Lisa Bradley: Paper Dolls

Lisa Bradley’s masterful debut, Paper Dolls, is a taut, claustrophobic thriller set in Yorkshire, and sees a journalist’s past mistakes come back to torment and terrorise her. Paper Dolls is published on 6 August by Quercus.

Hi Lisa! Firstly, huge congratulations on the upcoming publication of your debut novel Paper Dolls! How are you planning to celebrate?

Thank you!! Well, given the restrictions in Kirklees at the moment, I think a glass of fizz with my husband in the garden, and a cuddle with my new puppy who I bought with my advance! And my kids of course. I must try not to keep googling the reviews, though…

COVID-19 has, sadly, curtailed many literary events this year – how has the lockdown affected your plans for promoting Paper Dolls, and how have you overcome these issues?

Well, actually, apart from not being able to have a physical book launch, the digital world is how promotion works now anyway. So there’s a blog tour starting on 6 August and I’ve been doing lots of radio interviews over the phone and a few interviews for the papers. I’m a big social-media user so, to be honest, Instagram is the way forward for most debut authors. It’s been very exciting to have a publicist, and being on the other side of it after so long working as a journalist.
What was the inspiration for Paper Dolls, and which comes first for you – plot, character, setting or something completely different?

Always plot. I was watching a documentary on Madeleine McCann with my husband and we got talking about the sheer number of missing children, and missing people in general, that go without media attention and we got into a huge debate about why that is. So I started researching it, and then it came to me about how interesting it would be to follow the stories of two girls who go missing on the same day – and how differently they are treated by the media, and the tensions and reasons behind that.

You worked as a journalist for a number of years, and are currently a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Sheffield – what impact has this had on your novel writing?

Loads. I have always loved writing and when I started as a newspaper reporter I was taught to strip back. Facts – not opinion, impact – not emotion. This ended up filtering into my creative writing, and I was accepted onto the Curtis Brown Creative online novel-writing course where I learned that, actually, this should be the same for good writing, full stop. Goodbye adverbs. Goodbye exposition.

Paper Dolls is closely plotted and unsettling, with the tension being gradually ratcheted up as the story progresses. Was it all meticulously planned beforehand, with everything leading up to the big reveal, or did you plot as you went along?

Bit of both. I’m not a Post-it note planner. That sucks all the creativity out of the process for me. It drives my hubby mental as he thinks I should have an outline for each chapter and a graph with arcs and high and low points. I can’t think of anything more tedious. I normally get my rough plot in my head and off I go. The ‘bad guy’ in Paper Dolls wasn’t who it was at the start! That came to me while I was halfway round Aldi buying some milk and a pop-up gazebo. The downside of that meant I had to do a couple of severe edits and Polyfilla some plot holes, but I prefer it that way. But what I definitely know inside out in advance are my characters. I spend a huge amount of time in their heads before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
The constant feeling of menace, and fear of being watched, have a traumatic effect on your central character, Leah, and her family and friends. Which aspects of Leah’s story did you find the most challenging to write, and was her best friend Bunty as entertaining to write as she was to read?

When I was about 22, I actually was being watched by a stranger. It was nowhere near as dramatic as what Leah goes through, but that constant unease and being on edge was what I wanted to get across on the page. My experience happened when mobiles were first becoming commonplace and weren’t just for shouty stockbrokers. I lived in a top-floor flat with my best friend and I started getting creepy messages from an unknown number, telling me what I was watching on TV, what I’d been wearing that day. It started off just a bit weird but then the messages got a little darker and I ended up having to get the police involved. The weird thing is, it was a pay-as-you-go phone, untraceable…and I never found out who it was! So to get back to the question, I didn’t find it challenging apart from having to relive it again…
How long did Paper Dolls take to complete, and did you show it to other writers and readers during the process?

Six months. And noooo! The only person who reads my work-in-progress is my husband and a couple of besties who I trust to tell me how it is. The finished product is always so different to the first draft that I wait until it’s a bit more set in stone before I start sharing. I do, however, talk about the plot and characters incessantly which must get really boring for my friends, and I often go to my online writing group, the Scribblers, for help with sticky plot points.

Which novelists inspired you to write your novel, and what have you been reading during lockdown?

Lisa Jewell. I love her, ever since Ralph’s Party which is a long way from the thriller genre she now writes in. It’s her characters that totally draw me in and her sense of place. I just can’t put anything down that she writes.

I’ve also been reading Linda Green, as I was compared to her by a radio interviewer, so that’s been great as I loved One Moment, and I’ve just finished Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce, which was a real page turner. I’m also inspired by C J Tudor because I love the thriller/supernatural crossover she does so well. I think it’s the Stephen King fangirl in me.

And looking ahead to your next project – can you tell us what you are planning next?

Well, I am currently sitting in my mum’s shed, finishing book two! Ten thousand words to go. I’ve escaped to North Yorkshire for a couple of days as it’s crazy trying to work from home, look after my sons and still find time to write. This is called The Lesson, and it’s a bit of a dark look at power imbalances in the university system…

Finally, what words of encouragement would you give to prospective Caledonia Novel Award 2021 entrants?

Never give up, and love those rejections. Each one is taking you closer to that big yes. Paper Dolls is being called my debut, but it’s the fourth book I have written. I learnt so much from each one. So, don’t be precious, don’t be all maunchy like a toddler who has been told he can’t have another biscuit if you get some no’s. The only way to get that YES is to put yourself out there and keep trying – real writers don’t give up at the first hurdle. Or the tenth….

Go for it!
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