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‘Law taught me that each word has an impact’: Abigail Dean

Close to her 30th birthday, Abigail Dean, a lawyer, was having an “awful time” at work. So she quit her job and decided to take three months off. In this break, she plugged away, and Girl A began to take shape. A year later, she had the finished manuscript of her debut novel and a job as a lawyer with Google in London. Published in the U.K. in January 2021, Girl A was an instant bestseller and Dean was hailed as the “biggest literary fiction voice of 2021”.

A thriller that doesn’t indulge the prying reader with excessive details, Girl A is not about the who and how of a crime, but about its aftermath. The suspense lies in peeling the layers of trauma and facades to understand who coped and who failed.

It’s a story of the Gracie siblings’ survival as adults despite a childhood of isolation and abuse by their parents in their ‘House of Horrors’.

The book revels in the dynamics of the seven Gracie siblings, delightfully capturing their rivalries, alliances and grudges.

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“I am interested in big families because mine was small. I wanted to create a big, memorable family. One of the joys of writing Girl A was developing the relationships between the Gracie children. Despite extraordinary circumstances, they are just ordinary siblings. It also allowed for more perspectives and added ambiguities about what happened at the House,” Dean says in a Zoom interview.

Dean grew up in the Peak District of rural England, in a house that loved reading and debating books. She wrote stories about animals and soft toys, which her parents, both English teachers, gave feedback on. “I took their critique very seriously,” Dean laughs.

Being myself

Why did she return to working as a lawyer? “I am used to spending time alone because I am an only child. Being by myself is calming. And yet, in the three months’ break, when I was writing through the day, the process was very isolating. At the end of the day, I was looking forward to returning to the land of the living. You become obsessed with the characters. It’s great for the novel and the writing, but I’d miss human contact. So, I’m not sure I want to take to full-time writing,” she says.

While Kazuo Ishiguro’s subdued and mysterious narrators were Dean’s “big source of inspiration” while crafting the voice of Lex, Girl A’s narrator, she swears by authors like Gillian Flynn, Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. Her legal practice informs her writing. In legal drafting, one excess word can have huge repercussions. “Law taught me that each word has an impact. It helped cut the faff from the prose,” she says. The constant self-editing means her prose is razor-sharp, and all the more effective for being so.

Dean is “overwhelmed” by the novel’s commercial success. The Guardian reported that it sold for a “major six-figure sum” in a nine-way auction in the U.K. It has since been acquired in over 20 territories worldwide and its screen rights have gone to Sony. “The contrast is strange, because, for years and years, you write without any expectations,” she says.

Staring into space

Dean is currently working on her second novel, The Conspiracies, which follows two characters in the wake of an attack resulting in loss and creating twisted psychologies. “It’s a strange book to write, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” she says.

But the pandemic also gave her precious time for writing. “In terms of purely having time, the pandemic has been morbidly useful because you’re not visiting family and friends. But the quality of time has felt rather odd. There’s an undercurrent of worry which is very distracting and uncomfortable.”

Working on Google Docs files, Dean plans as she writes. “I add to it as and when I remember. That way, there’s always something underneath and it takes away the fear of an empty page,” she says. Getting to the end of the day’s writing is her favourite part of the process. “The actual writing process can be frustrating. There’s a lot of staring into space. What you put down on paper is never the magnificent-perfect that you envisaged in your head. So, just having words on paper and seeing the story come together is the best part.”

Does she have any advice for new writers? “My advice is very mundane and boring. It’s to just keep going. When you start writing, there’s a temptation to give up or to switch to another idea. But, keep going, try to get the words down.”

pragati.kb@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 8:30:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/law-taught-me-that-each-word-has-an-impact-abigail-dean/article34105843.ece

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