If you're not already a fan of thriller writer Holly Jackson, next month will give you two chances to get acquainted with the million-copy-selling author. On April 2nd, the paperback edition of her bestseller Five Survive will hit shelves alongside her newest mystery, The Reappearance of Rachel Price. We talked to Jackson about what inspired her Spring Break-setting for Five Survive, where her fascination with true crime comes from, and how she keeps the tension so high in all of her novels.
Five Survive is about a spring break road trip gone fatally wrong. Where did this idea come from?
I’ve always wanted to write a book that was set in real-time, the action unfolding in the same time that it takes to read it. This is probably due to a childhood watching 24when I was too young to do so, and the fact that some of my favourite films have this very limited timeframe and setting: Phonebooth and Panic Room. So before I had any ideas for the book, I knew it would have to take place in the same setting, and that the timeline would need to be around 8 hours - one long night. I pondered about what was the best setting for a while (a remote cabin in the woods, cut off by snow). But then the RV came to me all at once and it was perfect - mobile, so we could have a bit of movement at the start of the novel but (once the tires were taken out) completely stuck, like my characters. It offered me a big enough setting to spend 8 hours with these 6 characters, but also small and encased enough for that claustrophobia to set in, the longer they are trapped. Then I had to work out why these 6 characters would be in an RV together in this remote setting - and Spring Break fit that perfectly.
You’re British. Is spring break as much of a “thing” in the UK as it is here, in the U.S.? Have you ever been on a disastrous road trip?
It isn’t a big thing in the UK! I guess the equivalent example is that a lot of teenagers go on an unsupervised vacation in the summer to a hot European party destination, after their final year of school, before starting university or jobs. That would probably make for a good thriller setting too! Road trips are also much less of a thing - I guess because we are a tiny island and it really doesn’t take that long to drive from the very top to the bottom! Which, speaking of, I have done. I went on a road trip from London to the Scottish Highlands - all in one trip. I think what was supposed to be an 8 hour drive became a tense 12 hours instead, but that was due to road and bridge closures, no hidden snipers!
You’re a fan of true crime stories, and your bestselling series A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, nods to the genre; it’s about a high school senior who starts digging into the murder of another student from her school, who was killed five years earlier. Does your love of true crime crop up in any way in Five Survive?
I think all my books owe something to true crime media. I thoroughly research every single topic that I write about. Even if it’s only something that crops up briefly - I will have become an internet expert in that thing. It’s probably a form of procrastination, if I’m being honest. So for Five Survive, I did a lot of research into organised crime structures and history, and a lot of political and police procedure research too. Which all feed into the plot and mystery somehow. Five Survive was less of a ‘domestic mystery thriller’, like the AGGGTM series and my new book The Reappearance of Rachel Price, which I think is the area people most associate with the true crime genre.
Great thrillers make readers tense, and Five Survive does that. How do you build, and maintain, that feeling?
I think that was part of the challenge in writing Five Survive. Setting up a tense life-or-death situation is easy, but having it continue for 8 straight hours, without any time-dilation or skipping at all, where you experience every single second alongside the characters — not so easy! I don’t think it would have worked if the group of characters didn’t have the right dynamic to constantly feed into that conflict and tension in their reactions to what was happening outside the RV. I think having a plot so complicated — that it makes the writer’s head hurt — is vital too. That puzzle, the mystery, is what keeps a reader invested, even when the pace has to inevitably slow down into quiter, more character-driven scenes.
Five Survive is also a story about friendship—the roadtrippers are six friends, some of whom know each other better than others. What would you say the novel says about this subject?
Five Survive could almost be seen as a character study about how different people react to a life-or-death situation, and the individual versus group dynamic. Some absolutely crumble. Some turn to leadership, some follow even when they know their ideas are better. These 8 hours trapped into this RV will be the making of some characters, and the undoing of others. The relationships were actually a highlight of the writing process. Conflict is what makes a book, and considering the situation presented in this book — that the sniper is after a secret one of them is keeping — it was so fun to throw these very different people into a hot tin can and watch them all explode in different ways, testing their loyalties, exposing their weaknesses and uncovering hidden strengths. They may all start out as friends, but things will not end that way.
Let’s reverse-engineer a recommendation situation. You’re a bookseller or librarian, and someone comes into your bookstore or library, and you wind up recommending them your upcoming book, The Reappearance of Rachel Price. What kind of story, and authors, would they have told you they like?
Ooh, this is an interesting one! What I would love to say — and the line I used to pitch the book to my agent very early on — was that it would be like YA Gone Girl… in reverse. Now that the book is all done and about to publish, I hope I’ve accomplished that! Other than that, I think for readers who loved the AGGGTM series, The Reappearance of Rachel Price should feel a bit like a homecoming. Five Survive was as different to AGGGTM as I could get, while still being a crime/ mystery thriller, but Rachel Price is a return to that small town full of secrets, that uncertainty in your own home, and the people closest to you.