It’s a spring afternoon in Sussex, on the south coast of England, and thriller writer Ruth Ware is at the home she shares with her husband and two teenage sons, chatting via Zoom about her life by the sea. “I live near the chalky, flinty part of the coast,” Ware says. “The sea is really cold here. The beaches have these enormous fist-size pebbles. It’s not the touristy bit of the coast. The beaches are a well-kept secret.”
A master of suspense, Ware enjoys a good secret—enigmas wrapped in mind games propel her internationally bestselling psychological crime thrillers. There are more than 6.5 million copies of her books in print, according to her U.S. publisher Scout Press, and they’ve been translated into 44 languages. “Fundamentally, my books are rooted in some sort of fear, phobia, or terrible what-if,” Ware explains. “The kind of thing you wake up from a dream about and think, I’m glad that didn’t actually happen to me.”
Her wonderful seventh thriller, The It Girl (Scout, July), concerns a woman who, years after the murder of her roommate at Oxford, confronts the possibility that she may have accused the wrong person of committing the crime. Ware got the idea after serving jury duty. “I was unprepared for the amount of emotional responsibility I felt throughout that process,” she says. “Even though the case wasn’t a big deal, I came out of it thinking, What must it be like to make the wrong call, or to be in a situation where it’s a knife’s-edge decision and you’re the crucial witness, responsible for putting someone away?”
Ware prides herself on giving each of her characters, including the homicide victims, a rich interior life. “I like to take my characters on an emotional journey,” she says. “Sometimes, in police procedurals, the dead body is almost irrelevant—there for the reader to solve a puzzle. The real journey is that of the detectives, and that’s something I try not to do in my books. From the beginning of The It Girl, you know who the victim is, and I hope you don’t forget that she’s a human being. Obviously, we’re reading a form of entertainment, but I wouldn’t want to trivialize what we’re talking about.”
Ware (a pen name for the real Ruth Warburton) has averaged a thriller a year—not counting a brief pandemic break—since her 2015 debut In a Dark, Dark Wood, about a bachelorette party gone murderously wrong. She admits that the success of that first book surprised and slightly unmoored her. “When I wrote it, I didn’t have expectations,” she says. “I thought a few thousand people would like it, that my mother-in-law would buy it. Paradoxically, the more good news I got about it, the worse I felt about my second book, The Woman in Cabin 10, which became this ugly duckling on my computer.”
The author relishes the freedom of writing standalone novels but acknowledges that topping herself with each book can be challenging. “When you write standalone novels, there’s a pressure to reinvent the wheel each time, to do it the same but different—better, faster, smarter—and there’s a limit to which you can do that. But I don’t feel quite so panicked about it now. I’ve learned to enjoy the process, to trust myself and my readers.”
Ware’s editor at Scout, Alison Callahan, says, “Ruth has been dubbed the Agatha Christie of our time, and I couldn’t agree with that more. Psychological thrillers since The Girl on the Train have dominated bestseller lists, but what Ruth has managed to do within that category is carve out a space that’s entirely her own.” Callahan adds that she believes The It Girl is Ware’s “best book yet.”
Born in 1977, Ware grew up in Lewes, in East Sussex, and cites Christie as an early influence. “One of the greatest pleasures of my childhood was escaping into books and being so invested that the outside world faded away,” she recalls. “That’s part of my aim as a writer, to try and give people some of the pleasure I had growing up.”
A graduate of Manchester University, Ware worked as a bookseller and a waitress (“I was amazing!” she says. “That was probably my true calling!”) before taking a job in 2000 as a publicist at Random House in London, where she nursed a secret desire to write. “Working in publishing gave me this huge attack of stage fright,” she confesses. “Incredible books were coming across my desk and made me feel worse about my own attempts at home.”
Becoming a mother pushed Ware to try to get published. “I was on maternity leave after the birth of my second son when I realized, if I don’t find a way to make this pay, I’m going to have to stop writing. As soon as I go back to work, I’m not going to have time to wash my hair, let alone sit there in the evenings scribbling away.” She published five young adult novels about witches in the 2010s—sometimes working with a kid on her lap—before writing her first thriller.
Ware’s teenagers haven’t asked to read her novels, and she hasn’t offered to let them. As for her husband, a virologist, she’s grateful they’re not in the same profession. “It’s quite fun to be married to a scientist,” Ware says. “I don’t know how writers married to other writers cope. Their houses must be a bundle of neurosis and professional competition.” Her husband never reads her books during the editing process. “I don’t even like being given advice on my driving, let alone my writing,” she quips.
Jennifer Bergstrom, publisher of the Gallery Books Group, launched Scout Press with In a Dark, Dark Wood and says that working with Ware has been a dream. “Everyone thinks the last Ruth Ware book they’ve read is their favorite,” Bergstrom says. “It feels like Christmas morning at our offices when she delivers a manuscript.”
The exciting plots of Ware’s books have made her a Hollywood commodity, with most of her novels under option at film studios, including The Woman in Cabin 10, currently in development at Netflix.
Ware looks forward to seeing her work on screen—just don’t expect her to get involved in screenwriting. “There’s a brutality to making a good adaptation that requires you to be quite tough about the choices you make,” she says. “I’m happy for someone else to do that.” The author prefers the “weird solitary pursuit” of fiction writing. “Every day, I’m incredibly grateful that complete strangers would lavish such care and attention on my books. I appreciate the readers, booksellers, and librarians who make my career possible.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.