Author (and Jericho Writers Premium Member) Liz Webb is back with THE SAVED, an utterly gripping thriller with a chilling premise set on an isolated Scottish island. If you haven’t read our first interview with Liz charting her writing journey through to publication of her brilliant debut THE DAUGHTER, do catch up here.
Hello Liz, thank you so much for joining us again. The conversation did take some interesting turns! We spoke about what it’s like to write your first book versus your second, how supportive your publisher Allison and Busby is and the perils of googling ex-boyfriends.
Thanks so much for having me back. Well, my 2nd book was easier to write because of what I’d learned with the 1st one, but simultaneously harder, exactly because I knew more and had expectations to grapple with. But I’m very proud of both books. My publisher Allison & Busby continues to be marvellously supportive. And googling ex-boyfriends could turn out to be a great source for future plots: last interview I mentioned discovering that one ex was in prison for fraud and I recently found out that another is now a clairvoyant: oh that I could stop my heart for a couple of hours and visit him for a haunting!
And talking of stopping hearts, that’s the theme of my 2nd novel THE SAVED, published on Jan 25th 2024: Nancy discovers the body of her partner Calder floating in the freezing sea near an isolated Scottish island. Paramedics fail to resuscitate him but mysteriously say ‘you’re not dead till you’re warm and dead’. Because people can be brought back to life up to 6 hours later if they have a heart attack while extremely cold. Calder does indeed ‘come back from the dead’ and everyone says he’s fully recovered. But Nancy looks into his eyes and knows that something is very wrong. Now she’s going home with a stranger…
One thing that came through last time we spoke was your sense of humour. You’ve done many things, but as a former comedian (and a very funny person) what brought you to writing psychological thrillers?
If you hear a good joke, you’re laughing.
Read a tense thriller, you’re on edge and gripped.
Laughter and fear are both immediate visceral reactions. So trying to make someone laugh is not that dissimilar to making a book tense. In both, I’m trying to elicit a gut reaction. It’s just that a joke is short and you succeed or fail immediately; whereas a book takes aaages to write and the publishing process is glacial before you reach readers.
Secondly, both comedy and thrillers grab attention and take you out of yourself. I get bored easily, am super-lazy and can be tediously self-analytical. So I’m drawn to anything that shakes me out of my listlessness and navel-gazing and love comedy and thrillers. My most recent favourite comedy comes from the US comic Nate Bargatze, with his deceptively simple slants on everyday life. And my most recent favourite psychological thriller is Yellowface by R F Kuang: in which rabid publishing jealousy fuels theft, paranoia and payback; what’s not to like!
And thirdly, with both comedy and psychological thriller writing, I’m fulfilling my inexplicable compulsion to show off for praise. I’ve merely massively increased the buffer between the work and the reaction. I did stand up in my early 20’s when I was especially wild and needy, so I was on a roll enough to risk instant failure for the instant hit of laughs. In middle age, I’ve become more private and less desperate (ha!) and now I prefer to provoke more distanced reactions.
As well as being a former stand-up comedian, you’ve worked a variety of roles across the entertainment industry (including as a classical ballet dancer, voice-over artist, radio producer). Would you ever be tempted to set one of your books in the entertainment world?
My 1st book, THE DAUGHTER, featured an annoyingly confident actor as the brother of the narrator, even though the actors I’ve directed have been lovely people. Well, most of them.
In my 2nd book, THE SAVED, the protagonist Nancy is an ex-Radio Drama producer, like me. And I’ve made her as jaded as I felt when I stopped. She’s become an online film script editor and is working on a modern reimagining of Frankenstein. When I was a producer, people were always trying to sell ideas which were ‘re-imaginings’ of famous books. As my character Nancy says: ‘Yawn. Why does everything have to be re-imagined? … But hey, I’m getting paid shedloads to sleek up this tech-y confection, so, onwards.’ The Frankenstein theme of meddling with science to bring someone back from the dead runs through the book and one of my character’s motivations is inspired by this terrifying Frankenstein quote: ‘I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.’
For my 3rd book I’m toying with a voice-over artist character, a job I did for many years, for Persil, Kellogg’s and Herbal Essences, and it’s such an odd world of lies. I’d be standing at a microphone with my dirty greasy hair pulled back in a straggly knot, watching a glamorous model with thick flowing tresses on the screen, as I tried to sync my voice to her pouty lips: ‘I love how my hair feels, so strong, so silky, so alive’. That kind of angry dissociation could really drive a character to dark deeds…
Your second book The Saved is set on a spooky and isolated island off the west coast of Scotland. Was there a particular place or trip that inspired this location?
I knew I wanted to write about the unusual medical phenomenon that if you have a heart attack in freezing conditions, there is a slim chance of being brought back several hours later. So, I needed to set my book somewhere very cold, but wanted to stay in English speaking territory. Scotland in winter seemed appropriate and by chance I heard that a writer called Sarah Clayton (author of The Wrong Daughter) was running a writing retreat on one of the slate islands off the western coast of Scotland.
It was a great workshop and my book came alive on this stunning but stark slate island: the single storey white cottages with their un-unnervingly thick walls, the wild ever-changing weather, the atmospheric small single church, the bizarre whirlpools out at sea, the tightknit community, and the steep hills with sheep clinging precariously to the edge, from which they sometimes plummet to their deaths. I had fleshed out the whole plot by the time I left. I wrote it up and then returned for a second trip in the autumn to really experience the details: the odd woody Jenga block sound as you walk over the slates; the shockingly clear night skies with their piercing stars; and as I have a character lost at sea, I swam in the freezing waves in winter, which was so exhilarating and other-worldly. I knew that being alone and submerged in that icy water would change someone for ever.
In The Saved, your main character Nancy is living in a nightmare situation after a near-death experience transforms her partner Calder into a total stranger. When I heard that I instantly got chills and I need to know how it ends! Writers can often struggle to know whether an idea is strong enough to carry an entire novel. How did you come up with the concept and know it had the legs to become The Saved?
I saw a short film online about an incident in 2011 when seven teenagers were found floating in the ice-encrusted Præstø Fjord in Denmark after a school trip boat overturned in a storm. Their bodies were brought to shore two hours later. Everyone was shouting ‘they’re dead, they’re all dead’. But they were rushed to hospital, warmed up 1 degree per 10 minutes and, miraculously, their hearts started again at 26 degrees, six hours after they had stopped.
I instantly knew that this would be the start of my book. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of ‘not being’ given that consciousness is so vivid. So the idea that you could be in a strange in-between place, dead, but with the potential to come back was catnip to me. I was interested in what it was like for the person who ‘died’ and for relations who fully believed that their loved one had died, but then they came back.
I felt that the idea of someone coming back from the dead and appearing changed was a great initial hook and this pulled the story along to the middle. From there, I used awful revelations about the accident to gradually unearth deeper secrets which led to the final terrible consequences.
You’ve mentioned how slate (the main substance the island in The Saved is made up of) is a particularly important motif in the book. Did this emerge naturally whilst you were working on the novel or did you always know you wanted to build your idea around this motif?
I had zero thought of slate initially. It was pure luck that the place I went to research cold seas off Scotland, happened to be a slate island. Once I saw the stunning beaches of Seil, Luing and Easdale, I knew my island had to be a slate one, because a slate beach is such a stunning sight. As Nancy says in my book: ‘It’s an awesome expanse of glinting angles, endless jagged grey shards, as if this huge gunmetal sea all around us had risen up into the air, frozen, and then exploded all over the shore.’ Slate mining stopped on the Scottish islands by the 1960s and moved to Wales but the old winches and water-filled pits left behind seemed to suggest buried secrets waiting to be brought back to the surface. I discovered that while slate is a hard-wearing substance used for roofs, once broken it can never be put back together again because pieces sheer off. This seemed like a perfect motif for a strong marriage pushed to extremes: if you start to think negative things about your partner, when do you reach the point of no return?
Last time we spoke you took us through your journey from writing your first draft, polishing it using Jericho Writer masterclasses during the Summer Writing Festival in 2020, through to publishing The Daughter in 2022 with Allison and Busby. Do you have any advice to writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Writing is a million times easier than so many jobs: eg. abattoir worker, sewage-spill-cleaner and anal-hair-bleacher (that is a real job). But writing is hard: to start, to traverse the middle, to finish, to edit, to entice an agent and to basically just stay sane in the hall of distorting fairground mirrors that is publishing.
My advice to would-be-writers is: be a writer if you actually like writing rather than just imagining being a writer; if you like writing most of the time then keep writing even when you don’t like writing; and when you really hate writing, go for a walk, have a toasted sandwich while watching CSI Las Vegas, get a good night’s sleep and then get back to writing. With plotting, push your initial idea beyond where it seems to rest at first, because I think readers of psychological thrillers want to be constantly surprised. And try to find a regular writing group of perceptive honest writer friends who will gently put bad ideas out of their misery while helping spark good new ones, commiserate with your hiccups and applaud your successes.
Any top tips on how they can make the most of writing resources?
I connect with Jericho whenever I need help. When I started work on book 3 a month ago, I was feeling pretty adrift ideas-wise, so I went on the Jericho website, put ‘ideas’ in the search box, and pressed enter. 198 videos and articles instantly flashed up. 198! I straightaway felt less loopy and seized-up. I watched several videos including: Generating Ideas with Rosie Fiore, New Ideas Hour with Sarah Ann Juckes, and How To Know If Your Story Idea Is Any Good With S J Watson. And as I watched, I started forming an idea which will hopefully become my 3rd book.
It’s so much easier to be creative when you’re reacting and interacting. And Jericho is the perfect place to spark your creativity, with its wonderful, ever-growing resources of videos, articles, blogs, masterclasses, courses, events, forums, groups and mentoring.
Thank you so much for joining us again. We really can’t wait to read The Saved when it comes out on the 25th of January. We have one final question before you go. Last time you mentioned that you don’t quite feel like an author yet, has this changed?
Ah ha, ha, haaa. ‘Feeling like a writer’ is very hard to hold onto. I feel like one when I’m in-the-flow of writing or for about ten seconds after I read a nice quote about my writing. But there are so many ups and downs in writing, that the feeling is pretty ephemeral. Hey ho. Since I’m getting into the flow of writing my next book and am seeing lots of nice quotes about my soon-to-be-published book THE SAVED, I guess I am ‘feeling like a writer’ at least some of the time.
Liz Webb originally trained as a classical dancer, then worked as a secretary, stationery shop manager, art class model, cocktail waitress, stand-up comic, voice-over artist, script editor and radio drama producer, before becoming a novelist. She lives in North London.