Annabel, author of five domestic noir thrillers, was born in England but has lived in Dubai for the last twenty-three years. Join us as we chat about her journey to publication, tips for aspiring writers and how her expat lifestyle impacts her writing. And of course, her latest novel, The House of Whispers.
Can you please give us a snapshot of your life before you started writing?
I was always a reader; books were my passion, and I always wanted to be a writer, but first, I studied psychology at the University of Warwick and then fell into the publishing industry. I started as a secretary and worked my way up to being a book editor. But I really wanted to be one of the authors. I just had to figure out what, how and when to write.
Why did you move to Dubai?
I always wanted to live somewhere sunny. I really struggled with the grey skies in England. When my husband came home from a work trip to Dubai in 1997 with a book about the UAE and said he thought we should move there, I jumped at the chance. I quit my job, and we sold the house, the cars, everything, and moved. I loved it from day one. Aside from anything else, I’m still happy to wake up and see blue sky and sunshine.
How did you settle in?
In 1998 there wasn’t any online support for expats as home internet hadn’t really taken off. Also, because I hadn’t moved specifically for a job and was working freelance, I had to be very proactive to get out and meet people. I resolved to say ‘yes’ to every invitation and opportunity that came my way.
My first contract was for Emirates Woman magazine. I wrote their book review column, which didn’t pay much given the amount of time it took, but I got to know everyone in-house. When the deputy editor left, I applied for her job. Then, when the editor left, I applied for that job, so I worked my way up. It was a rocky start to life in Dubai, but finally I had colleagues, friends and a salary.
So how did you finally become an author?
After I had children, I decided to take a step back from office life and focus on writing fiction. I wrote half a novel, which was really terrible – I’ve never shown it to anyone – then I started a new one. I was struggling with that when, late in 2012, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature announced a competition for unpublished writers. All entries would be read by Luigi Bonomi, an agent from London, and the winner would get to have lunch with him to talk about their career. I had about 35,000 words down, so I polished up the first five pages, which is what you needed to submit, and wrote a really good synopsis and sent it off, hoping that even if I didn’t get placed, Luigi might get in touch if he saw any promise in my writing – but I won!
At the lunch in London, Luigi helped me brainstorm the plot to make it stronger then sent me back to Dubai to write it. When I submitted the first draft three months later, Luigi gave me lots of feedback and sent me away to improve it. It took another six months to rewrite it, then he accepted it and took me on as a client. He managed to secure me a three-book deal, and my publisher renewed it for another three books. I still have the same agent and publisher, which is HQ Stories, an imprint of Harper Collins.
Can you please share the blurb for your latest novel, The House of Whispers?
Some secrets aren’t meant to be kept…
When Grace returns to Abi’s life, years after they fell out at university, Abi can’t help but feel uneasy. Years ago, Grace’s friendship was all-consuming and exhausting.
Now happily married, Abi’s built a new life for herself and put those days behind her. And yet as Grace slips back into her life with all the lethal charm she had before, Abi finds herself falling back under her spell…
Abi’s husband, Rohan, can’t help but be concerned as his wife’s behavior changes. As their happy home threatens to fall apart, he realizes that there’s something deeply unnerving about Grace. Just what influence does this woman have over his wife, and why has she come back now?
A chilling story of guilt and obsession from Anna Kent.
What made you choose domestic noir?
When I was starting out, Gone Girl had just been published and domestic noir was taking off. Luigi suggested focussing on that genre, and I discovered I loved it. My degree is in psychology, so I’m interested in what goes on in people’s heads and how things like suppressed trauma or grief, for example, manifest in behaviour further down the line.
How did you come up with the concept for The House of Whispers?
I read a news story about a woman that was very poignant, covering an issue I’d never really thought about before, so I started with that. But I can’t say anymore without giving away the ending! Let’s just say, reviewers so far seem to love the ending, but it’s difficult to discuss without spoilers.
Although you’ve lived in Dubai for 26 years, most of your books are set in England. Is there a reason for this?
Not really, other than that I know it quite well. I’d write a book set in Dubai, but there’s apparently not much demand for novels set here.
How has your expat life impacted your writing?
I’ve never really thought about it before, but almost all of my books feature international life in some way.
The first few chapters of Coming Home are set in Dubai before the action moves back to the UK.
In The Disappearance, there’s a historical thread that sees the protagonist living as an expat in Mumbai in the 1960s, and then the current action takes place on a Mediterranean cruise, so there’s a heavy travel theme.
I Know You features an American expat who moves to the UK. Although it’s set in UK, I draw on expat themes of loneliness and the problems caused by having no friends, such as relying on social media.
In The House of Whispers, the protagonist’s husband is seconded to New York for a large part of the narrative. In fact, my third book, The One that Got Away is the only one that’s set entirely in the UK.
Do you have any tips for authors?
Agents receive thousands of submissions every week so you need to have a really terrific idea to capture their attention: something strong that everyone will be able to relate to. Ideally, it’ll be what they call ‘high concept’ – something that can be summed up in one simple sentence. The idea, that simple hook, is the hardest part for me.
Once you have a strong idea, a solid structure will help you keep the pace moving along at the right speed, especially in the middle of the book. Save the Cat Writes a Novel is my favourite book for structure – it’s foolproof.
Also, enter competitions: this can be key to having your work noticed and getting your foot through the door of the publishing world.
I’m working on the concept for my next dark thriller as I’m still in contract. After that, who knows?
Next time: Find links to Fenechty Publishing’s Anthology of Short Stories: Autumn 2021, and find out more About The Cellist Stalker, my story in the collection.
Next interview: Maura Pierlot on Writing about Mental Health and her new release, Fragments.