A portrait of thriller novelist Anna Willett by publisher Erik Empson
Having met with most of our authors based in the British Isles, I’ve Zoomed to the other side of the world, opting to forgo the potential jolly for the sake of the environment and sense. So I journey virtually and don’t take the route Anna took at the age of six when her immediate family emigrated from Cardiff to Perth.
I immediately want to probe into this significant event in Anna’s life. As readers familiar with her books must be aware, many of Anna’s novels centre on women subjects who are exposed and vulnerable. She tells tales of them finding inner resolve and battling the odds. I explain to Anna that I’d formed this amateur psychological profile of her being torn away from everything she knew and deposited in a strange land, ne’er to return.
She laughs this away. Nope, no childhood trauma. No waking up at night terrified of monsters in the shadows and beasts under the bed. In fact she returned a couple of times to the UK, once staying for a year in her late teens. Since then, no, however. She feels no particular attachment to the land of her fathers. Even when I extoll the wonders of the Cardiff Bay development which surely must parallel or better any delights Perth has to offer!
In fact, rather than being nostalgic about the past, Anna very much identifies with the antipodean world she has become accustomed to. And she is full of enthusiasm for Perth. In photos it looks clean and modern. Anna describes it as “outdoorsy”. There is also talk of it not quite getting the respect it deserves in Victoria’s literary quarters.
So, there is a little sense of isolation there. The city is far from the more populated south eastern coast, separated by the Great Victoria Desert and the vast limestone Nullarbor Plain. It looks out upon the mighty Indian ocean, which I guess has more kerb appeal than the sallow waters of the Bristol Channel. The sea is not far away from her house, just down the road, though not close enough to deposit sand on the windowsills.
Anna lives in the same suburban area she moved to as a child. Knowing that she has travelled extensively around the region, New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia – at least ten times, apparently – Thailand, Tasmania, and Malaysia, this surprises me a little but it makes sense on reflection. Anna has put her foot down on the fatal shore, set up base there, and is not moving for anyone.
In her emails Anna is generally concise and to the point. She is business-like and professional, and 100% focussed on anything that can be done to improve readers’ enjoyment of her books. I ask about her working life and discover that as a schoolteacher she is known as one of the strictest in her school. The children, she says, love the discipline. Her straightforwardness is reflected here. She poo-poos the kind of ‘fads’ I became aware of recently, when a friend’s daughter of six presented me with a book she had written. Children in this London school are not taught to spell but rather encouraged to write, phonetically. Learning spelling will come later, is the theory, creativity should come first. To be frank, I liked the pictures but struggled with the text.
A stern teacher, Anna may be, but she is also a sensitive person and when one reviewer lambasted her for mentioning in a serial killer’s backstory that the character tortured a dog, as an animal lover, educator and mother, it visibly hurt. There was nothing gratuitous about the scene. Serial killers hurt animals, don’t they? And the reviewer didn’t seem at all concerned that the same killer tortured humans.
I wonder if keeping readers happy is as hard a job as teaching five-year-olds. I guess it is a little easier as Anna has (early) retirement in sight and wants to concentrate entirely on her literary endeavours. A night owl, she can be found writing in the early hours and will often surprise me by firing off an email reply when we are just about to shut up shop. So the time difference has never been an issue. She is fortunate to have a supportive family. And her daughter reads all of her books in first draft.
If I was wrong to imagine there was something about this dislocation in her childhood that informs Anna’s writing, it is possible that it is the relative security of her life in Perth that allows her to explore themes that so deftly tap into modern anxieties.
There are two dominant tropes in Anna’s books. One is that of people who come a cropper outside the relative safety of the city – her first book Backwoods Ripper is a Stephen King-esque story about a pregnant woman stranded with her husband when their car breaks down in a backwater, leaving them to the mercy of a couple of strange women who live in an abandoned hospital. This theme reappears to a degree in Retribution Ridge, her second novel, and others offer variations on it.
“I like diving into the insecurities and doubts that people face when they are out of their depth and feel trapped,” Anna said in a recent interview. “In difficult situations, people don’t always make the right or even the logical decision. I try to create characters who aren’t heroines or heroes, just flawed people in extraordinary situations.”
Warring couples holiday in remote places, and discover unpleasant truths about one another. People with grudges plot vengeance; unwary, dizzy and naïve subjects meet calculating nemeses. Here the vast beyond swallows up the unwary and the arrogant, leaving the protagonists with only their willpower to draw on.
The second theme, increasingly present in Anna’s latest books, like Dear Neighbour, The Family Man and the recently published Lost to the Lake, is that of the puncturing of domestic bubbles. There are husbands who hide guilty secrets. Gaslighters, manipulators and villains. People whom one is meant to trust who turn out to be a threat themselves.
If Anna explores this aspect of human experience, it is perhaps more because she has created a sheltered space around her that permits it. But I also feel that her ability to communicate the expansiveness of the continent, and transport us there, does owe something to her having a different point of reference. Pick up one of Anna’s books and any plastic rendition of the setting we might have garnered from the after-school soaps fed to us on TV, is immediately dispelled. Help is not a phone call away, but rather several hours’ drive. People who are not to be trusted, have to be trusted. Survival is a negotiation.
The popularity of these atmospheric and moody books shows how Anna has thus drawn on universal fears whilst flavouring the drama with an exotic twist that makes for compelling reading. Beneath her shock of black hair, which she sports at shoulder length, is an astute, driven and talented writer. With each new book, one can see her storytelling powers grow, and that bodes well for readers. I am truly excited to see what Anna will do next, and travel without the aid of Zoom, but with the power of words, once more to the other side of the Earth.
Anna Willett has published fifteen novels with us since 2016. Her latest book LOST TO THE LAKE has recently been produced as an audiobook, and is proving popular with listeners the world over. For details about all of her books, head to her page on our website.