Gail Schimmel writes the kind of novels that grab your hand and tug you through the story. They are the kind of books you want to have on hand when you need to buy a book to relax with on holiday, or to read when you are struggling to keep your eyes open on a Thursday night.
In fact, I had to tear myself away from Gail Schimmel's latest release, The Park, to write up her interview. I enjoy a good domestic suspense thriller under any circumstances, but even more so when the unsettling atmosphere is created somewhere close to home. Gail's story revolves around a park somewhere in Johannesburg, where three mothers meet with sinister consequences.
I met with Gail a few weeks ago to discuss her novel and writing process.
Tell us about what sparked the book, The Park?
It's difficult to talk about, because the big thing that happens in the book is inspired by something that happened in my own life. It wasn't a real life, exact incident, but one of those situations where I wondered 'what if'? Literally in five minutes, the whole idea for The Park was there.
So there is a park in real life?
The park that I was picturing when I wrote it was Delta Park, particularly the children's area. There are descriptions in the book that, if you know that, you can picture exactly how the action is playing out. I've been to the park many times when my children were small - it has a safe jungle gym and, most of all, it's something to do with your children. This is a lot of what the book is about - when you have small children you become desperate for something to do with them, so Rebecca takes her daughter to the park.
In the park, the phrase 'A Good Mother' is repeated across the book. I was really interested in that...
This is actually a plot device and set out like it is for a specific reason that all comes together during the book. Those 'good mother' phrases turn out to not be what you think they are.
What did you feel you wanted to explore about the idea of a good mother in the book?
I think it's about the standards we hold ourselves up to. I hope that one of the messages of the book is that parenting is very hard. One of the things that makes it hard is that we all have preconceptions about the type of mother we're going to be. Every single thing you think you'll never do, you will probably do. In fact, you will probably do it the most. If you say 'my child is not going to eat junk food,' your child will probably be eating McDonalds smothered in MSG watching a video that is semi-pornographic. It is guaranteed that the thing you are most judgemental about is the thing that will come back to bite you. I think there is a core of truth that many mothers feel like they have failed in some way.
I think it's very timely. More and more women seem to be voicing this.
I think we have to be honest about it, and I think all the choices available to women make it harder and not easier. We're trying to juggle everything, and something's got to give. That's what happens to Rebecca in the book. She meets Rose, and Rose talks about it in her own way. She allows Rebecca to feel that just because you're failing doesn't mean you're failing. But, is it safe to trust everybody?
I've heard you say it's a 'not so thrilling domestic thriller', but many people reading it seem to be finding it thrilling!
In my first meeting with Pan Macmillan, they said they loved the book because I hadn't fallen into the normal traps of a thriller. And I thought, 'Thriller? Who wrote a thriller?'I was not setting out on any level to write a thriller and still don't believe it's a traditional thriller. I think the thrill lies in that you can imagine it happening to you. There were certain parts that, when I wrote or edited it, I got heart palpitations every time.
I found in the books that you've written you often cover marriage, love and children. I wanted to know how marriage and children impacted your storytelling?
As a writer and a reader, I'm not interested in romance. Real life happens after the I-do's. So my books are set in 'after the happily ever after.' One of the great myths of life is that happily ever after exists, when it is actually real life ever after. Marriage Vows explored how difficult marriage is, The Cowley Twins examined when your happily ever after doesn't turn out the way you expected, and the same goes for The Park. I struggled to have my first child so the infertility aspect is mine, but we didn't adopt like Rebecca did. My writing is inspired by those real life challenges. If I want anything from my book it would be that people come out and see that they're not the only one finding this hard.
We need to find solidarity or escape in books, and maybe you can give a bit of both?
Exactly, because books should be an escape and should be an easy read.
What do you think the misconceptions are about your genre?
I think the problem is its often called women's fiction, when men also actually enjoy. However, my imaginary reader is a woman and my books do appeal to women because they have more about women's lives. It's not chick-lit, it's not romance, not that there's anything wrong with that. I think there is a danger in the label chick-lit, because people define this genre in different ways. I like the term book club read - it's not too literary, but it's not Mills and Boon.
It's quite an interesting trend because everyone wants to be classed as the next girl on the train, but are we still there? Isn't the genre evolving?
I think thriller means something different to South African writers. If there is a man with a knife in your home, this is far from your reality as a UK reader. in South Africa, that could happen tomorrow night.
I had a literary agent that said I minimised the violence in my book, but I was speaking from experience!
That's how we do it! If you have a smash and grab, you can maybe take the rest of the day off, and that's just to replace your windows. So I think for us that domestic thriller genre is different because we live with a high level of fear that we just assimilate.
With every book, a writer learns more about themselves. What did you learn about yourself as a writer while writing this book?
This is almost a lesson I have to learn in every book - I am not a writer that can start with a nice cast of characters, start writing and expect a book to emerge. With The Park, I knew exactly what was going to happen. Ironically, being a lawyer, I got a point of law wrong and had to change part of the ending. As a person, I don't know. Does one learn anything about oneself when writing?
I escape and retreat into the story...
There is probably that - you get to live out a different you. Rebecca is a much nicer person than I am, and that was a change for me. In previous books I've ended up not liking my female protagonist. I don't know if she'd be my first choice of dinner companion, but she's nice. She believes people are fundamentally good, which is possibly why things go wrong for her.
I see you on the various groups on Facebook recommending lovely books - which are your 2017 favourites so far?
I just read Swing Time, by Zadie Smith and loved it. I read a stunning book by Gavin Extence. I read the six novels called The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. It's not as well-written as Harry Potter, but there's something about them.
When I write, I like to only read in the genre I'm writing so I get the pacing right. Do you have a particular writing diet while you're writing?
No, but I do believe in what you're saying. I used to try read really good writing, not for the plot but for the rhythm of the language. Like you, my brain thinks in a whole different way when I'm reading certain writing. I have noticed that when I'm reading crap I don't write as much.
Buy The Park by Gail Schimmel at your nearest local bookstore or online at Amazon.