Anna Downes’s exhilarating debut The Safe Place is one of this year’s most hotly anticipated novels. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at how this suspenseful and atmospheric thriller came together.
I grew up surrounded by storytellers of one kind or another. Raised on a diet of drama, I was always a creative kid and a voracious reader. I especially loved to write, and when I returned to writing as an adult I used to pore over books and articles by those lucky few who had ‘made it’, searching for the secret. I was convinced that there must be some recipe for success and that if I followed all the advice to the letter, I would produce my very finest work. Now that my debut novel is about to be published, I can confirm that there is no recipe – but I have learned a hell of a lot.
The best writing advice is something I often say to other people but struggle to follow myself: ‘Done is better than good’. I am a horrible perfectionist which can really hamper my productivity; I find it so hard to move on from a scene if the details aren’t exactly how I want them, which is no good at all when writing a first draft to a deadline! Another really great piece of advice came from an editor with whom I once did a writing workshop who said that, for maximum productivity in chaotic environments, you can’t go past a decent pair of headphones. I use mine constantly, but they’re especially helpful when I’m trying to work in a café, or on a train, or at home when the kids are around. (Did you know that if you Google ‘Harry Potter white noise” you’ll find a whole host of Potter-themed tracks, so you can work to the rattle of the Hogwarts express or the crackle of the fire in the Gryffindor common room? Well, you do now.)
In my first drafts of The Safe Place, the character of Emily was very much based on me and I drew heavily from my own life in order to write those first few chapters. But as the story started to make its own demands, she became her own person – and I slowly realised that, when it comes to fiction, my own experiences are valuable as a springboard only. When I try to stick too closely to writing about a real person, be that myself or someone else, my imagination gets edged out and the whole things starts to feel uncomfortable; similarly, other people’s ticks and foibles are great to drop in as little details, but I try not to lend them too much weight. Instead, it’s more helpful to use an emotional experience to jumpstart an idea, or to colour a scene. Characters begin as something I feel or observe, but ultimately the story makes them whole. I think the old saying ‘write what you know’ shouldn’t be taken too literally; instead, maybe it should be ‘write what your heart knows.’ That feels truer to me.
The book’s title also evolved throughout the writing process. The very first title I tried was All the Stars Are Gone, but that didn’t feel right, and neither did any of the other slightly overblown ideas I came up with. Finally, just before I submitted to agents, a writer friend and I were discussing the name of my fictional setting, Querencia, which I had found while researching synonyms for ‘home’. In Spanish, ‘querencia’ is a metaphysical concept, a term that describes a particular area in a bullring to which the bull often returns during a fight. It is where the bull draws his strength, the place where he feels most safe. My friend, recognising the significance of this concept within my story, simply suggested The Safe Place and I never looked back.
The Safe Place is deliberately suspenseful, and I hope it keeps readers guessing – but that isn’t necessarily what drives the book. In other words, I won’t be upset if you guess the twist. Rather, I hope that you connect with the characters and engage with the emotional truth of their extraordinary situation. If you find yourself thinking about Emily, Scott and Nina long after the story is over or wondering what choices you might have made in their place, I’ll consider my job done.
Join Anna online to celebrate the release of The Safe Place:
Wednesday 1 July, 8pm
Facebook Live launch
Tuesday 7 July, 6.30pm
Readings virtual event
Anna Downes in conversation with Christian White
Wednesday 8 July, 6.30pm
Harry Hartog virtual event
Anna Downes in conversation with JP Pomare
Wednesday 15 July, 8pm
Dymocks virtual event
Dymocks Chapter One on Facebook Live