Be Careful What You Wish For
Be careful what you wish for is the warning that drives Karen Hamilton’s second novel, THE LAST WIFE. Marie Langham wanted her best friend Nina’s beautiful life, so when Nina became ill and died, Marie had the chance to make her wish come true. What she didn’t know was that Nina was hiding an explosive secret . . . a secret that would cut Marie to her core.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Hamilton to delve into the twists and hairpin turns of this fascinating psychological thriller.
Marie Langham is a photographer who observes the unguarded moments of her friends and neighbors in the New Forest area of Hampshire, UK. Her photographs don’t lie, but Marie’s outlook is different. According to Hamilton, Marie views herself as a “good and loyal person, and every story she tells herself tends to feed that narrative.”
Hamilton loves complex characters and “what motivates them to resort to questionable decisions under pressure.” The idea for this story came to her organically, she says. She had an image of Marie’s character “trying to join a local, established book group. While I was researching good book-club reads, I read online that not all book groups were friendly and welcoming, and some could be quite competitive and didn’t take kindly to members leaving. This really surprised me, as I had assumed that they would all be great groups, sharing their love of reading.”
Hamilton, who was raised in Angola, Zimbabwe, Belgium, and Italy, worked as a flight attendant for many years, which prevented her from having a book group of her own. When she settled in Hampshire and eventually left her career to write full time, “I set one up in my own village with a group of friends.” She says she reads in all genres, but psychological thrillers are what she likes the most.
Hamilton’s dream has always been to write. “I was an avid reader as a child. Although I dabbled over the years, it wasn’t until I gave up my flying career that I began to take my writing seriously. As well as sticking to a daily word count (as best I could), I also took online courses, attended literary festivals and creative writing classes.”
Her first book was set in the world of travel, but THE LAST WIFE is set in an English village not unlike her current home. “Moving countries and schools as a child, I became used to joining new groups. It was also the same working as a flight attendant because we joined a new crew each week,” Hamilton says. “Marie thinks she wants to be a part of Nina’s friendship circle because she views Nina’s life as a desirable one. I thought it would be harder for Marie to achieve this sense of belonging in a smaller place, where long-term friendships may already be well established. Also, I loved the idea of the setting because woods are beautiful and majestic, yet can also become spooky and scary when dark or deserted.”
Hamilton actually went to therapy to home in on Marie’s character. “I usually get the idea for a protagonist when I think of something that someone really shouldn’t do, as in Marie taking over the recently deceased Nina’s life. I went to therapy ‘in character’ as Marie (a session called Characters on the Couch for fiction writers). I do this for the main characters near the start of writing all my books to dig deeper into their minds.
“I had an image of Nina being quite a chill character, the sort of person Marie would love to be. It was the thought of Marie’s desire to be more like her friend, of secretly desiring her life, that made me create Nina as someone who appears, from the outside, to have it all, giving no hint that she hides secrets.”
And what secrets they are. Since this story is written in first person, Hamilton says, “Every other character can only be shown through the flawed lens and judgment of the narrator.”
For example, another of Marie and Nina’s friends, Camilla, “is quite selfish by nature, especially when she was younger and seemed, to Marie, to escape without any consequences. Marie believes that Camilla drove a wedge between her and Nina and tries to shift some of the blame and responsibility for her own life not being quite the way she would like onto Camilla. I was inspired to create her to be a real thorn in Marie’s side.”
Nina’s husband, Stuart, also presents a challenge for Marie. “Stuart is more comfortable being in a relationship than being single, which leads to his decisions about Marie.”
Not only is Nina deceased at the time of this story, but so is Marie’s first love, Charlie. Hamilton says he was planned, but evolved throughout the drafting process. Marie’s memory of him drives this story in a surprising direction.
The first draft for Hamilton is the hardest, she says. “Once I’ve completed it, then I feel like I have something to work with.”
She’s a bit of both plotter and pantser. “I like to see how things evolve, as a lot of ideas come to me during the writing process, although I do have an outline and a timeline. I write every day as much as possible at home.”
Like most other writers, she has had to adapt to the pandemic. “Prior to lockdown, I’d keep to school hours mainly, but since then, I’ve had to fit it in with homeschooling. In the past, I loved working on trains or in cafes. I still meet with my writing group at the Faber Academy where I completed my novel-writing course in 2015, and we take turns sharing our latest work. It’s wonderful to have this support.”
For the launch of THE LAST WIFE, Hamilton expects to spend more time on social media and in virtual events than she did pre-pandemic. “All events to date have been switched online, which has meant I needed to update my technical knowledge, but I’ve been delighted at the support I’ve already received. I’ll be happy to connect with readers and book groups and answer any questions about the book or the writing process.”
Her third book, currently underway, returns to the international setting, but features another twisted and flawed protagonist at its heart.