Debut author Jessica Hamilton joins us on the podcast this week to discuss her recently released thriller, What You Never Knew. Jessica talks to us about her journey to publication, how she plots her thriller novels, and what it was like publishing her first book during a pandemic.
- Jessica tells us about her debut novel, What You Never Knew, what her journey to publication was like, and what surprising things she learned throughout the publishing process
- She explains what her writing process is like, from the beginnings of an idea to finished thriller novel, and she explains how she figures out the twists and turns in her plots
- Jessica talks about releasing her debut novel during a global pandemic and why, despite the many challenges it caused and the fact that it was different than she’d imagined it would be, she has focused on the many surprising positives of a virtual book launch
- She discusses using social media as an author and why focusing on one platform has brought her success, and she tells us why social media is such a great way to interact with readers and fellow writers alike
- Jessica talks to us about the thriller writer community in Canada, and she explains why having a community of fellow writers has been so important to her publishing journey
- She tells us why persistence has been the most important thing she’s done for her writing career, and she tells us what she’s working on next
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What You Never Knew
The Girl on the Train
Catcher in the Rye
The Third Wife
The Girls are all so Nice Here
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.
Transcription provided by SpeechPad
Joni: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” Podcast where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts, I’m Joni and I’m the author engagement specialist at “Kobo Writing Life.”
Rachel: I’m Rachel and I’m the author engagement coordinator at “Kobo Writing Life.” This episode was recorded before Steph left; Steph and Joni interviewed Jessica Hamilton about her debut novel, “What You Never Knew.”
Joni: Yeah, Jessica Hamilton is a local author. She was born in Australia, but she grew up in Ontario, Canada. And her first novel, “What You Never Knew” is a thriller, set in Canadian cottage country, and it released in April 2021. So, we chatted a little bit about her journey to publishing, about why she’s drawn to writing thrillers, in particular, and what it was like to publish your first novel during a global pandemic. So, it was a great chat, and we’re excited for you to listen to it.
Stephanie: Thank you, Jessica, for joining us on the podcast today.
Jessica: Thank you for having me.
Stephanie: So, before we get into it, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jessica: I live in Orillia, Ontario with my husband, my 15-year-old son, and my 12-year-old daughter. And I have been writing for years and years since I was a child and trying to get published for years and years. And while doing that I was also or I have been managing income properties that we own. And that’s sort of been my day job more or less for the last 10 years.
Stephanie: So, we’d love to hear more about your publishing journey. So, can you tell us a bit about how your book deal came about? Or like how did you know you were ready to sell your book?
Jessica: The first thriller that I wrote was in 2017, I believe. And before that, I had written a “Why,” a novel that I had an agent with, a literary agent, and it was submitted and didn’t get picked up. And so then I thought I would try writing a thriller, which I loved reading. So, I wrote that and I found a new agent that was a little bit more suited to the genre. She had a lot of other authors who wrote in the thriller genre. So, I queried her. And she was the only one I queried for that particular novel. And she signed me on and we did some revisions and then submitted that novel. And unfortunately, no one picked that one up. And so I decided to write another one because I do find them a lot of fun to write. And it took about a year writing it, the first draft as well as revisions, and then it was submitted, and that one did get picked up. And it was published on April 13th.
Joni: Awesome. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about the book itself?
Jessica: So, the story follows two sisters, May and June. May is the oldest sister and she dies in a car accident right at the beginning of book, there’s no spoiler there. And so June is the only living member of the family left. And through her sister May as well, she learns that the family cottage, which is on Avril Island, which she thought and May thought had been sold years and years ago by their mother, she finds out that it’s actually been left to her. So, she finds out it was never sold. So, June goes back to the island that she hasn’t been to since the summer her father left her family. So, this summer, she was 12. And May was 15. Their father just up and left in the middle of the night or so their mother said. So, she hasn’t been back since that horrible summer. And she goes back to find some answers and to reclaim it. And while there, she rekindled a friendship with her childhood friend, Ezra, and also finds out that her father’s disappearance may be something more sinister than her mother had told her. So, she is there investigating that. And she also learns that there are many secrets on Avril Island that she didn’t know about, and that her childhood summers there are actually much darker than she had any idea about. So, she’s there learning that, trying to figure out what actually happened to her father. And also some things start happening on the island that make her feel like something or someone wants her to leave. And so she has a few mysteries that she has to uncover.
Joni: That’s awesome. What is the process for you when it comes to coming up with ideas and figuring out? Because I feel like thrillers are quite specific and that you need to keep the reader hooked and you need to keep that story moving. Do you have any processes or how do you get your ideas?
Jessica: Well, they usually, you know, they come…I think it’s the same with most writers, they just come in the most random of ways. And the idea for this novel, “What You Never Knew,” all came to me when I was driving on the highway, I was driving home and on the highway and I saw some birds in a field and I looked over at them and then I looked back on the road and thought, you know, I need to pay attention because I’m driving. And then I imagined if I hadn’t been paying attention I’d gotten in a car accident and something had happened to me. I had this sort of scenario play out where my last thought would be about how mad my sister, my older sister, who I’m very close with, how mad she would be at me. And sort of that being your last thought of, “Oh, my sister is going to be so mad at me.” So, then from just that little strange scenario that played out in my head, the story unfolded. And that’s usually what happens with me. Some little kernel of something gets in there, and then like a movie, it just unfolds. And if it sticks around in my head long enough, I know that, okay, this is probably going to be a novel, because sometimes I have that happen and then the story just disappears, as in it doesn’t stick in there.
So, when it sticks there for a while and it just kind of plays out in my head for a while, as a movie, I then do a big brainstorming sheet with all the all random ideas, and then I have a big blackboard wall in my office. And so for me, what I need to do is just sort of plot it out and get as much out on the wall in front of me in sort of the biggest version as possible. And then from there, I can do a very specific outline. And while I’m outlining it, you know, I might add in some things, some new things, and figure out where the twists will be and where the questions and the mystery and that sort of thing will be. And I mean, it doesn’t usually stick to my outline exactly. You know, as I’m writing it, I’ll figure other things out or I’ll think, oh, this doesn’t ring true anymore. And it didn’t then after the first draft, and then she comes back with, you know, this doesn’t make sense or this person should…maybe I do this, and then I do another revision. And usually, I find that because I revise as I write, it only takes a couple of revisions for me to feel ready for submission.
Joni: Is thriller the main genre that you read?
Jessica: No. And I think I came to it a bit later. The first thriller mystery I’d ever read was “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins. Yeah. And I was blown away by that book, just because it was so…you couldn’t put it down. But I also loved the character development. And I didn’t really associate mysteries and thrillers with character development and interesting backstories. And so, when I read that, I thought, wow, you know, a thriller can be a lot of different things, but also, it’s so captivating for the reader. And I loved that. It’s such an escape. And so I was motivated from that to write one. And I wouldn’t say that I probably…I mean, I’ve read probably more thrillers now than anything else, but also because it’s like research for me. I’m always interested in how other authors pull their gun and their concepts, and things like that. But I also love literary fiction. I love Canadian literary fiction, you know, like, Heather O’Neill is one of my favorite authors, and Barbara Gowdy and Timothy Findley. So, yeah, I would say I sort of do maybe a thriller and then a non-thriller and then a thriller and a non-thriller. That’s generally my reading pattern.
Joni: And obviously, you’re releasing just as well, you’re in Canada as well. So, you know, we’re still very much in the middle of the pandemic here. But this entire year has been really challenging. And what was it like for you to have your debut come out amidst all this?
Jessica: I had dreamed about it for years and years. And it was obviously not what I had dreamed of. I mean, it was hard too, because only a couple of days before the actual debut, we heard, you know, on Ontario that stores were closed and the restrictions were even stricter than they’d been before. So, essentially, [inaudible 00:08:25] and now you have virtual book launches, which I had with Samantha Bailey and Hannah Mary McKinnon. And that was great. I mean, I don’t know if I would have been able to get those two to come to a live book launch for me. So, it was pretty amazing for me to have them do that. And so I just sort of focused on the positives of it and the exciting things. And I mean, I’m doing things I never thought I do. And I’ve had to learn to do Zoom meetings. And yeah, live Instagram chats and things. And I think it’s easier, obviously, to reach more people through all this virtual event stuff. And so I see that as a positive. But I mean, I do like in-person things. I like, you know, doing readings in front of real people, and I like then having discussion afterward. And so, I missed that sort of personal connection that way, but I still feel like it’s been a pretty amazing experience for me having a debut novel. And I mean, really, the bottom line is I have a novel in the world, which is what I always wanted. So, yeah.
Joni: Yeah. That’s very cool. And you’re right, there’s so many advantages. I think we’ve talked to a lot of authors who have said it’s been challenging because they’re missing out on that person to person experience, but like you say, there are so many opportunities in this digital and you really can reach so many people in places where you might not have been able to get them in places. It’s very cool part of it.
Jessica: Yeah. Yeah. And I even find I love now going back and looking at author talks on Instagram with certain bookstagrammers. And I like having that resource so readily accessible, you know, because before this is you’d have to go and see an author that came locally and they didn’t, you know, not always attend would come. So, you know, now, and I do find as a writer that hearing other writer’s experiences and their process, I find it really interesting and I find it helpful to my own. So, I love that now things are cataloged that way that you can go back and watch things. So, that’s a real positive about all this other negative stuff.
Joni: Yeah. How have you found the writer community being? How have you been able to integrate into that? And what has that been like?
Jessica: Yeah, it’s actually amazing. And it’s one of the bonuses of getting a book deal, something I didn’t expect. And like I said, it really blows me away how inclusive and supportive the Canadian thriller community is. You know, I feel now other writers have made themselves accessible to me in terms of any questions that I might have. And like I said, you know, I put it out to Samantha Bailey and Hannah Mary McKinnon, “Would you like to join me for a book launch?” And within minutes, they got back to me saying, “Absolutely.” And then I even see online the way they support each other. And I would say that the Canadian thriller writers community is a very close-knit one and very supportive.
Stephanie: So, a lot of authors, I think, particularly in debuts, they think they need to have a really strong social media presence, I’m wondering what your perspective is because you do enjoy the online, like Instagram lives and stuff. But I’m wondering, do you try to be on everything or are you on just a few platforms that you think you enjoy the most?
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram, I’m on Facebook. I hate Twitter, to be honest. I think I’m terrible at it. I still do not understand it. I just do my best I mostly just retweet things. And I tried to have as much presence on there as possible, which is still limited. Facebook, I’m not a huge fan of Facebook either. It seems to have gotten more complicated, especially when you have public pages. The private personal pages are pretty straightforward. But the business ones or the public ones are confusing, which just doesn’t make sense to me, but Instagram, I love and I find that that’s where I put most of my attention because I feel the most comfortable with it. And I did a webinar about author branding with Carly Watters. And she said, you know, “Pick the platform that you are the most comfortable with and do it really well. You can pick one and do that well.” And so, I’ve taken that advice to heart. And like I said, I focus mostly on Instagram, which I find it seems to be the best platform for authors and for book lovers. So, yeah, that’s the one that I prefer, for sure.
Joni: It’s really interesting. I think we’re hearing that more and more because it used to be on Facebook all the time. And a lot of indie authors are using that to advertise. But I think that you’re right, I think that it is moving more towards Instagram, which sort of feels like a nicer place. I feel like there’s a lot of arguing on Facebook.
Joni: But doesn’t really happen.
Jessica: Right. Now, I know arguing and a lot of, like, posting of political views and things that then create arguments and create conflict. And I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like a lot of the time very meaningful content. And I think there are restrictions on Instagram, it keeps it in sort of parameters that are better that way.
Stephanie: Did anything surprise you about the publishing process that since it’s your debut, did you have a perception of what it would be, and then what it actually turned out to be you?
Jessica: No, not really. Not hugely surprising. There were certain moments of doing through the editing process that I had to learn new ways of doing things. And I didn’t know that once it was copy-edited you had to read through and then it went back, and then you had another read through, and then you had one more read through. So, you know, little things like that crept up on me. And I mean, definitely, I was at a loss when it came to things, like, you know, setting up a virtual book tour. I found that difficult. But again, I just reached out to other authors and I got their opinion on things.
Joni: Did you have to do that yourself? Your publisher doesn’t do that? See that surprises me.
Jessica: Well, the thing is though that because it’s an American publisher, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on Canadian publicity, so I had to do a lot of that myself. And then they do certain things, for sure. They reach out to certain bloggers and bookstagrammars and, you know, BuzzFeed and places like that with the novel, but then you can pay someone to do a virtual book tour, where they hit all these bloggers and bookstagrammars and it just widen the range or widens the reach for you. So, because I’m a debut author, I decided I would do that just to make sure I got as many people as possible promoting it. And I mean, I have a smaller press, Crooked Lane Books, it’s just a smaller one than, you know, say, Simon & Schuster. So, their resources are maybe not quite as great. I mean, my publicist, she is great. And whenever I’ve had a question or I’ve needed her to send a book to someone, she’s right there on it. But I did feel like I needed to do as much on my own as I could. Yeah.
Joni: That’s actually really interesting. And I think it’s not a bad thing, especially when it comes to engaging with readers. And I think readers really love that when you’re engaged in your own marketing and you’re speaking to them over social media, or whatever your platform is.
Jessica: Yeah. And I love reading. I love having interactions with readers. That’s one of my favorite parts of it is when I get messages, and I can talk back and forth with them. I think it’s great. Yeah.
Joni: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask you because it hasn’t been out for very long yet. But how have you found, I mean, there will have been, like, arcs and early copies and all of that, how have you found that engaging with readers and that part of it?
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, for the most part, it’s been great. I had that initial panic when it went out in the world. And then I got the first few reviews, and I realized, “Oh, my gosh, people are actually gonna read this book and have an opinion on it.” You know, but once I got over that… I mean, there have been some negative reviews, of course, but I would say there have been many more positive than negative reviews. And so I will read the negative ones and take you know, little bits from that that I think maybe I could work on in future novels. And, you know, I don’t just disregard them because they’re negative. And then the positive ones, obviously, I really enjoy. And like I said, I think it’s great the way social media allows readers to directly message the authors and ask questions or tell them, you know, “I had some beautiful messages about how the book made people feel.” And for an author, that’s what you want to hear the most is that there’s an emotional connection. So, yeah, that’s been great. And again, it was bookstagrammars, I didn’t know what a bookstagrammar was before I had a book deal. I didn’t even know it existed this world. And so now, again, they are also so supportive and inclusive, and they reach out and want to help you promote your book, and for no financial gain to themselves. I mean, it’s just because they love books so much. So, it’s an amazing community for sure. Yeah. And I’ve loved learning about it. And I’ve loved making connections there.
Joni: When you talk about the thriller writer community in Canada, where did you find this community, like if people are looking for other writers in Canada or other thriller writers?
Jessica: Once you find a couple and start following them on social media, it leads you to other ones. And I mean, for me, I was lucky in the sense that my agent when she reached out to some authors for blurbs, for the cover of the book, and for promotion. And so, once she did that, and then they put the blurbs on social media, and then I connected with them through that. And like I said, once I became friends with a few on social media, then it opened up you know, to more. And what’s great is even, you know, when you follow certain bookstagrammars and they’re promoting books and you look at those books, and then you start following those authors and you connect with them. And it just sort of snowballs from the very beginning. It’s just such an easy world to get in. So, I would just say, go follow a few of your favorites, and then you will be led down. Because, you know, other authors, they will read and blurb for another thriller writer, and then they will promote that book. And so it just introduces you to other authors as well.
Joni: I think that’s one of the coolest things about the author’s world is that there’s space for everybody. Like, if somebody loves your book, they’re going to love this one too. And it isn’t that your book’s not gonna be the only one that they read, like, if they love it, they’re gonna love this person. And there’s not really any competition.
Jessica: No, that’s right. And I actually before going into this, I thought it might be quite a competitive world. And I’m so relieved to find out that it’s not at all. And it’s true. It’s not as though as a reader, it’s not as though I have one author, and I don’t know, this is my author, these are the books I’m reading, I’m not going to read these. You know, I find that my book pile just keeps getting bigger and bigger because there are so many wonderful books to read. And again, in a thriller genre, they might be thrillers, but the concepts vary so greatly and the stories and the characters. There’s so much diversity within the genre, that… You’re right, the books aren’t competing with each other at all. So, that was such a relief to me to find that. Yeah.
Stephanie: What do you think has been the best thing that you’ve done for your writing career?
Jessica: Not give up. I would say is really… You know, because like I said, and I know many authors have had this happen too, you write novels and they don’t get published, and then you write another novel, and it doesn’t get published and write another novel, and it might not or it might. And so, after my YA novel that didn’t get picked up, I know a lot of people were surprised when I just started another one. And then when that didn’t get picked up, people thought I was crazy when I started another one. But I think for people that aren’t writers, they don’t have that drive, it’s really hard for them to understand why would you keep doing this and set yourself up for rejection, and then the process is long, you know, and I was writing in between, you know, managing income properties and my kids. But the drive is strong. And I think that if you just keep going on it, you know, eventually it’ll happen for you if you don’t give up on it. And so, if I’d given up after the first, YA novel, I wouldn’t have a book deal, I wouldn’t have a published book. And again, with the second novel that didn’t get picked up. So, yeah, just keep going. That to me is the best thing I’ve done in terms of my writing.
Joni: I think that’s a really important lesson. I think you hear this a lot from authors who have huge rejection lists before they get published. And I think people don’t necessarily know that, they just see the successful [inaudible 00:21:33].
Jessica: Yeah. Exactly. And I mean, it is pretty stock advice. I know. And even before I got a book deal, I remember hearing other writers say, “Just keep going, just keep writing,” and I always think, oh, you know, and it did feel like there was some magical element to getting a book deal, like it was some special club that you had to figure out how to get membership to, and I remember that feeling very well. But like I said, I just kept going at it. And that actually is the key. And then, of course, other elements, like, you know, learn to apply constructive criticism and read what you want to write, and all of those other bits of advice. But for me, you know, I would not be here now if I had given off after the first or second unpublished manuscript.
Stephanie: And I feel like you learn more, as soon as you complete a book, you’re constantly learning and evolving and improving on what it’s going to be released eventually.
Jessica: Yeah. Absolutely. And, you know, I’ve gone back to revise the first thriller novel that didn’t get picked up. I’ve gone back to revise it now with all of what I’ve learned from the novel that did get published. So, yeah, you’re always growing as a writer, and you’ve always got to take experiences. And like I said, criticism and learn how to make your work better. It’s an evolution for sure.
Joni: Is there one book or author, I know, you mentioned “The Girl on the Train.” But is there anyone who’s had an impact on your writing, in particular?
Jessica: Well, I mean, I feel like there’s so many. There’s so many books that I love, and you know, that I’ve learned from. I mean, “Catcher in the Rye” when I read it at 13, that had a profound impact on me. And again, the Canadian authors I mentioned, like Timothy Findley and Barbara Gowdy. And in terms of Barbara Gowdy, I learned from her that you can be quite dark, you can go dark in your novels, and there will be people that want to read that. And that was a big lesson for me. And then, you know, reading “The Girl on the Train, it introduced me to the genre that I now love writing in. And I mean, I find that every thriller novel that I read now, I learn a little bit something from. And, you know, for example, Lisa Jewell, I find that when I read her novels, their studies in character development and establishing settings that you know, readers are transported to right away. So, I don’t think there’s a single book that I read that doesn’t impact me in some way as a writer. Yeah.
Stephanie: Are you working on anything now?
Jessica: Yeah. So, like I said, I’m revising these manuscripts in the thriller genre, I’ve started revisions on that. But then I also started another novel again, in the thriller genre, and I have a few outlined. So, yeah, there’s never a shortage of ideas for me. It’s just the shortage of time. And so, yeah. And then I have another novel that I started. I’m about 50 pages, and I started about a year and a half ago, and I just sort of trailed off with that as other things ramped up. So, I guess you could say I’m working on about four things really.
Joni: Wow. And related to that, how did you find the last year impacted your creativity, like being home all the time? I think we’ve heard the both ends of the spectrum, I mean, some people find it really fueled them repeatedly and other people it was more challenging.
Jessica: Yeah. You know, it’s sort of funny because the novel “What You Never Knew,” it went out for submission about four days before the world shutdown. Yeah, it was really…and I felt like that’s it, I’m doomed. You know, there’s no way that this novel will get picked up now. And it was a wait, you know, it was March when it out for submission. And it wasn’t until May that you know, we had a book deal. And so, I found it was a weird limbo period for me where I didn’t know if I wanted to really sit down and write every day while I was waiting to hear about this other novel. And I did find that my focus went to my kids who were doing online learning. And then once I got a book deal, I was into revisions for that, which I found…you know, yeah, I didn’t have any problem with it, it came quite easily because I know other authors that have said, you know, they just haven’t been able to write at all. And so, no, I wouldn’t say it affected me that way. And even now, I’m finding that it’s coming easily. But also my writing, I had to adapt it to be quite…like, I would sit down and write for 10 minutes if I had it in between other things or an hour. You know, so I wasn’t too precious in terms of the context and the situation that I have to write in quite adaptable that way. So, maybe that’s why, you know, this doesn’t affect me. My kids can be home doing things and I’m still able to get writing done. So, I’m lucky that way.
Joni: That’s a really good skill to have.
Stephanie: Then we have our favorite question. What have you been loving lately?
Jessica: Oh, like really not books specifically?
Joni: It can be books or what you’re watching.
Stephanie: Movies, TV shows, yeah.
Jessica: Okay. Okay. Okay. Well, in terms of TV, I’ve just sort of gotten into the Harlan Coben’s novels in the TV series. So, “The Stranger” was one I just finished, and “Safe” is one that I’m watching now. And I have a real thing about British TV shows. I’m not sure why. I love anything in that setting. And I just finished a Lisa Jewell novel “The Third Wife,” which I really enjoyed. I also loved, “The Girls Are All So Nice Here,” which I finished before the Lisa Jewell, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn. And I read “The Push” not too long ago, which I loved. It destroyed me at the same time. So, I have mixed feelings on it. But I still tell everyone to read it. So, yeah, like, I said, there’s no shortage in terms of good gig and good Canadian fiction too. So, I do tend to…I definitely have an allegiance to that, you know, I will pick up the Canadian authors first when they have novels coming out.
Stephanie: All of the book that destroys you because then you’re thinking about it for days afterward.
Jessica: Oh, no, absolutely. I mean, yeah. And I made all my friends read it so I could talk to them about it. So, yeah.
Joni: Love that. And where can listeners find you online? It sounds like Instagram is the place to be.
Jessica: Yes. Instagram is probably the best place. It’s jessicahamiltonwriter is my Instagram handle. And my website is jessicahamilton.org. And yeah. And on Instagram, I have a link tree so you can use that to find, you know, other places, other like Instagram live chats and other podcasts and things like that. Yeah.
Joni: That’s perfect. So, we will share all those links online. Thank you so much.
Jessica: Okay. Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast. If you’re looking to purchase Jessica’s book, you can find a link to it on our blog. And if you’re looking to grow your sales, you can find extra tips on kobowritinglife.com.
Joni: This episode was produced by Rachel Wharton and Joni Di Placido, co-host was Stephanie McGrath. Big thanks to Tearjerker for providing the music, Kelly Rowbotham for editing, and big thank you also to Jessica for being a guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey today, sign up for free at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.