Bella Mackie ‘It’s a fantasy, no woman is allowed to be like this anyway’

Bella Mackie talks about writing her darkly hilarious debut novel, How to Kill Your Family, that was partly inspired by her childhood love of true crime

Bella Mackie’s first book, called Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, was a non-fiction best-seller. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Bella Mackie’s first book, called Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, was a non-fiction best-seller. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

 

“Worst book title ever,” smiles Bella Mackie on a zoom call from the London home she shares with her husband, BBC Radio 1 breakfast presenter Greg James, and their rescue dog, Barney. She’s talking about the title of her brilliant and addictive debut novel How to Kill Your Family. She has had messages from people pre-ordering the book saying “oh my god, my family will be terrified”.

To alleviate any potential tension in her own family, the book’s dedication to her parents reads: “I promise never to kill either of you.” Anyway, reckons Mackie, “you can’t write a book like that if you do actually have family problems. You have to be quite healthy in your family to write a book called How To Kill Your Family, so I do feel like they should be comforted by that”.

The darkly hilarious novel was partly inspired by her childhood love of true crime. While her mother, the journalist and campaigner Lindsay Mackie read more traditional fairytale fodder to Bella when she was a child, her dad (former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger) regaled his daughter with gruesome tales of Jack The Ripper and Dr Crippen. For her ninth birthday, her father gave her a subscription to a monthly True Crime magazine. “You know the ones from the olden days, you put them in a binder. I mean looking back it was horrendous, a nine year old should not be reading that stuff”.

The novel’s protagonist is 28-year-old Grace Bernard, a young woman who kills off the family of her millionaire father as revenge for his abandonment of her dead mother and herself as a baby. Grace, who we meet in prison, is the sort of anti-heroine that’s having a cultural moment in TV series like Killing Eve and movies such as Promising Young Woman. She is a cold-hearted creation, the very antithesis of popular social media mantra: #BeKind. “A lot of the things Grace says come from the meanest things I’ve ever thought,” says Mackie. “From a young age, girls and women are taught to be nice and likeable. Obviously it’s good to be nice but it’s also a hindrance which holds women back.” Writing Grace was hugely enjoyable: “It’s not like she’s someone you’d aspire to be. It’s a fantasy, no woman is allowed to be like this anyway… you might as well just enjoy the voice.”

This novel is a departure for the 34-year-old, who made a name in journalism writing for Vice and several other UK publications. Her book Jog On: How Running Saved My Life was a non-fiction best-seller. It explored how discovering exercise helped with the debilitating anxiety she’s lived with for most of her life. Jog On combined advice from health professionals with observations from her own mental health struggles and the fallout from Mackie’s divorce after a short marriage. “I approached it quite journalistically,” she says. “I didn’t want it just to be about me. You know, ‘middle-class, white lady has panic attacks’. I tried to come at it from a bigger perspective.”

Mackie was surprised “and a little overwhelmed” by the success of her first book ( “I didn’t think anybody would read it”) but she also knew she didn’t want to write another one about the power of exercise – “Keep Running or Jog On 2” – despite all the requests asking her to do exactly that. “I didn’t want to dilute it.” The first book was transformative. It showed her she could enjoy writing in a different way and provided a path out of journalism, a career she had slowly come to realise was not for her.

“I spent my 20s enjoying journalism but also knowing ‘I have slightly stumbled into this’. I knew lots of journalists, my dad was a journalist. I did it without thinking about it. And then I thought, ‘I don’t really know where I’m gonna go with this, because I’m not my dad ...’” She left journalism aged 33, to write Jog On and says that writing the book “felt like the beginning of my life”.

Mackie was inspired by that early exposure to true crime but also by the fetishisation of men who murder women “where the women are killed but you don’t really find out anything about them and the murderers are admired and lauded, in a way”. At school she had an “amazing” English teacher who taught her more about Lady Macbeth than about Macbeth, and a history teacher who made her reappraise Ann Boleyn “and all these other women in history who aren’t quite what you think”. She wanted, she says, “to write a woman who was a bit broken but it doesn’t stop her from being ruthless and determined. She’s not weak and sad in a corner being molested and hurt by a man”.

‘Fun ways’ to die

After the success of Jog On, she hoped somebody might take a chance on a novel by her. “If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen now,” was her thinking. Two and half years ago, she sketched out an idea for the novel, deciding only to write one chapter. “I didn’t want to not get paid for something that might never get bought… so I wrote one chapter and then someone bought it.” She finally finished the book in lockdown. “I thought I’d just bash the book out but it ended up taking a lot longer. My friend said, ‘I grew up reading the Koran, your book is longer than the Koran’.”

It’s definitely funnier than the Koran. The murders in the book are hilarious, deliberately so. “I didn’t want to write torture porn or those kind of books where you feel a bit mucky afterwards,” she says. “The idea was the reader would think ‘ok, that’s ridiculous but I can see how it would happen’ ... Grace is a novice, she was doing it for the first time and I was doing it for the first time and neither of us really knew how to kill people,” she laughs. “I no longer want to read books about people killing people in really violent ways. I’ve reached a tipping point, so if they are going to die I want them to die in fun ways.”

Bella Mackie and her husband, BBC Radio 1 breakfast presenter Greg James, have an award-winning BBC podcast called Teach Me A Lesson. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Audi UK
Bella Mackie and her husband, BBC Radio 1 breakfast presenter Greg James, have an award-winning BBC podcast called Teach Me A Lesson. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Audi UK

One female character is offed when Grace manages to gain control of the sauna in her smart house in Monaco, another man is murdered at a posh sex party. One of the most ingenious killings happens when Grace sends a particularly annoying influencer a skincare product containing an ingredient she is fatally allergic to. “That’s my favourite one,” she says. “As a murder method, it’s just so clean. These people she is murdering are so rich. In real life, you would never get to them, they live in gated properties, they have drivers, they go on private planes, where are you going to find those people? So actually, the idea of being able to kill them without contact is quite helpful.”

Which brings us to another important theme running through the book – class. She calls the UK class system “batshit but fascinating”. The book skewers, through Grace’s jaundiced, raging lens, the Lamborghini, private jet owning, mega-wealthy but also comes down even harder on the Guardian-reading, virtue-signalling, middle-class London set which, for Mackie, is much closer to home. “I was on firmer ground there,” she says. “I don’t know what it’s like to own a house in Monaco but I do know what it’s like to boast about buying local, like that makes you such a f**king hero.”

The book also contains some delicious observations about male/female dynamics and feminism. And however “unlikeable” the main character is, people who read advance copies of the book had the same feedback, that they were rooting for Grace. “Why?” Mackie laughs. “She just murdered six people.” She understands the appeal, really. Even her 75-year-old mother-in-law “a lovely person” confessed she was sad that things didn’t turn out better for Grace in the end. “So I thought, ok, women are obviously crying out for that.”

Mackie is now, as they say, in a good place having come through difficult times. Her anxiety-riddled twenties were “awful… I couldn’t leave the house”. By age 29, she was married and really struggling to even take a walk by herself down the end of her road. “My [now ex-] husband said ‘you need to see a therapist’ so I went ... I came home that day and told him I’d been to see someone, I said ‘I feel like it’s quite positive, we can work through these issues’ and then he left me that day.”

A new lease of life

When she hit 30 that year, she remembers thinking everything felt different. “I started running and continued seeing the therapist … all the worries and panic and irrational thoughts and not being able to get out of bed went away. I was able to live on my own for the first time and travel and do all the things I couldn’t do in my 20s. It felt like a new lease of life. I felt like a human being and not like a sad, empty shell pretending to be a human being which is what my 20s felt like”.

Mackie is gorgeous company. She’s smart, original, relentlessly hilarious and self-aware – just like her books. She calls Greg James her “current husband … I feel like that keeps him on his toes”. They met on Twitter and after a few months of texting, he asked her out. “I realised quite quickly I wanted to marry him and I think I proposed after four months,” she says. She had been dating, feeling good in herself, but “I met a lot of idiots, and a lot of cheesy men … I got so bored of doing that. Then Greg came along and on our first date he booked dinner. Nobody had ever taken me on a first date where they booked dinner, to a nice restaurant, like a grown up. That’s how low my bar was. And then he stayed over that night and didn’t leave the next day. And it was like, ‘oh you’re not being a dick’. He didn’t ghost me. He seemed really straight up.”

It’s not as though she was desperate for another husband but “when Greg came along, I thought ‘you are great, I am going to nail this down’, because he’s on the radio, people like him, I thought I better lock it down now … it’s quite easy to get a divorce when you don’t own anything together but now we have a dog and a house. I tell him you can’t leave now because I’m never leaving this house. You’ll have to have your 21-year-old influencer girlfriend upstairs doing yoga and I’ll be banging on the ceiling saying, keep it down please”.

They will be married three years come September. They’re clearly in this for the long haul – everyone knows the couple that podcasts together stays together. Mackie and James have an award-winning, highly entertaining and educational BBC podcast called Teach Me A Lesson which they started in lockdown. Mackie also has another novel in her head, about a woman whose father runs a Ponzi scheme. Meanwhile, her current husband says he’s hoping Mackie sells millions of copies of How to Kill Your Family so they never have to work again.

“That’s the plan,” says Mackie. “Do an absolute Gone Girl on it … she [Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn] hasn’t written anything since 2012. She doesn’t have to. She’s on a ranch with a cocktail having the time of her life”.

How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie, published by The Borough Press, is out now