So, here’s the thing. At the end of last year, having written three psychological thrillers in a row, I started to fantasise about writing something completely different – new genre, new name even – but had no idea what. Then, at my mum’s house, nosing around in her things (as you do) I came across a curious home-printed, spiral-bound notebook with a laminated cover showing a bleached out photograph of a smiling young woman wearing 1930s clothing standing on the deck of a ship. Idly I started leafing through what turned out to be a memoir written by a friend of my mother’s called Joan who, as a young woman, had taken advantage of a government scheme offering assisted passage to Australia for anyone prepared to go into domestic service in one of the large British-owned family houses over there. At the time there was a shortage of trained young help in the New World and organisations such as The Church of England Migration Council were helping recruit young British women prepared to act as maids and cooks and housekeepers in return for a chance to see the world.
The memoir was based on Joan’s diaries kept during the five and a half week voyage from Tilbury Docks to Sydney Harbour. In it, Joan chronicles in meticulous detail the various ports they visited during the voyage, what she wore, how much things cost, which musical numbers the ship’s band played. She talks of the friendships she made on board, the romantic dalliances, the balls, the fancy dress parties.
But more than that, with the ship setting sail in July 1938 and arriving in September of that same year, she also captures the social nuances and tensions of a world in flux. Joan and the other young women travelling under the assisted passage scheme were in tourist class, alongside professionals and ‘respectable’ middle classes. The Upper Class deck is for wealthy families and debutantes and successful business people and the odd celebrity. Then, as the ship passes through Europe, they pick up – much to the distrust of many of the British passengers – Italians who crowd together on the lower deck where the laundries are situated, and Jews from Austria and Germany, already fleeing from the Nazis. In the shadow of World War Two, the ship becomes a floating tinderbox of political and social tension.
As soon as I’d read it, I realised the scenario Joan described had all the elements of an amazing historical crime novel. A world teetering on the brink of war. The enclosed world-within-a-world that is the ship itself with its claustrophobic mix of volatile social groups. A young woman running away from something towards a brave new world about which she knows next to nothing, mingling socially for the first time in her life with people from every strata of society, both British and ‘foreign’.
On the ship, passengers are forced together day in day out, in the infernal, building heat, with no way of getting away from each other. Wouldn’t tensions rise? Particularly with the threat of war hanging over their heads? What if something happens on board this boat? Something awful? How would a young, naïve woman who has never before left England deal with that?
I decided to move the action of the book a year forward so that the ship leaves England in July 1939 when conflict looks likely but by no means inevitable. I made my heroine a high-spirited young woman called Lily Shepherd who is escaping from a terrible secret but nevertheless determined to wring every last second of adventure out of this once-in-a-lifetime voyage. By the time the ship docks in Sydney five and a half weeks later, two people are dead and the world is at war. Nothing will ever be the same again.
It’s such a cliche to say a book wrote itself (now wouldn’t that be nice), but this one really did unfold in a most magical way, almost as if I was watching it all happen on film and just writing down what I saw. Felicity, my agent, and I had already discussed writing this under a different name as it would be so different to my previous books, and this proved hugely liberating. Writing free from all expectation was like writing my very first first book all over again.
When the book was finished I had a really nervous moment hitting ‘send’, and wondering what Felicity would think of it as it was such a departure. Let me be honest here. Gin was drunk. Luckily Felicity loved it, and so did Melissa, who handles foreign rights for my agency, Curtis Brown.
We’d already decided to send it out under a different name to my own, so readers and publishers would come to it fresh without any expectation of the type of book they were about to read. I’ve always liked the name Rachel and as my mum is Welsh, I decided on a surname that reflected that side of my identity, which is how Rachel Rhys was born (can’t beat a bit of alliteration). Felicity drew up a list of dream editors. And out went my book, provisionally entitled Butterflies with Broken Wings.
No matter what anyone tells you and no matter how many times you do it, there is nothing so nerve-wracking, or exposing as sending a book out on submission. Suddenly you’re riven with doubts. Is it the best it could be? Will anyone else see in it the things you wanted to convey? Have you wasted 6 months on something that isn’t going to earn you any money?
Thankfully, gratifyingly, thrillingly, the response was quick and it was uniformly positive. Several publishers expressed strong interest. Within week we had a pre emptive offer. An excellent one. Unbelievably, it was from my existing publisher Transworld. I may be biased, but I think they’re the most awesome publisher in the world. Though my editor, Jane, knew I’d written the book, the rest of the company were completely in the dark about who Rachel Rhys was, which made it doubly pleasing when they all threw themselves behind the acquisition. The Transworld offer was in partnership with the brilliant Penguin Randomhouse Australia, which seemed impossibly cool and exciting. A fortnight after that we also had offers from Germany, the USA, France, Norway and Brazil. We’d also changed the title to the less-whimsical A Dangerous Crossing.
It all seemed a bit like a dream, to be honest – until two weeks ago when Jane sent me the design for the cover by the very talented Richard Ogle. Talk about love at first sight! And then yesterday I did my first event as Rachel Rhys, sharing a stage with talented writers Joseph Knox, Belinda Bauer and John Boyne to talk about our new books.
So now there’s no denying it’s real. A Dangerous Crossing will be published by Transworld & Penguin Randomhouse Australia in April 2017. And it is a thing of beauty if I do say so myself!
What do you think?