Kings Worthy writer Karen Hamilton introduces her new novel The Last Wife
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 June 2020
For her follow-up to best-selling debut The Perfect Girlfriend Kings Worthy writer Karen Hamilton has taken inspiration from the New Forest and her own life.
As she works on her third novel, Kings Worthy writer Karen Hamilton is planning an appointment with a psychotherapist.
But this isn’t for her own mental health. Instead it’s to explore the psychology of her main character, something she did for her previous two novels – best-selling debut The Perfect Girlfriend and its follow-up The Last Wife which is released later this month.
“My friend Nicci Cloke [who writes as Phoebe Locke] recommended it to me,” says Karen over the phone. “I didn’t think I would be able to do it in character for 50 minutes, but I got really into it! I did have to stop halfway through one session to assure the psychotherapist that I didn’t think like that!”
At the centre of both of Karen’s published novels are obsessive narrators. The Perfect Girlfriend tells the story of Juliette – a flight attendant who refuses to let go of her ex-boyfriend Nate, despite breaking up with him six months before. Meanwhile The Last Wife is told from the perspective of Marie, who after nursing her best friend Nina through a terminal disease marries her widowed husband and takes her place in the family set-up. “When I get the feeling that someone really shouldn’t do this it sparks an idea for me,” says Karen. “I try to get into their heads and make sense of their bad traits – how they justify it.”
Reading The Last Wife there is something really compelling about how Marie focuses her attention on her goal to live a perfect and happy life – especially as she shares the sort of details with the reader that she is keeping apart from her own therapist and friends. Every move feels justified using her own twisted logic, and we are pulled along by her desire to get what she wants, as the fairy tale she aims for proves to have more than a few bumps along the way.
Karen’s debut The Perfect Girlfriend was partly inspired by the 49 year-old’s own experiences as a former flight attendant, in particular the difference in someone’s character when they take their uniform off and enter the normal world. And The Last Wife also draws on aspects from Karen’s own life – from its family setting in the New Forest where she loved to visit in pre-lockdown days, to her own experiences with IVF and desire to have children (she now has three).
But the idea for the book had a seemingly innocuous beginning – Karen’s own book group. “I had never been part of a book group,” she says. “When you fly it’s hard to commit to anything regularly. I decided to set one up in the village. It’s lovely, we sit around, drink wine and talk about books. But I started reading about other book groups and found out about the rivalries there can be. People get very protective of them – they don’t let other people join, they can be competitive about who has read what. I read about one woman who tried to leave and everyone got very offended!” One major character in The Last Wife is introduced as an interloper to the book group Marie inherits from Nina, while the rivalry Marie feels with another book group regular, the “overly inquisitive” Tamsin, runs throughout the novel.
Karen sees The Last Wife as a mish-mash of different ideas, with psychotherapy also playing a role as Marie begins to get addicted to sharing with someone paid to listen. Some ideas have been drawn from Karen’s other unpublished novels. “Nothing is ever wasted,” she says. “I never feel like if I shelve something it’s a waste of time. Often it sparks off different ideas.” In fact there was another New Forest-set novel Karen started to write after The Perfect Girlfriend was published but which she abandoned in favour of The Last Wife.
Obsession is a common factor in both her novels – and is set to be a feature of her next book too. She feels social media may have played a part in a national rise in obsessiveness. “I’m nearly 50 – I grew up in a completely different life,” she says. “You see it when you’re out and about – everyone is on their phones, posting pictures of their lunch or where they are. It does bring up the question about how much you are enjoying where you are. What are you posting them for? We are showing this good side of our lives.” She feels people are compelled to strive for a perfect life – something which is certainly true for Juliette in The Perfect Girlfriend and Marie in The Last Wife. “Maybe there’s a bit of be careful what you wish for,” she says. “When you get what you want it throws up a whole new set of problems you hadn’t anticipated. Juliette thinks if she ends up with Nate that will be it – she’s not thinking beyond that achievement. But life continually moves on – we have different issues, no-one has got it easy.”
She admits as a modern author – particularly one whose book is being released while in lockdown – she is going to have to get more involved in social media and self-promotion, although it doesn’t come naturally. She has found the community of authors to be very supportive though, both in person at literary festivals and online.
Her desire to become an author was driven by childhood visits to libraries and bookshops. But it was having children herself which encouraged her to become an author – taking the plunge in 2009. “Having children made me realise how quickly life goes,” she says. “There is never a perfect time to do anything – you just have to do it.”
She began by setting herself daily targets to write 1,000 words, which she upped over time, as well as joining local creative writing classes, attending literary festivals and signing up to the Faber Academy for a novel-writing course in 2014. She still keeps to a weekly word target of between 7,000 to 9,000 words. “I’ve been able to sit in soft play areas and write,” she says. “I often do it first thing in the morning before everyone else wakes up, or I work on trains. I love the fact it can fit around family life. It’s about learning when you like to work – I’ve learned not to edit in the evenings as I tend to delete stuff that might not have needed deleting!”
She admits she would not want to meet the people she writes about. “I find them quite fun to write about – I don’t know if that’s worrying?” she laughs. “I’m quite law-abiding myself, I would never park on a double yellow line, and I tend to take notice when I see someone in a high vis jacket. Perhaps it’s another side of me creating these characters, who behave in ways that the majority of us wouldn’t?” She is fascinated by the darkness in other people’s minds. “When you read about true crime, there’s always someone saying: ‘You would never have thought it, they were really quiet’. There’s always a comment about how ordinary they seemed. That fascinates me.”