Jessica Hamilton was born in Australia but grew up in Ontario, Canada.  She has lived and worked in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, India and Japan. She studied writing at the Humber School for Writers as well as George Brown College.  She’s had stories printed in both print and online publications and was involved for many years with the Canadian Authors Association as program Coordinator for the Leacock/ Simcoe branch.  What You Never Knew is her first novel.

Told in alternating points of view between the living and the dead, Jessica Hamilton’s debut novel will be perfect for fans of The Lovely Bones.

CAC: Congratulations on WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW, your exciting debut novel! Jessica, I’m curious about the origin story of this book. Could you speak to how you got the idea, and how the writing unfolded? Spare no details! 

JH: The seed of the story was planted while I was driving on the highway one day and imagined a sister being killed in a car accident, caused by her own negligence, and her last thought being of how angry her younger sister was going to be at her for dying. The story just unfolded from there of the sister’s death being the catalyst for family secrets to surface. Another factor in the writing of this novel was the loss of my own family cottage due to conflict with my own mother and stepfather. I had spent every summer of my life at my family cottage and so had my children up to that point, so it was very difficult to say goodbye to the place.  The writing of the novel helped me a lot through that hard time and I was able to write a lot of the visceral details of my own cottage, the building itself and the summers there, into the book, feeling in some kind of way as though I was preserving the memories.  

CA: I know it’s easy for people who don’t write to have no idea of the incredible discipline required to not just write a novel, but to get it published, what with all the rejection and disappointment we can experience along the publication road. What was your publishing path with this book?

JH: I had another novel out on submission, and it was clear that it was not going to get picked up.  It was the second novel I’d completed with an agent that did not get picked up so I was feeling pretty low.  As a way to distract myself, I put all of my attention to WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW which was only a rough outline and about twenty pages in at the time. 

I wrote the first draft in about five months and then took a couple of months to do some revisions that were suggested to me by my agent. It went out on submission in March 2020, three days before the entire world shut down because of COVID. We didn’t hear much until May 2020 when we got an offer from Crooked Lane Books and within the month we had a book deal.  

CA: Your book has been called a domestic thriller, a mystery novel, and a suspense novel. How do you describe it and what draws you to this kind of writing?

JH: I think it can fit into all three of those categories. There’s a mystery at the heart of the novel, there’s suspense and some spooky elements, which could be what categorizes it as a thriller. I’ve also heard it referred to as a slow burn thriller, so I think it’s not quite as fast paced as some other thrillers and there’s more time spent on description.

I like writing thrillers because I like reading them. I enjoy exploring the darker side of things in my writing and this genre definitely allows for that. It’s also a challenge to come up with the unexpected reveals or twists, which I find fun. 

CA: Gothic. Your work is also considered to have gothic elements. This is a common term for suspenseful novels and the term has changed so much from the days of Anne Radcliff’s gothic novels. I find that readers today often view this as the mark of a horror novel which is certainly different than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic work, and William Faulkner’s literary Southern Gothic. Do you have any thoughts on Gothic literature, and the contemporary use of the term/genre?

JH: I feel that so many genre classifications have emerged over the years it’s easy to fit one book into many categories at once. 

In my opinion gothic literature is darker and more literary than a commercial thriller but could also be considered a sub-genre of thrillers which has become such a broad category in itself. 

JH: I think a cottage setting would be a great place to read this novel but it’s also one you could read by the fire in the dead of winter when you’re missing summer. I had a reader tell me that she read it while alone at her cottage on an island and loved how spooked she got and then I’ve had other readers tell me they couldn’t read it late into the night because it was too scary.

CA: Tell us about your writing space (s) and your writing routine? 

I have my own office in my house, which I’m pretty meticulous about, as in nobody is allowed in there without my permission. I’ve filled it with lots of visual inspiration, all typewriter themed or book and writing themed.

JH:  I have a red vintage smith corona typewriter sitting close by, a red, metal library card catalogue table, lots of books and an entire wall of blackboard for plotting. It’s my favourite room in my house by far. My writing routine is a bit all over the place. My approach is just do it when I have time. I’m not an early morning writer and find that if I don’t get enough done during the day it works for me to write in the evening from about 8pm to 12am.  

CA: Jessica, how do you manage the juggle of work, parenting/family and the creative life? 

JH: I find it quite difficult actually. My writing definitely suffers as the other things seem to take priority. I’ve trained myself to write whenever I can, even if it’s just for half an hour in between picking my kids up from something which is the only way I get anything done in the end.

CA: Which books would you say have had the biggest impact on you as a writer?

JH: Catcher in the Rye really impacted me as a teenager. It was my first example of a damaged, complex, not entirely likeable character who swore a lot and spoke about the world in a real kind of way. I fell in love with Holden Caulfield and the idea of creating characters like him. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins was quite influential for me in terms of writing thrillers. It was the first book in the genre I’d ever read, and I was instantly hooked, loving how you could have in-depth character development and interesting back story as well as a mystery.

The fusion of literary novel elements with more commercial ones really appealed to me and inspired me to try my hand at writing my own thriller. 

CA: Is reading a part of your creative process? I ask this as I know more and more writers who say they struggle to read books due to the constant plate spin of everyday life along with social media eroding their ability to focus. 

JH: Reading books is crucial for me in all ways. I rely on it to keep me inspired creatively and use it to study the craft of writing, even while I’m deeply immersed in my own writing. I also find that if I don’t have a book to read, I feel lost and it brings me down. I need the escape and the comfort that books bring me. I read every night before bed and when waiting at the doctor’s or for my kids to get out of school. I bring a book most places with me and would much rather focus on that then my phone and social media.

CA: Let’s talk islands. I’m currently reading your book, on an island! You holidayed on an island as a child. Tell us about islands, literally and as metaphor. 

JH: My own family cottage was not actually on an island and the truth is I would never, holiday on an island! I like to have more than one exit strategy and with an island you only have one, a boat and that kind of freaks me out. I think that’s why I used an island as a setting rather than a mainland cottage, it seemed that much scarier to me which helped the writing.

And in terms of it being a metaphor, it worked well for June who was essentially on her own island of grief after losing May and needed something to get her off it in order to move on. Islands also just seem like great places to hide secrets and bodies. 

CA: I’m curious about the idea of a childhood cottage, and how this resonates with people, both readers and writers. Can you speak to this? 

JH: Spending summers at a cottage in your childhood is idyllic in so many ways, or at least it was for me.  

Jessica Hamilton and her debut thriller,
WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW

There’s a freedom there that you don’t get anywhere else. All of your time is focused on fun and relaxation and nature and spending time together as a family. It’s a second home as well, so it becomes  familiar and representative of the many great experiences and memories that you’ve had there. 

I loved writing about that time because it was a reliving of my own wonderful experiences and I think people love reading about it because they’ve either experienced it themselves and can relate, or wish that they had and love being transported there even for a short time. 

CA: Any events or appearances coming up? 

JH: My novel will be featured on Hannah Mary McKinnon and Hank Philip Ryan’s First Chapter Fun on August 26th. I’ll also be doing an appearance on The NuWriters’s podcast coming soon.

CA: What’s next? 

JH: I’m working on the revision of the first thriller novel that I wrote that didn’t get picked up. I learned a lot through the editorial process of WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW and feel that I can make some significant improvements. I’m also working on an entirely new novel at the same time. I just move back and forth depending on what’s coming in easier that day. Both would be considered thrillers because there’s suspense and some mystery, but with the new novel I’m also working in some paranormal elements which I love to do. 

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