Bright lies, big city

Author AA Abbott talks about her new book Bright Lies, set in Birmingham.

During the first few weeks of lockdown earlier this year, police in the UK received a call about domestic abuse once every thirty seconds. The anguish of victims intensified during the pandemic, as violence escalated and they found it harder to escape their abusers.

This makes Bright Lies, the new novel from author AA Abbott featuring domestic abuse, particularly timely. It will be launched next week, two days before White Ribbon Day on November 25th. Also known as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, it’s an annual day designated by the United Nations to raise awareness.

Bright Lies is a psychological thriller about Jack and Emily, who meet in difficult circumstances in Birmingham. Jack’s violent, drunken father has shaped his life, while Emily has suffered physical and sexual abuse.

The author, whose real name is Helen Blenkinsop, admits to getting so involved with her young characters that she cried about their fate.

“I end up thinking about them a lot,” she admits. “I’ve even cried over them because they had such a raw deal, although they’re fictional. They got under my skin.”

Helen lives in Bristol with her husband Ian, who she met at Birmingham University. She says: “I’m really lucky not to have been in an abusive relationship myself, but I felt it was an important subject to tackle. We need to have more conversations about domestic violence, particularly as the problem has worsened during lockdown. The more we talk about it, the more likely we are to spot it and more victims will realise they have choices.

“When writing Bright Lies, I had advice from professionals such as a retired policewoman who worked with child abuse victims. I also spoke informally with people who had personal experience of sexual abuse. They were very helpful in explaining how an abuser might operate, to isolate their victims from their friends and family and normalise their behaviour.”

Helen grew up outside London but moved to Birmingham in 1979 to start her degree in physics at Birmingham University – although she didn’t finish it.

“Science and I didn’t get on,” she admits, although the move sparked her lifelong love affair with Birmingham. She lived here for twenty years, having her son at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and often returns to the city, as well as setting all her novels here. AA Abbott is best known for The Trail series of crime thrillers – The Bride’s Trail, The Vodka Trail, The Grass Trail, The Revenge Trail and The Final Trail.

Birmingham features heavily in Bright Lies, with locations from Moor Street Station to Four Oaks. Most of the action takes place in a Digbeth squat and a nightclub called The Bobowlers – West Midlands dialect for a moth. In fact, the novel was almost called The Bobowlers.

“I’ve wanted to call a book that for ages as it’s such a great name. I emailed my newsletter list, half of whom are in America, to ask them which they preferred. All the Americans said Bright Lies as they didn’t know what a bobowler was.

“I have a bit at the front of my books to explain dialect words. I did it after some people thought ‘bab’, which crops up a lot, was a spelling mistake and I meant babe.

“I love getting a cheap day return to Birmingham and just walking round the city or hanging out with friends. Being in warm, buzzy Brum makes my heart sing. I really miss being able to chill in a café there.”

There’s a real person in Bright Lies – her friend Sofia Ali, who gives Jack an Egg McMuffin when he sleeps rough by St Philip’s Cathedral.

“She’s a really nice person, who often gives Maccy D breakfasts to down and outs in Pigeon Park on her way to work.”

When Helen changed course from physics she became an accountant and still works in finance for six months of the year to fund her writing. A member of the New Street Authors publishing collective for independent Birmingham writers, she self-published her first novel, Up in Smoke, in 2013.

She chose a pen name – AA Abbott to be at the start of the alphabet – for several reasons. Her own name is hard to spell, she didn’t want to discourage men from reading a book by a woman, and she wanted anonymity from racy scenes.

“There’s a lot of sex in Up in Smoke and I didn’t think my respected accountancy employers would be that thrilled if I had a sexy book to my name. I find writing those scenes quite embarrassing. There’s a lot less sex in Bright Lies because I didn’t think it was appropriate.”

Helen plans her books meticulously, doing plenty of research and plotting out the story using yellow sticky notes on the wall. She also employs a Birmingham editor, after her army of readers has seen the first draft.

“I get between twenty and thirty beta readers – friends, other writers, specialists like police and lawyers – to read my first attempts. They really tore Bright Lies apart, which is what I wanted though it’s never pleasant!

“I’m proud of The Trail series but I think Bright Lies is the best book I’ve written. I wanted it to have a message, that there’s always a way out of a bad situation. There’s always hope.”

Bright Lies will officially launch via Zoom on Monday 23rd November 8pm-9pm. Join author AA Abbott, Michael MacMahon journalist and supporter of the elimination of violence against women, ex-policewoman Marie Wright and forensic psychologist Prudence S Thomas for a discussion and readings.

Tickets are free and can be booked via Eventbrite.

Bright Lies by AA Abbott is available now from Amazon in paperback and will be on 99p Kindle preorder
from 16th to 22nd November (regular price £1.99).