To mark the publication of her second novel, we spoke to Anna Willett about her background and influences.
Frequently depicting women in difficult, life-threatening situations, her writing is always exciting, but what lies beneath this interest in ordinary people pushed to their limits?
TBF: You moved to Australia from the UK at an early age. How has that influenced you as a person or writer?
AW: We left Wales when I was six and I’m sure that move shaped me in many ways. The lack of extended family and long standing roots was a bit strange. I grew up in Western Australia in the seventies and eighties, a very isolated and quiet place. I spent most of my early years reading and watching films, I still do. Living in WA is a unique experience, I feel like the West is and has always been a wild and beautiful place; dangerous and safe at the same time. But after all these years I’m almost a native.
TBF: What motivates you to write?
AW: I feel compelled to write. The ideas come and I have to get them out. Once I have a really good idea for a story, I can’t stop mulling it over until I have it on paper. For me, writing is the ultimate form of escapism. When I’m writing, I’m in another world; a world I create. I’m also motivated by readers’ reactions to my stories. When I hear people discuss the characters I’ve created, I want to go straight back to my computer and keep writing.
I think the single most important factor in shaping me as a writer was my mother. She was a voracious reader and she’d tell me about the book she was reading in a way that brought the story alive. I’d always ask her if I could read it when she was finished and so by the age of thirteen, I’d read adult fiction. From the books my mother introduced me to, a love of the written word developed.
One book that comes to mind is A Patch of Blue. I was so enthralled by it, I actually took it to school with me. I was in Year Eight, so aged thirteen. We had something called U.S.S.R. Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading. Very popular in Australian schools back then. Anyway, I took out A Patch of Blue and my English teacher was quite shocked. I remember she questioned me about the book, but did allow me to continue reading it. She was a lovely woman. The same thing happened the following year with The Thorn Birds. I was quite a strange child.
TBF: What was different about writing your second book?
AW: I felt more confident about what I was doing. And I knew I could start and finish a book. So that made the second one easier. I also seem to write faster these days, probably because I have a good routine in place. It also helps knowing someone’s actually going to read it.
TBF: What comes easiest to you as a writer?
AW: I suppose the ideas are the easiest part. I don’t have to force them, they just arrive. I usually have the next book planned while I’m still working on my current project. Right now, I have a burning idea for a story that I can’t wait to get to, even though I’m not finished with the book I’m writing. I don’t really know where the ideas come from, I’m just happy they come.
TBF: All of your books so far have involved difficult, strained, or duplicitous relations between women. Can you explain a little about this interest of yours?
AW: I’m very interested in human behaviour and interactions. I think about people’s intentions and motivations when I study their language and behaviour. My imagination is non-stop, always taking me to the next step so I think about what could happen – the worst that could happen, for some reason. I like the dark and scary elements of books and films. I always have, it’s just part of me; what makes me who I am. It feels natural for me to write stories that examine the flip side of relationships. So when I write, I’m always viewing story ideas from a dangerous perspective.
I like the escapism of thrillers or horror. I don’t want to write about the happy endings, there’s no fun in that, not for me. I like strong female characters. I enjoy taking their reactions to the extreme. Putting them in situations where their strength is really challenged and their capacity for good and evil is exposed. In that way, I can get to the gritty breath-taking moments. I think, for readers who enjoy a good scare, that’s where the attraction dwells. I certainly enjoy writing the dark stuff. Although I do try to make the endings at least hopeful.
TBF: Do the women in your books trust other women too much? Why are these battles staged in the wilderness? Is that a storyteller tool, or is there a deeper subjective connection there?
AW: The women in my books are survivors. They’ve had to overcome painful experiences, loss or guilt. This makes them vulnerable in many ways. In some cases, they’re easily manipulated because they don’t trust their instincts especially when it comes to other women. In Backwoods Ripper, Paige is relieved when two women stop to help her. It’s a natural assumption – women are a safer option. But because the women are survivors, when things turn upside down, that inner strength comes into play. That’s when the story gets interesting.
Western Australia is a huge place, it’s easy to take a wrong turn or find yourself in an isolated area. There’s something eerie about the bush, that feeling that anything could happen and no one would find you. It’s the perfect playground for a thriller. It’s easy to imagine wild things happening in wild places. In fact, one works off the other.
Being in the wilderness is a way of stripping away all the safeguards. Take away mobile phone service and people feel very alone. Having said all that, the bush is very appealing because it’s unsullied by civilisation. We also have some peculiar creatures lurking in the bush – not all of them cute.
TBF: What are you reading at the moment?
AW: I’ve just finished Jack Ketchum’s Stranglehold. He’s an amazing writer, very intense and unrelenting. Now I’m enjoying Enmity by Pete Brassett. I love detective fiction and can’t get enough of Munro and West. Whenever I discover an author I like, I read everything they’ve written.
TBF: Do you have another book on the go we can look forward to?
AW: I’m almost at the half-way mark with my new book. Another thriller, this one’s about two women who meet and after a seemingly unimportant encounter, one of them is abducted by a serial killer operating in Perth and the South-west. The two lives become connected in a deadly way.
I’ve been doing some research, looking at country towns in the South-west. I always try to get a feel for the area I’m writing about. I spend a few days, take photographs and write notes. Once I have everything I need, I’m away.