Anna Snoekstra, whose debut novel Only Daughter, a thriller set in Canberra, has been picked up in the US by Universal pictures. Photo: Elesa Kurtz It all started with the sound of glass breaking in the dead of night.
Someone had smashed Anna Snoekstra’s car windows outside her Melbourne home, and she couldn’t get back to sleep. Paranoid thoughts began crowding her mind; it didn’t help that she’d been thinking a lot about film noir, imposter stories and the creeping fear of the unknown. On this night, as a way of calming herself down, she started mapping out a story in her head, on involving a missing girl, and a woman who returns, years later, claiming to be her.
As it happened, no one was after Snoekstra – she had simply left her wallet in the car and someone had broken the window to steal it. But the germ of a genuine pot-boiler was already fermenting.
Three years down the track, her highly-anticipated debut novel is about to be released, and Hollywood is already knocking.
Entitled Only Daughter, the book fits squarely in what’s been dubbed the Gone Girl genre, in that, like the 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn, it involves a female protagonist who is, ostensibly, in danger. It’s also part of the Girl on the Train juggernaut – the 2015 novel which rides on the back of Gone Girl. But what distinguishes this book from those two bestsellers – and the 30 or so titles that are riding on their coattails – is the fact that Only Daughter is set in Canberra.
Canberra is, says Snoekstra, the perfect setting for a troubled teenaged protagonist, living through one of the city’s hottest summers, and permeated with a sense of looming danger, both real – the 2003 bushfires – and unnamed, and therefore creepy. The daughter of the title, Rebecca Winter, goes missing, and 11 years later, a young woman, as a way of getting out of being arrested for shoplifting, claims to be her.
“I grew up here, so it felt really natural to be talking about someone’s childhood and being a teenager,” says Snoekstra, over lunch in Manuka. She spent her childhood in Canberra’s south, and finished her schooling at Narrabundah College, before moving to Melbourne to study creative writing and cinema. But, while her family have also moved away, she returns here regularly, and it has always struck her as a great setting for a psychological thriller.
“It just felt like a natural place to talk about being a teenager for one, and also a really safe place where bad things don’t happen,” she says.
“That’s how it was in my head, and also very suburban. And the other side of it is that really stark architecture, this is where all the politics happens.”
Backtrack to three years ago, and Snoekstra was working nights in a Melbourne cinema when she first struck on the idea of a novel.
“I thought about the idea for a long, long time before I actually wrote anything – months and months, just because I was working in the cinema,” she says.
“I felt like I should probably get a proper job, or a more regular job, and I knew committing myself to writing a novel was going to be a big thing to do, so I was going back and forth, because I really loved the idea, and I just wasn’t sure if that’s what I should be putting my time into at that time in my life.”
She had long been fascinated by the legend of Bluebeard – the ancient folk about a man whose wives disappear mysteriously, one by one. She loved imposter stories – The Changeling, and Anastasia – and psychological thrillers like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and George Cuckor’s Gaslight. It’s no wonder the car windows smashing in the dead of night had her spooked.
“I was interested in the idea of taking someone’s life, and two stories set in the same place but from two different perspectives,” she says.
But not once did the thought of publishing or marketing tropes enter her mind. Gone Girl had only recently been published when she began writing and besides, it’s a genre that has been around for centuries. She even wrote a Master’s thesis focusing on the Bluebeard genre – “one of the oldest myths in storytelling”.
So the fact that she’s being primed to join a current runaway publishing phenomenon is confusing, if not a little galling.
“I’ve read all of them, those kind of books. It’s good, but it’s also a little annoying because that kind of genre has been around for such a long time,” she says.
“Gone Girl was such a big hit, which is great – that kind of brought it to light, then everything’s ‘the next Gone Girl’, to the point where every female-based crime book is called ‘girl’ something. If you look in the bookshops, there are about 30 of them, and it seems a bit crazy that they’re just using that name and trying to make it into some phenomenon of girl books.”
Not that she’s complaining. She spent about a year writing the book, and began shopping it around in Australia. Not one agent was interested, so she went to the US. There, an agent picked it up straight away, and before long, she had a publisher. And then another and another: the book is now coming out in 19 countries, although interestingly, Australia didn’t pick it up until at least 10 other countries had got in first.
In the years since finishing Only Daughter – whose original title was The New Winter – she’s already sold her next two novels to Harper Collins – one of which is already finished, and has recently been exchanging emails with the translator of the book’s German edition, and the Australian voice artist who is reading the Audiobook version. Not to mention the fact that the film has been optioned by Universal Pictures – she has a vivid recollection of taking the call from a hyper-excited film agent while still in her pyjamas at 7.00am – and the screenplay is being written by the same person who did The Girl on the Train. Debut novelists don’t get huge advances for their work, but selling the film option meant Snoekstra could quit her job at the cinema for a bit and focus on writing.
So far, so surreal for a young writer with no profile and no knowledge of the publishing industry. Although, sitting in Manuka on a wintry day, just around the corner from the McDonalds branch where part of the book is set, she says things feel surprisingly normal for the moment.
“I think that’s because it’s been my reality for two years now. The movie stuff came up in probably a bit over a year ago,” she says. But, amid all the excitement about movies and scripts and speculation as to who might play the film’s lead (Emma Stone, a redhead like the book’s protagonist, comes irresistibly to mind), the book itself has yet to hit the shops. There have been positive advance reviews on some literary websites, but as for what’s coming, she has no idea what to expect. She’s no wiser, really, than when she first started out, although she’s clear-minded about the luck of timing involved.
“I had no platform, I had nothing really going for me. The only way I was going to really be able to do what I actually wanted to do was just to think of a really good idea and write something really, really well, and that’s the only way I could actually get people to take notice of me,” she says.
“I was just lucky that what I was interested in was what a lot of people were interested in. But I mean, it’s in that genre, domestic noir, it’s something that keeps coming back, so even if this thing hadn’t happened now, maybe it would have.”
And what of her beloved hometown – much changed since her teens? Amusingly, the international response to the Canberra depicted in the novel has focused on how damn exotic we all sound here.
“I was trying to get across in the book that whole thing about the city and the bush being pressed up against each other a little bit, which is something I think is so beautiful about Canberra and so unique,” she says.
It helps that she has used the 2003 bushfires as a vivid and atmospheric backdrop to the story, although there is a certain amount of personal pain underlying the narrative.
“I was a teenager when that happened here, and I just remember it so vividly, and when I was writing those chapters was in one of Melbourne’s hottest summers, 2013-14,” she says.
“I was in Melbourne [on Black Saturday] and also my grandparents died in the Ash Wednesday fires. So bushfires in my family has always been a real soft spot, a real fear, I think.”
And while the story itself is not based on any real events, she made the second character – the lookalike imposter who remains unnamed throughout – 25, the same age as she was when she was writing.
“She changed ages a few times in it, but I thought that it was something that doesn’t really get written about very often, that time where you realise that you’re an adult and that things actually matter and you don’t always know what you’re meant to be doing,” she says.
It’s safe to say that Snoekstra, now at the still-tender age of 28, knows exactly what she’s meant to be doing, even if it means carrying the burden of a much-hyped genre on her shoulders, at least for now.
Only Daughter, by Anna Snoekstra, is published by Harlequin, and is released September 15.
The book will be launched on August 27 at the National Museum of Australia at 10.00am as part of the Canberra Writers Festival. Visit canberrawritersfestival苏州美甲美睫培训学校419论坛 for more information.
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