B. A. Paris on Cliffhangers, Trust, and Feeling Trapped

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

Anyone who has ever read Behind Closed Doors by B. A. Paris knows this to be true: You don’t start one of her books unless you’ve got a reasonably clear schedule. That’s because once you start reading, it’s going to be pretty close to impossible to stop. We caught up with Paris at BookExpo America (while feeling quite stressed out about the events of Behind Closed Doors) and got to chat with her about her new novel, The Breakdown. Along the way, we discussed the importance of trust, dinner parties, and what makes her books so addictive.

Bookish: Both The Breakdown and Behind Closed Doors make readers think hard about trust—who do they trust? Do they even trust themselves? What is it about the subject of trust that inspires you as a writer?

B. A. Paris: I wanted to show that women have to be wary of the situations they get into—and men too, of course—but it’s often women who get married and find out that their Prince Charming isn’t quite the man that they thought he was. We look at other people and we think they’re perfect, but we don’t know what goes on behind their closed doors. And when we are with somebody we have complete trust in them; we never think that they could do anything to hurt us. I think that’s an interesting thing to talk about.

Bookish: Your novels introduce thrills and chills in the midst of everyday life, which arguably makes them more unsettling—they feel plausible. Do you find ordinary situations more frightening than outlandish ones?

BAP: Yes, I wanted to show that these things can happen to ordinary people, especially in the case of Grace in Behind Closed Doors. And I wanted to show that women can find themselves in this situation—intelligent, educated women. I’ve had plenty of letters from readers who’ve said that they’ve found themselves in this sort of situation. And people often say, they’re intelligent women, why don’t they just walk away? I wanted to show that in these situations sometimes, it just happens that you can’t for one reason for another, and even if you don’t have somebody like Millie, dependent on you like in Behind Closed Doors, women can be brainwashed into thinking that they’re useless, that they’re no good. And this is not just happening at home, it can also happen in the workplace as well, this sort of mental manipulation.

Bookish: How was writing your second novel, The Breakdown, different from working on your debut?

BAP: It was hugely different in the sense that I just wrote Behind Closed Doors for me—I didn’t know it was going to be published. I just wanted to write that book. But for The Breakdown I was very conscious of writing for my readers, writing for the people that had loved Behind Closed Doors. I wanted to give them the same kind of reader experience because I knew that was what they would be expecting, without doing the same story. It was really difficult. The pressure was definitely there—it wasn’t an easy ride. It was a breeze to write Behind Closed Doors but it was much more pressure to write The Breakdown. It was the expectations.

I’ve read books by authors that I’ve loved and I’ve been not so keen on the second book, so I was really, really under that sort of pressure to deliver something that would deliver the same reader experience.

Bookish: Both your novels are serious page-turners: It’s virtually impossible to put them down, and it seems like this has a lot to do with pacing. How do you plot out your novels to make them so hard to step away from?

BAP: I’m really disappointing, I suppose. I don’t plot out my novels at all. I know the beginning, and I know the end usually, although not exactly how it’s going to end. I know whether it’s going to be a good ending or a bad ending. It’s just the process of getting there. Behind Closed Doors was sort of surprising because I never thought I’d be able to write such a dark book. There’s no plotting for me. As for the pace, I think that just comes about quite naturally. I don’t aim for it, but I think I manage at the end of a chapter to make the reader want to read on by making a little cliffhanger. I don’t really read over my book and think, “There’s something boring happening here.” Pacing is really important to a book and I’ve just been really lucky that each time I think I’ve managed to pull it off.

Bookish: You said something interesting just now, about how it’s such a dark book. In another interview, I read you saying that you knew Jack was going to be an evil character but you didn’t know just how evil he was until you were writing about him. Can you talk about that discovery?

BAP: I was going to write a book about a couple where the husband was controlling the wife, but I didn’t expect it to be that dark. But when I was writing it, it was really strange. People would ask me if it was hard to write because of the subject matter, but in fact it wasn’t because I really felt that it was the characters writing the book for me. When I was writing Jack’s part, I was Jack, and it was as if he was saying “Come on, this is not good enough. If you want to get people’s imaginations, I’ve got to be better than this. I’ve got to be more evil.” And I really had the impression that he was egging me on and writing the part in his charming way.

Bookish: If you could invite any three writers over for dinner (and the dinner party would be less stressful than Jack and Grace’s in Behind Close Doors), who would you invite, and why? What would you serve for dinner?

BAP: This is such a hard question because I’m going to offend so many writers that I know if I don’t choose them. I think I would have to invite writers of the psychological genre, because then we’d all have something in common. I’d invite Mary KubicaWendy Walker, and Sophie Hannah. But then I’ve got all my friend writers, so Louise Jensen, Lisa Hall, Jane Cory, and probably lots of others. It would be very difficult to choose. It would be a big party—I couldn’t leave anybody out.

What would I serve? Probably fish as the main course. John Dory maybe, or monkfish. And for a starter I might do something like foie gras, because people would expect something like that as I’m French. And then for dessert, I’d probably make the dessert that Grace made, which is a pavlova with meringues and cream. All of those recipes in the book are things that I’ve made before.

Bookish: Both The Breakdown and Behind Closed Doors are about wives who are trapped in very real ways—by their relationships, by their circumstances, by a chance encounter. Why do you think being trapped is so scary, and so resonant for your readers?

BAP: I think that most women, and men as well, identify with Grace. Women might not be going through the same thing as Grace or Cass in The Breakdown, but there are many times in our lives that we feel trapped by circumstances. It could be by our families–having elderly parents, having young children. Sometimes you just feel that you’re never going to get out of the drudge that you’re in, and you feel trapped. And I think that’s why women identify with my books really, because they can see something of themselves in my characters whether they’re going through the same thing or not. Hopefully not. But there is that pressure there for women, I think—maybe more so than for men.

Bookish: There’s a subtle thread about gender in your work. Both Grace (in Behind Closed Doors) and Cass (in The Breakdown) disobey their husbands, which is an inherently gendered thing. Do you see your books as making a statement about gender roles?

BAP: No, I haven’t actually thought about that. Honestly, I just write the books what I want to write. But there’s a change coming in my third book, without saying any more about it. I was aware that in my first two books I’ve chosen women who are victims, and I don’t want to write another woman victim book. It’s another psychological thriller, of course. It’s not about a female victim. Well, it is and it isn’t. I can’t say too much about it. I wanted a change; I felt that my third one had to be different.

Bookish: Both of your books are set in small English towns. Can you speak to your affinity for this kind of setting?

BAP: I think you have to write about what you know. Although I haven’t lived in England for many years, I can easily place myself and my characters in a small English town.

Bookish: I read in an interview that you came to writing relatively recently, but had wanted to write a novel for a long time. Are Behind Closed Doors and The Breakdown stories you’ve had percolating inside your head for years?

BAP: Behind Closed Doors has been brewing in my head for a few years, only because I once had a friend and I thought that maybe her relationship with her husband was a bit off, that she was being controlled—nothing like Grace—but then I thought it might be a good idea for a book. So it had been brewing in my head for a couple of years.

The Breakdown, not at all. I came to the idea because I was driving home through some woods one day in the middle of a huge storm and although it wasn’t night, I was by myself in the car and started wondering what would I do if I broke down, and then what would I do if I saw a car that was broken down. I put myself in that situation and thought, that would be a good start for a novel.

Bookish: You have five daughters. Are they big readers? How have they influenced your writing career?

BAP: My daughters are big readers, especially the eldest three. They all read my books. They’re the first people I give my books to when I’m done. I get good feedback from them. I don’t write my books for my daughters at all, and in fact, when they read Behind Closed Doors, they were horrified that I could write something so dark. They said “Mommy, where did this come from? You’re not that sort of person.” So I like that they’re surprised that I have these hidden depths. But no, they don’t influence my writing at all. Only in that they might say, “Mommy what you’ve said there is a bit old-fashioned, we don’t really say things like that now. We would say this.” And I go, “Okay.”

B. A. Paris grew up in England but has spent most of her adult life in France. She has worked both in finance and as a teacher and has five daughters. Behind Closed Doors is her first novel.