Louise Beech: The year I accidentally wrote a psychological thriller

‘The Mountain in my Shoe began as a series of what ifs and grew into a huge monster of a thing that chased me down dark corridors until I sat and wrote it’

 

2012 began as quite a normal year; I was a writer, struggling but hopeful despite many rejections. A particular idea nagged at me, as they often do, pulling on my sleeve like a hungry child. It involved a book. A missing book – a Lifebook – that told the tale of a little boy, Conor, who I could see clearly. He looked somewhat like my son, and he was as lost as the book.

Then a “what if” question demanded my attention too – what if on the very night a woman had the courage to leave her abusive husband he didn’t come home? Bernadette began to form in my mind – shy, stuck in a marriage she no longer wanted – and Richard, her husband of 10 years, appeared there too. The story grew, became The Mountain in my Shoe.

When I set off on my adventure with these characters (and Lifebook) I didn’t consider genre. I never do when writing. I think it’s down to lack of ability rather than any ability. Because I’ve never studied writing, at university or anywhere else, I’ve always found it quite hard to analyse how I do what I do. About technique or literary device. I’m driven purely by the story, by what it wants to be and how it wants to be told, rather than what criteria it must meet. Instinct over rules. Style over classification. But when Orenda publisher Karen Sullivan told me The Mountain in my Shoe was a psychological thriller, I was incredibly excited. I bragged to my husband when he got home from work that I was the author of a psychological thriller. (Said, for the record, with wide eyes and clapping hands.)

So what makes a psychological thriller, and have I indeed waded into dark and unknown waters with my second book? Primarily, this genre deals with and explores the thrilling nature of characters in “unstable mental and/or emotional states”. Okay, so that covers me as a writer, but what about the people in my book? Yes, then. Yes, each character is certainly on an intensely emotional journey, and might be described as unstable. I wonder though, is this the case with all genres? Don’t all stories involve people in some sort of bad shape?

Psychological thrillers usually have, at their heart, the infamous plot twist, which today are often announced on the cover to hook the reader. Unreliable narrators are revealed for what they really are. Strings of coincidences (Is there such a thing? wonders a taxi driver in The Mountain in my Shoe) are revealed to be so much more. Gently dropped clues are blown out of the water. The reader (hopefully) experiences the glorious OhMyGod moment. The moment when all the little hints and nagging suspicions become realised. For me, the biggest buzz of all occurs when we care about the characters in a story, so we feel how they feel. I felt everything that my ensemble experienced and I hope that shines through.

Someone being missing (or taken) is a common theme in the thrillers I’ve read in recent years – in page-turners like Gone Girl, The Missing and In Her Wake. In The Mountain in my Shoe everything is missing. The journey inevitably involves discovering how this happened, the why, the where, and the whom. Because, really, my accidental psychological thriller is about being lost – truly lost, in a deeper sense than the physical. Not knowing where we belong. The thing that’s missing is identity, and something this important yet elusive is the hardest thing of all to find.

Then there’s the unreliable narrator I mentioned earlier. Are my characters telling their stories unreliably? Don’t all characters in all books do this? I think yes, but perhaps in the psychological thriller this is amped up to a nerve-shredding degree. Ten-year-old Conor is limited by his ability, by his experiences and age, but in many ways he is the most reliable storyteller in the book. He can only tell the truth; it’s all he knows, and he has no agenda. But he doesn’t have all the information. While his Lifebook (the one that’s missing) perhaps tells the most – with its many historical documents and reports – it also contains letters from characters who certainly do have an agenda. The who and the what, well, that’s up to the reader to decide.

Bernadette, the other protagonist, is perhaps the greatest mystery. She was certainly the biggest enigma to me, the female character perhaps I have found the hardest to understand, but the greatest to write.

Finally, there’s the traditional eerie setting. I’ve known since I was nine years old of a place I would one day use in a book. I wanted to isolate my main character Bernadette, to reflect her being stuck in a difficult marriage, so I drew on memories of a huge Victorian building I lived in as a child. My mum moved into it after her divorce, with my three siblings and me. It was damp, dilapidated and always cold because of the river. Surrounded by overgrown lawns and wood, it was home to five run-down council flats. At night I hid beneath the covers to ignore the haunting sound of the foghorn and branches creaking and nearby dog howling. I was sure we were the only people in the world. So I renamed it Tower Rise and brought it to life in The Mountain in my Shoe.

If I did accidentally write a psychological thriller, it came from the heart. I could never include twists for the sake of a cheap thrill. Any reveal would have to be true to the story, natural and poetic somehow, part of the rhythm of the prose. The Mountain in my Shoe began as a series of what ifs and grew into a huge monster of a thing that chased me down dark corridors until I sat and wrote it. Now, it’s time to share it with the world and that means the biggest reveal of all – will readers enjoy it too?

The Mountain in My Shoe by Louise Beech is published by Orenda Books, at £8.99

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