When police arrive to arrest her, she lies, telling them she had been innocently standing in line at the store’s register, waiting to pay for the merchandise, when the store security officer “grabbed me. That man has a problem with women.”
The police, however, aren’t buying the woman’s lies. They look at her with “a mix of pity and disgust.”
Desperate to avoid arrest, the woman plays what she thinks will be her trump card. When the police ask her name, she tells them, “My name is Rebecca Winter. Eleven years ago, I was abducted.”
So begins Anna Snoekstra’s new psychological thriller, ONLY DAUGHTER. Like other novels in its genre, it plays with unsavory situations, less-than-scrupulous protagonists who take audaciously ill-advised risks, and a twisty, chilling plot that keeps readers in suspense up to the end.
A couple months ago, I read Amy Gentry’s GOOD AS GONE, which also concerns the seeming reappearance of a young woman who’s gone missing. The focal question of Gentry’s novel is whether the woman who returns is really the missing woman. Snoekstra’s takes a different approach. Within the first ten pages, we discover the woman is NOT Rebecca Winter, a sixteen-year-old girl who disappeared eleven years earlier and is now presumed dead. After seeing a television report about the presumed abduction, the woman realized she bears an incredible resemblance to the missing girl. She fakes out the police, who send her to the missing girl’s home.
And then things become strange.
The fake Rebecca (“Bec”) tries to convince the girl’s family and friends that she’s really Rebecca. People look at her funny, tilting their heads, trying to reconcile the bruised young woman in front of them with what they remember about the real Rebecca. Eleven years is a long time. Bec would now be twenty-seven if she were alive.
Half the fun of Snoekstra’s novel lies in seeing how long the fake Bec can pretend to be the missing girl. She feigns memory loss, buying herself time to suss out ways of convincing everyone that she really is Bec. But surely, sooner or later, someone—the police, the missing girl’s seemingly over-medicated mother, her alcoholic father, her rambunctious twin brothers, or the missing girl’s former friends—will figure out that the new Bec’s an imposter. Right?
The other half of the novel’s fun?
Snoekstra tells her novel through alternating chapters: the present-tense 2014 sections follow the imposter Bec’s story, while the past-tense 2003 sections detail the events that lead up to the real Bec’s disappearance. As a writer, I’m amazed at how well Snoekstra does this. The past- and present-tense sections play off each other so well, heightening tension and informing each other.
One thing becomes immediately apparent in the past-tense sections: the real Bec’s life was far from idyllic. Yes, she hangs out with her friends and flirts with her McDonalds’ co-workers, yet there’s a dark presence in her life. She wakes at night, convinced specters haunt her room. Going out, she senses people following her. Her best friend’s father is a pervert and the next door neighbor sits on the stoop all day, staring off into the middle distance and muttering to himself. She reaches for door handles and finds them soaked with blood. Her brothers are a pair of holy terrors whom her parents are afraid to reprimand. One night, she awakens and finds drops of blood speckling her carpet.
Because we know that the real Bec apparently meets a bad end, we read through
the 2003 sections with a sense of foreboding.
Taking up residence in the Winter household, it gradually dawns on the imposter that all was not well with the real Rebecca’s life. Police had suspected that Rebecca had been familiar with her abductor. Anyone around her—her friends and family—could have done it. The house itself evil, and haunted by Rebecca’s disappearance.
Over the past year, I’ve looked under the hoods of a lot of psychological thrillers, studying their craft and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I’ve interviewed Mary Kubica and Lisa Jewell. Today, Anna Snoekstra has kindly consented to answer some questions via email about her novel, ONLY DAUGHTER.
Question: ONLY DAUGHTER is your debut novel. What prompted you to write it?
The idea for this novel lurked in the back of my mind for a long time before I sat down to write it. I was working a job that wasn’t going anywhere, and was making a fringe theatre show on the side. The thought of dedicating myself to writing a novel was incredibly daunting. There was so many things that I knew I should be doing first, like trying to get a more serious job and making enough money to make rent. But, the story just wouldn’t go away. It kept buzzing away in my head until eventually I had the characters and plot already mapped out.
Eventually, I gave in. I started working nights and writing during the day. Finally giving myself the time and space to do it was fantastic. I had no idea if anyone apart from my mum would end up reading it, but it didn’t matter. It was so great to just get the story out of me and onto the page.
Question: Psychological thrillers fascinate me because, in most of them, the protagonists are not remotely “likeable” (at least in the traditional sense of the word). The fake Bec is a manipulative, vindictive liar who’s made a lot of morally troubling decisions in her personal life. She has a very high opinion of her abilities to deceive, and a very low opinion about everyone she deceives. She is delicious in her own conniving way, but she is not someone most people would seek to befriend.
My question is, in crafting the fake Bec’s character, did you worry about making her too unlikeable?
In the first draft, she was a lot less manipulative. I think part of that was because I personally didn’t have any idea how to manipulate. It became clear that the story just didn’t work unless she was very conniving.
I did some (slightly troubling) research online about how to manipulate people. At this stage, I was worried about making her likeable. As I went on, I realized that writing someone wholly unlikeable, at least initially, was a lot more fun and I hoped the reader would experience her this way as well.
Question: We never learn the real name of the fake Bec. This is one of the most daring choices you’ve made in crafting ONLY DAUGHTER. For me, this was remarkably effective. Readers only know her as an imposter, and as the novel progresses and the past/present narratives begin to triangulate upon each other, we get the sense that the fake Bec is sliding into the same pitfalls that doomed the real Bec.
Can you tell us more about why you chose not to give the fake Bec an actual name of her own? Did Beta readers and editors offer any resistance to this choice when reading your work in manuscript form?
It felt natural for the pretender character to never reveal her name. She plays tourist in other identities and has no sense of self. She worries that there is nothing underneath the characters she plays.
Only Daughter pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, one of my favorite books. In that novel the main character marries a rich man and becomes known only as ‘the new Mrs. DeWinter’. She becomes infatuated with Rebecca DeWinter, her husbands first wife. My novel departs from Rebecca in a lot of ways, but I loved the idea of two women’s playing the same role, and their stories being intertwined across a decade
Although there was no resistance to not giving the main character a name, it does make talking about the book a little tricky! Of course, she does have a name, but the only person I ever told was my editor.
Question: As I mentioned earlier, I absolutely loved ONLY DAUGHTER’s structure. The way the chapters alternated between the past and the present worked very well. This strikes me as something very hard to pull off as a writer. I sense you labored quite hard at this—both in figuring out how much to reveal in any particular point, and in coming to suitably jarring end points in each chapter.
How did you go about writing this novel? Did you write out both complete storylines and then fracture them into individual chapters and then work out how to interweave them? Or did you naturally sequence the storylines and chapters as you went about writing the first draft?
Initially, I tried to write the two storylines concurrently. I found this didn’t really work, as I’d loose the thread and the voice of the character if I kept alternating. So I decided to write the whole of Bec’s storyline first, with a rough idea of what would happen in the intervening chapters. It was then really fun to go back to the beginning and insert the imposter’s chapters.
The main issue I encountered was making sure that the rise and fall of tension was concurrent through the two story lines. It all got a bit confusing, so I ended up making some large-scale diagrams to map the story. I think in a very visual way, so that really helped!
Question: This kinda piggybacks off the previous question, but did you find it easier to write the real Bec or the fake Bec sections? Which character did you have more fun writing?
Although both narratives come together to make one story, they were so different to write Writing Bec’s chapters was great because it felt so natural. I grew up in Canberra, and was around the same age as Bec in 2003. Although she is a very different teenager to what I was, it was a wonderful experience to write about that time and place through a young person’s eyes. Her sections were barely edited, what ended up in the book was basically my first draft.
The imposter’s chapters were much harder to write. Making her decisions believable was difficult, and the stakes were so much higher. The fun part of writing her chapters was the fact that Bec’s chapters were already there. I really like playing with knowledge in writing. What the main characters know that other characters don’t, what the reader knows that the main character doesn’t, what the character knows but the reader doesn’t. I think that is so important to writing suspense. Interweaving the chapters from different periods of time in the same household gave me so much to play with in terms of knowledge, and I found that so much fun.
Question: Bizarre things happen in the real Bec’s life. There’s the specters she sees at night. She awakes one morning to find her carpet speckled with drops of blood. At times, she questions whether she might be imagining all this. And at times, as readers, we also begin to wonder if she’s imagining it, too. And yet, evil lurks around her. Convinced that something supernatural is troubling her, she invites her friends to hold a séance to ward off the spirits. As a reader, these events riveted me. I read these sections with such fear was that we knew something bad was going to happen to the real Bec.
I wonder if, at times, you worried that readers (and editors) wouldn’t accept so much supernatural speculation in an otherwise realistic psychological thriller?
You’re right, that was something I worried about. I needed to make it really clear to the reader that there was nothing paranormal going on, even if Bec was convincing herself that there was. This was really tricky, because Bec seems like a reliable narrator at first, even though she is completely the opposite. It was difficult, because Bec was so far in denial and constantly lying to herself but she presents herself as upfront and honest. The imposter character is the opposite. She lies to everyone in the story, but she is entirely honest with the reader.
The change ended up being a small one, which I hoped made all the difference. My editor pointed out that Bec’s best friend Lizzie acts as a sort of proxy for the reader in the story. Initially I made it seem like Lizzie believed Bec about her specter story. I changed it so that, although Bec doesn’t realize it, it’s clear that Lizzie doesn’t believe her at all therefore signposting that the reader shouldn’t either.
Question: So, befitting a psychological thriller, mean things happen to people in your novel. And yet, the most vicious incident depicted involves animal cruelty. I cringed when I read it, and I marveled at your abilities as a writer to deliver the event on the page. It’s said that animal cruelty elicits more outrage from people than child abuse. Was it particularly hard to write that scene?
I had noticed that people seemed more distraught about animals being hurt in films than children. When I was a teenager I remember watching The Ring with a group of friends at a sleepover. I remember the utter silence in the room when the horse jumps off the side of the boat into the water.
This scene you mention was something I’d worried about for a while before writing. I knew that it would illicit strong responses, but I knew it was really integral to the story, as well as something that is usually avoided, even in thrillers. The scene really had to be horrible, in order for the way it effects Bec to make sense. I become even more worried after a family member read the manuscript and got so upset she stopped talking to me, and my mum who had given to her, for a whole month.
What happens in the scene was based on a rumour about what a boy in my highschool had done. Looking back, I doubt it was true, but it made me feel sick whenever I thought about it for the next ten years. In some ways writing about it felt cathartic.
Question: Lastly, this is a question I’ve asked other writers of psychological thrillers: Beyond providing a gripping and electrifying story, what else do you wish to impart on your readers? After readers race to the conclusion of ONLY DAUGHTER, what do you hope they’re thinking about?
Only Daughter is about fear and paranoia. In the novel, the characters look outward for danger: a man in a black van, the refugee crisis, an angry ghost, where the real threat lies in places a lot more personal and familiar. This is something I was thinking about a lot when writing the book.
ADDENDUM: As interesting as ONLY DAUGHTER is, I’m also looking forward to Snoekstra’s next novel. Here’s a description of it taken from Publishers’s Marketplace:
Anna Snoekstra's DOLLS, in which a young, desperate reporter thrusts herself into the mysterious and unnerving case of the appearance of porcelain dolls that bear an uncanny resemblance to the small town's children, and the lengths she'll go to stay ahead of her story.