Interview With Penny Batchelor - Author Of My Perfect Sister
Penny Batchelor’s debut novel, My Perfect Sister
, published by RedDoor, proved to be a book which forced me to momentarily press pause on my life. Whilst it offered me another page to be turned, the insignificances of life were willingly ignored…you know, things like mealtimes, personal and professional obligations and of course sleep! I recently reviewed this psychological thriller come inventively re-jigged mystery novel for our readers. Having enjoyed Batchelor’s first book, replete with its deftly crafted red herrings, perspicacious rendering of character and stripped back, brutally unsentimental prose, I was itching to find out more about its author.
Quirky, imaginative and unpretentiously intelligent…a statement aptly encapsulating not just the novel, but the creative force behind it. Batchelor proved to be an interviewee every bit as interesting and magnetic as her book!
Batchelor’s life is a tapestry of diverse professional skeins, now further enriched by the addition of a new colourful strand, her career as a newly published author. Freelance journalist, former BBC content producer, website editor for numerous educational institutions, she is also editor of an award-winning knitting-blog, A Woolly Yarn
. She Lives in Warwickshire with her husband.
Like many authors, Batchelor’s writing career began as a bibliophile. ‘I’ve always wanted to be a writer ever since I was able to pick up a pen and string letters together. I was brought up on stories, have a vivid imagination and have always loved books. During my childhood I spent a lot of time in hospital or at home recovering from operations and fractures. There’s not much to do in that situation therefore books were my constant companion. It seemed natural to me that the next step up from reading was to create my own stories and I scribbled lots down as a child’.
The path from academic to bona fide writer had not been a short one, however it did offer her one huge opportunity in the form of the Faber Academy. ‘At university I studied English Literature at undergraduate and postgraduate level. As a working adult I didn’t have a great deal of time to write fiction…When I turned 40, I decided that it was now or never. I could continue wanting to be a writer or I could actually knuckle down and do the work’.
Braving self-doubt and its reinforcer, rejection, she was delighted to be, ‘offered a place on Faber Academy’s ‘Writing A Novel, the first 15,000 words’ online course. The course was billed at MA level, without the academic parts. It was an invaluable training ground, with a supportive yet challenging group of people, in particular the course leader Tom Bromley’. Whilst her fledgling novel had been figuratively conceived during this time, ‘It took me four years to have a finalised draft I was happy with’.
Underpinning all the hard work, Batchelor like many aspiring writers, drew osmotically upon the diverse literature permeating her authorial psyche, a creative reservoir as inspirational as it was didactic: ‘I have read widely and although I can’t think of any particular author who has inspired my writing style etc., they probably have subconsciously! I am a great admirer of thriller writers such as Ruth Ware and Lisa Jewell, who are exemplary at hooking readers straight away and keeping the tension going throughout their novels. I like exploring the ‘psychological’ part of psychological thrillers and trying to understand characters’ motivations and how their past has formed the person they are in the present day. As a teenager I read lots of Agatha Christie novels that taught me the importance of the red herring!’.
Conscious influences upon her own work can be best understood by exploring Batchelor’s most admired authors. ‘Books I’ve recently enjoyed are Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet
by Madeline Miller, Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key
and If I Can’t Have You
by Charlotte Levin'. For an author of a gritty psychological mystery thriller, Batchelor’s favourite literary muse is both surprising and revealing: ‘It’s a well-worn cliché I know, but it’s got to be Jane Austen. I fell in love with her novels in sixth form and still feel sad that I’ve read them all. I’m hoping that a long-lost manuscript of hers will be found somewhere in a dusty attic. She is brilliant at characterisation and sparkling wit. I have plotted my own Pride and Prejudice
spin off – hopefully I’ll get the chance to write it someday’.
So having received the invaluable guidance of her course mates and Tom Bromley in particular, Batchelor has a writing process reflecting the effervescent zest of her personality: ‘I have lots of plot ideas written down and characters shouting at me in my mind to create them. When it comes to choosing a new book to work on I pick the idea that most excites me, and write a first chapter to play around with things such as whether to write in the first or third person. I have a plot outline with a beginning, middle and end although it certainly isn’t as detailed as listing each chapter. When I write the magic happens, (hopefully!), ideas pop up, new characters emerge and,after lots of work, the story comes together’.
Batchelor’s debut is a delight to read, however beneath it’s slickly made surface, a complex mechanism of authorial decision and precisely crafted literary devices slyly distils the novel’s story and thematic load - ‘I knew a rough outline of the plot when I began to write My Perfect Sister
. I did chop and change the style and construction as I worked on it to see which I felt worked best, eventually deciding on including flashbacks back to 1989 throughout the novel. I did want readers, however, to warm to Annie and understand why she starts off so angry. I wanted to hook them in to follow her emotional journey throughout the novel’.
‘I felt the same about Annie's mother Diana. Children tend to know very little about their parents' lives before they came along, or why they make the decisions they do. Exploring how Annie comes to see Diana as a person was fun to write’.
Batchelor has not allowed the imperative to use literary tools competently to subsume her own urgent need for an authentic authorial voice. One of my own bugbears is to find myself reading a novel which though technically sound, is turgidly derivative or flaccidly devoid of authorial personality. My Perfect Sister
is almost plot perfect, but more importantly, its author has a distinctive and refreshingly original voice of her own.
‘Over the years I think I have developed my own voice and have tried very hard not to write like someone else – the reader can always tell! My Perfect Sister
is mostly written in the first-person present tense. I’d like to experiment in future novels with different styles and more of an authorial voice, but I think that I would have to be writing in a different genre’.
Most author’s artistic objectives benefit from considering the needs and role of the reader. Batchelor, though a freshly minted writer, understands this axiomatic truth: ‘When you write a book and set it free into the world, what matters isn't so much what I intended readers to take from it, but rather how they interpret it themselves. I wanted to offer a great read that will offer a good few hours' escapism from all the difficult things happening in the world now. I hoped I'd left just enough of the storyline open for readers to keep thinking about the characters once they've finished the book. I personally like books that stay with you in your mind long after you've read the last page. I hoped MPS would prompt readers to wonder what they'd do in the characters' situations’.
Thematically, Batchelor’s novel is as richly layered as her plot is assiduously circuitous. ‘I'm interested in women who transgress the rules and don't follow stereotypical feminine behaviour. That's where my idea for Annie came from - you'd expect her to be grieving for her missing sister, but straight away the reader finds out that instead she's resentful. There are lots of themes in the novel including mental health and different treatments of it and attitudes to it over the decades; mother-daughter relationships; the importance of friendship and re-evaluating what you think you know about the past’.
‘I'm disabled myself and wanted to include positive disability representation in the novel because although I've been an avid reader all my life, I've rarely seen anyone like me reflected in literature unless they are 'misery memoirs' or 'triumph over tragedy' tropes. Ian in My Perfect Sister
has cerebral palsy, but that's not the story - it's how he helps Annie in her quest to find out what happened to her sister Gemma’.
A mystery novel lives or dies by its denouement. A page turner requires an ending to be an irresistibly compelling destination and once reached, entirely unpredictable. Batchelor’s own debut delivers an ending which is likely to win her book many admirers and precipitate a huge demand for her next outing. Modestly, Batchelor told me she struggled with this vital component of her book, but help was on hand: ‘I knew roughly what I wanted to happen, but I rewrote it so many times in order for it to be satisfying, but with a twist. My publisher offered advice and I tweaked the ending until we both felt I'd hit the nail on the head. A lot of hard work went into addressing the challenge’.
As has been established in previous interview articles with debut novelists, writing your first novel is a path littered with a myriad challenges to be overcome en route to success. ‘Every writer I’ve spoken to hasn’t had an easy ride on their journey to publication. It would be wonderful if agents were beating down my door wanting to sign me, but that wasn’t the case! I submitted My Perfect Sister
to lots of agents and small publishers. When RedDoor Press finally said yes, I was over the moon’.
‘Having faith in myself as a writer was the most difficult part I think. There’s so much work that goes in to writing a novel. Keeping on writing to the end and reworking parts I wasn’t happy with was tough, as it was when rejections kept coming in. It would have been easy to throw in the towel and think that it just wasn’t meant to be. In the end though the fact that I’d put so much work into My Perfect Sister
, and I really believed in the story, kept me going. I was tenacious and if nobody had wanted My Perfect Sister
my plan was to try again with a novel in a different genre’.
So, Batchelor’s tenacity and courage have paid off, and she is not unreasonably pleased - ‘It’s a dream come true and I feel very privileged when I hear from a reader that they’ve enjoyed my novel. That’s what it’s all about, that escapism we all get when we’re engrossed in reading. Creatively, being published has given me the confidence to push on with writing as a career. I’m in the vulnerable group and am still shielding because of Coronavirus. Writing and the support of other authors in groups such as Debut 2020 has been a godsend in terms of keeping me occupied and giving me a purpose during this difficult time’.
‘I started up the Thriller Women blog – www.thrillerwomen.blogspot.com
– with fellow RedDoor Press author E. C. Scullion, so we could celebrate female thriller authors and the rich diversity of the genre, plus make connections with readers and publishing industry folk. I’ve learnt a lot about marketing myself and my book on social media. As for the writing process – I might be a published author now, but I still have the same confidence worries and struggles to bring the plot together with book 2!’.
Becoming an established author will test Batchelor’s plucky resolve once again. ‘My aim is to steadily build up my career with loyal readers, improve with each novel and hopefully one day be published by one of the big multinational publishers. At the moment I don’t have an agent – submitting to my favourites is next on my ‘to do’ list’.
Given Batchelor’s talent, indomitable resolve and gloriously quirky, fecund imagination, I suspect that this debut novelist will find herself pleasantly surprised to be receiving a fair few knocks on her door, from eager agents believing in and sharing her dreams !