It was the cover that fascinated me whilst wondering round Waterstones; Dear Amy is a book with a red background. What intrigued me was the story, about a Teen girl who is missing, yet letters are written to a Newspaper Agony Aunt from an unrelated case from years before. Part detective, part crime, this is a true to form Thriller that I really enjoyed. I emailed Helen Callaghan, the author, some questions about the boo, and she obliged.
Growing up, did you aspire to be a writer?
I did. It was something I’d done from a very young age, writing “novels” about unicorns, complete with my own (terrible) illustrations, and whereas most people grow out of that I didn’t, I’m afraid. Though I’ve dropped the unicorns and terrible illustrations. At least for now.
What gave you the idea for Dear Amy?
I’m really not sure. Without being too spoilery, I was very interested in thinking about my greatest fear, which is what happens to Katie and Bethan, and the difference between rescue and escape. I was very young when I wrote the first draft, and it was a way of exploring that fear, and ultimately defeating it.
Was there anything specific that interested you in the crime genre?
Yeah, there are some specific elements of it that are fascinating from a writing perspective. I’d written a few books before I was published and even though they were different genres, they were all constructed around mysteries – the main character has to save themselves by understanding and interpreting the chain of events they are part of, and there are big stakes for failure. In Dear Amy and Everything is Lies this is the process the heroine goes through – her life depends on her working it out.
The other thing I love about writing the psychological thrillers is that I get to explore my fears in a safe place – not just fear of physical, external danger, but also internal fears, such as loss, bereavement, and betrayal.
Without going into too much detail, how did you set out to write Margot’s character switch?
Initially, in the first draft years ago, as a writer I found that the temptation is to do what Hannibal Lecter calls “the elaboration of a bad liar” – to throw up a load of extraneous details like a smokescreen, and try to hide behind it. Part of the work of getting better was learning that it is okay to not endlessly explain everything.
How did you research extra details for the book?
My friend the internet, for the most part, and for things like teaching and nursing I spoke to friends in those fields. The most demanding part of it was the psychology research, because the central issue is actually a patchwork of symptoms rather than its own thing, but that was a fascinating thing to read about. There were a plethora of amazing stories of things that had happened to people that were just incredibly strange, you don’t know how folk would recover from that.
The fun part of the research was locating houses the Grove could be based on, and I visited some lovely places to get a feel of what that kind of brooding Jacobean manor would be like, including Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk and Gravetye Manor is West Sussex.
Did you ever expect the book to do as well as it has done?
Um, no! I mean, obviously you hope people will enjoy what you’re doing and the dream is to be read by as many people as possible, but you’ve no way of knowing. But it’s been absolutely wonderful and everyone – from my agent Judith, to the team at Penguin, to all of the fab readers who get in touch to say, hey, well done – people have been amazing and responded to it in a way I couldn’t have anticipated in my wildest dreams.
And it’s so odd, because the first draft of this book was written decades ago and I’ve been living with it nearly all of my adult life.
It’s also a strange thing because you can have been writing for years and suddenly this one is The One, the one that gets you published – and you’re wondering to yourself, how am I going to duplicate whatever it is in the next one since I don’t know what it is?
Writing the follow-up to Dear Amy may well be one of the scariest things I’ve ever done…
Would you ever revisit the characters of Dear Amy, such as in a follow-up book?
Do you know, I’ve been asked this before and I’m not sure. I think Margot’s story concludes nicely in Dear Amy and getting her into any more trouble just feels like cruelty! She’s due a holiday.
That said, I liked writing Martin and the idea of the Multi-Disciplinary Historial Analysis Team could reappear – there is something quite appealing about the idea of identifying unsolved crimes through number-crunching, which then goes on to have horrifying real-world consequences. I might use them again when I write book four. If I did that, I think Margot would probably have a cameo.
Currently, are you working on any other projects?
I am indeed – I have two on the go. Book Three, which is currently nameless, is set on Orkney and concerns a missing archaeologist and a Viking burial, but at the moment I am literally just finishing off a new round of edits on Everything is Lies, which is about Sophia, a young architect, who comes home to visit her parents after a strange phone call the night before, and finds her mother seems to have committed suicide and her father is mortally wounded. Very shortly after, she discovers her mother had been in a cult in her youth and was in the process of writing an expose on it.
Sophia starts digging, and things start to spiral out of control from there…
Thank you to Helen Callaghan for answering my questions; to buy Dear Amy, click here.