The MWF Interview: Anna Downes

Author Anna Downes (The Safe Place) interviewed by bestselling crime writer Sarah Bailey.

Wannabe actress Emily Proudman is not having a great year. She manages to lose her agent, her job and her apartment in the same day and promptly tumbles into a hopeless funk.

Fortunately, the universe throws Emily a lifeline: a summer housekeeping job in a beautiful French estate. And even better, the offer comes via her former boss, charming CEO Scott Denny. It’s all above board: Scott wants Emily to help his wife Nina with their daughter Aurelia, who is extremely introverted and suffers from several health conditions.

It seems to be too good to be true but Emily doesn’t stop to dwell on that, turning her focus instead to the intoxicating, excessive lifestyle suddenly on offer. But after a few sun-soaked days, strange things start to happen and it’s clear that Emily has bitten off way more than she can chew. Scott and Nina are keeping secrets and Emily needs to work out what’s going on before her French adventure becomes hell on earth.

Downes’ thriller starts light but swiftly turns very dark. The pages definitely turn themselves!

Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel The Safe Place. I really enjoyed it and loved the character of Emily.

Thank you so much – that’s wonderful to hear. I love her too! Emily isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; she makes some questionable choices and her behaviour is pretty reprehensible at times. But I like to think that the whys and wherefores of those things become clear over the course of the story; she certainly learns a lot about herself by the end, anyway. She’s complicated, but I’m a big fan of complicated female protagonists. The more ‘unlikeable’ they are, the better.

As someone who writes books without a plan, I want to kick off by asking you: did The Safe Place turn out like you expected? Or did it surprise you?

I was surprised by many of the details, specifically with regards to character motivation and backstory, but the bones of the idea remained the same from beginning to end. I knew from quite early in the process where I wanted to start and where my characters would end up; most of the main ‘cornerstone’ events were clear to me too, but the reasons and causes behind those events were much less obvious. Those were the things I had to dig for.

What was your writing process like with The Safe Place? Did you plan it out or did it take shape as you went along?

I happily pantsed it for about the first 25,000 words, but then things ground to a bit of a halt. I felt stuck and confused about how to progress, so I signed up to an online course which taught me how to plan and interrogate my material in order to get it working as well as possible. I then planned all the way to the end, but kept revising to accommodate for any changes that came up along the way. Interestingly, even though the first quarter of the book was the easiest to write, it ultimately became the hardest to edit in that it felt very muddled compared the rest of the book.

For me the book mixed a few different styles. How would you define the genre of the book?

That’s a great question, and one that I really struggled with when putting my submission package together. I remember spending a lot of time googling different definitions, trying to figure out how to pitch it in my cover letter, and eventually settled on the following: ‘upmarket commercial women’s fiction meets psychological/domestic suspense.’ However, I’ve since heard it described as a literary thriller, a gothic mystery, a beach read and many other things besides, so I guess it doesn’t neatly fit into any one category – possibly because each character brings a different stylistic element to the story; they each belong to their own genre.

How did the character of Emily come about? Did she change much throughout the writing and editing process?

Yes, she changed quite a lot. She started out, basically, as me – but she really came into her own as the story developed. I began by fictionalising many of my own personal experiences and trying to fit the plot around them, but I very quickly learned to prioritise the story and let it lead me as opposed to the other way around, with the result that Emily became very much her own person. Crafting her character was a real example of ‘write what you know … into what you don’t.’

The Safe Place is really suspenseful. Was this challenging to maintain as you wrote?

There are a lot of different facets to creating suspense, some of which I found relatively easy to manage, others not so much! The seeding of information was probably the most challenging; it’s hard to know how many clues to drop in and when, and how much backstory to include. The timing of reveals and twists is a tricky thing to get right too. But building a creepy atmosphere seemed to come quite naturally to me, so I really enjoyed that.

What was the most difficult thing about writing the book?

Without a doubt, the greatest challenge was learning how to express myself through language instead of through my voice and body. As a former actress, I knew about creating a character; I knew about dialogue, improvisation, conflict and scene. But performing those things physically is very different to exploring them on the page. Even as an obsessive reader, I had a hell of a lot to learn about the craft and technique of writing – I still have a lot to learn. But the learning is what makes it fun.

Now that you’ve written it, which part did you enjoy the most? The ideation, the editing or the promoting?

Definitely the editing. The part where I first get the idea is great fun because the possibilities are endless, but the laying down of the first draft is much less enjoyable because that perfect idea gets a bit lost on its way from my brain to the page (I heard someone say on a podcast recently that writing a first draft is like trying to build a cathedral and ending up with a perfectly serviceable garden shed). The editing, though, is where it gets fun again: the Tetris-like rearranging, the tinkering, and the fact that you can suddenly see a full and clear picture again – that’s when the idea comes back, bigger and better than ever.

Tell us about your life before you wrote The Safe Place. Are there lots of unfinished manuscripts in your past? Do you come from a writing background?

I’m both proud and embarrassed to say that I don’t have any unfinished manuscripts lying around in drawers; The Safe Place is my first attempt. I suspect some people might find that annoying, but I’ve experienced my fair share of failure – and between my drama degree, acting training and professional experience, I’ve studied storytelling for as long as some people study to be doctors. For me, writing is a natural progression from all of that and builds on everything I’ve already learnt.

What has been the most surprising thing about becoming an author so far?

I’ve been genuinely blown away by how warm and welcoming the writing community is! I met many wonderful people through my acting work, but never felt the same level of camaraderie (I think the competition was too brutal). The support and encouragement I’ve received from other authors and publishing industry professionals, on the other hand, has been astounding. The feeling I get is that people really want to see new writers do well, and that a success for one is a success for all – which is something I intend to pay forward in the future.

It would be remiss of me not to ask … is there another book to come?

Yes! I’m working on the first draft of a story about parental fear and the dark web. It’s going okay, I think – but I’m deep in the ‘garden shed’ phase at the moment, and second book syndrome is a very real thing. I’m definitely feeling the pressure. That might just be the first draft blues talking, though. I’m sure I’ll feel better once I move on to the editing.

The Safe Place is out now through Affirm Press.

Anna Downes is a British-Australian author and actor. In 2009 she left the UK to go travelling, a trip that included a stint working as a live-in housekeeper on a remote French estate, where the seeds for The Safe Place were sown. Anna now lives on the Central Coast with her husband and two children.

Sarah Bailey is a Melbourne-based writer with a background in advertising and communications. She has two young children and is the Managing Partner of advertising agency VMLY&R. Over the past five years, she has written a number of short stories and opinion pieces. Her first novel, the bestselling The Dark Lake, was published in 2017 followed by Into the Night in 2018. Where the Dead Go is her third novel in the Detective Gemma Woodstock series. Sarah has a new novel, The Housemate, due for release in September 2021.