Clare Mackintosh, HOSTAGE

Clare Mackintosh, HOSTAGE

Although many people haven’t started flying at the same rate they were pre-pandemic, Clare Mackintosh’s latest thriller, Hostage, might make it hard for anyone to ever get back there. Clare joined Zibby to talk about her love for writing on planes (which partially inspired the story’s setting on a 20-hour flight), how her writing habits have changed over the last year, and what she plans to work on now that she has rediscovered her creativity.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Clare. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hostage. You can save hundreds of lives or the one that matters most…

Clare Mackintosh: That’s good. You should be one of those movie announcers. You just need to get that gravelly voice.

Zibby: That’s true. I need to be a man with a low voice. Other than that, I’m fine. By the way, may I just say that you had the coolest marketing package that I’ve seen that came so long ago now. When even was that? Months ago. Describe it to everybody. What did you do?

Clare: They did such a cool job. I was quite envious. I was quite jealous. I’m in the UK. I have my UK team doing stuff. In the States, they put together this really cool in-flight magazine. Then what else?

Zibby: I think there was a ticket. You felt like you were going on the flight.

Clare: Which was really good timing, of course, because nobody was going on a flight at all. I figured, actually, it’s going to work one of two ways. It’s either going to be really great and make people really excited or everyone’s going to go, I don’t want to go on a plane.

Zibby: Well, I don’t want to be a hostage, necessarily.

Clare: No. It’d be nice to go on a slightly less-eventful flight than the one that’s in the book.

Zibby: Although, it sounds amazing, this flight to Sydney and the twenty hours. Not the fact that it’s twenty hours, but how luxurious it was. It sounded like a plane I would want to try out.

Clare: The thing that I was most excited about in my fictional world was the fact that the people in business class got these special commemorative pajamas to wear, which I don’t think is a thing.

Zibby: It is a thing. You get pajamas on flights.

Clare: Oh, you go on posher flights than I do, clearly.

Zibby: You get flights on British Airways. Pajamas. Yes, you do. I have them in my closet. I went on my honeymoon to Wimbledon. I saved my pajamas.

Clare: That is the coolest thing.

Zibby: Oh, come on. Stop. You didn’t do research? You wrote a whole book about this.

Clare: I’ve just never, obviously, flown on the sort of ticket that comes with its own pajamas, Zibby.

Zibby: No, you did not make it up. They do it on most international flights. I feel like Air France does pajamas.

Clare: I think maybe I’m just not traveling in the right class.

Zibby: I think that’s the problem.

Clare: That’s what it is. I need to sell more books. Have you worn these pajamas since?

Zibby: I have. I always change right into them because I think it’s the funniest thing. I should find you a picture. If I can find it after this, I’ll send it to you, from my honeymoon. They’re oversized men’s pajamas. Next thing you know, I’m padding down the hall in my — .

Clare: That is so cool. I’m trying to think of what I’ve had free on planes. I’ve had some nice sleep masks and sprays, an aromatherapy spray. That was very nice. The weirdest thing I’ve had is a porcelain house flying with KLM — these are not sponsored airlines, we should point out — the Dutch airline. They were little Dutch houses. I’m not really sure what it was for. That was a bit odd, but I love all that stuff. I love even flying with really budget airlines. I love airline food and little miniature salt and pepper pots and little miniature cutlery that doesn’t really cut properly because you can’t take knives on planes. I miss travel.

Zibby: Me too. Stale rolls, the freezing cold butter that’s like a brick you have to saw through with your plastic.

Clare: Do you know what? I wrote this book during the pandemic, or certainly edited it. It had kind of been written before it. I had envisaged that the whole of 2020 while I was putting the finishing touches to this book, that I would do what I normally do, which is write on planes. That’s kind of my thing. When I’m traveling for book festivals or signings or whatever, I play little games with myself. I will upgrade myself if I’m prepared to work. I’ll go into a lounge. I’ll get to the airport and I’ll say, right, you can use the business lounge, but only if you write a thousand words. Then I’m on the plane. You can have a glass of champagne once you’ve written two hundred words. I don’t want to put it off too long. I have these little games. I break up my writing with nice, fun stuff like going to the bar if there’s a bar on the plane or watching an episode of Friends or something. Of course, I didn’t have any of that last year. I just had to be in my office with no one bringing me pretzels. It was very disappointing.

Zibby: I’m very sorry.

Clare: Does this justify as a first-world problem? I think it might.

Zibby: I love writing on planes. I love doing anything productive on planes. I’m super sad that now it’s just another place to email with Wi-Fi and anything. That was the one protected space to be creative or to get through a book or read or write or whatever.

Clare: Thinking about your not having time to do anything, the thing about plane time is that it feels like free time.

Zibby: It does.

Clare: Sometimes if you are going back in time, then it actually is free time. You get a free day. You’ve done a whole day’s work. Then you arrive. Okay, you’re massively jet lagged and you feel a bit sick, but you’ve got another day. It’s free. You get to do more work or read a book. I love that. It blows my mind just a tiny bit because I can’t quite get my head around actual time travel.

Zibby: I totally agree. There’s something about that. You’re like, oh, I landed and it’s only seven in the morning. Everybody here’s just waking up. Look at me. I love that. Everything is sort of suspended. Crazy. For this book, you start out with a mother and her estranged husband — this makes me very nervous as I’m trying to hire a new nanny on the weekends, for what happens with that au pair right at the beginning — and a special needs-y kid who they’ve adopted and what this flight will do for their relationship and the mother — what is she hiding? — and all of this drama. Take me back before you envisioned a life of pretzel eating above the oceans or whatever. Why this family? How’d you come up with them?

Clare: The way I write my books, generally, is I start with the premise. I start with the question. That was, what happens if you’re on a long-haul flight, you can’t contact people on the ground, and somebody anonymous on that plane puts a flight attendant in an impossible situation, which is, do you save the plane or do you save your family back home? That’s my starting point, which is obviously a fairly horrific starting point. Then I think about, who is in that situation? When I started planning Hostage, I started with Mina. I generally start with mom, I guess because I am one, and so that’s easy. I’m always lazy. Start with the easiest job. Mina is quite a complicated person because she’s got various things that happened in her past that impact on her decision-making. That’s all of us, all these layers that we build up. I knew that I wanted her relationship with her child to be quite challenging. Then what happened was I had a conversation with a friend of mine who has an eight-year-old daughter who was adopted as a baby. I happen to know a number of parents of adopted children, which is quite common for anyone like me who’s gone through fertility treatment. You start to know a lot of parents who have come to their family in different ways. This particular friend was telling me about a moment when her eight-year-old daughter came to her for a hug for the first time at the age of eight, the first time that she had instigated affection. It was a very moving moment, but it also really made me think about what that’s like to have a daughter for eight years who finds it so difficult to ask for affection because of what happened to that child as a baby. What does that do to you as a mother?

I have a daughter who has autism and for whom affection is quite a tricky thing. Sometimes she needs to be held but won’t be held. It’s something that I know a little bit about. That slotted a few things into place. That’s how Sophia came about. Sophia, in Hostage, is five years old. She was adopted at birth, but she comes from a chaotic family where affection wasn’t given to her and where she cried and nobody came. Those are habits that have formed and are so engrained. That makes her quite a challenging child. Then the final piece in that family dynamic is Adam, who is a police officer. I was a police officer for twelve years. What I wanted to write about when I wrote about Adam was a police officer who we see off duty. Cops are like the rest of us. We’ve got issues and worries and anxieties and weaknesses. Although we meet Adam briefly at work, this is not him as a police officer. This is Adam as a dad at home with all the secrets and problems that he’s got. That’s that little triangle and the relationship that the parents have with each other and with their child and then them as a threesome.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so interesting. I feel like we got Adam a little bit at work, but he was already failing out of work. I feel like you already had him one foot out the door by messing up and getting called to the boss’s office and his back up against the thing so all of his peers can see him and all worried about his phone records. Then you’re like, okay, enough of that. Send him on his way.

Clare: He’s in trouble. He’s in trouble from the outset. I like to tell stories from multiple points of view, which you have to be a little bit careful about. As a reader, you get what I call literary whiplash if you’re going from one person to another too fast. If you, as a writer, can pull it off, then it gives you a much more three-dimensional experience from a situation. What we have in Hostage is we have mom and dad’s, Mina and Adam’s situations. They are both in very, very difficult situations in different but connected ways. Then we also get to see little insights into some of the passengers on this special twenty-hour flight. That was really fun to do.

Zibby: I’m always wondering what’s up with all of the people. What’s their story? What are we all doing here? I’m trying to glean it when you’re sitting next to someone. What’s he working on? No one’s ever going to want to be near me after this podcast. I’m finally admitting how totally snoopy of a person I am.

Clare: This is the thing. When you are a creative person, whether you produce art or you consume it, I think you’re a kind of professional people watcher. Whenever I’m traveling — if I’m traveling with work, which is most of my traveling, I’m traveling solo. I’m not being distracted by the kids vomiting or wanting snacks or just climbing on me or all the things that they do or by making conversation with my husband or a friend. It’s just me. I’m eavesdropping and watching. I think it’s fascinating to make up stories and to wonder if the person they’re traveling with is the person they’re married to or someone they just met at the airport, all those little relationships. Long-haul flights, I find the concept of them, when you boil it down, really quite a potentially threatening environment. You’re locked. It is literally a locked and pressurized room. You cannot go anywhere. Nobody can come in. From a writer’s perspective, it’s both exciting and challenging because you can’t suddenly introduce a new character that just walks on set halfway through the flight. Also, where else do you sleep this far, six inches, away from a stranger’s head? That’s just the weirdest thing. You literally sleep as close as you sleep to someone you’re in a relationship with. Yet you might not even exchange two words with them. It’s a weird concept. You’ve got no idea what they’re like or whether they mean you harm.

Zibby: You had a line in the book similar to this where you said what could happen, twenty hours, all breathing the same air. That’s it. I was like, okay, I don’t know if I can ever get on another plane at this point, basically. You have to pretend when you’re in it that all these weird things are not happening. Otherwise, no one would ever fly.

Clare: Yes, it is a weird thing. I remember seeing, years and years ago, a particular airline, which I won’t name, where they were talking about an idea that they’d had. This never actually happened, I’m glad to say. The idea was that passengers on a flight would be able to send messages and drinks to another passenger on the flight.

Zibby: They have this.

Clare: What?

Zibby: They have this. I’ve done this on your little phones that you pull out. On the screens or something, you can text.

Clare: You can send a message now. That in itself I think has the potential to be creepy. The idea was that you would be able to send a drink with a note to another seat. Imagine you’re a lone woman. You’re traveling. You can’t go anywhere. It’s not like a bar where you can leave. The man in row forty-six sends you a martini with a note saying, “Pass my row. Meet you in the bathroom.” It’s just horrible. It’s the creepiest thing. I’ve been thinking for ages about how unsettling it would be to know that there was someone who knew more about you, perhaps, than you knew about them or some kind of hidden threat when there’s just no opportunity to get off.

Zibby: I’m scared just even talking to you. I’m telling you, this is not good. When you’re writing, do you get creeped out? Tell me where you like to work. Let me envision. Are you right at this colorful —

Clare: — I’m here now. I’m at my desk.

Zibby: What is that all behind you, by the way?

Clare: This is my wallpaper. This is wallpaper of classic Penguin books.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s so cool.

Clare: It’s fun. This is really lovely. Then on the other side of me are bookshelves, in fact, very similar to yours. Although, I’m slightly disturbed by your rainbow shelves, which are beautiful.

Zibby: Thank you.

Clare: But how do you find anything?

Zibby: First of all, I don’t. I have to just read them over every single time. These don’t really move. I set these up last July. My closet around the corner has eight thousand books in it. I have to read through them every two minutes. I have to say, I’m very visual, so this helps me more. If I’m like, oh, I’m looking for Hostage, then I just can quickly look in the closet. I’m like, where is the black one? Then my eye goes to it.

Clare: That’s cool. Mine are arranged alphabetically. They’re interspersed with odd things like souvenirs. I’ve got my police hat, which I don’t think I was supposed to leave the police with. I think I was supposed to hand it in, but it’s on my shelf. A keep cup, a travel mug signed by Lee Child. What else? A little Mexican figure from a book festival, so lots of work-related things that I find quite inspiring because they remind me of book festivals or meeting readers or whatever. I don’t normally write here because I normally write when I’m traveling either on planes or trains or in anonymous hotel rooms, I really like, or cafés in cities where I don’t speak the language so I can’t get distracted by eavesdropping. I get the buzz of people. What I found last year is I, having for years said there’s really no such thing as writer’s block or creative block and been privately quite dismissive and a little bit scathing about it, that actually, you just have to knuckle down and do the work, last year, my brain ground to a halt.

I couldn’t write. I would come up to my office in between home schooling and feeding children and go, right, I’ve got an hour. I’ve got to write. I just couldn’t. I was absolutely completely creatively blocked. I hadn’t realized how much impact environment has on how I write and what feeds into that creativity. I found that I could do task-focused work. I could edit. I could write a newsletter or a blog post or something that had a really clearly defined goal, but I couldn’t brainstorm. I couldn’t do blue-sky thinking, think of a new novel idea, or come up with something really fresh because nothing was feeding my creativity. What I had to do was artificially replicate that freedom that I get from travel by reading outside my genre, so reading different types of books, reading nonfiction, listening to podcasts, I went absolutely mad on podcasts, looking at art, all sorts of different things that would replace that creative injection that I get from travel. Then fortunately, it’s come back. I can write again.

Zibby: Wow, that is so interesting. I’m picturing you sitting there with foreign languages you don’t even speak playing on your Bluetooth speaker or something.

Clare: Give me Russian.

Zibby: Exactly.

Clare: When I do write — fortunately, I’m back into the swing of it. I listen to music. One of the ways that I put myself in the right frame of mind, the right zone to write my books is listening to — this will horrify most people; it horrifies most people I know — listening to the same piece of music on a loop, which I’ve now done, Zibby, for three years.

Zibby: Stop. The same song?

Clare: It’s a soundtrack. It’s the soundtrack to a drama, to a UK drama called Keeping Faith, which was very, very good. It’s this instrumental, quite moody background music. I have it very, very low. I don’t even notice it’s on now. My husband will come into my office and he’ll go, “Oh, my god, you’ve got that music on again.” I’m like, “What music?” It sort of unlocks something. It’s like a Pavlovian response. I hear the music and I’m like, oh, this is writing time. I’m straight into my book.

Zibby: I was going to say, I can recommend some other albums. I’ll send you a few songs, Clare. You can put them in the rotation. Just mix it up. My daughter is at the age where she likes to play the same song like a thousand times in a row. It doesn’t quite have that same meditative, creation-inspiring effect. Let me just say that. Wait, so what are you working on now? You said you’re able to write.

Clare: I had a sudden burst of creativity, and so I’m back on track. I am doing the third edit of next summer’s book, which is a murder mystery. I’ve just written the synopsis for 2023’s book, which is a thriller. I’m planning a nonfiction that I’ve got to write this summer. I’m really fired up and words flying out of my fingers onto my keyboard.

Zibby: A lot of champagne then, huh? So many words. You’ve upped your eligibility. Now you could do ten glasses of champagne in a day. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Clare: Two bits of advice, one really super practical and one more psychological, I suppose. The second one first. Everyone says you’ve got to read. You have got to read, but what I want to say to people is, read widely. Read outside of your genre. If you don’t think you like historical fiction, read historical fiction because it’s amazing how many lessons you can learn from different genres. The same structure applies to any book. You can read a romantic comedy, and you will find the same structure, the same narrative arc as you’ll find in a thriller. You still need the payoff, the twist, the emotional journey. Read widely. Then the practical tip is something that I learned when I was working full time and my writing time was concentrated and limited. I read lots of advice from people saying write every day. I was a police officer with two young children. I couldn’t write every day. I couldn’t write a hundred words. I couldn’t write my own name sometimes when I finished work. I had chunks of writing time maybe once a week, maybe once every ten days. I would suddenly find three hours where I could write. What I learned was I need to be able to plunge myself into that story again. The way that I did and still do that is by never finished at the end of a chapter or a scene, by stopping right in the middle of a piece of dialogue or a piece of action, something where I know exactly what’s happening. What that means is the next time I sit at my desk, whether it’s the next day or three weeks later, I can pick up the threads of that story and go straight back into it. The only time I look at a blank page is when I start a new book.

Zibby: I’ve heard that advice before, but I always forget. It’s such a great trick to do. I feel like if you’re really on a roll, it’s really hard to stop. You want to finish the chapter or something.

Clare: It is. If you are a certain personality type, and this is instinctively me, it’s a nice, neat place to finish. We want to get to the end of chapter. You can tick it off, but it is very really helpful if you do. Sometimes it just works that you’re at the end of a chapter. If I do that, then I go and make notes on the next chapter so that I literally — I never want to sit down and look at a blank page. Actually, last year, I did work in chapters. I only remember that because I incentivized myself. Because there was no travel and I couldn’t upgrade myself, I incentivized myself by buying up luxury advent calendars in the January sales, which is a thing. I had three of them. I had one for scented candles and one for chocolate and for one little miniature gin bottles. When I finished a chapter, I was allowed to open an advent calendar door and get the gift inside. I am actually a child.

Zibby: I love this. This is amazing. This is literally like, are you the type of person who needs some sort of external motivation to complete your work? If so, try the Clare Mackintosh strategy of writing.

Clare: It’s like one of those awful flow charts in a magazine, like a quiz. That’s actually my top writer tip. Wait until after Christmas. Then go online and buy out the discount advent calendars to incentivize yourself.

Zibby: I’m going to put it in my calendar right now. January 2nd, shopping time.

Clare: What’s your luxury advent calendar? What would you want to find behind the door?

Zibby: Maybe M&M’s.

Clare: Nice. That’s a good choice.

Zibby: I love M&M’s. I don’t know how good they’ll carry over for years. I guess I have to write kind of quickly. Awesome. Clare, thank you so much. This was so much fun. I’m going to be thinking of you as I make some new little trick hacks for myself and convince myself to do anything with some sort of reward system in place or maybe even use this for my children to somehow get the desired behaviors out of them that I want.

Clare: I am still seven. If you gave me a sticker on my reward chart every time I finished a chapter, I would probably finish my books really fast.

Zibby: I’m going to send you some songs and some stars.

Clare: And the photo of you in your pajamas.

Zibby: Yes, and the photo of me in my pajamas.

Clare: If that’s not really cruel. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You too. Thanks for coming. Have a great day. Bye.

Clare: Bye.

Clare Mackintosh, HOSTAGE

HOSTAGE by Clare Mackintosh

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