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Interview with Annie Ward: On Writing Psychological Thrillers

Today on Writing Bloc we have author Annie Ward, whose recent release Beautiful Bad has been garnering attention all over the author-sphere!

Welcome, Annie! Your recent release Beautiful Bad was featured on the Indie Next List for March. Congratulations! Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your psychological thriller Beautiful Bad?

I was born and raised just outside Kansas City, Kansas. I relocated to Los Angeles for college with no intention of ever moving back home. I studied at UCLA and The American Film Institute where I received my MFA in Screenwriting. At that point I moved to Europe and stayed there for six years. Eventually when I came back to the States I ended living just down the road from the farm where I grew up and started my own family. That was an unexpected twist!

BEAUTIFUL BAD is a dark, twisty domestic thriller but it’s also a sweeping romance spanning decades and continents. At the heart of the book is a love triangle involving three badly damaged people who share a fatal attraction to disaster as well as a ferocious bond.

“Harrowing…. Evocative descriptions and strong senses of time and place complement the intricate, intelligent plot, which shocks and chills.” Publishers Weekly, starred review

In the tradition of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train comes the psychological thriller everyone is talking about, a twisted novel about a devoted wife, a loving husband, and a chilling crime that will stun even the cleverest readers.

How long have you been a writer, and have you always known that this is where you would end up? 

I would say that I’ve always been a writer but never had a clue where I would end up. I started writing short stories in elementary school and by high school I had moved on to what was probably very bad poetry. Then, while living in Los Angeles, I succumbed to movie fever and switched to screenwriting. I was never able to support myself as a writer until I moved to an inexpensive city in Eastern Europe, so I have a colorful career history including things such as cocktail waitress and PE teacher. If anyone had ever told me that I would one day be the author of a book that had sold to eighteen countries I would have burst out laughing. I never saw any of this coming.

Is there a primary message in Beautiful Bad?

Don’t rush to judgement based on stereotypes or appearances. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Also, trauma untreated is a dangerous disease.

Can you tell us about your protagonist? Are they inspired by someone you know in real life?

In the very earliest draft of this book, Maddie was me. I wrote a memoir about living and working in Eastern Europe, having adventures with my best friend and meeting the man I would eventually marry. When I decided to fictionalize the book and throw in some murder, betrayal and a whole lot of lies I had to change all the characters to the point that they only have a small resemblance to the original characters. I did however, end up with a tragic love triangle that basically involved me, my best friend and my husband, so that was awkward.

When you develop characters do you already know who they are before you begin writing or do you let them develop as you go?

In this particular case, because BEAUTIFUL BAD started out as a true story, I knew all the characters at first. When I changed it to fiction, they started to do and say things that surprised me. Horrible things. They took on a life of their own, argued in my head and surprised me with their cruelty and cleverness. Sometimes I felt ashamed of what they had done at night when I pressed save and went to bed.

Do you have a favorite character out of all the ones you’ve created?

I love them all, which is funny given that one reason some people have said that they didn’t like the book because, “There are no likable characters.” To me, the characters are all real. They have tempers, they make mistakes, they use poor judgement, they sleep around and drink too much. But I love them, especially Ian, who came from nothing and spends his life protecting others. He is mercurial and broken by what he has experienced but he’s also brave, loyal, funny and caring.

What is something you think readers generally don’t know about writing psychological thrillers?

I can only speak for myself, but I was surprised by how difficult it was to write about police procedure. I did a lot of research and had lunch with a number of local cops but in the end, if you’ve never been a police officer, it’s probably going to be a bit forced. I belong to the school of “write what you know” and writing about the running of an investigation was unfamiliar territory.

Are there any writing craft books (either genre-specific or not) that have helped you with the process?

I’ve got the HOWDUNIT FORENSIC GUIDE FOR WRITERS sitting next to me at the moment and the HIOWDUNIT Crime Scene guide has got to be around here somewhere.

Do you find that you have to be in a certain headspace to write your deeply psychological scenes, or are you able to transition between writing and regular life easily?

It’s not that easy for me. I tend to write the most important scenes at night when I’m on my own and I can lose myself. If my kids are around bugging me for snacks I will just stick to moving the plot forward in basic ways. Then I go back and add the “magic” later when I can focus.

Do any of your characters have interesting mannerisms or pet peeves?

Maddie’s neighbor Wayne Randall is a quirky fellow. He traveled to England once many years ago and is a fan of Monty Python movies. Whenever he sees Maddie, whether her British husband is with her or not, he insists on speaking to her in a bad British accent. I would say this habit of his also counts as a pet peeve. Maddie finds it pretty annoying.

Have you ever turned a dream or a nightmare into a written piece?

My dreams are honestly so bizarre that anything inspired by them would be science fiction and I don’t think I would be very good at it. Maybe even worse than poetry. I do have an idea for a book that involves a woman and her son who share the ability to lucid dream, so there’s always a chance for the future.

What do you think is the hardest thing about writing?

First drafts. I’ve never written a great first draft. Usually things start falling together in the second draft but that moment when you are still at the beginning and you’re convinced that your material is terrible can be pretty depressing.

Here is my favorite question that I ask everyone: If you were given the opportunity to join a book club with your favorite authors, dead or alive, who would you want to become a part of the club?

JK Rowling, Otessa Moshfegh, Patricia Highsmith, Caroline Kepnes, Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, Ann Lamott, Ali Land, Gail Honeyman, John Boyne, Donna Tartt and Brett Easton Ellis. Just off the top of my head. That would be a wild book club party.

What do you do to market your own books yourself? Any advice on that front?  

I just do everything I’m asked to do. I try to never turn down an appearance, a question and answer, a blog request, conference, dinner etc. I know what it’s like to have no marketing behind me on a book. This time around, if they want me to put on a funny hat and ride a pony I will be doing just that. As far as my own marketing, I try to stay caught up on social media and respond to people who are interested in me and the book.

What do you do to get book reviews?

For the American publication day of BEAUTIFUL BAD I reached out to a small group of influential people I’ve met over the years and asked them if they could support me by writing reviews and sharing posts. Luckily, I have a good relationship with the karma police and my friends were ready to spread the word.

Most of our readers are indie authors navigating the world of publishing. Do you have any other advice for them?

The best thing that ever happened to me was finding an agent who was also an experienced editor. She guided me through seven months of rewrites BEFORE we ever tried to sell the book to a publisher. It’s easy to jump the gun and go out with a book that’s not ready. My advice is to sit tight and make sure your work is your best work. Sometimes you only get one chance to impress.

When can readers expect another book from you? Any details that you can share?

I’m fifty thousand words into a new thriller, but I’m pretty sure about thirty thousand of those words are malarkey. I have a deadline looming so I’m forging ahead, but BEAUTIFUL BAD took me nearly a decade from conception to publication. As I mentioned in the last question, I don’t want to put out anything that I feel isn’t ready. Hopefully, with the help of my agent and editor, my new book will be ready in a year and a half.

It’s the story of a Natalie, a young woman who happily puts her mundane life on temporary hold to look after her older brother who has been in a serious mountain biking accident. She moves to a remote, affluent Colorado town. It’s the type of place she’d like to fit in. She joins a gym, hikes, explores, visits houses for sale and tries to make friends. When the daughter of a wealthy local goes missing and Natalie was the last to see her, the town turns against her. She realizes that she is a disposable outsider and she can trust no one, not even her own brother.

What is your preferred method for readers to get in touch with or follow you (website, blog, Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and links? 

I have a website that links to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It also has an option to email me. The website is Annie-Ward.com

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Jacqui Castle
Jacqui Castle is a professional freelance writer and first-time novelist, living and writing in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. Jacqui's debut book, The Seclusion, was named one of Kirkus Reviews' "Best Science Fiction Books of September 2018" and is now available at all major retailers.
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