Anna Bailey: Tall Bones

Tall Bones by debut novelist Anna Bailey is a menacing, brilliantly-crafted study of small-minded, small-town brutality, with the disappearance of a teenage girl at its heart. It explores shame, deeply-hidden secrets and religious fervour with an unwavering eye, and was published in April, 2021.

Hi Anna! Many congratulations on today’s publication of your debut thriller Tall Bones! Tell us how you’re planning to celebrate.

Thank you! My girlfriend and I are going to make whisky cocktails, and I have a Zoom call scheduled with my publishers as well, so I’m looking forward to catching up with the whole team, some of whom I haven’t seen since 2019!

What inspired you to write Tall Bones and what comes first for you: character, plot, setting or something completely different?

Tall Bones was largely inspired by the time I spent living in small-town America, first in Texas and then in the Colorado Rockies. It was such a brutal, beautiful landscape and those little towns felt so cut off from reality; there was always a sense of danger there and I knew I had to write about it. Setting is really important to me – if I can’t visualise the place properly, then it just feels like I’m writing about a bunch of actors putting on a very low-budget play with a shoddy backdrop. But I think the most interesting stories are character driven. Places shape us but it’s human actions that dictate our lives. Once you’ve got a clear sense of your characters and the world they inhabit, I find the story often reveals itself.
Tall Bones is nuanced and intricately plotted, with clues dropped in throughout – how do you plan your narrative, keep on top of all the plot twists, and maintain the suspense and momentum throughout?

I’m quite a meticulous plotter, I think. With Tall Bones, I got about 15k words in, and then I wrote down all the plot details I knew I wanted to include on little scraps of paper and arranged them in order on the floor. I did this for each of the main characters as well, so that I could keep a clear track of their individual stories throughout the book, and I found that really helpful. My cat sat on them a few times, but whatever order he left things in, that’s what went into the book, so I respect his judgement.
Your novel brims with vivid characters from misunderstood outsiders and a vengeful, rhetoric-spouting pastor, to disturbed parents and lonely children with terrible secrets to bear. Which did you find the most challenging to write, and why?

I think Pastor Lewis was one of the hardest characters to write. He’s the minister at the local Baptist church in this small mountain town, and he uses his influence over the community to incite violence and manipulate the police investigation into the disappearance of this local girl, Abigail. Pastor Lewis was an amalgamation of a few real-life preachers I knew, but I still had to do a fair bit of research into writing sermons and some of that was pretty unpleasant. He’s a very bigoted character, and so trawling through pages and pages of homophobic religious rhetoric was quite rough at times. But then that’s partly why I wrote this book in the first place, I think – to deal with a lot of the darkness that I encountered while living in the US. Bad things are able to take root in small, isolated communities, and in Tall Bones, the investigation into what happened to Abigail peels back the layers of this town and exposes people for who they really are underneath.
Your depiction of small-town America feels authentic and intimate – did you start writing Tall Bones while you were living in Colorado, and how did the Curtis Brown writing course impact your work?

I actually started writing it after I returned to the UK. Or rather, I started writing the serious version of it. I’d had this kind of wishy-washy idea before that involved a missing girl and was set in the Rockies, but it was very slow and lazily plotted, and I remember when I joined the Curtis Brown Creative course, everybody pretty much tore it apart – as they should have! I think there is a tendency among some people to just assume that writing is this natural gift and if you’ve got it then you don’t need to worry about learning anything new, and I’m not above admitting that was me a little bit when I started the course. The criticism I received was completely justified and it made me sit up straight and pay attention to all the advice they gave us, and in doing so I started to take myself more seriously as a writer, which really encouraged me to finish my manuscript.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative journey and what a typical writing day looks like for you?

I wish I had a more sophisticated answer to this, but usually I just get up and eat some toast and try to write every day. Not very glamorous! I’ve really struggled with writing during the pandemic, actually – being stuck inside for months on end hasn’t been very conducive to creativity. But it’s my job and I’m extremely lucky to be able to do it, so whenever I’m feeling frustrated with my lack of progress, I try to remind myself of that.

Which novelists inspired you to write, and what do you enjoy reading in crime fiction?

I’ve been fortunate to read some incredible crime fiction proofs recently, including Paula Hawkins’ A Slow Fire Burning, and The Therapist by Norwegian writer Helene Flood. Both of them are brilliant mysteries and tap into that fear that the people we think we know aren’t always what they seem. But it’s authors like Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro who have really inspired me to write, I think, because of the way they write about ordinary people with such tenderness and attention to detail. It’s definitely something I’ve tried to emulate in my own writing, and I think it’s very compatible with crime fiction. No character is unimportant, everybody has a story. In Tall Bones there were certain characters who started off in the background, like Hunter Maddox, the slightly spoilt son of a local businessman – he only had a very minor role originally, but the more I thought about who he might be, what his life might be like in this oppressive little community, I realised he had a secret, and so he ended up becoming one of my main characters.

What was the most memorable piece of advice you were given as you began writing your first novel?

I saw Ian McEwan at the Stroud Book Festival shortly after I came back to the UK, and I remember him saying that if you’re serious about writing then you have to treat it like any other job and show up for it every day. I’ve received a lot of great advice, but this is the one piece I come back to most often.

You write with such assurance and maturity that it’s hard to believe that Tall Bones is your debut novel! Have you started another project, and what can we look forward to from you next?

Thank you! I’m currently writing another novel set in small-town America, about the murder of a wealthy couple in the 70s. I’m a huge fan of all things 70s so I’m having a lot of fun with it (even if the subject matter is a bit grisly!).

And finally, have you any tips for anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

I firmly believe that the best writers love writing in and of itself, but one of the most daunting things for unpublished novelists is putting all your blood, sweat and tears into a novel and then thinking, “God, but is anyone ever going to read this?”. I remember that feeling well. But the Curtis Brown Creative course offered me the chance to pitch my manuscript to an agent at the end, and this really motivated me to finish Tall Bones. If you’re serious about writing, it’s worth taking every opportunity to get your work out into the world, because no agent or publisher will see it if it’s just languishing in a folder on your laptop. The number of past entrants to the Caledonia Novel Award who have gone on to gain representation and publishing deals is so encouraging – there is nothing to say you couldn’t be one of them!
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