It was around the time I was working on the final edit of my thriller The Girl In Kellers Way that I had an idea for my next book. I often get ideas for books in the middle of the night. No matter what the time, I always turn on my bedside lamp and scribble them down in a notebook so that I don’t forget.
This particular idea was compelling, but I tried to dismiss it, thinking it too ambitious and challenging to write. But the basic idea for The Escape Room simply wouldn't go away. I wanted to write a corporate thriller that took my writing into new and dangerous territory.
Offices might seem mundane with their dull aesthetics, fluorescent lights and photocopy machines. But they’re also cutthroat human habitats, rife with conflict – perfect fodder for a writer. As a writer I saw a setting that offered tremendous potential for suspense and the chance to explore interesting themes of greed, sexism and jealousy.
John le Carré was once asked how he came up with plots for his spy novels. He answered that he looks for conflict between the characters. ‘That cat sat on the mat is not a story,’ he said. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.’
Around the time I started writing the book, I was involved in a frightening incident with my son. Alone in an elevator when it stopped suddenly, the lights turned off and it was pitch black. For the minutes we were suspended in mid-air, we felt so helpless and afraid in the dark, claustrophobic box, cut off from the world. We emerged unscathed a few minutes later but the incident gave me an idea: what would happen if colleagues found out each other’s secrets in a broken-down elevator? Slowly, one secret at a time, their relationships devolving along with their psychological state until they discover the most frightening secret of all – that one of them is a killer.
With the concept taking shape in my mind, I sat down and wrote the first chapter of The Escape Room. As with The Girl In Kellers Way, I didn’t plan too much in advance. I’m one of those people who detests reading manuals or planning things out to the nth degree. For example, I'm hopeless at assembling flat-pack furniture, because I usually toss away the instruction manual and go for broke. That usually results in odd-looking furniture, but using my instincts works when I write a novel.
It's a similar technique employed by Lee Child, who read The Escape Room and called it ‘one of my favourite books of the year’. He too writes from the gut and doesn't know at all what's happening until he writes it. I have a general idea of my overall story arc, but that's it. Everything else emerges as I write. I enjoy experiencing my stories as a reader and you can’t do that when you already know what's happening in advance.
I do some research in advance, but mostly as I write. Usually what happens is that my characters get caught up in something that I don't know too much about and I break off writing to find out more. I enjoy the research because it breaks up the intensity and can often be fascinating.
I've scrutinised street maps to understand the geography of the places that I write about. I've read about the breeding habits of cicadas in North Carolina and the types of owls that are native to that region. I've checked out train schedules, videos on how to handle guns, menus at New York restaurants and interview tips for Wall Street traders. I’ve read extensive studies on subjects ranging from human psychology to game theory. I’ve even read choking techniques on S&M bondage sites that left me wondering what people would think if they saw my bizarre internet browser history.
It’s stressful writing a novel – looking at that blank page and knowing you have to write 90,000 words can be overwhelming. I often compare writing a novel to running a marathon because you have to keep going – you can’t stop. The moment you stop, that’s it. So I force myself to write as much as I can every day until I have a first draft. That might mean writing 15 hours a day for weeks on end.
Once I have the first draft and my editor is looking at the manuscript I take a break, which often involves catching up on the piles of paperwork and bills that I neglected while I was writing. The next part of the process involves spending months polishing the manuscript. That's the part that I enjoy most because I don't have the stress of knowing that I have 90,000 words to write. It also allows me to incorporate the advice of my brilliant editors at Penguin.
It took a year from the time I started writing The Escape Room until we finished the final edit. By the time we were done, I was already thinking about my next novel.