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Erin Kelly: a friend's awful date gave me novel idea

When a friend called Erin Kelly to tell her about the disastrous date she had just been on, it set off a train of thought for the novelist that led to her latest book.

The friend had been dragged into an unsettling situation by a man who claimed to be an urban explorer, which meant he broke into derelict buildings to photograph them. But then she discovered something upsetting.

“Sometimes that happens with a novel, sometimes you spend years writing and trying to find your way in and sometimes just a casual remark by someone else gives you almost a whole story,” says Erin. “I got this idea for the plot from this friend who was dating an urban explorer. It’s basically trespass – they will find there’s a breach in the old sugar factory or abandoned hospital or haunted mansion and go in to take photographs. He took her to an old hospital outside Maidstone and while he was getting his photos with the dust on the curtains and the bird droppings everywhere and the ivy that was growing on the inside, she went exploring through the administration buildings and she found old patient records.

Erin Kelly, author of We Know You Know. Pic: John Godwin (39663332)
Erin Kelly, author of We Know You Know. Pic: John Godwin (39663332)

“She looked at them and thought, ‘this is a horrific breach of privacy’. She actually works for the NHS and so she knew what to do with the records. It wasn’t a criminal hospital so the records didn’t contain crimes people had committed the way it is in my book, but it contained really personal details of people in the 70s and 80s. They were people who would still be alive.

“She thought if these records got into the wrong hands so much damage could be done and she was on the phone telling me how terrible this was and that she had returned them to the NHS trust and went through all the protocols. But as a crime writer I was thinking ‘yeah, that would make a really good plot’.”

Around the same time, Erin had become fascinated by a former mental asylum near her home in London which had been converted into luxury flats.

“I live in north London near what was the biggest asylum in south east England. It’s huge. It is bigger than Buckingham Palace and it is posh flats now and sometimes I ride around when I’m cycling and, because I’m nosy, I look through the windows. They are so boring inside these flats, they look like identikit boxes. I have always been fascinated how somewhere that people had been in such pain and there was such cruelty through the ages and such suffering could now just look like every other flat on Zoopla.

“Sadly my friend didn’t see him again, the date didn’t go brilliantly. I have lots of other friends and they know now to be careful what they say to me in case they end up in a book.”

Erin’s research included speaking to people who had developed luxury flats in a north London asylum.

“I spoke to a builder who had worked on the Colney Hatch asylum, which is the one near me. He is a big hairy bloke in his 40s and he was an apprentice at the time it was turned into flats and you would never think he would spook at anything, but he said they saw ghosts and heard screams everywhere they went.

“All these really hard builders would be absolutely terrified to be working there alone on a winter’s night. He said there was just something incredibly creepy about the place. Even though the developers do their best to knock all the creepiness out you can’t avoid noticing it when you visit them. They have these long corridors and everywhere echoes because it all tiled – it’s the opposite of what we now know people recovering from mental illness need. They do need light and space and air that the Victorians gave them, but they also need privacy and the staff need sight lines so you need to be able to come in and rescue someone quickly. But these old places were designed on the same lines as prisons. And if you weren’t mad when you went there you would be after a couple of weeks.”

Erin’s new novel, We Know You Know, is just out in paperback and has been renamed from its hardback title Stone Mothers. It tells the story of Marianne Smy who 30 years ago committed a crime and then fled her home in Suffolk, where the Nazareth mental asylum loomed large, to leave the past behind.

Erin Kelly, author of We Know You Know (39663334)
Erin Kelly, author of We Know You Know (39663334)

Now, Marianne has been forced to return home to look after her ailing mother. Nazareth asylum has been converted to luxury flats, but its terrible hold on her is still strong. A successful academic, a loving mother and a loyal wife, she fears her secret being revealed and her world shattering.

“Marianne is a classic sandwich generation woman in that she is looking after ageing parents, an ageing mother and also a very vulnerable young adult daughter, and we first meet her at the beginning of the novel when her husband buys her a flat because it is close to her ill mother,” says Erin. “It’s a converted flat in a former psychiatric hospital and the husband thinks he has done a lovely thing but he doesn’t know that actually Marianne has history with this place.

“This is the local asylum to the town where she grew up. She has lots of secrets and the last thing she wanted is to ever go back there again. But coming home to look after her mum also means that she becomes involved again with her teenage sweetheart, Jesse, who knows all of her secrets. So it’s about Marianne having to hold onto these secrets and prevent her family from knowing what she did when she was a teenager. And, because this is a thriller, and you’ve got to get blood on the walls, it kind of escalates and spirals until everybody is out to get each other.

“When the book came out in hardback it was pre-Covid times. I went all over the country to promote the hardback and wherever I went, in every single county in England, when I described this old Victorian building that’s now luxury flats people said, ‘oh yeah we have got a local place like that’.

“At the end of the 1990s all of the grim old Victorian super-Gothic hospitals were shut down and they were sold to developers and now they are all spas or posh flats or hotels. And if you have ever been into one you can almost hear the screams echoing, and yet now people are living in them and it has all been Farrow and Ball’ed inside. They look very lovely but they have this horrific history.”

The book required a huge amount of research, reading accounts from doctors and nurses who worked in the old asylums. Naturally, memories from patients were harder to come by. But what she did read made Erin angry about the treatment of the patients.

“I was angry and also surprised at how recently things that I would have thought went out with the Victorians were still being perpetrated. There were practices that I just assumed were all gone pretty much by the Second World War and things it was legal to do to women in particular. It’s really obvious if you are writing a book about rape and the court system that you are kind of expecting to be dealing with misogyny, but every time I wrote a book there always comes a point in research when I think, ‘here we go again, we are going to end up in feminism corner’. Not because I intended to write a book like that, but because every time it turns out that’s the reality.

“There’s a lot of dismissal of women and silencing of women in psychiatry. And you see on Twitter the easiest way to silence a woman is to tell her that she is mad. So the accusation of madness is as much part of that as the way we have historically treated women and of course when all the doctors are men, what else is going to happen? It’s everywhere!

“The book I’m just finishing now is about ballet. I thought that it was going to be really empowering and was going to be about young women sacrificing everything, and it’s turned out that it’s a load of patriarchal b****cks as well. It’s all about old men controlling young women. So there is a pattern emerging here and that’s another challenge because the more I write I have to be careful that I don’t end up climbing on my soap box and alienating everybody who wants to read my books.”

Erin Kelly: "I spoke to a builder who had worked on converting the Colney Hatch asylum... he said they saw ghosts and heard screams everywhere they went."
Erin Kelly: "I spoke to a builder who had worked on converting the Colney Hatch asylum... he said they saw ghosts and heard screams everywhere they went."

Erin has recently been asked to distill her knowledge into an online course on how to write a psychological thriller for Curtis Brown Creative. In it, she will be breaking down why they have become the most successful genre in recent years.

“A key part of the popularity of psychological thrillers is that the narrators or the protagonists tend to be quite relatable,” says Erin. “So you are not reading about Hannibal Lecter, a complete monster serial killer who has nothing to do with you. I love those books but there is a sense that this wouldn’t happen to you. Most of my books tend to be about women a bit like me or my friends. They tend to be situations where it’s not unimaginable that this could happen to me. I should probably state for the record now that I haven’t murdered anyone but I think most of us are capable of killing to protect a loved one or a child, and I think we all have a lot more darkness in us than we are comfortable with. There’s a sense that the real threat isn’t out there... it’s in the house.

“We are also much more aware now of coercive control and there are a lot of really super-toxic marriages in psychological thrillers. I think people are starting to understand the psychology of marriage and how dark it can be in a way that perhaps wasn’t spoken about even a decade ago. A lot of these thrillers are playing with that to the extent that it can be quite exhausting to read another book where it turns out your husband has been lying to you all along. And I say that holding my hands up as someone who has written at least one of those books. It’s a really relatable but thrilling genre and I think that’s why they continue to be popular, even when publishers predict they may have peaked.

“I have written eight books now and there is so much I have learnt, not just about writing generally but about writing psychological thrillers. It’s a genre that just doesn’t seem to go away. There was a bit of a gold rush seven or eight years ago in the wake of Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep when everybody seemed to be writing them and people in publishing have been saying next year the psychological thriller will be dead. But it isn’t because there’s a huge appetite for these books that are crime fiction but not police procedural and people really want to read them. It’s been really joyful putting this into an online course.”

We Know You Know has been chosen as one of the Richard and Judy Summer Books, which can often make novels into instant bestsellers. It’s the third time one of Erin’s books has been picked.

“You almost have to sign the official secrets act when you are on the list. I have done it twice before and you get smuggled into the Charlotte Street Hotel in London, almost with a blanket on your head. Then you meet Richard and Judy in the library. But this time it was all done in my kid’s room on Zoom and they were in lockdown in the house in London. It was still fun and because Richard and Judy are readers they really do read the books and have thought about the themes and they know how to ask the questions that will pique readers’ interests.”

See Erin Kelly online in conversation with Gillian McAllister on August 13 for Heffers bookshop. Tickets from eventbrite.co.uk.

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