that day, I’m still doing my best. It’s all about making the process manageable for yourself.”
With your recent, massive success I’m sure your publisher Darkstroke Books is delighted with Under Your Skin, but do you feel more pressure from both the publisher and from yourself regarding your next novel?
“Thankfully my publishers at Darkstroke are extremely lovely and put no pressure on me. In fact, they arrange Zoom meetings with myself and other authors to give us tips on useful subjects such as marketing and editing.
“As for putting pressure on myself, I try to take things one day at a time. If I have done my best today, that’s all I can do.”
Under Your Skin is available from Amazon and all good book stores.
So hey ho folks, it’s Christmas and this pacey psych-thriller will make a perfect stocking-filler!