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Paul Spalding-Mulcock
Features Writer
4:50 PM 26th December 2020
arts

Interview With Nikki Smith - Author Of All In Her Head

Nikki Smith
Nikki Smith
Hunter S. Thompson once said, ‘There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment’. A sentiment hardly brimming with incandescent comfort! If we seek light at the end of this metaphorical psychological tunnel, Freud is unlikely to provide it – ‘the paranoid is never entirely mistaken’. Nikki Smith’s debut novel, All In Her Head takes these truths and weaves them into a suspense thriller par excellence, its pages as gripping as they are deceitful. Paranoia literally stalks its chapters and delivers almost Hitchcockian delight!

Her darkly delicious book explores psychosis with a ruthless understanding of its nuanced depths, whilst glueing the reader’s eyeballs to her protagonists’ every utterance. The result is a wonderfully absorbing read which ladles out tension, shock and ever-present disquietude with authorial legerdemain. Thrillers by definition should thrill…All In Her Head delivers on this sine qua non and is a diverting immersion into untethered minds, fractured lives and the uncomfortable truths lurking below its disturbing surface.

Though I have no experience of psychotic disorder, unless credence is given to my wife’s own views on the matter, All In Her Head did give me an enlightening peak into the pernicious perils of living with such a condition. Fiction is of course artifice, the product of a fecund authorial imagination and the rich tapestry of influences acting upon it. Having recently interviewed Smith, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter not a dark mind, but one both intriguing and even puckish!

Smith studied English Literature at Birmingham University, before pursuing a career in finance. She lives near Guildford with her family and a cat who thinks she is a dog. I began our interview by exploring what prompted her to leave the corporate world of finance behind and swap the certainties of a calculator for the rather more uncertain rewards of an unknown authorial pen. Such a bold decision was likely rooted in great self-belief or an even greater desire to write. In Smith’s case, it was the latter, a fact which is testimony to both her bravery and tenacity.

‘I have always written and when I haven’t been writing I’ve wanted to write. I was an avid reader as a child and in school, I loved thinking up stories and having them read out in class. I did write a novel after I left University after doing an English degree, (it was rubbish!) and when it didn’t get published, I think I lost self-confidence, so continued to write, but just for myself’.

Smith’s impulse to write may have lain dormant, but it was serendipitously rekindled. ‘A few years ago, I was contacted by someone on Facebook who I’d been at school with (and hadn’t seen for twenty years!) who asked if I’d ever done anything with my writing. Her words encouraged me to sign up for a Curtis Brown course – which then led to getting my lovely agent, Sophie Lambert, and a two-book deal with Orion’!

For me, Smith can be seen as being rather like a mischievous cat, toying not with a mouse, but with her reader’s mind! Her penchant for literature echoing my playful characterisation is apt: ‘I tend to read psychological suspense thrillers so authors like Gillian Flynn, Claire Mackintosh, Lisa Jewell, Rosamund Lupton, Louise Candlish and Stephen King. Basically, anyone who writes dark fiction in some form, although I do read outside my genre and love any writer who inspires me, or makes me think differently about a particular topic’.

‘For 2020, I would say my favourite read was We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker – the perfect combination of a cast of stunning characters combined with a brilliant setting and plot’. It would seem that Smith’s literary leanings all share a common root…authors who mine the thriller genre for suspense, ambiguity and entertainment. All In Her Head conspicuously draws upon the work of those she reads for pleasure, and benefits all the more from her meticulous appreciation of why these novels work both technically and artistically.

Smith’s own approach to writing is a combination of zesty vim and assiduous planning. ‘I’m not sure I’ve written enough books to know what my process is yet! It seems to be different for different books. For All In Her Head, the character of Alison came to me before the plot, but for my second novel which is being published next April, I worked out the plot before I really fleshed out the characters’.

All In Her Head is a character-led thriller, however its complex narrative structure demanded clinical precision from its maker: ‘I had a very detailed spreadsheet with a timeline set out on it which contained all the months and years involved, so I could slot chapters into the various places to ensure it fitted together. I have to say it really wasn’t easy, and some of the edits were a nightmare – a change in one timeline affects everything else! I also made the work doubly difficult as it’s written in a dual narrative, so I had to juggle that too!’.

‘I had read some notable psychological suspense fiction such as Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl which employed this technique very successfully, but I didn't consciously adopt it because of this. I decided to write in this way because in order for the book to be effective, I think the reader has to feel they are truly inside the head of the two protagonists throughout the novel hence the first person, present tense, dual narrative. I wanted the reader to feel they were experiencing Alison's and Jack's thoughts first-hand, and by constructing the book as a dual narrative, it only lets the reader into one character's head for a short period of time before they switch to the other character, which I think contributes to the unsettled feeling throughout the book’.

‘The reader never quite knows who to believe but feels close to the action at all times. In the first draft of the novel, you might be interested to hear that I had written the characters in third person and had the joyful (!) experience of rewriting the book into first as I knew it worked much better that way!’.

Smith’s debut explores disturbed minds and the consequences of such mental tumult. Postpartum psychosis is embedded into the novel’s thematic bedrock, forming part of the dysfunctional substructure upon which her story rests. I wanted to explore Smith’s choice of and understanding of this little acknowledged condition. ‘I had a horrendous birth with my second daughter – I suffered from a condition called placenta accreta…I ended up in intensive care after haemorrhaging very badly. It made me realise that giving birth is still fraught with danger even in the developed world. I suffered physically, but it made me think about what would happen if a woman suffered mental trauma and this led me to research postpartum psychosis’.

‘I read many, many articles on the condition and also spoke to people who had suffered from it. I felt that women who have suffered from this condition, such as Andrea Yates, are often demonised in the press, when in fact the illness makes them believe they are acting in a way to protect their child rather than harming them. I’ve had several readers contact me following the publication of All In Her Head to say they have suffered from postpartum psychosis, and thought I dealt with the topic realistically and sensitively. I felt it was very important not to sensationalise it’.

Smith’s ability to render her characters as people who leave the page is one of her novel’s greatest virtues and a seminal reason for its emotive and psychological potency. ‘I wanted to create characters that the reader would believe in, and then subvert those initial assumptions so they realise these were all wrong. I’ve read many psychological suspense thrillers that use this premise, (and some are brilliantly written) but I wanted my book to use this familiar trope and use it to give the reader a twist that comes as a huge shock’.

‘I also wanted them to be sympathetic to Alison despite what they have read in the prologue – postpartum psychosis is a serious issue suffered by approximately 1 in 1000 women who give birth in the UK, so I wanted people to understand how quickly it can arise, and how difficult it can be to identify and treat’.

For me, Smith’s unflinching yet sympathetic portrayal of Alison, the wife of her other chief protagonist Jack, edges towards the darkest aspects of Chekhov. Individual reality is seen through an idiosyncratic prism and one which may not be reliable. I imagined getting inside Alison’s head to be a traumatic experience. I could not have been more wrong: ‘I love Alison! Rather than being depressing, I think that writing her character actually allowed me to process a lot of the trauma I’d experienced after giving birth. Because I had done a lot of research and spoken to women who’d suffered from the condition, I found it quite easy to imagine what it was like being inside her head.’

Becoming a published author brings both negative and positive consequences. I concluded my interview by asking Smith for her thoughts on this point. ‘It’s had a huge impact. I’ve discovered that writing can be a lonely business, so for me it’s been really important to connect with other writers, so I have people to talk to who understand the process. Fortunately, the writing community has been so supportive, and I’ve met some other wonderful authors and count them amongst some of my best friends’.

Hanshiro Tsugomu tells us from his cinema graphical world, ‘What befalls others today, may be your own fate tomorrow’. A thought enriching Smith’s debut with adroitly modulated vicarious force. Our wise swordsman just as pertinently says, ‘The suspicious mind conjures its own demons’. As a fellow martial artist his words ring true. As a reader, they cause me to wait with bated breath for what the tenebrous, but scintillatingly inventive mind of Nikki Smith next conjures up for the delight of her readers.

Her second novel, Look What You Made Me Do will be published in April 2021, with a third in the pipeline. By the time I read her latest book, I’m hopeful that my fingernails may have grown back !