Today's guest blog is by author Eleanor Moran who when not writing moonlights as a TV Drama Executive In a previous life she also worked as a TV Executive. Her latest novel is A Daughter's Secret and she has been persuaded to tell Shots how the story came about.
I was running so fast down the grimy North London street that it almost felt like my heart could burst out of my chest, Alien style. I was no athlete - the only reason I was pelting down Archway’s Junction Road was because the much older man I’d been seeing - been obsessed with - liked to jog and lived nearby. He’d disappeared on me, ghosted his way out of my life, and I was so desperate to find out what had gone wrong that I was left here, chasing after a stranger who bore little resemblance to him, almost mad with grief.
I was eighteen years old at the time, and the man I was searching for was the latest in a string of older flames who should’ve come with health warnings stamped across their grizzled faces. This one, fortunately, was the last. The man who pushed me over the edge, and into therapy, where I learned that it wasn’t about any of them: it was all an attempt to understand the most painful relationship of all. The one with my complex, mercurial father.
A Daughter’s Secret, my latest novel, is about how this relationship can define so much of a woman’s life, for good or ill. My heroine, Mia, is a thirty something psychotherapist who looks from the outside like she’s got it all sussed. She’s got a string of letters after her name, a silver fox of a boyfriend - but when thirteen-year-old Gemma Vine walks through the door of her treatment room her stage-managed life starts to fall apart. Gemma was the last person to see her father before he went on the run, fleeing from a major criminal trial. Mia’s there to provide support, but soon the police come knocking, wanting her to secretly elicit information and feed it back. Mia’s past means she’s either the perfect person to help Gemma or the absolute opposite. As the memories of her relationship with her own father start to plague and torment her, she puts herself in terrible danger, prepared to do whatever it takes to help her troubled and manipulative client.
For me, psychotherapy was a lifesaver. I grew up adoring my unpredictable father, and forgiving him his long, painful absences from my life. He was someone who struggled to live a normal life, never marrying or holding down a job. The school holidays I spent with him were precious to me, but his behaviour was erratic and dangerous. When I was ten, he burnt the house down, leaving us to escape from a top floor window, minutes away from asphyxiation. With no home to visit him in, our relationship became even more fractured and complicated. The scars were deep, and psychotherapy gave me the courage to take a time out and give myself the space to heal rather than keep perpetuating the past like it was a choose your own adventure book, always hoping that this time I’d discover a happier ending.
Wrapping up these themes in a muscular crime thriller was a whole new challenge. My earlier novels have had mysteries contained in them, but ones that have largely been driven by emotion. Now I had to work out how a police investigation could push the story forward. Luckily my second job is as an executive producer for TV drama. I was at the BBC for many years, working on everything from Rome to New Tricks to Spooks. Much of my work involves coming up with ideas for new shows, or spotting books to adapt, and I’m experienced in helping screen writers craft a taut plot.
I’d made a legal thriller with Suranne Jones in 2013, Lawless, and met the most extraordinary criminal barrister in the process. Caroline Haughey is a leading expert on people trafficking, leading multi-million pound trials and putting away criminals who have committed sickening crimes. On the side, she offers her services as a story consultant (Mark Billingham’s latest book is dedicated to her). She directed me towards the case of a crime lord who is hiding in plain sight. Despite numerous trials and repeated Sunday Times investigations, he’s still walking the streets. I was even more interested in the people who give such criminals a veneer of respectability, so I made Gemma’s dad a top flight accountant (as Caroline pointed out, the police ultimately snared Al Capone for his dodgy financial dealings). I didn’t want Gemma’s dad to be an out and out villain - I wanted to create a more complicated character that no-one - not the police, not Mia - could get a handle on. These are the characters I want to watch or read about, whether it’s Don Draper or Walter White.
Both Gemma and Mia have to lose their illusions about their fathers to make it to the other side. The same was true for me, and I did ultimately find a fragile kind of peace with my father (he died when I was in my mid-twenties). I hope that creating Mia out of my experiences might demystify therapy for a few of my readers, and help them to befriend the ghosts which can haunt us from deep in our distant pasts. I’m using her for my next book, publishing next summer: bringing that kind of psychological intensity to a crime plot hopefully makes for a compelling mix.
A Daughter’s Secret by Eleanor Moran is published 6th August by Simon & Schuster, price £7.99 in paperback.