I’d been reading some real-life stories about teacher-pupil relationships and wondering how the people involved might feel once the media furore has died down and a few years have passed. Then I watched a television documentary exploring similar questions, and that’s when the idea for the book really began forming in my mind. It’s tempting to assume with situations like this that both parties will eventually ‘come to their senses’ in terms of their feelings for one another, so I was fascinated to explore what might happen if, in fact, they didn’t. What if those feelings never actually went away?
Absolutely. It’s a highly-charged and emotive situation that can be tough enough to read about, let alone write, so it was really important to me that I handled it sensitively. I knew the book’s premise wouldn’t work if ultimately no one could see past the taboo theme, so my priority was to make sure the reader cared enough about Matthew and Jessica, and felt a sufficient connection with them, to invest in the story behind the scandal. Which was always going to be a challenge – especially in the case of Matthew – but do I hope I’ve succeeded.
I’m not always drawn to writing about what ‘should’ happen, if only because we don’t live in a perfect world. As an author, exemplary behaviour is slightly less interesting to me than people crossing a particular line; and when it comes to human emotion, life isn’t always black and white. Ultimately, I hope what happens to Matthew and Jessica over the course of the book, and how their story eventually plays out, means the reader is not coerced into feeling one way or another. I want them to decide for themselves how they feel about the relationship.
That’s a tough one! But on balance and putting aside what’s morally right, I think in order for Matthew and Jessica to believe their relationship was real love, I had to believe it too. As the author, I had to really get inside their heads – so if I didn’t think their feelings were genuine, it would probably have been a very different (and possibly unconvincing) story.
I wanted Jessica and Matthew to be likeable characters and for the reader to be able to relate to them (if not to the things they do). Matthew’s a funny and thoughtful person, but unfortunately he also follows his heart, even when doing so is ultimately wrong. Jessica is very sweet yet surprisingly strong - much of which is down to her background - but again she probably lets her heart rule her head even when that might result in other people getting hurt.
I gave the characters quite a lengthy separation so they had the opportunity to properly move on from one another. I wanted them to be able to put their affair into context with the help of some life experience, which neither of them really had at the time - Jessica because of her age, Matthew because his existence had always been relatively sheltered. Unless they had proper time for reflection and the chance to love other people in the interim, their feelings when they met again might simply have been an extension of their previous affair. And I think that could well have been the case, had Matthew held his nerve on an earlier return.
That’s such an interesting question. I guess following on from my previous answer, thinking about ‘what might have been’ is a strong theme throughout This Secret – and there’s definitely the possibility that when a relationship is cut short and can’t arrive at its natural conclusion, you’ll never know if it might have worked out. But I do think Jessica and Matthew have a bond that runs far deeper than sexual attraction, which is borne out by the fact that they’re still thinking about each other seventeen years later.
I do think they are in better places than when they began. Without wanting to give away the ending to the book, I think finding one another again is Matthew and Jessica’s chance to finally gain some clarity and perspective on their affair, as well as on the present and future. People don’t always get that opportunity when things have gone wrong in their past, so from that point of view alone, it’s definitely positive that they’re able to re-enter one another’s lives. However unfortunately once again, the timing is not ideal!
The first draft of the book actually ended very differently, so I guess there are lots of ways it could have gone. As an author it’s sometimes tough to balance what’s right for the story with the ending readers might be expecting or hoping for. Morality was definitely a consideration in the ending I eventually chose, but ultimately my main motivation was to give readers a conclusion befitting the emotional rollercoaster that is Matthew and Jessica’s story!
Yes, I do. In fact I’ll definitely be writing it down at some point, if only for my own enjoyment!
Well more than anything else, I want readers to enjoy the book, despite its controversial theme. If they can feel invested in the characters despite that, then I’ll feel as if I’ve done my job. But I also want them to decide what they really think about everything that happens, without being dictated to by me, the author. I want the story to be an exploration of the various themes; one that poses questions, rather than provides definitive answers.
I hope I’ve been able to create two characters who are likeable even when they’re doing bad things, because I think that’s a more accurate reflection of real life than we sometimes want to admit. Only the reader can really say if I’ve achieved that, but hopefully I have.
I think people are often fascinated as to why seemingly ‘normal’ people would push the self-destruct button when they don’t need to. Matthew certainly does this – his upbringing was stable and he has a respectable job, so why would he risk everything? Jessica’s motivations are perhaps more clear-cut – she’s young and impressionable aside from anything else – but what are Matthew’s reasons, and was it all worth it? I do think those questions hold a certain appeal for readers. Added to which, we all experience temptation at some point in our lives, whatever form that might take. I’m sure everyone can relate in some way to experiencing a moment of weakness where they either choose to succumb, or step away. Where does the line fall? I think people are intrigued by that.
Combining writing This Secret with my full-time job was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, mainly because I was setting the alarm for four o’clock most mornings! Like most debut authors I didn’t have an agent or a publisher when I started writing it, and no contacts I could ask for help in bringing it to the attention of the ‘right’ people, so it was definitely a case of slogging away in blind faith. I do think though that as long as you believe 100% in your writing and you genuinely enjoy doing it, your work will reflect that and it will all pay off in the end.
I’ve been writing my second novel for a few months – but it only has a working title at the moment, so I can’t even share that yet! But what I can say is that it’s a joy and complete privilege to be penning another novel. To be honest, I’m still pinching myself that I get to do it all over again, with the support of a truly incredible team.