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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Lexie Elliott talks about her new psychological thriller, How To Kill Your Best Friend.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Lexie Elliott about her life and career, what inspires her writing, and the story of her new psychological thriller, How To Kill Your Best Friend.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
My name is Lexie Elliott, and I’m the author of three psychological thrillers, the latest of which is How To Kill Your Best Friend. I live in London with my husband and two teenaged sons, but I grew up in Scotland at the foot of the Highlands. I have a doctorate in Theoretical Physics from Oxford University, which led to a career in investment banking and then fund management, and for many years I juggled writing alongside the city job but since 2021 I’ve been writing full time (though not necessarily any faster…).
I’ve always been a keen sportswoman and in 2007 I swam the English Channel solo. I won’t be doing that again. In 2015, to raise money for Alzheimer Scotland (my mother was a sufferer), I ran 100km; I won’t be doing that again either. But I still run or swim almost every day.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I can’t remember NOT wanting to write a book. Once I understood that books were created by authors, an author is what I wanted to be. Which I am, now—hurrah!—it just took me a while to get there.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Even as a child, I would write little stories—thankfully none have survived—and later, as a teenager, I became heavily influenced by Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips, which really opened my eyes to what it’s possible to achieve within the short story genre; for years after that, I mainly wrote short stories (and some truly terrible poetry). Much, much later I had some success in short story competitions, and that gave me the confidence to think that perhaps I was ready to take a crack at a novel —but the real catalyst came when I lost my banking job in the Global Financial Crisis: that gave me some time to actually sit down and give novel-writing a try.
The first book I ever wrote isn’t published—The French Girl was my second effort—but I learned a lot from that first attempt, and I also met my agent as a result of it.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Years and years: more than a decade, but less than two. I was working on my doctorate when I dreamt up The French Girl; the plot for that novel revolves around an incident that takes place in a farmhouse in France whilst a group of university friends are spending a holiday there, and the idea came to me when I was on vacation in a farmhouse in France with a group of university friends—I’m sure you recognise the symmetry, but thankfully nobody died in the real-life vacation!
It was a great many years before I actually sat down to write that story, though: I had my PhD to finish, and then I started the investment banking job and had very little time or energy to write, and then I got married and had to juggle kids alongside the career so I had even less time and energy!
I do believe the story that I ultimately wrote benefitted from the long incubation time and the increased life experience that came with that; the finished product would have been very different if I had tried to write it in my twenties.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
It was thankfully much quicker than with The French Girl! Definitely less than three years from the very first germ of an idea until hardback release. That might sound long, but only about fifteen months of that would have been proper writing time; the rest comprised of crafting that initial idea into a fully-fledged tale and agreeing an outline with my publisher before I started writing, and, at the back end, the extensive post-writing process (copy edit, proofreading, marketing and so forth).
Those outside of the publishing universe are often amazed at the extraordinarily long lead time from a book being in finished format to it finally hitting the shelves, which is partly to allow enough time for publicity and marketing—and for reviewers to actually read the thing!
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write How To Kill Your Best Friend?
Just before I went on vacation, my publisher had asked me the all-important question: What are you planning to write next? So I spent rather a lot of that holiday trying to come up with ideas. The title came to me first, and it was such an intriguing one: why on earth would anyone want to kill their best friend?
The story unfolded from there, heavily influenced by the lovely remote island resort I was staying at, and of course by my own background: given my long history of being a swimmer, it was very easy for me create a tale in which swimming played such a pivotal part—I certainly didn’t need to do any specific research for those sections!
What were your biggest challenges with writing How To Kill Your Best Friend?
It took some time to find the right structure for this novel. I was really struggling to get going with it, but then I realised that what the novel needed was a dual narrative (the story is told through both Georgie’s and Bronwyn’s eyes). That was something I hadn’t attempted before, but I really enjoyed the challenge of creating two distinct voices, and I think it helped to make the writing process feel very fresh for me.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Given the dual narrative structure, there are two protagonists: Georgie and Bronwyn. If I’m truly honest, my characters tend to present themselves to me fully formed, so it’s quite difficult for me to ever pinpoint a specific inspiration, but in this case there was at least a deliberate intention to have their present circumstances be quite different—Georgie is living an apparently glamourous life in Manhattan as a career-minded singleton, whereas Bronwyn has recently given up her career and is a stay-at-home mum living in the suburbs of London—despite their shared past as dedicated competitive swimmers. It’s interesting to see how their lives have diverged, and to think about why that might be.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’d rather not say too much about the antagonist!
What is the inciting incident of How To Kill Your Best Friend?
The inciting incident is the death of Lissa, a champion swimmer who has nevertheless somehow drowned off the coast of the exotic island resort she was running with her husband. Brought together for a memorial service held on the island, Georgie, Bronwyn, Lissa’s grieving husband and their mutual friends find themselves questioning the circumstances around Lissa’s death—and each other…
What is the main conflict of How To Kill Your Best Friend?
With the dual narrative, there’s two aspects to the conflict! Georgie is driven by a desire to uncover the truth of Lissa’s death, and she encounters plenty of obstacles in her pursuit of that, whereas Bronwyn simply wants to get through the memorial and return to her life with her family, but for her own safety she finds that she too must look more closely into what might have happened to Lissa. Their differing goals also create conflict within the novel.
Did you plot How To Kill Your Best Friend in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I plot in advance, for two reasons. The first is that I have to: my publisher requires an outline! The second is that it makes the writing so much easier. The outline is not a commandment—the finished product can and will deviate from it—but it’s much easier to make progress when you have at least some sort of guidance as to where you’re headed.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did How To Kill Your Best Friend need?
My first reader is always my wonderful agent, Marcy—who, before becoming an agent, used to be an editor and provides really insightful notes—and the next reader after that will be my editor at my publishing house. I’m a pretty clean writer, in the sense that I don’t tend to make grammatical errors and my plots usually hang together; my first draft on any project could probably be published without it needing much more than a quick proofread—but I wouldn’t want it to be.
Good editing is so much more than simple corrections or line edits; good editing pushes the writer to really hone the story, be it by improving the pacing or altering the emphasis to allow the themes to shine through more clearly. The second draft takes those editorial notes into account, and may involve significant shifts in emphasis and tone, but after that, any tweaks are generally minor.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Write! Don’t wait to be in the ‘right mood’, just sit down and get going—and stick at it. If you’re genuinely serious about it, you will need to ringfence time to write, otherwise life will invariably get in the way.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
There are so many potential projects in my head! But the one I’m working on right now is Bright And Deadly Things, which will be out in February of next year (it’s very nearly completed and is about to go into that long post-writing process I talked about). That is focussed on a group of academics (undergraduates, graduates and fellows) who attend an academic summer retreat at a secluded, rustic chalet in the French Alps—but once there, strange things start to happen, and then one of the party goes missing…
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Incredibly proud. Every single novel, published or unpublished, is first and foremost a feat of perseverance; just getting one finished at all is worth celebrating. What makes it even more worthwhile, though, is the response from readers. I’m acutely aware that nowadays people have so many different options on how to spend their leisure time, and it’s an honour and privilege whenever anyone picks up one of my books. That some of those readers then take the time to email me to tell me how much they have enjoyed my work is genuinely enormously touching. I would still write even if nobody read my output, but it’s so much more rewarding to know that people do read it—and appreciate it.
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