After studying English at university, Nell Pattison became a teacher and specialised in Deaf education. She has been teaching in the Deaf community for 13 years in both England and Scotland, working with students who use BSL. Nell began losing her hearing in her 20s, and now wears hearing aids. She lives in North Lincolnshire with her husband and son. The Silent House is her debut novel.
- When did you first start writing, did you make up stories as a child?
I’ve always written, for as long as I can remember. When I was a child I would staple sheets of paper together and write stories about animals, and I first started trying to write novels when I went to university – I say trying because I never finished anything. I first finished a novel and started writing seriously around 2010.
- How long did it take you to write The Silent House, from concept to completion?
About four years, if you include the various stages of editing I went through with my publishers. I had the initial idea in 2016, and went through a lot of drafts and very different versions before it was finally a finished book!
- What was your writing schedule? Do you always write at the same time?
My schedule has changed hugely since I first started to write The Silent House, because my son was born eight days after I was offered a publishing contract. Before he was born I was teaching full time, but had all the time I wanted in the evenings, weekends and school holidays to write.
The edits were all done when I was on maternity leave, so usually when he was asleep or when my husband wasn’t at work, and now I’m teaching part time and I mostly write in the evenings.
So my schedule has had to adapt with my life circumstances, and as a result I think I’m quite flexible – I don’t feel tied to a particular time when I feel I need to write, and I’m quite good at making the most of short periods of time.
- Did you start with a general idea, a character or a plot?
I usually start with a ‘What if?’ question, then build my main plot idea from there. Once I have the basic plot in my head, including the crime at the centre of the novel, who did it and why, then I can start populating it with other characters.
I start with the suspects, including why they might have committed the crime, then add in any other characters I feel necessary. I think almost all of my characters are suspects at some point, however!
- How did your own experience inform the portrayal of the deaf characters in your book?
As a teacher of the deaf, I’ve spent 13 years working with students who need British Sign Language support in order to access their education, including working with deaf families and in schools for the deaf.
I felt that deaf characters in fiction were rarely portrayed as a community, with a common language and culture, and I thought it could make an interesting perspective.
My deaf characters are normal people, from a wide range of backgrounds, in different jobs, with different personalities and attitudes, but they have a common experience that has an influence on all aspects of their lives.
- Have you always wanted to write crime fiction? Is it a genre you read a lot of?
When I was growing up, our local library was half a temporary building on the village green (the other half was the doctor’s surgery), and I exhausted the children’s section pretty quickly. As I’d read a lot of Nancy Drew, the librarian suggested I try Agatha Christie, and since then the majority of what I read has been crime.
However, I didn’t start off by writing crime – the first time I actually completed the first draft of a novel, I didn’t think about the genre, I just wrote a story that came into my head. It was set in the future and contained some new technologies that I’d dreamed up, so someone from my writing group assured me it was sci-fi.
After that, I almost pigeon-holed myself in my mind as a sci-fi writer, but I was never a very successful one! The Silent House is the first novel I wrote after I realised I should try writing a crime novel instead.
- What are the elements of a great crime novel?
The mystery has to be intriguing, for me. I have to be keen to find out who committed the crime, and why. Twists are very popular, but I don’t think they’re essential, as long as that strong mystery element is maintained. Characters are important too, because the reader needs either someone to root for or someone they want to see get their comeuppance.
- Who are your favourite crime writers?
Val McDermid has to come top of the list! When I found out I was going to be part of the same event at Huddersfield Lit Fest I think I squealed!
I also really love Ann Cleeves’ Shetland and Vera series, Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels, and Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, and I try to keep up with those series. Others include Will Dean, Ruth Ware, Alex Marwood, Linwood Barclay, Nicci French, Sarah Hilary… I could go on for a long time!
My ‘to read’ pile is infinite, and I don’t think I’ll ever have the time to read all the books I want to read in my lifetime.
- How did you go about getting an agent and how long did it take you – any tips for aspiring writers?
This is an excellent story to illustrate the fact that rejection is not personal – my agent is Juliet Mushens from the Caskie Mushens agency, and she took me on the third time I submitted to her. I first heard of her when attending the Jericho Writers Festival of Writing in York, as she was one of the agents offering 1:1 slots, and I submitted two of my sci-fi novels to her, a couple of years apart.
Her reputation as an agent is outstanding, so when I wrote The Silent House I knew I wanted to give it another shot to see if she would be interested in representing me. I submitted the manuscript to five agents at a time, and I had a couple of rejections, but then a few months later I heard back from Juliet. She offered me a ‘revise and resubmit’ – she saw the potential, but she wanted me to make some substantial editorial changes before sending it back to her.
I spent several months on those revisions, knowing how important it was, and in October 2018 she offered to represent me. We went through one more round of edits together before she submitted it to publishers.
- How did you feel when the book was sent out to editors – and when you got a book deal? How long did it take to get a response?
It’s pretty scary submitting your work anywhere, but when I had the support of an agent I felt a little less daunted by it. I was heavily pregnant at the time so I kept myself distracted by planning for the baby, and trying not to think about all of the editors who were reading my novel!
It took about a month from first submissions to confirmation of the deal, and when Juliet told me we had an offer from Avon it was a pretty surreal experience. Something I had wanted for as long as I could remember was finally happening!
- What has been the feedback for the book so far?
I’ve had some amazing reviews online, and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s taken the time to read and review The Silent House. I think by incorporating the deaf community into the novel I’ve done my best to take a classic whodunit style of novel and give it a very different perspective, which readers have found really engaging.
I had been invited to take part in six different literature festivals across the UK in the coming months, as well as a few local events, which obviously have now all been cancelled, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to get out and meet readers once the current public health situation is over.
- Do you plan to write another book featuring Paige Northwood, the BSL interpreter introduced in The Silent House?
Yes, Silent Night, the second book in the series is due to be released later this year. I’m very busy with edits for that one at the moment!