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Books: 'I wrote my first novel in my 50s'

Her debut psychological thriller, Leave Well Alone, published last year and swiftly became an Amazon bestseller. Now A J Campbell is back with a sequel. A mum-of-three and full-time carer from Stansted, she tells Alice Ryan why writing is her happy place

Congratulations on writing a best-seller! Did you always have ambitions to be a writer?

No! I haven’t always wanted to be a writer, although I have always been a prolific reader. Until the birth of my twins in 2005, which radically changed my life, I worked in finance. One of my twins was born with severe disabilities - he has cerebral palsy and is profoundly deaf - as a result of which I had to give up work to care for him. During this incredibly challenging time, I began to draw on my love of the written word, partly for daily inspiration and partly for my own mental health. I started daily journaling and, in 2014, started working on the idea for my novel.

When did you start to write seriously, ie with a novel in your sights?

I joined the Faber Academy in 2016 and took several creative writing courses. Then, in 2017, I started to take my writing more seriously. I enrolled on their Writing a Novel course to progress working on Leave Well Alone. I felt it was a story I wanted to tell.

What made that first book such a hit, do you think?

The story draws on complex family relationships with a psychological edge that readers find fascinating. I worked closely with an editor to prepare Leave Well Alone for publishing, which included two structural edits. Commissioning a professional book cover designer provided the hook, and I spent months researching my ideal reader and constructing a solid marketing plan. I then went out with all guns blazing to deliver this plan.

And how do you follow it? Tease the next novel for us. . .

While Leave Well Alone was with my editor, I started work on my second psychological thriller Don’t Come Looking. It’s eight years on from the dramatic events of Leave Well Alone, and Eva is now a detective constable on the brink of promotion. When her close friend Marc disappears, his wife Sasha is distraught, and Eva is baffled. Sasha and Marc were happy, the perfect couple, or so everybody thought.

Sasha begs Eva to help her find Marc. But he has appeared at the police station where Eva works and has made a statement. It’s on record – when his family report him missing, Marc doesn’t want to be found. As each day passes, the mystery deepens. What was Marc up to? What made him do the things he did in the months leading up to his disappearance? Things so out of character, Eva struggles to tell Sasha about them. And then a disturbing discovery changes everything. . .

Writing a first book in your Fifties and then seeing it become an Amazon best-seller is no mean feat - but to write its sequel in the middle of a pandemic, amid your caring responsibilities and homeschooling, is nothing short of jaw-dropping. . . How did you manage it?

There’s no denying it, it was tough: 2020 was filled with many 5am starts and midnight finishes to fit everything in. There were some days when I wondered if I would make it, especially when Boris announced the first lockdown and schools closed. I didn’t factor in having my twins off school for the best part of six months and homeschooling. Also 2020 brought the dreaded news that my son needs spinal surgery and my husband had to have triple bypass open-heart surgery, after which he suffered two heart attacks. But I have bags of energy and tons of enthusiasm, and, somehow, I made it work. Personally, it was the worst year of my life, but professionally the best – such a rollercoaster!

And what about getting published? What tack did you take?

In 2019, I attended the Winchester Writers’ Festival, where I had ten minute sessions with four literary agents. One agent said: ‘I love your story and writing. Everything about it.’ I knew it wasn’t a done deal, but I couldn’t get off of cloud nine for the rest of the day. It didn’t work out, but in hindsight, her rejection was the best thing that happened for my author career. The experience rewarded me with the confidence to take things to the next level. I looked into self-publishing, which, in December 2019, was the route I decided to take.

What would you say to encourage other people who dream of writing and publishing a novel?

My top three pieces of advice:

1. Write every day. Even if it’s just journalling, get those words down.

2. Dream high, work consistently. We can never stop learning, so take any courses available to you.

3. At the beginning of 2020, I nearly backed out of publishing Leave Well Alone, as I didn’t think it was good enough. A close friend said to me: ‘Leap, and the net will appear.’ So, I leave these words for everyone wanting to achieve their dreams.

Leave Well Alone and Don’t Come Looking are both out now on Amazon, priced £8.99 in paperback and £2.99 in Kindle edition. Visit ajcampbellauthor.com/press for more.

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