Abigail Dean, GIRL A.

Abigail Dean, GIRL A.

Abigail Dean quit her job as an attorney, then attempted to write Girl A within just 3 months. She talks with Zibby about her first novel’s incredible publication story and the importance of “just getting the words down.”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Abigail. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Girl A.

Abigail Dean: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s really awesome to be here.

Zibby: This book, oh, my gosh, intense. Can you tell listeners what it’s about? How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Abigail: Sure, I can. Girl A is Lex Gracie. As a child, Lex manages to escape from her family home which becomes known as the House of Horrors in the press. When she does, she frees her six brothers and sisters and exposes her parents’ crimes. Girl A opens fifteen years after that escape. Lex, by then, is a successful attorney. She’s living in New York. She just does not want to think about her childhood in any way. That is, until her mother dies in prison. When she does, she leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, the House of Horrors, where they grew up. Lex has to return to the UK, reconnect with her brothers and sisters, and revisit those old battles and the old alliances of their childhood to decide the fate of the house.

Zibby: Your imagination, by the way — you were not in a house like this, correct? I’m assuming, or were you?

Abigail: No, I was not. I am a lawyer, but I’m nowhere near as good a lawyer as Lex is. This was very much not my childhood.

Zibby: Good. I didn’t think so. First of all, how did you come up with this whole idea for this book? I know it’s your first foray into this whole thing. Why this topic? How did you make it so real? It literally feels like you were in that room with the window and the shackles and the piles of garbage. The way you had it, it’s just so real. How did you do that?

Abigail: It’s a weird thing where you look back at the writing and you’re like, I don’t know. Thinking about it, actually, I think there are things that I did do and that I can think back to. One of the things that I’d often been really interested in and been kind of conflicted about in another way was — I’m a big consumer of true crime. I’ve watched the documentaries on Netflix. I’ve listened to the podcasts. Often, those materials focus on the particular action or the event, but there’s so much time after that. You have the people who were affected by those crimes. There were so many months and years and decades that follow them. That was one of the ideas that I was really thinking about with Girl A. In these cases that often do affect children, how do they live the rest of their lives? What kind of resilience and strength those human beings have, that was something I wanted to be a real focus of the novel, just looking at these characters in turn who have all reacted really differently to what happened to them in the House of Horrors. How do they live now? That was a real question that I wanted to look at. In creating the house, I actually really often think about houses in literature, like the House of Usher in Poe or, in a way, Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. They are almost a character in their own right. They shape the book as much as any of the actual other characters do. That’s how I wanted the house on Moor Woods Road to be in Girl A where the children grow up. I had small sketches of where the different rooms were and where the different children are at different times. I think it was just a case of almost thinking about the house with the same importance as the people who occupy it, if that makes sense.

Zibby: I feel like if I were writing this, I would have to just take my own house or something and make it — I don’t think visually like that in terms of being able to just manufacture another completely new house that then devolves into this crazy stuff that happens. I’m very impressed, in other words. It’s impressive.

Abigail: I think, though, the landscape definitely is — the house is also set on this moorland. It’s quite isolated. It’s out of town up this road where the houses get further and further apart. That road is definitely based on a road that is very near to my parents’ house and where I grew up. It’s a road that always made me a bit on edge. It goes up into the moorland just outside of Manchester. It’s one of those roads as well where the streetlamps just stop halfway up. I think that that was a real influence. It just was one of those roads that you kind of take a different route to avoid it, one of those. It’s not at all entirely fictional in terms of the setting. The house maybe, but not the road.

Zibby: So you could actually imagine when Lexie escapes and is standing in the road half-naked and has to stop a car and go to the hospital. That look of horror on the driver’s face, oh, my gosh. You have the actual backdrop for the whole thing, which is very cool.

Abigail: Exactly. The road just got more scary for me. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to go along it ever again.

Zibby: You’re going to have to be continually taking alternate routes here or you have to get some sort of a new lamp or something and say this is where this book was based.

Abigail: I’ll give that a go. Definitely.

Zibby: When you set out to write this book, how did you integrate it with your career as an attorney and everything? When did you write it? How did you decide, okay, I’m also going to write this book and I’m going to take the time for it? How did that all happen, or was it just more organic?

Abigail: In a way, it wasn’t very organic. I’d been working as an attorney in law firms for six years or so. I had just come to the end of a really tough time at work with really grueling hours. I remember very vividly missing my husband’s birthday on a Saturday night that I had planned. It was one of those moments where you step back at bit. You look at your life and you’re like, is this actually what I wanted? Was this the plan? If this was the plan, should it still be the plan? You’re obviously not particularly happy right now. One of the elements of that was the fact that I hadn’t written in that six-year period. It was something that as a kid I was always doing. As a teenager, I was writing fan fiction. I was filling notebooks. It had completely slipped away from me. In terms of trying to address the work issues, I was like, I’m going to leave my job. As a part of that, I want to take some time to give writing a go and to just see if I can get something down and if it’s something that my family and friends might want to read. We can go from there. I took three months off between jobs. I had another legal job lined up that I knew would have better hours and a more realistic, balanced approach to things. In that three-month period, to be honest Zibby, I thought, I’m going to finish my novel. I’m going to finish it. How ridiculous. I got about halfway, maybe about a third of the way through. Then it was another nine months of working away in the evening and at weekends. That was also while working in a job that was much more manageable and gave me the energy to be able to write Girl A and to finish it.

Zibby: You might not have finished it in the three months, but I bet you did enough in the three months that it got propelled. Sometimes you need that headspace just to completely delve in. I would not beat yourself up about it. I think three months is definitely aggressive. I love that you tried it because look what happened.

Abigail: It’s true. I think that you’re exactly right in terms of you almost make such an investment in that three-month period. I could’ve gone traveling. Instead, I was sitting in a library working on Girl A. You put in so much that, in a way, that in itself is a big driver to just keep going in the more tiring evenings when you’re like, I’d really rather be watching Selling Sunset right now. Actually, no, I’m going to write Girl A. I’m going to try to see it through.

Zibby: What happened then when you finished it?

Abigail: I finished it around springtime of 2019. I actually had shown it by then to my family and shown it to my husband. I’d shown it to my parents who are retired English teachers as well. My husband said very memorably — I kind of laugh at him for this, but it was actually one of the nicest things that anybody has said to me. He said, “It’s like a book that you’d buy in a shop.” I thought, in that case, I’ll try to send it to agents. I will just see if they’re interested. I put together the pack that as a writer you put together, the covering letter and the summary and your first three chapters, and sent it out to some agents who I knew had represented or loved books that were similar to Girl A. That’s what I looked for. Often, agents list their favorite books on their websites. You can read about recent deals in the press. That’s how I targeted the submissions. Quite a few agents were interested, three of the five that I sent it to. That was the first moment when you think, oh, this could actually happen, maybe. Obviously, there’s still a lot of stages to go, but it felt really hopeful for the first time.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Then your agent took it out and sold it right away? Is that what happened? I don’t know the publication story.

Abigail: One of the reasons that I ended up going with my agent was that she felt that it needed quite a lot of work before she sent it to publishers. She wanted to spend a bit of time editing it with me. I really liked that idea. I definitely didn’t really have loads of confidence in my writing, never really have. I liked the idea that she wanted to make it as good as it possibly could be before we sent it to publishers. We did three months of editing, two full rounds of editing before it was sent out.

Zibby: Then what happened?

Abigail: Then it was sent to publishing houses in the US and in the UK. I very vividly remember my agent saying to me — I was going on a business trip for work. I was going to India. She said, “You know what? Just go and don’t think about this. Just think about work. We probably won’t hear anything in the next week.” I remember being in a taxi in rural India. I had no phone signal. I actually had something worse than no phone signal. I had just enough phone signal to see that my agent was calling me when I was in this taxi but without any ability to answer the phone or to hear what she was saying. There was an agonizing three-hour car journey when I knew that she was trying to get through to me, but I just could not hear a word. That was her ringing with the news that in the UK and in the US it looked like there would be auctions for Girl A, which was just way beyond anything that I had ever expected or hoped for. It was a very stressful, tense three hours.

Zibby: Wow, that is so exciting. That’s the total dream, having a novel go to auction. It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of trying to sell a book.

Abigail: It was just as surreal as you would expect. I’m still not entirely sure it’s sunk in either. I’ve still got a bit of doubt as to whether any of this actually happened.

Zibby: Yet now it’s come out. Life has somewhat returned a little bit versus where it was a year ago, but we are still in the pandemic as this book is coming out. When you were selling it and planning for the release, what did you think? Did you think it would be over by now? What were you anticipating the world to look like? I remember last March I would talk to authors. They were even like, I’m publishing in July, so I’ll be fine. Now of course, it’s the following February. Tell me about that.

Abigail: I definitely had that sense of, oh, we’re talking about nearly a year away. Things will probably be back to normal by then. It’s really strange. Ultimately in publishing and writing, it’s not had a massive effect. Books are still selling. People are reading more than ever. The only thing that is a real dampener is not getting to meet booksellers and readers. It would’ve just been lovely to do that. At the same time, I hope that those moments will come. I feel like I have this massive list of people who I want to say thank you to in person. I hope that soon enough it will be possible to do that. In the meantime, I just feel very, very grateful to be published. It happened in a pandemic, but I think the book’s still getting out there. People are still meeting the Gracie family. It’s still gripping readers. That’s what matters to me.

Zibby: It’s great. People are longing for stories that completely suck them in right now I think more than ever. Even my mother the other day was like, “You know, I just can’t get through a book. I don’t know why. Usually, I get through everything. I just keep putting them down.” Of course, I was like, “Let me recommend a few that I haven’t been able to put down.” She’s like, “Okay, I’ll try them.” I just feel like there’s this collective — I don’t know. At first, there was so much anxiety that people weren’t reading. Then I think people got back into reading. I think there’s this fatigue at this point. Especially as older people get the vaccine and they know that maybe they will have this protective shield of sorts coming, they’re so excited, almost, they can’t sit down and read, perhaps.

Abigail: I think you’re exactly right. I feel like at present, there is actually some hope that came with the start of a new year and with the vaccine. I’m hoping that slowly, that low-level horrible worry and stress that has been there is kind of converting to hope. Like you, the balance is still potentially a bit shifted towards worry, but it feels like we’re heading hopefully in the right direction.

Zibby: We should all have one of those old-fashioned scales on our desks with hope and worry. Maybe it’s more of a sliding thing, a different type of scale where every day you can nudge it to the right or the left. Then you could let people know. My husband could come in and he could see, oh, you’re all the way on the worry side. Then he could just turn around and walk out.

Abigail: There’s some things today you should not say to me because you see .

Zibby: Save it until I’m more on the hope side. Come back to me then. That’s not a bad idea. Now he has to rely on just a quick glance, but he can pretty much figure it out. Back in the day before the pandemic, I used to do all these events. I would pair authors for various reasons, usually two authors, sometimes three, for topics that I found had some interest, and maybe not in a predictable way. I feel like if this were regular time, I would want to pair you with Stephanie Thornton Plymale. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her book. It’s called American Daughter. Obviously, I know you’re not American, but her story is a memoir about having basically grown up in a situation like this. She was one of five or six, because she had half-siblings, but six siblings, essentially, who — part of her growing up, she was a prisoner in a house, and how it affected all of those siblings years later. It’s almost like the real life — not exactly. It wasn’t, per se, this House of Horrors the way your book is with everybody and one escapee at the beginning, all of that, but it is what happens when you’ve gone through so much trauma in early childhood in a completely out-there way that so few people can even relate to. What happens to you then? How do you repair your life? What happens to all the different siblings? It’s like you have a control set like it’s a psychological experiment. Anyway, I feel like the two of you should take this on the road or something.

Abigail: Literally, I’m writing this down. It sounds like an amazing story. One of the things that it sounds like American Daughter might have as well is there is hope to it. Sometimes you can hear the arc of a story and think, this is going to be a desperately difficult, sad read. Often in those really dark places, there’s also a lot of strength and resilience and hope as well.

Zibby: Yes, she could nudge her hope meter all the way over. People can get through basically everything. I think your book speaks to this too. You see a fully functional woman marching into a prison picking up her mother’s things and going about her business and speaking intelligently. Knowing that she went through that and seeing how she can function in everyday life, it’s just empowering. Then you think, well, gosh, if people can get through this, the fact that my mom missed this concert of mine or something is not even — I mean, she didn’t, but the little things that come in most people’s lives suddenly feel just so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Abigail: I wanted Lex to be this really, in a way, quite reserved narrator. I don’t think she necessarily wears her heart or suffering on her sleeve in any way. I think that she just has this real internal strength, this quiet strength both in her escape, but also in how she approaches life in the present day as she’s dealing with how the House of Horrors can be turned into something, a force for good. She does have a kind of slightly wry humor about things. For me, that’s where the hope of the novel is found, is in Lex’s narrative and in her as this fantastic woman.

Zibby: Amazing. Abigail, what advice would you have to aspiring authors aside from you can’t necessarily finish a book in three months?

Abigail: That would definitely be number one. This is going to sound so unromantic in terms of advice. I think it is just to write and to get the words down. For a huge amount of my twenties, I would often say my dream job would be to be a writer. I’d love to be a writer. Another blunt piece of advice from my husband was, “You can’t be a writer if you don’t write anything,” which felt at the time a bit close to the bone, but it is very true. I think that’s the biggest and most important piece of advice, in a way, that I had. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be you who does get published, but you will never ever have the shot unless you have got the words down on the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s on notes on your phone, which it sometimes is for me. It is just getting the words down.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you. I love hearing success stories like yours. I love that it all paid off and that you took stock of your life and your job and rebalanced everything. Look what came of it. You gave yourself just the littlest window, and it has exploded into a novel that is so brilliantly written and gripping and that all these other people now are going to take their time to enjoy. It’s really amazing. I feel like you have this corollary piece of advice which is for people who are in a job that they know is not right for them, sometimes it’s worth it because the benefits of taking stock and doing what you feel deep down you’re meant to do ends up helping way more people and ultimately making you far more successful than you could’ve been in a job that is sort of deadening your soul.

Abigail: Yeah, I’m very relieved that I took the chance. I very nearly didn’t. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m glad you took the chance too. Otherwise, I would be holding nothing. I would just be going like this and we would probably not be on the phone. Congratulations. Enjoy all of the success. So well-deserved. Bravo to you.

Abigail: Thank you so much. Thank you for reading Girl A.

Zibby: Of course. Take care. Buh-bye.

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