An Interview with Julie Corbin
November 2014

Julie Corbin writes psychological thrillers and is the author of "Tell Me No Secrets", "Where the Truth Lies", "Do Me No Harm", and "Now That You’re Gone". Originally from Scotland, she now lives in Sussex, England, and works as a boarding school nurse. She is married and has three sons.

When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

I don’t remember a particular moment when I knew I wanted to become a writer, but what I do remember, was that I was looking for a challenge, a way of expressing myself, something to get my teeth into. My three children were all in their teens. I worked full-time in a job I enjoyed but didn’t stretch me. I’d hit forty and felt like I had plateaued. I’m unable to draw or paint. I wanted to try pottery but suspected I wouldn’t be much good at that either. I’m not brave enough to act! I had written in the past when I was a teenager, and also for about eighteen months when my children were small. I knew of a good writing course in my closest town and signed up. Instantly, I was hooked. All week I looked forward to the lessons. I gobbled up the homework: if there were three options – I wrote all three of them. I had never felt so excited about learning.

How did you get started with writing?

After the initial class, I joined another class, then a Tuesday morning university course, made writing friends, improved my technique, learned to push hard but also not judge myself too harshly. Within three years I was writing every day and had completed my first novel.

Please describe your journey to finding an agent and to the publication of your first novel.

By the time I finished the university course, I had written my debut novel, Tell Me No Secrets. I sent the first thousand, and the first ten thousand, words off to two international competitions and was fortunate to be shortlisted in both. That gave me the confidence to write to an agent and I was signed up immediately. I had to completely rewrite TMNS from chapter 6 as I had literally lost the plot, but with my agent’s help, I got there. We then had the choice of a couple of publishers and I chose Hodder and Stoughton because they offered me a three-book deal.

Please describe a typical writing day. Do you plan a particular word count, or do you wait and see how things go each day?

I strive towards self-discipline but rarely achieve it! When I’m in the throes of writing a novel, I aim to write 1,000 words each day. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, other times the words flow and I’ll write more than 1,000. I gave up my day job five years ago but found myself becoming less and less productive, so over a year ago I resumed my role as a boarding school nurse. I have some time off in the middle of the day and I spend at least an hour of that time writing but most of my writing takes place during the long school holidays.
Part of my writing journey has been discovering what suits my personality. Being a full-time writer didn’t suit me. I found myself drifting off into social media, which I have no aptitude for, so would compare myself unfavourably to other writers. My desire to write was swamped by feelings that I should be publicising myself more, blogging etc.
What my day job gives me is a sense of ‘work’ and usefulness. I need to feel like I’m working but I also need to feel like I’m using my imagination and expressing the creative side of myself. I think I’ve finally got the balance right but time will tell!

Which aspects do you enjoy most about being an author?

Hearing from readers. I’m an avid reader myself and the knowledge that I’ve brought pleasure into people’s lives is important to me.

Which least?

Writing a novel is hard work. I know that if I don’t apply myself, endlessly shaping and editing, then it won’t be the best novel it can be and that’s unacceptable.

Do you enjoy the actual writing process?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no! It depends where I am in the process. I often feel the beginning of a novel is like wading through treacle but when I find my stride, I’m fine. The last third is comparatively easy.

How is your actual writing process?

With a first draft I write where the energy is, so I start with an image, or a sentence or an idea and write from there. At that stage, I don’t write sequentially. I write whatever scene is tugging at my imagination. My writing is at its best when I allow myself the freedom to write whatever I want, not thinking about readers, but simply writing for myself and the rush of the story.

Do you work out the plot and your characters’ personality before you start writing your novel, or do you mostly develop them while writing?

A bit of both. I don’t like working everything out in advance because then it feels prescribed and there is no sense of discovery. But on the other hand, setting off with no idea as to where I’m headed doesn’t feel right either. I get to know my main character, write her biography, discover her strengths and weaknesses and work out the central dramatic question. Then I plan two or three major plot points. That’s enough to get me started.

How much research do you do for your novels?

I always speak to the relevant people – my cousin is a detective inspector in Edinburgh so he’s great on police work. I have a barrister friend for the law. I’ve interviewed prostitutes, doctors and a private detective. People are usually keen to share their expertise. Research is never a hardship and often leads to plot developments I hadn’t thought of.

Are you usually confident when you start writing a new novel, or are you plagued by self-doubts?

Self-doubts don’t get to me until about half way through when I feel like I’ve created a great baggy monster with too many plot points and not enough cohesion. The second draft takes care of those problems. I work out most of the details myself but my agent and editor are both very good with story. They help me find the nub of story I’m telling.

Do you first write verbosely and then need to shorten a lot, or do you write a lean first draft that you afterwards flesh out with more details?

I read somewhere that 85% of writers overwrite. I’m in the 15%. I like to use the least amount of words which is why my books are pacey.

How long does it approximately take you to write a novel?

Not including my thinking time (which usually occurs when I’m writing the previous novel) it takes about a year – six months for the first draft, three for the second and a further three to hone and polish.

How difficult is being a writer when being a mom? Are you distracted by your children’s issues, problems etc.? Does this make it difficult to emotionally and mentally disappear in your world of fiction?

My three sons are in their twenties now and they are fairly settled. Day to day issues don’t distract me but anything major does. I have had a difficult year thus far with other personal challenges and have lost eight months writing time but I’m finding my way back in again.

Do you miss your previous profession?

I did! Which is why I returned to work in September 2013. I live and work in a boarding school. Term-time is very full on but I have the holidays to write in.

Does your background in medicine help you with ideas for your plots?

Yes, it does. Not just for the obvious medical knowledge but also because working with people when they’re at their most vulnerable is a privilege and is also very revealing in terms of the human stresses we are all susceptible to.

How do you celebrate a newly published book?

I kind of don’t really! Which is odd, I know, but I don’t like being the centre of attention and prefer to put the novel aside and press on with the next one.

How do you deal with and feel about destructive criticism from readers?

It depends. People saying they don’t like my book is fine. Readers criticising the novel for what it isn’t can be annoying. Mostly, though, I shrug it off.

Which of your own novels is your favorite?

I’m fond of all of them for different reasons but the one I’m in the process of writing tends to be my favourite. I always believe it will be the best novel I’ll ever write – I couldn’t do it otherwise!

Which genres or types of novels do you enjoy reading most?

I’ll read anything as long as it’s well written and has a plot that sparks pictures and feelings inside me. My favourite recent reads are the dystopian trilogy by Margaret Atwood which begins with Oryx and Crake, Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti, anything by Anne Tyler or Alice Hoffman…oh, and I loved Gone Girl.

How would you describe your personality?

I’m an introvert who’s learned to become more of an extrovert. I am perfectly happy in my own company, but equally, I enjoy the company of family and friends.

Could you imagine ever not writing anymore?

For me writing is the icing on my life’s cake but it isn’t the cake. It’s the way I make more of my life but it isn’t my life. I enjoy writing but I enjoy lots of other things too. What writing gives me is a sense of growth and possibility.
I think I will always write something, be it short stories, my own diary etc. I can imagine a time when I won’t write novels anymore… I think… maybe!

Thank you very much for your time, and all the best for your future!

For more information, please visit Julie Corbin’s website.