Janice Hallett has worked as a journalist, magazine editor and government speechwriter in her native England. Now she’s adding novelist to her CV with The Appeal, an inventive and darkly funny epistolary mystery set in the drama-filled world of amateur theater. In this Q&A, Hallett revisits her own theatrical experiences and reveals what it was like to construct a story with no fewer than 15 viable suspects.
The many plausible suspects in The Appeal make it great fun to play amateur sleuth while reading. Was it fun to write? Did you change your mind as you went along, in terms of who you wanted the murderer to be, or did you always know whodunit?
It was huge fun, not least because I wrote it entirely on spec, with no deadline except a vague feeling I didn’t want to spend longer than a year working on it. At the start, I had no idea who the victim or murderer was going to be. I let the story evolve as it went along, then did some intricate reverse engineering to make what I wrote in the end fit the beginning.
Before writing this book, you’ve written and directed plays. Did that give you the confidence to dive right into an epistolary novel with lots of layers and complexities and characters?
My scriptwriting background played into The Appeal for sure. A stage play is a bunch of characters interacting before your eyes. An epistolary novel is the exact same, but in your mind’s eye. I have to say the greatest confidence-building aspect of playwriting is its immediacy. The performance is live—you have actors giving their skill and energy to bring your characters to life—and the audience is live—watching and listening to the story you wrote. There is no hiding place. If it doesn’t work, you and everyone else in the room will know it. If it does work . . . let’s just say nothing will ever beat the moment that first audience laughed at the first joke in my first play. I was hooked from that day on.
How did you keep track of all of the messages, notes, transcripts, etc., that you created? Were there pushpins, sticky notes, whiteboards and/or spreadsheets involved? Did you harken back to any of your own correspondence as you created your characters’ varied communication styles?
Strangely, I made very few notes. I did a lot of scrolling back and forth though, and paid particular attention to how each character opened and signed off, so I had a lot of information to keep in my head. I most certainly took inspiration from 20 years of email correspondence, both professional and personal. Email communication is a great leveler. What we don’t write speaks just as loudly as anything we do. What’s exposed are aspects of your true self, such as your empathy, your attention to detail and how you really feel about the person you’re “speaking” to. I’m quite sad to see texting and messaging take over from good old-fashioned email.
You chose to not include correspondence from certain characters, such as enigmatic newcomers Sam and Kel. Instead, we learn about them through others’ impressions and opinions. What motivated you to reveal versus conceal particular characters or events in your story?
This was a happy accident, but it ended up being the aspect of The Appeal I am most proud of. When I first decided to write a novel, I’d had a vague idea for a TV series (I was working as a TV writer at the time) about a couple who return from overseas volunteering and whose experiences there inform their suspicions about a local fundraising campaign. When I started the novel, I thought why not take the same story but present it as emails that fly back and forth—“offstage” so to speak—between minor players. That’s why we don’t hear from the three main characters, and I think it’s one of the most effective devices in the book.
The Fairway Players is a close-knit theater troupe presided over by Martin and Helen Hayward. When the power couple shares that their granddaughter has been stricken with a rare cancer, the group fundraises like mad in hopes of paying for pricey experimental treatments. What made you want to explore crowdfunding?
When I started the novel in 2018, I’d noticed a proliferation of crowdfunding campaigns on Facebook raising money for drugs or medical treatments abroad. It struck me how enthusiastically people pull together and how fast money can be raised that way. But at the same time, money is like blood: It attracts sharks, like drug companies who capitalize on families’ desperation, or even ordinary people who have debts to pay or simple terminal greed and a complete lack of morals. Cases in which someone has blatantly lied about their child’s (or their own) illness to raise money from friends and family have appalled and fascinated me in equal measure.
Tight bonds are formed in theater troupes, whether via growing into roles together, shared nervousness as the premiere approaches or camaraderie after a show well done. What drew you to exploring what happens when such a strong bond begins to fray?
A drama group becomes like a family, with emotional bonds among the members—and just like in a family, the stakes can suddenly become much higher. Even when things are falling apart, you can’t just walk away: The show must go on.
There are insiders and outsiders in The Appeal, which makes for lots of tension bubbling under the surface as the players jockey for social dominance. What about that sort of group dynamic fascinates you most?
Like most writers, I’m a natural outsider. In fact, when I attend writerly events, and I’m in a room full of outsiders, I’m still the outsider, so that dynamic is very familiar to me. But I’m truly fascinated by people who are the opposite: natural socializers, witty and funny, able to hold the attention of a crowd and get them onside. Charisma is magical. It can elevate someone through the social hierarchy by osmosis.
In The Appeal, there are characters whose social standing is earned by their proximity to the alpha family. When you arrive in a strong, tightknit community like that, it can be hard to find your place in it. Sam and Kel slowly work their way in, but Issy, who has been there much longer, struggles to be accepted by anyone. The social hierarchy can be horribly unfair, as can individuals, who might choose to ally themselves with the strongest character, rather than the nicest or most deserving person in the group.
The Appeal is often very funny, with sharp insights into the ways in which certain types of people ingratiate themselves, manipulate a situation or gleefully gossip. Does writing humor come naturally to you? Do you consider yourself a funny person?
If you want to empty a room in double-quick time, get me to tell a joke. While I wouldn’t say I’m funny in person, I gravitate toward comedy when I’m writing. Making people laugh is a powerful tool to help you engage them with your story. Having said that, if you’re writing a thriller in which the aim is to build tension, you have to be very careful how you use humor, because laughter in that instance will disperse the tension immediately. It’s a tricky balance!
Can you share with us a bit about the significance of having your fictional Fairway Players stage a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons?
The Raglan Players staged All My Sons in 2010. It was one of the more serious, grittier plays we did over the years, among many light comedies and farces. It was a huge challenge I’m proud to say we rose to. I think if you’re familiar with the play, there will be an added layer of intrigue. It’s about the death of a couple’s son, which the audience grows to suspect is either directly or tangentially their fault. It has a very strong female lead role, that of a woman who lives in a world of her own. I’ll say no more!
What’s next for you? Any upcoming books or other projects you’d like to tell us about?
My second novel, The Twyford Code, launched in the U.K. in January 2022. It’s about a former prisoner who, at the suggestion of his probation officer, sets out to investigate the disappearance of his teacher on a school trip in 1983. It will be published by Atria in the U.S. in 2023. I’m currently writing my third novel, and there’s a fourth percolating in my mind at this very moment.
Author photo by Gaia Banks.