Thriller writer Kathleen McCaul on why writing her latest novel, Grave Secrets in Goa, was her greatest challenge to date:
As a writer, I’ve done some foolhardy things. I flew to Iraq, a week after my final university exams, to help set up a newspaper in newly worn-torn Baghdad. I’ve hopped on a bus to Srinagar, leaving London behind for a job on the Kashmir Observer. And there were times in these places where I thought I had bitten of more than I could chew.
When Saddam’s sons were caught and the whole country erupted in a celebratory gun shower, I thought it was the start of a civil war. As I tossed up between hiding in the wardrobe or under the bed of our tiny, insecure, house, I realized I had been a bit irresponsible and might cause my parents some grief.
Inviting a boatload of ex-militants to tea in my houseboat in Kashmir wasn’t thought through enough either. I saw that by the face of the owner, who went a whiter shade of pale as he saw the grizzly group paddling towards us – and the angry call from my editor explaining ‘they know where you live now.’
But nothing has felt so reckless as arriving in Sao Paulo, six weeks pregnant, with a thriller to write. The due date for handing in the book already past, I wandered the streets of Brazil’s seething metropolis in a daze. How on earth was I going to look after a baby? How on earth was I going to carry on being a writer? And more pressing, how on earth was I going to keep away from the toilet long enough to at least write one paragraph more?
When I had my first book, Murder in the Ashram, accepted for publication, I was lucky enough to get a deal for a second. The first, set in Delhi, came slowly, while living in the city. This second needed to be quicker, better and in a different location. I hit on Goa.
Known for its beaches and parties, it’s a place of crime and drugs as well as beauty and good times. The perfect setting for a thriller, I thought. My Brazilian boyfriend hired a scooter and we spent three months travelling the state, thinking up ideas, talking to everyone and hatching a plot.
It all seemed to be going well until I started running to the bathroom every hour and falling into bed before sundown. Getting pregnant was not part of the second book plan – or moving back to Brazil.
Writing a thriller heavily pregnant led me to some strange places. My google searches ended in horrific stories of snatched babies and dead mothers. My boyfriend forbade me from re-reading a fourth James Ellroy book on the grounds that it would affect his child.
But I carried on and somehow managed to get the final draft in on my due date, huge and heavy and nervous. And in the end, perhaps I did a better job than I could have done at any other time. I was incredibly unsociable, which made ruminating ideas easier. I didn’t drink, which meant I really did get up at seven every day. And my powers of concentration were so hindered that I had to forget about every other area of my life other than the book.
There were sacrifices. As I went into hospital, my doctor asked me how I felt about becoming a mother. I hadn’t really thought about it, I’d be too busy concentrating on murder. I hardly knew the end of my street, so little time I had to spare, intent on finishing the book before the baby was born.
But it was an experience – I think my daughter must be one of a few unborn children who have had a crime novel dedicated to them. Ten copies arrived in Brazil today, on her seven-month birthday. She’s over the moon with the box and chewing her copy to bits. I hope one day she’ll enjoy the second version I’ve put up for her; in the way it was intended.
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