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Interview with Gail Aldwin
I met Gail a few years ago when I fell in love with her book, This Much Huxley Knows, and when I discovered that she had written a new book, The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell, I knew I had to read her latest novel and interview her.
BC - Good morning, Gail! I’m so happy to be talking with you again.
GA – And I’m delighted to be here!
BC – Let’s start with your writing process. I am always curious how other writers get words on the page. Tell me about your writing process.
GA - I approach each project differently. For my coming-of-age debut, The String Games, I wrote by the seat of my pants and did very little planning. This meant a significant amount of material was cut during the various drafts. To save the pain of writing and then cutting masses of words, I planned my next novel, This Much Huxley Knows to the nth degree. For my latest release, a psychological suspense, The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell, I joined Writers’ Hour each weekday morning at eight o’clock. The Zoom call provides a fabulous kick-start to the working day when writers from around the world gather in our little Zoom boxes to share some words of wisdom and companionship, and then we get on with our individual projects for fifty minutes. I’m usually stuck in my writing when we’re called back into the Zoom room and leave soon after to continue with my work rather than have a debrief.
BC – I know just what it feels like to have a significant amount of work cut from a manuscript – the same thing happened to me with my first novel. Writing a first novel is definitely a learning process. I hope you saved and filed that deleted material under JUST IN CASE I CAN USE THIS SOMEWHERE ELSE.
BC - Do you like to research?
GA - For The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell, where a podcast investigation links the two timelines to solve a mystery, I became hooked on true crime podcasts. I developed a fascination for series podcasts that allowed me to tune into the twists and turns that created crucial listening. One podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, was excellent research in that it covered the case of a missing wife from 1981. Listening to this, I could reimagine the norms of the time and give voice to Carolyn Russell.
BC - How difficult was writing the two timelines in The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell? How did you approach it?
GA - I drafted each timeline from beginning to end separately and then wove the two stories together. The novel starts with two chapters from Stephanie’s viewpoint to lodge her importance as a main character in the reader’s mind. Following this, the chapters alternate between Carolyn’s story in 1979 and Stephanie’s 2014 timeline. The structure was a blessing and a pain. At one point, I decided to delete an entire chapter, which disrupted the alternating pattern until I came up with a solution to fill the gap.
BC - What kind of books do you like to read?
GA - Have you come across the term deep reader and shallow reader? Deep readers find an author they enjoy and devour everything they’ve ever written. Shallow readers select reading material from a whole range of authors. I fall into the shallow reader category – I like to read across genres – and often out of my comfort zone. I read a post-apocalyptic novel recently and found myself cringing at the gory details, but I kept going because of the very fine characters in the story. As a writer, I read differently. I’m always ready to learn from the skills displayed by other authors.
BC – I love learning how other writers read. I find I read at a much slower pace because I am concentrating on the structure of the story.
BC - Where did the idea for The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell come from?
GA - I mentioned true crime podcasts as a source of research, but they were also the inspiration for the novel. I became hooked on podcasts in 2020 while volunteering at a refugee settlement in Uganda. Where I lived in Yumbe, there were frequent power cuts, so I was often in my bed and under my mosquito net by eight o’clock in the evening. Without light to read by, I tuned into the podcasts I’d downloaded during the day at a local hotel. I was repatriated due to Covid-19 and came back with loads of ideas that needed taming.
BC - How did you so perfectly get into the head of a sixteen-year-old girl?
GA - There’s a BBC radio programme called My Teenage Diary where celebrities read diary excerpts from their younger lives. This helped me capture the language of the time and the teenage logic which drives the narrative. As the timeline also fits with my teenage years, I drew upon my own experiences and those of my friends. I love using product placement to indicate time and place, so old British favourites like chocolate bars and packet convenience food feature in the novel.
BC - What do you do for fun?
GA - I love running and join a 5km local run each Saturday morning. As writing is a portable profession, I also travel a lot. In recent years, I’ve spent 3-month periods in Edinburgh, Cambridge, and London. I’m keen to travel more overseas, starting with a Norwegian Fjord cruise.
BC – I’ve always been jealous of your traveling!
BC - What is your happiest publishing memory?
GA - My second novel, This Much Huxley Knows, uses a young narrator to explore community tensions following Brexit. One of the themes in the novel is the power of intergenerational friendships. A book blogger I respect, Julie Morris of A Little Book Problem, so loved the story that she bought a paperback copy for her private library and named the book one of her top titles for 2021. It’s such a thrill to receive feedback like this.
BC - Do you have a new book in the works?
GA - I’ve drawn upon my experience of living in Uganda to imagine and populate an African island that is visited by rich tourists. The working title is Three Couples. When Ashley’s controlling husband books a holiday at Slingback Resort, she finds the tropical island empowering, but tensions exist between islanders and visitors. Determined to build friendships with locals, Ashley is unaware that her husband stokes the conflict. Following an incident where they’re targeted by youths, Ashley’s suspicions are aroused. Can she get to the bottom of what’s going on?
BC – That sounds riveting!
Thank you so much, Gail; I look forward to talking with you again!
Book Links and Social Media
The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell purchase links:
Gail loves to connect with readers and writers on social media. You can find her at:
Deleted Scene from My Secret to Keep
I devoted endless hours researching the design of the car, the interior and exterior colors, and where all the dials and knobs were located on the car Anne would use to teach Maggie to drive. I knew that car perfectly. And then my editor deleted the entire scene. (Trust me, it was a good call).
To set the scene: The year was 1970
Anne tossed me her car keys. “You can drive.”
I came to a standstill and attempted to toss them back, but they landed on the floor at her feet. “Don’t be ridiculous.” The pitch of my voice shot up a little higher than usual. “I can’t drive. I don’t have a license. I don’t know how.”
Anne placed the keys firmly in my https://www.amazon.com/Nowhere-Near-Goodbye-Barbara-Conrey-ebook/dp/B08CHMXFMYhand and wrapped my fingers around them. “I’ll teach you.”
Anne’s car, a beautifully restored 1949 candy-apple red Buick Roadmaster convertible, cost more than the house I grew up in. And even though it was a classic, I swore I could still smell the white leather interior whenever I opened the car door.
I looked out the window. “It looks like it might rain. You don’t want to take your car out in the rain. I bet that car hasn’t been out in the rain in all the years you’ve owned it.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ve been telling me for months that you want to learn to drive.”
We moved from the house to the garage. “Go on, get in.”
“I don’t think…”
“Maggie, just get in.”
I shot her one quick look of annoyance before sliding behind the steering wheel and gripping it until my knuckles turned white.
Anne walked around to the other side and slipped into the passenger seat. She closed the door softly behind her. “You need to relax.” Uncurling my hands from the steering wheel and taking the keys from my fingers, she added, “Just keep your hands in your lap for now.”
“Your car is worth thousands of dollars,” I stammered, stating the obvious, leaving the rest unsaid.
“Don’t worry about my car. Just relax. Let’s get you familiar with where everything is. Look,” she said, pointing, “here’s the ignition, the lights, the windshield wipers. Before you know it, you won’t need to look when you turn the lights on or the wipers. Just sit here and look around. Practice turning on the lights. Here’s the button to put the top down.”
I sat, frozen, with my hand on the lever to turn on the windshield wipers. It wasn’t raining yet, but I would be ready when it did.
“Put your foot on the pedal. Good. The point is to make sure you can easily reach everything. See? Here’s where you can adjust the seat. Does that feel comfortable?”
I nodded, even though I knew I would never be comfortable behind the wheel of her car.
“The right pedal’s the gas. The left one’s the brake.”
My right foot rested lightly on the gas pedal, so I moved my left foot to the brake.
“No, no, you only use your right foot. You need to move your foot back and forth from the gas to the brake when you want to start and stop.”
Learning to drive was more complicated than learning to use a sewing machine. And I didn’t need to worry that a sewing machine would take off by itself. I rested my head on the steering wheel and closed my eyes. “I don’t think I can do this.”
Anne chuckled. “Yes, you can. It’s not that hard. But you need to relax.”
When I slipped the key into the ignition and turned on the car, my forehead was slick with sweat, and my right foot had a cramp that practically curled my toes up out of my shoe. And I guessed that would be a problem since I needed that foot.
Fortunately, Anne always backed into the garage, so I was faced in the right direction when I inched down the length of the driveway. But that was as far as I wanted to go.
“How do I turn this thing off?’ I moved my right foot to the brake, and we both lurched forward even though the car was probably only moving a little faster than I could walk. I should have thought to ask that question before I needed to know the answer.
“Why do you want to turn it off?
“I changed my mind. Just tell me how to stop the damn thing!” I grasped the steering wheel as if my life depended on it.
Anne placed her hand on mine. “Just relax. We don't have to if you don’t want to do this. I won’t make you do something you don’t want to do.”
My hands automatically relaxed on the wheel. “Really?”
Anne nodded and explained how to turn off the car. “Hold your foot steady on the brake and put the car in Park, then pull the emergency brake on. We can try this again another day.” Anne leaned across the seat and kissed me on the cheek. “Maybe when it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain.”
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