Madeleine Reiss is the winner of The People’s Novelist competition, which was judged live on ITV’s Alan Titchmarsh Show, and she was praised by the judges for her ‘ability to make you turn the page’.
Her debut novel, Someone to Watch Over Me, is both haunting and compelling, and left us desperate for more. Luckily, we had the chance to interview her, so she could tell us a little more about herself.
How did you start writing?
I started writing stories when I was a child. I used to give my parents exercise books full of tales in which weeping heroines and twisted baddies figured large. It seems that even at a young age I was attracted to the darker side of life, which is strange because I am told I was a fairly cheery child.
Was The People’s Novelist competition the first writing competition that you entered? What inspired you to enter? How did you feel when you found out that you’d won?
My writing career has been dominated by chance. The first competition I entered was when I was thirteen and I had to write a short account about how a piece of music made me feel. My entry was selected and read on Radio 4. I can still remember how proud I felt to hear the words I had written said out loud and I suppose that made me think that writing might be something I could do when I grew up.
The second time I entered a competition was many years later when I was at home with my son who was still a baby. It was the one that Cosmopolitan used to run every year looking for potential new journalists. I came second in the competition and that was the start of fifteen years of writing for women’s magazines and newspapers on subjects as diverse as bereavement and hair removal and how to jazz up your sex life (a subject on which I never really became an expert).
I entered the People’s Novelist competition when I had just turned fifty. I was feeling a bit glum about the fact that life seemed to be narrowing in on me. It was my mother who suggested I had a go and I sent in three chapters of a book more to keep her quiet than anything else. I had never even tried to write a book before and I was really, really surprised to win. My friends who watched it on TV said that I stood under the shower of gold rain looking completely dazed.
Someone to Watch Over Me deals with every parent’s nightmare, when a child goes missing on their watch. Was there a particular event that inspired you?
There was a case some years ago now of a child going missing on a beach that stayed with me. I think the contrast between the happy associations of the location and the sadness of what happened there really stuck in my mind. I wanted to write about how people can possibly live through such an awful thing and whether they ever really come to terms with it.
Did you have to do any specific research in order to write the book?
I read quite a lot about domestic violence because I was anxious that I shouldn’t do a disservice to women who have been in this situation. I was struck by the fact that despite coming from different backgrounds and having different life experiences the testimonies of women who have suffered in this way contain so many similarities. Even the words they use are the same…. powerlessness, the sense of being worn down or diminished and above all, the feelings of shame.
Someone to Watch Over Me has been described as having the emotional power of Rosamund Lupton’s Sister and the nail-biting tension of S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. Do you read many thrillers? Which authors are you most influenced by? What do you think are the key ingredients for a good page-turner?
I have read and very much admire both of those books and am thrilled to even be mentioned in the same sentence! I love thrillers. When things are tricky or stressful in your own life, books that solve mysteries and expose evil are a great comfort. My favourite writers in this genre are really diverse….Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Val Mc Dermid and Harlan Coben are the first that spring to mind but there are many others. The key ingredient of a good page-turner is a feeling that things are not quite right…there should be a kind of dislocation. I also have to care about what happens to the protagonists. If you don’t care then you don’t feel scared for them.
What do you think makes a good novel?
Characters that you care about going through experiences that have meaning and are truthful.
Which writers do you admire?
Anne Tyler, William Trevor, Marian Keyes, Daphne du Maurier, Dickens, George Eliot, Kate Atkinson, Sophie Hannah, Jiily Cooper, Sally Beaumont.
If you could give one piece of advice to budding authors, what would it be?
I’ve got four bits of advice….
1. Don’t think too much about what you think will appeal or what might be popular, write the book that YOU would like to read.
2. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike or you will wait forever.
3. Have a time table and stick to it, even if it’s just half an hour a day.
4. Always have a go at competitions……you never know what might happen.
I’m writing a love story….two love stories actually. I want the book to be romantic but at the same time have a strong sense of place and believable characters. Knowing me, I won’t be able to resist a touch of darkness too.