They say to write what you know, but English author Susan Lewis' latest novel explores something she could never imagine facing. Known for tackling big issues including child abuse, cancer and dementia, throughout the more than 30 books she has penned, the idea behind
came from a newspaper article about a woman being released early from prison, where she was serving time for the gruesome murder of another young woman.
"Very often, real stories are more difficult to portray because they go beyond belief. And this one is no different," Lewis says. "In that news story there was very little information about the parents of the murdered girl, and I couldn't stop thinking about them and how the heck it must feel to have someone so precious be taken away from you so violently."
It's that loss and sense of injustice in The Girl Who Came Back that makes for a heart-breaking - and thrilling - read. In it, Jules Bright is slowly pulling the threads of her life back together after the horrific loss of her daughter, Daisy. Three years on, she hears the news she has been dreading: Amelia Quentin, the girl convicted of Daisy's death, is being released from prison.
As the truth of what happened to Daisy, her marriage to husband Kian, and the rest of their small town comes rushing back, Jules must decide how far she is willing to go to make Amelia pay for what she did and how much she has to fear from the truly disturbed girl's return. Revenge is on the cards; it's just a question of who will strike first.
Lewis surprised herself with how easy it was to venture into the mind of someone as disturbed as Amelia and fondly recalls the conversations she would have with her and the other characters as she was writing the book.
"This might make me sound off my rocker, but I really enjoy it when a very dark character appears because it just allows you to explore this other side of your nature," she says. "I don't often go to this extreme, though. It is fiction and I don't want to take a reader to a deep and dark place and just leave them there. Life is very capable of doing that and the whole point of my kind of writing is that it is escapism, and somehow it is important to get some sort of smile going by the end of the book."
That tendency to provide readers with a silver-lined, happy ending has seen Lewis, 59, labelled as a "chick lit" author, but she says that tag is both unwanted and unhelpful.
"I'll be honest - I don't like [the label]. I don't know many authors who do, because it is a derogatory term used, obviously, only about women. Male authors like Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons who write very funny, very good fiction - which is what chick lit essentially is - don't get labelled. They are given far more respect than women writing in that same genre."
Lewis, who started her career working on television scripts and lived in Hollywood for a time, credits that double standard for the fact none of her books have made it to the screen, despite her best efforts. She even had word from the BBC recently to say that while her books might be perfect fodder for a television series or film, there is little focus on dramatising female-driven fiction within the industry.
"It was something you just don't want to hear," Lewis laments. "It's an unwritten policy that is just like judging a book by its cover. It is frustrating."
But it is not a battle Lewis, who lives in the rural Cotswolds, is focused on right now. Instead she is about to begin work on the follow-up to her popular series No Child Of Mine and Don't Let Me Go, which will be set in New Zealand, where she recently spent time researching and learning about Hawkes Bay vineyards - a welcome relief from the dark tale of The Girl Who Came Back.
"The visit to New Zealand gave me more for this book than I could have hoped for. The characters are already talking to me and keeping me up at night and when I start writing I know my office will turn from Amelia Quentin's dark world, right into stunning New Zealand."
The Girl Who Came Back by Susan Lewis
(Random House $37) is out now.