Gail Aldwin, author of VP titles The String Games and Pandemonium, talks to Amanda Huggins about her latest book and her work in progress…
Hello Gail, welcome to the VP blog. Your new novel, The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell, was released in July and is garnering dozens of great reviews. The book is a page-turning suspense mystery, centred around the unsolved disappearance of a teenage girl – I really enjoyed it! Tell us a little more about the story and where the idea came from.
Thanks for having me onboard, Amanda. I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel. The Secret Life Of Carolyn Russell is a dual timeline narrative which introduces Stephanie Brett, a redundant journalist seeking to rediscover her purpose in 2014 and Carolyn Russell who walks out of school following an exam in 1979 and is never seen again. The stories are linked when Stephanie develops a true crime podcast to get to the truth of what really happened to the vulnerable teenager.
The idea for the novel came to me while I was volunteering at a refugee settlement in Uganda. After a hard day of working with families fleeing South Sudan, I returned to my accommodation where the water and electrical supply was erratic. The power went off at 8 o’clock each evening and by that time, I was in bed and under my mosquito net listening to the podcasts I’d downloaded at a local hotel. I became hooked on true crime podcasts and tuned into the twists and turns that created crucial listening. One podcast, ‘The Teacher’s Pet’ acted as really good research in that it covered the case of a missing wife from 1981. Listening to this, I was able to reimagine the norms of the time and give voice to Carolyn Russell. I started the first draft of The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell in 2020 when I was repatriated from Uganda due to Covid-19.
The Secret Life is also a coming of age story, and this appears to be a genre you keep returning to – as I do myself! Your first novel, published by VP, was The String Games back in 2019 – a story of the abduction of a small boy while on holiday in France, and the long term effects of his murder on his older sister. Do you consciously return to these themes in your work, or is there an unseen pull at work?
I am drawn to novels with young narrators both in my reading choices and as a way of telling stories. Given a child’s inexperience of the world, it’s a powerful way of creating an unreliable narrator. Unsurprisingly, I keep returning to young narrators as I wrote a whole PhD thesis in order to identify the strategies author’s use to create authentic children’s voices. However, as I flex my writing muscles, I find adult voices are taking up more space in my work.
I’ve allowed myself to get distracted here, as this interview is supposed to be about your work in progress rather than your published novels! I know you are always busy working on something new! What’s next for Gail Aldwin?
In Three Couples, I’ve drawn on my experience of living in Uganda to imagine and populate a remote African island. It’s here that Ashley’s controlling husband books a holiday at a luxury resort. She finds the location empowering but tensions exist between islanders and tourists. Determined to build friendships with locals, Ashley is unaware that her husband stokes the conflict. Following an incident where they’re targeted by youths, Ashley’s suspicions are aroused. Can she get to the bottom of what’s going on?