University Life Meets Horror: Interview with Rachel Sargeant
By Hal Kitchen
Image courtesy of SCAN
Starting University is, for nearly all of us, a scary time. However, there is a surprising lack of genre fiction tapping into those fears and discomforts. Julia Ducournau’s 2016 film Raw is a rare exception. InQuire was recently contacted by Rachel Sargeant, author of The Good Teacher and The Perfect Neighbours, with an offer to discuss her newest book; a university-based psychological thriller entitled The Roommates. HK: How would you describe The Roommates to someone who was considering reading it? RS: The Roommates is a psychological thriller set in a fictional university during freshers’ week and features four students with dark secrets from their pasts. When one flatmate suddenly disappears, the others have to trust each other and work together to find her, little realising the danger ahead. Four students. Four secrets. One devastating lie. HK: What was it that inspired you to tell this story in this way? RS: My books seem to happen when two different ideas come together. The first idea for The Roommates was the setting. I thought of it when my children went to university. Campus visits brought the college atmosphere of my student days flooding back. I decided that university would make a great setting for a novel. The stories my son and daughter told me about student life were fun and life-affirming but, because I’m a thriller writer, I saw real potential in a dark and twisting story that featured lead characters who were freshers, away from home for the first time.
But I didn’t have that second idea that I would need to create the plot and had to wait a year for it to hit. One day I had a vision for a dramatic final scene of a story. It became that second idea I needed for The Roommates. I wrote a story set on a university campus that ended with my imagined scene. HK: You have explored these sorts of tropes and stories in your writing before (mystery and thriller stories with domestic settings, an ensemble of female characters). What makes them appealing to you or especially relevant today?
RS: The three books I have written for HarperCollins feature the tropes commonly found in the crime thriller genre, but with a variety of settings and characters. The Good Teacher is a police procedural with an ensemble cast of police officers who have to solve the murder of a teacher. The main detective is a 24-year-old former professional dancer, Pippa ‘Agatha’ Adams. The second viewpoint character is her supervisor DS Mike Matthews. Although it covers some dark themes, it is lighter in tone than my first HarperCollins book, The Perfect Neighbours, which is a slow-burn, sinister psychological thriller. This one is set in a British ex-patriot community in Germany and features male as well as female characters. I’d say The Roommates falls between the two in terms of tone. There’s an air of danger and mistrust with plenty of twists as the freshers try to conceal their pasts, but there’s also positivity as the characters gradually learn to work together to protect themselves and each other. Characters tend to pop into my head fully formed. In this novel, the idea came to me for four female students who find themselves sharing a flat in a hall of residence. Each is trying to present a new version of herself. The reason I write crime thrillers is down to Agatha Christie. When I was eleven, I read A Murder is Announced and really liked the puzzles and twists. That stuck with me ever since. And it’s become my favourite thing to write as well as read.
HK: Your previous book Gallipoli: Year of Love and Duty was a period story. If you were to branch out into different genres, where would you go and how would you approach them? RS: I’ve written nine books: three psychological thrillers, three police procedurals, a historical novel, a Young Adult murder mystery, and a black serial killer comedy. Even the historical novel, Gallipoli, had a murder in it. I think I would try any genre if I could put a mystery into it. HK: When you are writing a novel, where do you start? RS: The starting points for my stories vary. For three books, the setting came first, for two, it was the twist, for two others, it was the characters, for one it was the theme, and the historical novel was loosely based on the World War One diary of my husband’s grandmother who was a hospital ship nurse at Gallipoli. When I’ve mulled an idea around in my head until I feel it will make a story, I write out a chapter-by-chapter plotline.