I recently read The Missing One by debut novelist, Lucy Atkins, which comes out on 16 January. It is a compelling and at times uneasy read, about a woman looking for the truth about her mother, and I couldn’t put it down. I enjoyed it so much I asked Lucy to explain how the story came about.
“Apparently, it takes bestselling author John Grisham six months to write each of his novels. I’d love to tell you that I just sat down one day and, in a burst of energy, dashed off The Missing One. But sadly, that’d be a lie.
The reality is that The Missing One has been a journey of false starts, sometimes crippling self-doubt and endless revision. It all began about five years ago when I was staying in a friend’s cabin on an island near Seattle, where we used to live. It was raining and my children were – astoundingly – all napping. I managed to read an entire article about a pioneering marine biologist called Alexandra Morton. In the 1970s and 1980s she was one of the first scientists to study the language of killer whales. She was also the ultimate working mother, living in a tiny floating house, wrapping her baby up and taking him out with her to chase killer whales across the wild oceans of the Pacific Northwest.
The image of this fearless, passionate woman on a boat with her baby, surrounded by killer whales, just stuck with me. When I came home to Oxford, I wrote the first draft of The Missing One. Set in the 1970s, it was about – you guessed it – a pioneering whale researcher. And it was dreadful. My agent (I’ve since switched agents…) just shook her head. I was a bit crushed. I decided to go back to writing non-fiction books.
But my whale expert, Elena, wouldn’t leave me alone. About a year later, my husband was offered a job in the USA. We packed up our life, and moved to a Boston suburb. With no distractions from friends or journalism, I found myself dusting off that failed first draft. I rewrote it, this time from the perspective of Elena’s daughter, Kal. And suddenly, it came alive. Elena was dead, and Kal, like me, knew nothing about Canada, or orcas, or science. But she did love her mother, grieve for her, and want to know about her secret past. I sent this version to a new agent, Judith Murray at Greene and Heaton, and she loved it.
But even then, it wasn’t over. She asked me to work on it some more – and gave me some excellent suggestions. So I went back to it. Revisions followed. It felt like a horror movie when you think it’s all over…but then the monster rears back up. The plot changed completely. For another year, I wept over it, raged at it, doubted it, sat in my lonely Boston suburb, head in hands, thinking ‘this will never work’. Then suddenly, it did work. The book felt real. It felt like the novel I always wanted to write – the sort I like to read in fact, with family drama, suspense, and a cracking plot. When I got the call from a publisher, Quercus, offering me a two book deal I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. This wasn’t a fantasy any more. It really was a novel”.
Find out more about Lucy and her writing on her website, www.lucyatkins.com