Janice Hallett, 52, is the author of The Appeal, an ingenious whodunnit and a new take on the epistolary novel, composed of emails and texts. She studied English at UCL, screenwriting at Royal Holloway and co-wrote the film Retreat in 2011. She has worked as a journalist and in government communications for the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Department for International Development. The Appeal, which centres on an amateur drama group, is a runaway bestseller and has been shortlisted for Waterstones book of the year
You must have felt like a detective yourself when planning the plot – your book is so meticulously detailed…
I never plan a thing in advance – it takes the joy out of it. I drew up a blank page and wrote for about a year and then there was a lot of reverse engineering. I’d been working on an idea for a TV series but wasn’t getting anywhere. So when Cameron Roach, head of drama at Sky, who’d been mentoring me, suggested I write a novel, I wondered if I could focus on minor characters from the TV series and the emails between them.
Have you been surprised by how well The Appeal has done?
I’ve been blown out of the water. I’ve had brilliant direct reactions from readers on Instagram. There was one young girl who said she was now considering a career as a lawyer – I thought that was wonderful.
Tell me about the Raglan Players and your involvement in amateur theatre…
My involvement has been lifelong. I joined the Raglan Players – based in Northolt in west London where I still live – when I was 14. I met my partner there. I’ve done everything from prompting to props to wardrobe. I’ve directed, written plays for them, been in plays. I’ve served behind the bar, cleaned up after… it’s an all-encompassing hobby. But we’ve found, like a lot of amateur drama groups, that we can’t generate new members. In the 21st century, people don’t want to go out to take part in that kind of hobby. The Raglan Players, sadly, folded in 2013. The novel is my love letter to them – though some people might say it’s a strange love letter.
How much of a person’s character can you deduce from an email?
More than you might think. Even the one-line emails people think give nothing away can be revealing.
Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
Dad worked in a video shop. It might sound archaic, but videos were like the mobile phones of the 80s and 90s. He considered himself a bit of a yuppy. Mum worked in an office for the gas board.
You studied as a screenwriter and co-wrote, with Carl Tibbetts, Retreat, about a global pandemic. The film is astoundingly prescient: lockdown as horror movie…
The day we went into lockdown the emails flew between me and Carl. We just couldn’t believe, nine years later, how right we’d got it.
Are there any transferable skills from screenwriting to novel writing?
Giving every character an arc is the most important thing – especially when writing a story with multiple characters.
Have you any tips about creating suspense?
Hold everything back as long as possible… although not too long. I like to be in suspense myself, which is why, during the first draft, I’m almost as much a reader as I am a writer.
What magazines did you work for?
I started off on Cosmetics International, an industry magazine, and then worked for magazines aimed at retailers of beauty products. Most people got fed up with writing about bubble bath after two years – it took me 15 before I moved on.
And when you did, it was to government communications…
When I stopped working for the beauty industry, I worked for an agency based on civil service lines. If the government was desperate and didn’t have anyone in-house to write something, they got us to produce something very quickly. It wasn’t party political. But it was a baptism of fire, after the bubble bath, to be – occasionally – at the cutting edge of what was happening in current affairs.
What is the last great book you read?
I’ve just read an advance copy of The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, a bestseller in France, out next year. It sets you thinking: it’s about a plane that lands one March full of passengers and then lands again, full of the same passengers, three months later… an anomaly.
You have a passion for intrepid “adventure travel” – what sort of adventures?
I particularly loved trekking round Madagascar. I went there for the wild life – there are lemurs you can’t see anywhere else on earth and crazy-looking giraffe weevils – but it was the people that most enthralled me. I found it such an education.
Where would you like to live most if not in the UK?
South Korea – it is so open and arty. I could easily move there now.
What book might people be surprised to see on your shelves?
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins. I read it at the same time as reading Dickens’s Bleak House and was struck by how structurally similar they are.
Which author do you always return to?
Thomas Hardy, especially Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s so rural – like going on holiday to the West Country.
What are you are writing next?
The Twyford Code is out in January. It’s about a former prisoner who, at the behest of his probation officer and to occupy his time now he is going straight, looks into an episode from his childhood where his English teacher took his remedial English class out for the day and then disappeared. The Appeal is an ensemble piece; The Twyford Code is one character’s personal journey. And I’m working on a third book for 2023 and have a deal for another two novels.
In your acknowledgments you modestly wonder whether The Appeal will be your one and only novel. It could hardly have turned out more differently…
I know – it’s amazing, isn’t it? I couldn’t be happier or more surprised.
• The Appeal by Janice Hallett is published by Profile (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply