Ep 279 What agents look for. And meet Renee Knight, author of psychological thriller ‘The Secretary’.

In Episode 279 of So you want to be a writer: Learn what agents look for in authors and meet Renee Knight, author of psychological thriller The Secretary. Don’t miss your chance to see So you want to be a writer LIVE! We are giving away tickets to see Long Shot starring Seth Rogan and Charlize Theron. Plus, Echo Publishing submissions are open for a short time and more.

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Show Notes

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Beyond Good Writing: Two Literary Agents Discuss What Matters Most

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Writer in Residence

Renée Knight

Renée Knight worked for the BBC directing arts documentaries before beginning her writing career. She has written television and film scripts for the BBC, Channel Four and Capital Films. Her first screenplay, Mother’s Day, made it onto the 2010 Brit List of best unproduced scripts of that year.

Her first novel, Disclaimer, was published by Transworld in 2015, and she is currently adapting for the screen for Fox Searchlight.

Her second novel The Secretary was published in February 2019.

Renée lives in London with her husband and two children.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thank you so much for joining us today Renee.

Renee

It’s my pleasure. My pleasure. Lovely to meet you.

Valerie

Now, congratulations on your second novel, The Secretary. And thank you also for talking to us all the way from London. Just for some of the listeners who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Renee

Yes. It’s basically about a long term relationship. So nearly a 20 relationship between a personal assistant, a secretary, and her female boss who is a senior executive in a supermarket company, but she’s also sort of a television celebrity with her own food program. And Christine Butcher is her obedient servant.

So the book really is about, what it becomes about is the blurred lines between that professional relationship and a friendship. And the enmeshed lives of a personal assistant and the person she works for.

So in Christine’s case, she’s very much part of Mina Appleton’s, her boss’s, life. So she’s involved in finding nannies for the children, she’s invited to Nina’s home, always for work, but in a way but it does sort of blur the lines of their relationship. And Christine has an overwhelming need to be needed. So gradually as the book goes on her life becomes more and more defined and caught up in Nina’s. That’s what it’s like. It’s how far you’d go really for the person you work for.

Valerie

Now, I have to ask, have you ever been a secretary or a personal assistant?

Renee

I have. I was a secretary for many years, actually. When I first started working, my working life was as a secretary. And I was a temp. I’m not sure whether you have temps over there.

Valerie

Yes.

Renee

But I worked for an agency. But one of my first jobs was actually at the BBC. So I stayed there for years, actually, moving from one department to another. But I was never a PA in the sense that Christine is. I wasn’t involved in that one to one, really looking after one person. I was more of a shorthand typist who made teas and coffees. But I know what it’s like to be in that position where you’re there to do as your told, basically.

Valerie

How did the idea for this book form? How did the premise come into your brain? What made you want to explore these themes?

Renee

In this country, I’m not sure whether you have similar cases in America, but over the years there have been quite a few high profile cases that have been on the front pages, actually, of the newspapers of PAs and secretaries who have been in court. Either… I remember a case about two years ago of two PAs who were sisters actually, this particular case was with Nigella Lawson, and they were accused of taking money from credit cards that they’d been given for business use. But in the end they were acquitted. But actually what emerged were the details, of how involved they were in her life and what they knew of the family.

And then there was another case just before that of a secretary who was accused of perverting the course of justice along with her boss. And she was accused of destroying evidence and documents to cover up for her boss. And again it was a long professional relationship.

It was less the crimes that interested me, but more what felt like a quite old fashioned master servant relationship, in a way. But with very blurred lines. And I think that was sort of, in a way, it was like a contemporary master servant where there’s almost… Where the boss is almost apologetic and hiding their authority. But actually in the end they’re the same relationships. One is a master and one is the servant. But it felt to me like it was slightly less clear these days, actually.

Valerie

And so you’ve written this in first person in the voice of Christine Butcher, who is the secretary, or the personal assistant to the bigwig. And it’s such a convincing voice and it’s such an intriguing one. And it also depicts what goes on, the intimacy and the level of integration you have into your boss’s life. What did you do to research what someone like Christine would do and think and feel?

Renee

Part of it was actually just putting myself in that position. What would I feel like if I were in that position. Which is not to say that Christine Butcher is me in any way.

But I also did interview… I was put in touch through friends with two very senior personal assistants to quite prominent people. And I talked to them, actually, at length. Again, which is not to say they are Christine Butcher. But I was surprised by some of the things with former employers that they were expected to do.

And also their ability to keep secrets, actually. How that was just an absolutely vital part of their job. And without that, in a way, they had no value. There was an unwritten rule that you don’t say anything to anybody.

Valerie

And things like…

Renee

So I did spend…

Valerie

No sorry, you go on.

Renee

No. I was just… Don’t worry. You carry on. I can’t remember what I was going to say.

Valerie

I was saying that these people do think that it is their job, or they almost convince themselves, well they do convince themselves, it is their job, to technically pervert the course of justice. Because they just think that they’re doing what they’re meant to do, what their responsibility is. Because their responsibility is their loyalty to their boss, right? So it is an interesting dynamic to explore.

Did you know, when you started writing it, or thinking about writing it, did you know the plot? Did you know what was going to happen? Did you know what was going to unfold? Or did you just start writing and see what happens?

Renee

No, I would never do that. I’d never the courage to do that, actually just to plunge right in. So I do always plot something else, loosely. I try and work out a three act structure, really. So I know what happens in the beginning, the inciting incident, if you like. And then I work out happens in the middle. And I have an idea of what will happen in the end.

And so I do a very rough road map. But I don’t necessarily stick to it. So it’s really just to lead me through the narrative. But then I often find that when you get to a certain point you think, no, no, no, that couldn’t happen. Because you’ve understood your character more. The more you write, the more you unearth things in your character. And the more… They don’t dictate the story. But when you know them well, there are certain things that they just wouldn’t do or there are certain things that they would do. And so that does alter your plot as you go along.

And the end, I had a sort of rough idea for the end. But when I got to the end, I changed it. Because I thought, no, no, no, she wouldn’t do that, she’d do this.

Valerie

So getting to know your character and developing your character, you’ve said that you’ve put yourself into her shoes, but you’re not Christine. And you said that you’ve spoken to some high level PAs, but they’re not Christine. How did you form Christine? How did you determine what kind of character she was going to be, what kind of decisions she was going to make? Because I find her intriguing.

Renee

I suppose I needed her to be, in a way, increasingly isolated. I didn’t want to fall into a cliché of having her married to her job in as much as I didn’t want her to be an unmarried woman with no children and that her whole life was just her job. But actually, in a way, that…

So she does have a husband and she does have a child. And in a way I wanted her, these were things in a way that she ended up sacrificing. And the more she became tied to Christine and the greater her need… In a way, she becomes… Sorry by Nina, she’s defined by Nina. And once she’s defined by Nina and Nina’s need of her, she sheds unwittingly, actually, and unconsciously these other aspects of her life.

And I did feel she needed to be more and more solitary and isolated and cut off. So that when she does make these dubious decisions to support Nina, she’s really not aware. As you say, she’s feeling she’s doing, this is her job. Her job, first and foremost, is to be loyal. And to support Nina, to support her boss. And so she doesn’t really see it when she crosses a line. And she increasingly crosses lines as her career goes on.

Valerie

It’s a fascinating, fascinating look into this kind of psyche. Now, your previous novels, so your first novel is Disclaimer, which was ridiculously successful. And it’s now being written into a script for Fox Searchlight. Can you just give some listeners, in case they haven’t read that, just a brief idea of what Disclaimer is about? Because it’s mind blowing in itself, this premise.

Renee

Well the premise is basically what it would be like if you came across yourself in a book. So the character picks up the book, she’s just moved home, she has a pile of books next to her bed, the house is a bit of a mess, she picks up a book to help her get to sleep, basically. And as she starts reading she realises that the central character in the book is her. And the plot involves something that is her secret and that she thought nobody living knew about.

And so the book is from her point of view and it’s from the point of view of the person who’s written the book. And basically you’re uncovering what is it that she’s done, what is it that’s happened. So yes, it’s what would it be like if you…

And also for me, books have always been such a great comfort. And that thing of picking up the book on your bedside table and allowing it to lull you into sleep is such a lovely thing. So for that invasion of your privacy and your safe place just felt horrifying to me.

Valerie

Have you always wanted to write psychological thrillers? Are they your thing? Is that what you really love doing?

Renee

I didn’t set out to write… Psychological thrillers, yes. I mean, both these books are also being sold as crime novels. And I certainly, and they both have crimes in them, but I didn’t set out to write crime novels. But I have always been drawn to dark material. Even as a child, I loved watching, I was quite young, I’d watch not gory horrors but unsettling dark dramas and thrillers and that sort of thing. And I loved reading ghost stories when I was little.

So yes, it’s always been there, my leaning to the dark side, yes.

Valerie

Can you give us a bit of an idea, just so listeners can understand, kind of a timeline of when you first came up with the idea, how long it took you to write, and then the process from there. How long in the editing process and so on.

Renee

Yes, absolutely. I mean, it was different with both books. So the first book, Disclaimer, I did have an agent by then. I’d written a book, actually, before Disclaimer, which got me an agent but didn’t get published. And then that book actually, it wasn’t autobiographical, but there were elements in it that were close to a friendship that I’d had in school. And a friend I still have, actually, who lives in America now.

And when I was finishing that book I suddenly thought, oh god, I had an agent, what if it got published? And I sent it off to her to read. And she took ages to read it. And while I was waiting for her to come back to me I had this idea of how awful it would be if you came across yourself in a book that was published.

And so that idea just came to me and chilled me. And I then started a creative writing course. Once the first book wasn’t published. I’d heard about this course and I thought, well, I’m going to do that. It might get me back on my horse again. And I started writing Disclaimer on this course. And the course was six months. So I wrote half of the book when I was on the course and then I finished it six months later. So it was about a year for that first book. And then it did get published.

Valerie

And the second?

Renee

And then the second one, I was under contract. So I got a two book deal and it felt very different. I felt much more pressure, actually, with the second one. Because suddenly you have a deadline, which I’m afraid I missed several times.

Valerie

Really?

Renee

Yes, I’m afraid I did.

Valerie

By a lot?

Renee

By months and months, yeah.

Valerie

Really?

Renee

Yeah. I mean there’s a bit of a gap between Disclaimer and The Secretary. Probably a longer gap ideally than the publisher would have liked, although they were very patient.

So I had the idea for The Secretary, it took me quite a while to write myself into it. Because I felt suddenly I was being observed. With the first one you write, even though I was on a writing course, nobody has any expectations. Nobody is really waiting for it. Whereas the second one, you feel you are being watched slightly.

And I wrote it, it’s in first person now, The Secretary, but I originally wrote it in the third person. And I did two drafts like that.

Valerie

Wow! You did two drafts in third person!

Renee

And I rewrote the whole…

Valerie

Oh my god!

Renee

And I knew as I was doing it, I should have followed my gut. Because I felt I kept going down blind alleys and writing myself into a corner. And then when I started writing in the first person then I thought, oh no, this is it. This is working now.

Valerie

Really?

Renee

So I wrote about five drafts of it, in all. And of course, second time around you have editors, which the first time I didn’t. The book was edited later, but it was pretty complete when they bought it. And so then you’re very sure what you have. And so when somebody comes up with a good idea, you can see it. If they come up with a suggestion that you think, no that’s not a good idea, you see it.

Whereas actually with the second one, because the editing process – which is a great thing to have, I’m not knocking it – but if you give in your book too soon, before you’re really clear about what it is, it’s harder to sift through what’s a good idea and what’s a bad idea. And so you end up trying all sorts of things that might not work.

Valerie

So if you wrote your first two drafts…

Renee

But I think we got there in the end.

Valerie

Yeah, but if you wrote your first two drafts in third person, obviously you knew something wasn’t quite right. And therefore you changed to first person. How soon after changing into first person, like, how much had you written at that you felt, oh this is it. This is what I’ve got to do.

Renee

Oh, the first chapter. The first page, even. I just knew straight away. So you might well ask, why didn’t you think of that six months before?

Valerie

Exactly! That’s my question! Did you not think before, oh, I’ll just try it out?

Renee

When I wrote it in the third person, it delivered a twist. So there’s a twist when you reveal who the narrator is. And so I think I was too… I fell under the pressure of feeling this is a thriller! I’ve got to deliver as many twists as I can. Which is a mistake, I think. It’s contrived. And the twists will come. And some books have more twists than others.

And so that’s why I was determined to try and make that work. And it didn’t work. I was trying to be too clever, actually. Because in the end you have to have an authentic voice. And I like reading books where I really believe in the characters. I’m much more interested in character than the thrill of endless twists. But that’s why I plodded on with it, because I was slavishly trying to come up with another twist.

Valerie

Wow. And so when you were in the depths of writing it, whether in first or third person, did you have any kind of writing routine? I mean, you obviously had a deadline which you didn’t meet. But you had to obviously achieve a certain number of words by a certain point. Did you have a word count goal? What was the structure of your day to get stuff one?

Renee

Well, my structure is I always start writing in the mornings. So if I don’t write in the mornings and I leave it to the afternoon, I just don’t get anything done. So my structure is up, breakfast, go up. At the moment I write in a sort of shed. A nice shed in the garden. So I’m sort of leaving the house and going up to my office.

And then I set a goal of a thousand words a day. And actually, the first draft I was writing more than that. It was too long. I was just writing and writing and writing. And I think I was making the mistake of trying to write myself into it. So I was doing more than a thousand words a day. But if it’s going well, it’ll be about a thousand words a day.

And I’ll tend to work up til lunchtime, have a break for lunch. If it’s going well, and I really know where I’m going, I’ll get on with it and carry on through the afternoon. But not always. And I think on average, probably, there’s three good hours of proper work, of constructive work, where you’re moving the story on. And often, for me anyway, if I push it for too long, I end up rewriting it all the next day and then you just get stuck.

Valerie

Really?

Renee

Yeah. I mean, so three good hours, I think, of constructive work, I can get a lot done.

Valerie

Yes. So do you measure that by hours, or by a feeling of satisfaction, or by a word count? Like, I’ve done enough today.

Renee

A bit of both, actually. I’ll aim for a thousand words and try to get a thousand words done. But often it is an instinct. It’s a feeling. And if you’re in the middle of it and you’re feeling this is going well, then I would just carry on. Yeah. But if I’ve got stuck somewhere, then I know what I do after that is just going to be rubbish.

But I do like to have an idea of what I’m going to be doing the following morning. So when you wake up you think, okay, this is the scene I’m going to crack. This is where I’m… You know, you know what you’re doing?

Valerie

Do you write in a linear fashion? When you say that you have an idea of the beginning, middle and end, do you write in that order? And do you a synopsis or even scene by scene index cards? What level of detail to you have?

Renee

Well, I do write in a linear way, yes. So I do write from the beginning through to the end. I don’t have index cards. I type out, basically, I have a sheet of almost like a treatment. So I won’t break it down into chapters. I think of it more as scenes, actually. So there’ll be the scene where Christine is in court. The scene where that sort of thing.

And it’ll probably be, it could be, I don’t know, a six page document. This happens, this happens, this happens. But not written… I don’t put in too much detail otherwise I think there’s a danger I’ll feel like I’ve written the book before I’ve written it. It’s really a very sketchy outline of this happens here, this happens here. Very badly written. But really just a list of events in a way without much detail.

Valerie

So the main characters, well, many of the characters, but certainly the main characters in this book are very strong. Which are Christine and her boss, Nina. To get to know them, kind of like what we started talking about before, are they just fully formed in your brain? Or do you have something like a back story document? Or details that aren’t necessarily in the book but help you get to know your character better? Do you create anything like that?

Renee

Yes, I do, actually. I mean, I do have a sense… Yeah, I do. I know their childhoods, I know roughly what happened to them at school. I know what their previous careers might have been and a bit about their relationships. So, yes I do. So there will be… So I do try and fill them out as much as I can before I start. But then you…

It’s a bit of, you’re sort of excavating them as well as you go along. You’re sort of unearthing things that emerge. As much as building up a story, you’re sort of stripping layers away too so you get to the heart of something. Well, that’s the idea, at least.

Valerie

And apart from doing research like talking to the two high level PAs that you spoke to, did you have to do any other kind of research either about corporate life, or about the court system, or police procedure, or anything like that? In order to be able to write your book authentically.

Renee

Yes, I did a bit. My sister, actually, was very helpful, because she used to work for supermarkets. So she helped me a bit with the background there and the relationship between suppliers and supermarkets. So she was very helpful with that.

Valerie

Oh, that’s handy!

Renee

Yes, exactly! And there is a scene in the book of a moment that she told me about, which I found heartbreaking when she told me about it. So I sort of put that in. She remembers walking through the reception area of head office – she didn’t have a particularly senior job, actually – but she walked through head office and saw this elderly man sitting there with a box of fruit on his lap.

Valerie

Oh yes.

Renee

Waiting to show somebody senior. Because I think he was about to dumped as a supplier.

And I did spend some time at the Old Bailey following a particular court case which I found fascinating, actually. And I sat in the public gallery and watched a case. It was towards the end of the case, actually. And I was stunned, actually, by how tiny the courtroom was. And how much eye contact there could be between jurors and members of the… People sitting up in the public gallery, actually, perfect strangers. And just how intimate it all was. And therefore so intense, that you really, you know, it is a little, I know it’s a cliché to say it, but it is a little theatre.

And it was during the summer, actually, and there were people who, members of the public who were obviously regulars. Who turned up with their rucksacks with their packed lunches in, and the guards all knew them and they’d go in and they’d sit in their seats and they would just sit and watch these people’s lives. Hear the intimate details of these people’s lives. I found it fascinating, actually.

And then afterwards you would see, you know, I saw the accused coming out and getting into their taxis and going off and getting on the tube. And I found all that sort of detail fascinating. So yes, I did spend a few weeks doing that.

Valerie

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Renee

The hardest thing… I found Christine’s head quite a difficult place to be in, actually.

Valerie

In what sense?

Renee

Well, she’s so regretful. It is a book about somebody looking back at their lives. And she’s full of regret and she wishes she’d done things differently. And that’s very sad, actually. And so I found that quite difficult.

And in a way I also wanted it to be not about the crimes. And so this is a crime novel that although there are crimes in it it’s not really about the crimes. It’s about a toxic relationship and it’s about an abuse of power.

And it’s about what happens when you don’t listen to people. I think bubbling away in there, which I wasn’t conscious of at the time, was probably a little bit of what we’re going through at the moment in this country. Our Brexit nightmare. What happens when there’s a whole section of the population that just is not listened to and what that means and how that feels, if you feel you’re somebody who’s not heard. Or you thought your life was one way only to discover it’s another. You’re not who you thought you were. That your identity is chipped away.

And so it was quite a dark place to be at times, actually. Everyone in my family is very relieved that I’ve finished this book.

Valerie

Well, that comes to my second question then, apart from actually finishing the book, what was the most enjoyable thing about it? Or most rewarding thing about writing?

Renee

I think with writing, I mean there’s a lot of times, for me, anyway, when you feel, oh this is terrible. This is terrible. But those moments when it feels like it is coming together, and you have got to know your character, and the story is really taking shape, I do find that exhilarating, actually.

So those are the most exhilarating, those are the most enjoyable moments, actually. When you finally feel, particularly with this one, because I wrote so many drafts, and there’s a point… Sort of half way through I remember thinking, I’m never going to get there. And then when you do get there, it feels great, actually. You feel you’ve done it. And you feel, you know, I’ve done it as well as I possibly can. Somebody else might have done it differently, but this is how I want to do it. And I’ve done that. And yes, there’s a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment in that.

Valerie

And what’s next for you? Are you on novel number three?

Renee

Well, I have started thinking about it. And I’ve got a rough idea. So I’ve started doing a little bit of research. It’s an idea, really, of a particular relationship. So I’m interested in this adult brother sister sibling relationship, actually. And then primarily with one of them, I think probably the sister, who has to give, I mean, the beginning will be her having to give something up, a major thing, because of her brother.

Something I read in the papers recently, actually, where a high profile woman had to stand down from a big promotion because it turned out there was a conflict of interest with her brother’s job. And it made me think, gosh, I bet that’s happened throughout their lives. Since they were little, when there have been moments where either he or she have had to step back and give up something for the other. And I just thought how you’re really locked in with a sibling, aren’t you? It’s likely to be the longest relationship in your life, actually.

Valerie

Yes.

Renee

And how often if you have siblings you do regress, actually, as an adult, into those patterns that you had when you were five.

So I’m exploring that at the moment, but I’m still trying to work out the story, actually. So I will do that. But I would hope to start writing this summer. That’s my goal.

Valerie

Right. So when you say you’re still working out the story, and presumably you did this with The Secretary as well, you have the seed of an idea and then do you let it percolate for a while until you have the loose plot before you start writing? Is that what happens?

Renee

Yes. Yes, that’s what I… I think probably with The Secretary, I started writing too soon, if I’m honest. Which is why I think I got in a pickle with the third person and all that. And this time I’m determined to just pin down that story.

Not necessarily write a very detailed outline, but just to pin down the major plot points. Work out what their jeopardy is, what is it these people have to lose, how they’re going to get it back, before I actually start the detail of writing it.

Valerie

And finally, what’s your advice for aspiring writers? Your top three tips to aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like where you are one day.

Renee

My three would be, I remember somebody said, another writer came and talked to us during the writing course that I did. And she said you have to have both a thick skin and a thin skin. And I think that’s absolutely right. When my first book was not published, I remember thinking, if I’m going to carry on and do this, I’m going to have to have a very thick skin. But at the same time it’s going to be thin enough for you to be able to empathise, to understand your characters, to absorb things around you. So I think that is one tip I would have. Manage your skins.

And the second one I think is keep the faith. Because, certainly I have found along the way there are many days where you feel, particularly with a first draft, I think it’s accept that a first draft is not necessarily going to be very good. And it may not be something that you want to show to anyone else. But that’s absolutely fine. Just keep the faith and rewrite and rewrite. Because for me, the writing is in the rewriting.

And the third one, which I think was the most important advice I was given, don’t show your work too soon. So get your first draft done, put it away in a drawer, leave it for as long as you can bear it. I mean, if you’re under a deadline, that might well be limited. And then take it out and read it again, and you will see things in that you hadn’t spotted before. It will be obvious the things you want to change. And then rewrite. But I think allowing yourself that space between first draft and then rewriting is really important.

And as I say, not showing it too soon. Because then you get lots of other people’s voice in your head. And that can really interfere. Follow your gut. It’s your instinct. Your own self will be able to tell you when something doesn’t feel right and it’s not working. But you do need a bit of space between first draft and second draft for that.

Valerie

Great advice. Great advice. And on that note, congratulations on The Secretary. It is a must read. And thank you so much for your time today, Renee.

Renee

Thank you very much. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.


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