Author Karen Gillece on her new career direction
‘I feel more free now... I can take the characters in any direction that I want’
After eight years as one half of the writing duo behind the Karen Perry thrillers, author Karen Gillece is going it alone again. She tells Orla Neligan about starting a new chapter in her career and how the dark side of human nature intrigues her.
Ernest Hemingway noted that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life”. However for every novelist that needs to isolate themselves, there are those who work best in a creative, collaborative sphere. And sometimes there are those who fall into both categories.
Old friends Karen Gillece and Paul Perry, both established writers in their own regard, came together under the pen name Karen Perry — a joint writing venture that over eight years has resulted in four highly-acclaimed psychological thrillers.
Gillece admits to “subscribing” to the solitary-writer myth but also debunks the stereotype of the lone scribbler in the garret by being one of the few authors who has collaborated successfully with another writer.
Surprisingly, given their success, they have recently decided to go back to solo writing. Why stop now, especially when both writers have previously endorsed the view that “two heads are often better than one” and that collaboration often makes for a “better book”?
“Paul and I always knew we would go back to writing solo,” says Gillece, who admits to being somewhat surprised by how far they took their collaboration since, initially, it was a one-book writing experiment.
Paul, an award-winning poet who was writer in residence at the University of Ulster and also helped run the Aspects Literature Festival in Bangor for a time, and Karen, author of four well-received books under her own name, had been writing solo for many years before they decided, over a pint in a pub, to try writing a novel together.
It began as a bit of a joke until they realised it could sate the appetite they both had for a new writing challenge.
What began as one book soon developed into a four-book publishing deal with two of the books, the best-selling The Boy That Never Was and Girl Unknown, being adapted for the screen.
Gillece, who continues to write under the joint byline Karen Perry, is quick to dismiss any animosity.
“Thankfully, the split was not acrimonious; it was very mutual. We’re still friends but we never thought we would continue together long term,” she says.
The decision to keep the byline was fuelled by her publisher Penguin who “invested heavily” in building the Karen Perry brand and encouraged one of them to continue. Karen was ready, available and willing.
The collaborative process is, I’d imagine, like a game of Jenga without, hopefully, the final crash: some pulling and pushing with both partners adding to each other’s ‘game’.
“It is very much like that,” confirms Gillece. “Writing with someone else involves a lot of negotiating and communication. Paul and I would meet once a week to discuss the book.
“There was often pulling in different directions and that requires diplomacy and negotiating, which can sometimes be tricky.”
The duo adopted the ‘relay writing’ process: characters and chapters were split between them and, once a chapter was completed, they would edit each other’s work.
Unless you have a solid relationship, working that closely on something so personal could rock any well-worn friendship.
“From the very beginning, Paul and I agreed to be frank with one another and leave our egos at the door,” says Gillece.
“At times it was fraught but that’s a natural part of any friendship.
“Paul is very generous in spirit and always receptive, and I’d like to think I am too. I think that’s why it worked so well.”
As a writer she admits to being more about “getting the words on the page” compared with Paul’s more contemplative approach, which might go some way to explaining their decision to return to solo writing.
Gillece was always the ‘plotter’ of the two, laying out storylines and directions.
“I feel strongly that, while writing is a joy and an art, it’s also my job, with deadlines, and so I like to get going. Once the words are on the page, I play around with them.” Is there anything she misses about the collaboration? “I miss our weekly chats,” she says. “We would discuss characters and plots and have a laugh. I miss that sounding board sometimes. But I also welcome the freedom in a way,” she adds quickly.
“I feel more free now — I can take the characters in any direction I want and, given that I hate editing, I don’t miss that,” she laughs.
The new Karen Perry novel — somewhat ironically named Your Closest Friend, given it’s the first since she and Paul separated — was, she admits, a little nerve-racking.
But, she’s also aware of her ability to take a premise and concept and carry it through to the finish line.
“I love nothing more than reading a book that makes me stay up well past midnight because I cannot put it down. I’ve learnt to have faith in my ability to write that genre of book. I think my books are compelling, exciting and thrilling,” she says.
The fact that she has already sold the TV rights to Your Closest Friend is testament to that. One page into this pacy thriller and I was hooked. Inspired by the real-life London Bridge terrorist attacks in June last year, the story begins with Cara, a young woman caught in the terror and chaos of an attack in London, until she is pulled to safety by a stranger.
What ensues is a chilling plot of tension and menace that sucks you in from the first line, and one that epitomises Karen Perry’s trademark sharp, dark and mysterious style of writing.
“I was imagining what it must have been like during that attack and what happens afterwards,” she says.
“Do you say goodbye and never see each other after sharing that heightened experience? I was really intrigued by that.”
Lately she’s been watching a lot of 1980s movie thrillers for inspiration: Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (above), both classics with sociopathic lead characters she has drawn on for the project she’s currently working on.
She can’t tell me much about it, but confirms that writing from a sociopathic perspective involves spending a lot of time with the darker side of her thoughts.
It’s no surprise that if she had three more hours in her day, she would spend it writing. As a mother-of-two, she never feels she has enough time to write and admits to having her “head in the book” when the kids get home from school.
Although they no longer work under the same byline, Karen and Paul are still working closely together on the screenplay for The Boy That Never Was and Girl Unknown has been picked up by Peaky Blinders producers Tiger Aspect to be made into a TV series.
Her brush with the film and TV world is exciting but she approaches it with a good dose of pragmatism, preferring to wait until she’s got the bowl of popcorn on her lap and the finished product on the screen before she lets herself celebrate. Life is less glitzy premieres, more “needing to collect the kids from school and make the dinner”.
When she needs to escape the manuscript, she heads for the garden with her husband and a G&T. “That’s my happy place,” she admits.
Is there anything she knows now that she wishes she’d known when first starting? “Don’t quit the day job until you’ve the book finished,” she laughs, recalling her decision to quit both her law degree and her well-paid career as a project manager.
Neither quite met her need for a creative outlet. “I took a temp job as a receptionist and wrote my first novel, Seven Nights in Zaragoza, at the desk. Everyone said I was brave, which is really code for crazy. They were right and I was lucky it paid off, but it was a huge risk.”
Crazy, perhaps, risky most definitely, but that’s the making of a good writer — and this is a woman who isn’t afraid to cross the line with purpose and pulse-quickening action.
We can’t wait for the next instalment.
Your Closest Friend by Karen Perry, published by Penguin, £7.99, is out now