Joanna Wallace: You'd Look Better as a Ghost

In Joanna Wallace's debut thriller You'd Look Better as a Ghost, we step into the sadistic, seductive and brutally honest world of part-time serial killer Claire. Disturbing and darkly humorous, You'd Look Better as a Ghost is published on 21 September by Viper.

Hi Joanna! Many congratulations on today’s publication of You’d Look Better as a Ghost! How are you going to celebrate, and what plans do you have to promote your novel and meet your readers?

Thank you! Viper are organising a launch party this evening and next weekend I’m having a big party with all my family and friends in a local pub. I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone! I’ve got some podcasts lined up and will be appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival on 11 October, talking to Sam Baker as part of the ‘New Blood: Crime and Thriller Writers to Watch’ panel. I’m hoping to meet readers there, and later that evening at The Heath Bookshop in Birmingham. The next evening, I’ll be at The West Kirby Bookshop, and on 18 October I’ll be at Bushey library.

Where did the inspiration for You’d Look Better as a Ghost come from, and what did you start with – plot, characters, setting, or something completely different?
I started writing You’d Look Better as a Ghost when my dad was diagnosed with early onset dementia, and I quickly became enraged at the cruelty of such a brutal disease. The problem is, when you’re angry at terminal illness for killing a loved one, what do you do with all that emotion? You can’t sign a petition or go on a protest when there’s no one to blame. For me, I put all the emotion I was feeling into writing and slowly my characters and then the story started to emerge.

Your central character, Claire, is a part-time serial killer with a penchant for the imaginative dispatch of her victims. She’s morally ambiguous and brutally honest and the reader, a little bit guiltily, secretly applauds the ways she dispenses her own special, and meticulously planned, brand of justice. Can you tell us a bit about how you found and developed Claire’s unique voice?

Claire was born entirely out of my rage at dementia. At a time when I was powerless to do anything to save my beloved dad, there was strange comfort in her strength and dark humour. It was very liberating to create a character who doesn’t play by the rules, and I think her voice developed in direct response to all the fear and grief I was experiencing at that time.

A novel about a serial killer is not usually a source of hilarity, but You’d Look Better as a Ghost is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and gleefully inappropriate. Did you set out to write a comedy thriller, or did it evolve as you went along?

I didn’t set out to write a comedy thriller but as I started writing, it became clear to me that I wanted to tell the story from Claire’s perspective, which meant planting myself and the reader inside a serial killer’s head. This environment became claustrophobic and gruesome very quickly and I therefore started introducing humour to balance out the horror. Without Claire’s funny observations to soften the blow (of her hammer!), I’m not sure whether I, or the reader, would be willing to stay inside her head for the duration of the novel.

The audiobook of You’d Look Better as a Ghost is narrated by Imogen Church (who is a big fan of your novel!). What did it feel like hearing your words voiced for the first time?

I was thrilled when I heard that Imogen would be narrating the audiobook and I’m so excited because I’ll be meeting her at the launch later! It was dream-come-true time, listening to someone of her calibre voice my words - she brings exactly the right energy and pace. As I suspected, she is the perfect Claire (meant in the nicest, possible way!).

Can you tell us a bit about how you found your agent, Cathryn Summerhayes? What have you found to be the most rewarding, and most challenging, aspects of getting your novel published?

Like many writers, I spent over a decade sending out my writing to literary agents and have amassed countless rejections along the way. One of my problems was that I had no idea what I was doing and kept sending out first drafts. With You’d Look Better as a Ghost I spent a long time editing before submitting to agents and this made all the difference. I knew Cathryn Summerhayes was a brilliant agent with incredible clients and I honestly didn’t think I stood much of a chance but thought it was worth submitting to her anyway. When she emailed to offer me representation, I cried! After all those rejections, it felt completely unreal – it still does, if I’m honest.

The most challenging part of getting my book published was undoubtedly all the years of rejection and the most rewarding aspect has been working with Cathryn and my superstar of an editor at Viper, Miranda Jewess who, like Cathryn, is phenomenally brilliant at her job.

What does a typical writing day look like for you – if there is such a thing! – and would you describe yourself as a disciplined writer?

I struggle to even describe myself as a writer, let alone a disciplined one! Writing has always been my hobby – something I try to fit in around my day job and looking after my family. I have four children and so a lot of my writing is done in my car, waiting for swimming lessons and play dates etc to end. I’ve got used to writing in the middle of noisy rooms inside snippets of spare time and whilst I sometimes dream about going to a writer’s retreat and enjoying hour after hour of solitude to write, in reality I think I’d spend the whole time FaceTiming my husband, children and dog!

What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you embarked on writing your novel?

The best advice was to let others read my work, listen to feedback and then edit and edit and edit some more before submitting. I don’t think I’ve ever received any bad advice. All advice is very welcome!
Which novelists have influenced your writing, and what debut novels have you enjoyed recently?

I always loved reading as a child but when I read Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, I became obsessed! I loved the feeling of being involved as a reader, looking for clues and trying to work out the identity of the killer and I think this drove my interest in crime fiction. I’m currently reading Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen, which is absolutely brilliant – full of humour and mystery.

You signed a two-book deal with Viper – what can we look forward to from you next? Another thriller? Further adventures of Claire and her hammer?

I felt like I needed a little break from Claire after You’d Look Better as a Ghost so book two is a standalone thriller – a murder mystery set around the politics, treachery and intrigue of the everyday school run. I enjoyed writing it and now I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with Claire. There are lots more people she (and her hammer) would like to meet.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2024?

As I mentioned above, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to let others read my work and whilst this initially felt scary and intimidating, I’m so pleased I plucked up the courage to do so. Entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2024 can be the first step to opening your writing up to a wider audience so my advice would be to take a deep breath, be brave and go for it!
      (Author photo by Paul Wilkinson Photography) 
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