Kingston University alumna in Creative Writing with Publishing MFA, Amy Suiter Clarke, recently announced her debut novel GIRL, 11 – a piece for true crime podcast enthusiasts and thriller lovers.
Ahead of its publication in the UK in April next year, Clarke talked to The River about her process of writing, touched on her time at Kingston University and shared a glimpse of what to look forward to in GIRL, 11.
“This is the first book I will have published, but it isn’t the first book I’ve written. I actually signed with my agent in the US based on the novel I developed at Kingston University during my MFA.
“However, as we were warned in our course, the road to publication can be long: filled with rejections and false starts along the way.
“I got the seed of this idea when we were trying to sell my first book. I tried writing the first draft, but the plot wasn’t fully formed, and I ended up setting it aside to write something else. When that book also didn’t sell, I came back to this [GIRL, 11] idea,” Clarke said.
Minnesota-born Clarke says she always enjoyed writing as a child. She wrote stories to entertain herself and also to get attention from her mum.
“Classic middle child syndrome,” Clarke said.
At school, Clarke’s class was visited by a Minnesotan author that she absolutely adored who wrote books for her middle-grade age group. The author gave Clarke tips on writing and talked about being an author.
“It was the first time I realised you didn’t have to be from New York City or have any kind of special permission to be a writer,” Clarke said.
However, it took her a long time to get started. At first, she didn’t pursue writing as a career, it was rather something the American did for fun.
“When I had to pick a major in university, I chose the much more reliable and auspicious option of a degree in acting. While I have no regrets, I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to make it as an actor either, so I eventually decided to do my Master’s degree.
“I had always wanted to live in London, so I thought applying for a postgraduate degree there was a good excuse to go. After that, I never really stopped writing,” Clarke said.
Coming to Kingston
Clarke finished her course at Kingston in 2013 and says she adored her time here.
“I look back on it as two of the best years of my life. Although I took it for granted at the time, the chance to spend two years writing and reading and talking about the craft with other creative people was a huge luxury.
“I began with a split focus between creative writing and publishing, but I ended up changing early in the semester to make publishing a minor so I could focus more on writing. I loved the classes and the tutors I worked with, and I was encouraged by them enough to stay for a second year to get an MFA instead of just an MA like I originally planned,” Clarke said.
The GIRL, 11 author found writing workshops at KU intimidating at the start as it was something relatively new for her.
“But on the first day, our tutor broke the ice by having us workshop a piece, only to tell us afterwards that it was from his own draft!” Clarke said.
At KU, Clarke says she always felt supported and encouraged to take risks and improve her craft.
“One of my favourite things to do was hit the pub with the tutors after our evening lectures. It was incredible to be surrounded by people with so much respect for literature and writing, and so much talent in their own right.
“I don’t think an advanced degree is necessary if you want to be a published author, but I also think a Master’s is about far more than the piece of paper you get at the end — it’s about the connections and time to be creative that you buy for yourself.
“It’s not right for everyone, but it was certainly right for me, and I’m so glad I made the connections and lasting friendships I did at Kingston,” Clarke said.
Two years for GIRL, 11
After graduating from her course at Kingston, Clarke says she never stopped writing. The American now finds herself in Australia where she continues to get jobs in professional writing and to do them part-time now as she focuses on writing.
Speaking to The River about her debut piece, Clarke said that she had a specific approach to putting her novel together, something that changes every time she writes a new book.
“I don’t adhere to a rigid writing process, nor do I think it’s essential to write every day or write a certain number of words in a session to call yourself a writer.
“What works for me has changed with every book I write. I used to not plan my books out at all, which is why I think I ended up with some lovely prose and characters without much of a plot or structure to speak of.
“This can work when you’re writing literary fiction, but it’s not ideal for a genre like thrillers. Over the course of the three books that I wrote, I gradually shifted from literary suspense to more upmarket thrillers, and with that came the need to plot,” Clarke said.
With GIRL, 11 Clarke says she wrote a draft of it before organising the plot and made sure she hit all the points she wanted to.
“It had started with a ‘what if’ question, as most of my books do. For GIRL, 11 the question was: ‘What if there was a serial killer whose victims were each one year younger than the last?’ Once I had that, and I couldn’t shake it, I knew I needed to build a story around it.
“I ended up rewriting this book several times, and it took me about two years from the time I started working on it in earnest to the time when we sent it to editors for consideration,” Clarke said.
Clarke says she is already writing her second novel that will be published and she has started with an outline of key scenes.
“I’m indebted to the book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, which offers really useful beat sheets and explanations for how to develop your story structure.
“Taking time at the start to plan out the key scenes along the way has helped me speed up my writing process, although it was definitely something I had to get used to. Before, I felt that knowing how a book was going to end took the magic out of it for me. I found a way around that by not fully scripting the conclusion.
“Instead, I focus on which characters will be involved in the climax and what that setup might look like. Most importantly, I give myself permission to deviate from the plan if something better occurs to me while I’m drafting. Some of my favourite scenes and moments in my novels happen without my planning them,” Clarke said.
Clarke, when introducing her debut novel GIRL, 11, says that it is perfect for fans of true crime podcasts and thriller writers like Denise Mina and Riley Sager.
The plot of the book shows podcast host Elle Castillo making a name for herself using her crowd-sourced investigation format to solve cold cases and catch child killers in Minnesota. In her newest season, she’s tackling her white whale: The Countdown Killer (TCK).
Twenty years earlier, Minnesota’s most notorious serial killer established a pattern that detectives could never crack, kidnapping three girls at a time—each a year younger than the last—and keeping them for seven days before killing them. After TCK abruptly stopped the countdown with an eleven-year-old girl, the public and investigators assumed he was dead—but Elle is convinced that he went into hiding.
Now she wants to find his identity and expose him to her hundreds of thousands of listeners once and for all. When a listener emails with a tip, Elle sets out to interview him, only to discover his dead body. And within days, a child is abducted—it seems to continue the TCK sequence halted decades before. The clock has started, and Elle is in a race to convince police—and herself—that TCK is back.
To find out what happens next you can pre-order GIRL, 11 here.