Rosamund Lupton’s Sister (Random House, 2011) is every first author’s dream: the novel spent 14 weeks on the bestseller list in the UK and it’s already having a buzz-worthy Statesside debut. Lupton’s praise is well deserved. The thriller feels like a classic detective novel, but below the surface it’s a tear-inducing tale about the bond between siblings. The screenwriter-turned-author says completing the novel made her appreciate the bond with her own sister. And while the characters in her literary debut aren’t based on her own life, she does have one thing in common with Beatrice, her main character: “I’m the bossy older sister,” she says.
Here, the fulltime mom weighs in on the joys and demands of writing a bestselling page-turner:
You switched careers to become a novelist. What prompted you to make the move?
I was a fulltime screenwriter and then I had two children. [Having children] doesn’t really work with the screenwriting hours, so I started writing [fiction] when I my youngest started school. Also, I wanted to write about the interior life of a character and [fiction is] very liberating, you can write as much as you want. For a screenwriter you’re not allowed to use that many words -- I was always told off for it.
How did the idea develop?
The idea that started me off was a visual one. I had this idea about an uptight starchy young woman and I imagined her having a dull lunch party and her mother calling and saying her sister is missing and hasn’t been seen for five days. I imagined the older sister immediately flying to London to find her younger sister. Then I imagined her playing the part of her sister and changing into her sister’s scruffy clothes and wearing a wig. I liked that [scene] because it shows how different the two sisters are despite their relationship.
How does scriptwriting shape your fiction writing process?
I write in a series of scenes. The big moments and turning points are always visual to me. A good script has a good structural skeleton. I think that’s true of a novel, especially one with a detective story.
Can you describe the inspiration you drew from your own sister?
I’m very close to my own younger sister and I was very keen to write about that bond. I wanted to write something really positive about it in my book. Beatrice makes a huge sacrifice for Tess: She leaves her safe life, leavers her safe job and takes a job in a bar to make ends meet. She does that and acts as a detective to investigate her sister’s death.
So what did your real sister think of the book?
She’s the first person to read it and I was actually in Scotland with really bad reception [when she called] and she said ‘I love it’ and had to keep screaming that so I could hear. It was a really fantastic moment and she’s been supportive about it.
You describe your novel as a literary thriller. What was your goal?
I was an unknown, unpublished author when I was writing this story, with my manuscript going into slush piles. I needed to write a book, which would leap out from the slush pile. The goal for myself was to write in a way I was happy with. I would go back to a page, or a chapter, and think ‘is this the best that I can do? Is this good enough?’ often, it was a no, and I rewrote.
What was the writing process like?
I’m also a mom so it took three years. I’d write when the children are at school. As I was writing the house was in chaos because I’d drop them at school and then return to write. My husband is a hospital doctor and was working mad hours. Towards the end I had about four months to rewrite about 200 pages so my mother came to stay with us to help take care of the kids.
You spend some time in the book digging into come fascinating scientific research. Did you already know all of this or can you talk about the research you did as you were writing?
I read everything I could on genetics and also on cystic fibrosis. Text books, newspapers, the Internet, scientific journals. I started the story for Sister a long time ago, and the science involved is quickly evolving so I was constantly updating my research. I wanted this science part of the story to be credible, but without actually happening.
Sister spent fourteen weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller list and already sold 430,000 copies in the UK. That sounds like a dream debut!
It’s like a trumpet blast! It was wonderful. Neighbors and friends were taking pictures of it all over the place, my name was next to Stieg Larsson’s [on the bestseller list]—it was so ridiculous that my husband was giggling. I just really wanted to be published and I never thought it would be like this.
So what were some of the reactions from readers?
The personal response from readers has been extraordinary. Some people are just hooked by the detective story and tell me I’m responsible for them taking a day off work to finish it, or not talking to their husband on holiday—even honeymoon—until they finished it. Other people have related strongly to the depiction of the love between sisters.
You have a new novel out in 2012, what is it about?
It’s called Afterwards. It begins with a school fire and a mother running in to save her daughter and it’s about how far [parents] go to save their children.
Rosamund Lupton’s debut novel is available in stores or online now. Click here to read an excerpt.