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Author Interview: C.L. Taylor

Our next author in the interview series will be C.L. Taylor, whose chilling psychological thriller, Sleep, is published today by Avon.

C.L. Taylor is a Sunday Times bestselling author. Her psychological thrillers have sold over a million copies in the UK alone, been translated into over twenty languages and optioned for television. C.L. Taylor lives in Bristol with her partner and son.

Sleep is her sixth novel.

What inspired you to write?

Like a lot of authors I was a voracious reader as child and read everything and anything I could get my hands on. My favourite author was Enid Blyton and her Faraway Tree series sparked my imagination more than any other books and I started writing my own little novels: handwritten, illustrated and jacket designed by me and stapled into shape. When I was eight I discovered a series called The Garden Gang, published by Ladybird and written and illustrated by an author called Jayne Fisher. Jayne was nine and the youngest author in Britain. I decided that if she could get published then maybe I could too. I sent one of my books, Weedy – about a group of flower friends and Weedy their evil nemesis – to Ladybird books and received my first ever rejection letter.

What’s your favourite book/piece of literature?

You want me to choose one? Out of everything I have ever read? I’m going to cheat and say, for children’s literature it’s The Magic Faraway Tree (the second book in Enid Blyton’s series) and for adult literature…oh it’s a tough call but The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood had a huge impact on me the first time I read it as a teenager and continues to deliver a gut punch whenever I re-read it.

Where do most of your good ideas come to you?

Good ideas pop into my head all the time, but never when I’m actually sitting in front of my computer. They normally arrive if I’m walking somewhere (but not if I’m listening to music or an audio book), if I’m in a queue, on the train, in the shower or when I’m about to drop off to sleep. I never rely on my memory if a good idea pops into my head just as I’m about to fall asleep. I always get up, come downstairs and write it down. Then I go back to sleep.

Where do you write?

I probably get most words down at my desk. After years of dreaming about having a ‘room of my own’ I finally have my own study. It’s between the kitchen and the living room and should be our dining room but I claimed it as my own as soon as we looked around the house. The downside is my family and dog spend a lot of time walking back and forth outside my study so I’ve invested in some noise cancelling headphones. When a deadline gets closer or I need the headspace to plot a new idea I book myself five days to a week at a writing retreat or go to a hotel for the weekend. I enjoy writing on trains too, but only in the quiet carriage with headphones on.

What is your writing process?

I get an idea and I get really excited (because it’s going to be the BEST BOOK I HAVE EVER WRITTEN) and jot down every thought, character note and scene that pops into my head into a brand new notebook with the working title written on the front. I love this stage of the process – it’s when anything is possible and I am full of optimism and energy and I can’t stop thinking about the book.

The next step is try to formulate all those jottings into some kind of plot. I identify what the main character wants and how they change over the course of the novel and then I think about scenes. I use the four act structure which is widely used in screenwriting (Alexandra Sokoloff has written a great ‘how to’ book on the subject called ‘Stealing Hollywood’) as a foundation for my plot and draw out a grid on a massive white board in my office. I then try and work out what the eight sequence climaxes are, write them down on index cards and stick them to the board with magnets. I also work out what the first few scenes are and stick them to the board. If I’ve got ideas for other scenes too I pin them into the relevant sequence. I used to do very, very detailed plotting before writing a word (I wrote a 5,000 word outline for The Missing and a 13,000 word outline for The Escape) but for The Fear, Sleep and the book I’m writing now I’m more relaxed about it. There are some scenes I know and a lot that I don’t. Characters grow as you write about them and I like to surprise myself as they reveal twists and turns in the plot that I hadn’t expected. For the last two books I didn’t know the ending until I got there and I think the endings of The Fear and Sleep are the strongest of any of my books. Maybe because I didn’t see the endings coming, my readers don’t either.

And finally, for any aspiring writers reading this I’d like to point out that a) I hate starting a book and it takes me forever to get into the flow b) by 40,000 words in I am doubting every word I write and think it’s a terrible idea, a terrible book and I should ditch it and write something else instead. It’s all perfectly normal and self-doubt is an unavoidable part of the process. Just keep going. You can fix it in the edit.

Where did the idea come from for Sleep?

I knew from the start that I wanted to write about sleep. I’m fascinated by dreams, insomnia, night terrors, sleepwalking and, originally, the idea was that the present day thread would be about a bunch of people in a sleep clinic with problems that originated from a nightmarish stay in a remote hotel on a windswept Scottish island. But the more I thought about the hotel thread of the story the stronger it grew and when I tried to work out what would happen in the clinic nothing I could think of matched it for intensity, menace, suspense or ‘grippyness’ (yes, I made up a word). So, rather than risk the reader flipping past the clinic chapters to get to the hotel chapters, I decided to ditch that thread and focus it all on the island. I loved ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie and wanted to use the ‘group of guests in a hotel and one of them is a killer’ trope but put my own dark psychological thriller spin on it. With a few twists thrown in of course…

How do you relax after a day of writing?

I’d like to say that I read but, after having words in my head, on the screen and, often, in my ears (when I read sentences aloud to see if they work and then when I read my son a bedtime story) the last thing I can face is more words so I tend to watch TV or films in the evening. I’ll read at the weekends if I’m not writing. I also try (and mostly fail) to stay off my phone while I watch TV but I’m a bit of a fidgeter so I often knit or cross-stitch while I’m watching something.