Erin Kelly | 'In terms of plotting, it’s the hardest book I’ve ever written'

Erin Kelly | 'In terms of plotting, it’s the hardest book I’ve ever written'

"My policy around this book is to say as little as I possibly can, in case I blow the twist!” says Erin Kelly, only half-joking, during our conversation about her latest psychological thriller, which does indeed contain a central twist so ingenious that this reader gasped out loud—and not just the one twist, either.

Watch Her Fall, Kelly’s eighth novel, is set amid the demanding world of professional ballet. Ava Kirilova, principal dancer at the London Russian Ballet, has reached the very pinnacle of her career, and is preparing to play the dual leading role in “Swan Lake”. The role of Odette/ Odile is the most demanding in ballet, and also the most coveted, and Ava’s success is jealously watched from the wings by other, lesser, dancers.

But to begin with, Watch Her Fall was not a book about ballet at all. Kelly explains over the phone that one of her regular jogging routes, near where she lives in north London, is around Totteridge—known primarily for its wealthy footballer residents—where expensive, gated communities are protected by their own private security guards, who patrol 24 hours a day. Over time, Kelly became fascinated by the gulf between these security guards and those they work for. “You see these guys in their cars and they’ve got sandwiches in a Warburtons bread bag, and they are looking after these incredible million-pound houses.”

Her initial idea was an isolated, wealthy woman living in a gated community having an affair with one of the security guards. “In lots of my books I keep finding that I return again and again to class, especially in London, and that notion of what happens when privilege meets disad- vantage,” she observes. But she needed a plausible reason for the woman to be stuck in her house. Eventually it came to her: some sort of injury. “Then I thought, maybe she’s a dancer, and then the book came to life.” Just in time, she says now: “I was starting to panic because I had a deadline and was thinking, ‘This is the first time I really haven’t had a book!’ But once I knew it was about ballet, it kind of fell into place.”

Watch Her Fall soon moves beyond the claustrophobic confines of the ballet company, with its intense rivalries, into a London in the grip of a heatwave, weaving in the desperation, and ambition, of those at the mercy of the gig economy, which is where the security guard comes in. But I shall stop there, for fear of spoiling the multi-layered, tricksy plot. “In terms of plotting, it’s the hardest book I’ve ever written,” admits Kelly. “And I never thought I’d write a book that was harder to plot than He Said/She Said.”

Grappling with a fiendish plot was not the only struggle Kelly had with the novel. She had just finished the very first “messy” draft, and had lots of active research lined up. She was due to take a backstage tour at the Royal Opera House (home to the UK’s most prestigious ballet company, The Royal Ballet) on the very day the first UK-wide lockdown was announced back in March 2020. With two primary aged children now unexpectedly at home, Kelly found herself getting up at 5 a.m. to write in the quiet. On Instagram, the ballet dancers Kelly was following now had time to talk about what they were going through, giving her an insight, invaluable for the novel, into “what happens to a dancer psychologically when the thing that you live for is taken away. You could see how much people were suffering, not just with the precariousness of the situation—‘Will my company survive lockdown?’—but the actual physical loss of what happens when you can’t dance anymore.”

Laying the groundwork
Watch Her Fall is an absolute masterclass in misdirec- tion, the kind of book that you finish and then turn straight back to the beginning to see how on earth she did it. So how did she do it? “I think with misdirection and withholding, to make readers come with you, you’ve got to really layer on something else, whether that’s atmosphere or the ballet world itself. Something else has to be a distraction other than just the plot, to make that omission blend in. But it was a real fine toothcomb job, that.”

The pressured, high-stakes world of professional ballet is brilliantly evoked, but Kelly’s personal experience of ballet is more limited. She took ballet lessons as a young child, stopping at eight, but she had friends who kept dancing into their teens and beyond, and their experiences made her aware of just how difficult it is to become a professional dancer, no matter how dedicated or hard-working a hopeful might be. Puberty puts an end to many would-be dancer’s dreams, as ballet demands a certain body shape, and then, even if puberty is kind, injury is a constant threat to a career.

“I’ve always been aware of that process of whittling,” she says, “and the sense that even before anybody dies, ballet is littered with all these broken hearts and broken bodies. Even if, like my narrator, you get to 30 and you’ve made it, even before anything goes wrong you have got this legacy of lost friendships and disappointment and heartbreak all around you. I was very aware of how ruthless it is and how unfair it is. It’s like any creative profession—like writing—whereby luck is as important an element of success as graft and talent.”

Good chance
Kelly herself had a good piece of luck with her 2010 début novel The Poison Tree. She was a freelance journalist who, after becoming pregnant, decided to use the birth as an immovable deadline for finishing her first novel. It was hugely well reviewed, with critics drawing comparisons to Brideshead Revisited  and Barbara Vine, and then snapped up by hitmakers Richard & Judy, who selected it as a Summer Read in 2011. In 2013, the television adaptation was shown on ITV. The book’s success is all the more interesting given that, when The Poison Tree was originally submitted to publishers, Kelly tells me, it was turned down on the basis that editors weren’t sure if it was literary, crime or women’s fiction. 

Now of course, books that hit the sweet spot between psychological suspense and women’s fiction are also likely to hit the bestseller lists. Since her début, Kelly has made a name for herself with compelling page-turners that marry a killer plot with complex social issues. He Said/She Said, another Richard & Judy Book Club pick, dealt with sexual assault and the court process, and a theme in Stone Mothers (We Know You Know in mass-market paperback) was the historic treatment of women by mental-health professionals.

Kelly is already working on her ninth book: “I know what my readers want from me. I know that they love twists and I know they like atmosphere, they are very character-driven... and so it’s about delivering that without repeating myself. That becomes a different kind of challenge, and a good one. It stops me getting bored and makes me want to beat the previous book.” The brilliant Watch Her Fall will take some beating.