‘The thriller market is super-busy.’

- Phoebe Morgan

British author Phoebe Morgan talks to Awais Khan for this exclusive interview in SouthAsia.

November 2021

Phoebe Morgan is a bestselling author and editor, based in London. In 2018 she was awarded a Trailblazer Award for her work as an editor, and in 2021 she received the Bookseller Shooting Star award for services to the publishing industry. She studied English at Leeds University after growing up in the Suffolk countryside. She has previously worked as a journalist and now edits commercial fiction for a publishing house during the day, and writes her own books in the evenings. Her books have sold over 225,000 copies and have been translated into 10 languages including French, Italian, Norwegian, Polish and Croatian. Her new thriller The Wild Girls will be published by William Morrow in the US. Her books are also on sale in Canada and Australia. Phoebe has also contributed short stories to Afraid of the Light, a 2020 crime writing anthology with proceeds going to the Samaritans, Noir from the Bar, a crime collection with proceeds going to the NHS, and Afraid of the Christmas Lights, with all profits going to domestic abuse charities. Her four thrillers are: The Doll House (2017)’; The Girl Next Door (2019); The Babysitter (2020) and The Wild Girls (April 2021).

With four major thrillers under your belt, you’re an old hand at writing. What got you into writing in the first place?
I have always been someone who loved words; as a child I would be endlessly making up stories and reading books, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started thinking more seriously about writing my own. I had done a creative writing module whilst studying in America and loved it, but I don’t think I realised that writing professionally was really an option. Finally, in my twenties I suddenly realised that I ought to at least give it a try, and I forced myself to complete a first draft of what went on to become my debut, The Doll House. Writing is now a job for me, and I have to remind myself of that whenever a deadline is looming! I love the creative process and it’s a huge privilege to be able to write novels but it is also hard work so I try to count my blessings as often as I can.

In addition to being an author, you also work in publishing. How do you manage to balance the two and find time for both?
I think this year (2020-21) has been harder than usual in this respect – being confined to our own homes has not been great for creativity, and having to work and write in my flat without the separation that the office usually brings felt particularly hard for me. I prioritise my publishing job over my writing, and then write at weekends – I can get quite a lot done in one weekend if I put my mind to it, and then the week is for my day job (though being an editor, submission reading often bleeds into weekends and evenings too!). I think it helps that I genuinely love both jobs and want to succeed in them; that motivates me and keeps me going, as do messages from readers which are always lovely to receive.

Your books are edgy and bold. Ome of them (The Wild Girls) was set in Southern Africa. How do you get your books to stand out in a market that is saturated with thrillers?
It’s definitely tough! The thriller market is super busy but I try to engage as much as possible with my readers, responding to messages and showing them a little more of the process, and I love it when the same people come back book on book. I try to write authentically, usually about women, family and friendships, and then I sometimes go bolder with the setting. I like to think of the setting as another character in itself – my books have been set in Suffolk, Essex, France and Botswana, and I’ve loved writing those varying landscapes. I’m lucky that my publisher HQ manage to come up with brilliant jackets every time that I think help the books to stand out both online and in-stores, and I do always think about the ‘hook’ when I am writing, too, and try to hone my pitch as I think this helps novels to gain some cut-through, too. But I definitely don’t know all the secrets to this, and I’ve a long way to go in terms of reaching more readers! However, I like to think I am growing my readership book on book, not only in the UK but overseas too, thanks to the brilliant foreign rights team at my agency, Darley Anderson.

What’s the secret recipe for writing a bestseller?
Aha, I wish I knew! I think you do need a clear proposition – e.g. what is the book really about, how would you distil it in one line, how can you make it feel memorable? And the voice needs to feel authentic and elevated – recent bestsellers that I have worked on such as GIRL A by Abigail Dean manage to have completely gripping plots combined with beautiful writing, and often I think that can be the secret to big success. The market is constantly looking for something a little bit different, and personally I love books that shine a light on a world or a story that we haven’t seen before. I also think persistence is key – I know several authors whose ‘break out’ books didn’t come until further down the line, and that’s always really inspiring. You have to keep writing, learning, growing, and if you persist I do believe success will come if you have a dedicated publishing team that really believes in you. A strong publishing team behind you is really important too and some authors sadly do get under-published for multiple reasons – if that’s the case, don’t be afraid to speak to your agent about moving publishers or having an honest conversation about what is and isn’t working. There are so many factors that go into making a successful book and your writing is actually only a small part of it. A lot of elements are beyond the author’s control.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on the edits for my fifth book, THE TRIP. It’s about a couple who have saved up to travel the world, but on the day they are due to fly to Thailand, one of them disappears – and the other is forced to endure a horrible plane journey without them, wondering where they are. I had the idea because I thought how awful it would be to sit in your seat on an aeroplane, not being able to contact anyone, with no idea what had happened to the person you loved and not knowing what awaited you on the other side. This one is a thriller but it’s also a character-led love story and I am super excited about it. It should be out in Spring/Summer 2022.

Your latest novel “The Wild Girls” is being published in the US. How different is that market from the UK?
It is definitely different – I’m always fascinated by the fact that some really successful writers in the UK are virtually unknown in the US, and vice versa. For crime writing, the US is less drawn to visceral or violent books, and big domestic thrillers are still cutting through there whereas here they are slightly waning, I think. My jacket for THE WILD GIRLS uses similar colours to the UK one but it’s subtly different, too – more atmospheric, overall, and of course it also says ‘a novel’ on the front, which I always love! I find the different markets around the world so interesting, and feel lucky that I get some insight into that as part of my day job. I also absolutely love seeing my jackets for foreign editions!

As a writer and publisher, what is your advice for aspiring authors out there?
Firstly, I’d say do your research – there are lots of amazing resources out there for writers, explaining about agents, publishers, and types of deals and it is key to make sure you know what you’re entering into as there can be some dodgy websites out there! You need to understand a bit about the publishing industry – talk to other authors, attend talks if you can, read around the subject – information is power! Secondly – keep going. It might not be your first idea that sells, but if you don’t keep going you will never know what might have been! Writing is hard work and it can take time to become successful, but if you love the craft and you want to find a readership, arm yourself with information and then write the best book you can – and then polish it! Writing is also so subjective and if you experience rejection (which you likely will – everyone does!) try not to take it personally. As an editor I have turned down some great books for many reasons and it’s usually not that the book is bad, it’s that I am not the right person to champion it, and remember, it only takes one agent and one editor to say yes to you and then you have a deal! .