Books by my bedside: Michelle Richmond

What’s currently on your bedside and why?

There’s a tottering pile of books on my bedside table. At the top of the pile right now is The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carré. The first great spy novel I ever read was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I first read it many years ago, and given the turns my life has taken, the book has grown more relevant to me as I have grown older.

I consider it a great gift when a novelist whose work I've long admired publishes a memoir. I love seeing inside other writers’ lives, particularly when that life is as unusual as le Carré’s.

Which book would you recommend to your closest friend right now, and why?

Stories I Only Tell My Friends, by Rob Lowe. It’s a book about mothers and sons, about Malibu in the Seventies, and about the discomfiting effects of objectification. Lowe became a teenaged sex symbol overnight, branded a “hunk” when he still barely knew how to talk to girls. In this day and age, we’re hyper-aware of the objectification of girls and women, but we don’t often hear that narrative from men.

Plenty of celebrities appear on these pages, including a fascinating story about the intersection of Lowe’s life with that of John F Kennedy Jr., but the celebrity stories always feel insightful rather than dishy. When I was a young teen, my walls were plastered with pictures of Rob Lowe. I used to send him letters and pictures and obsessively check the mail for a reply. Reading this book is like seeing an old crush decades later, finally having a conversation with him, and discovering that he’s as smart as he is good-looking.

Which book are you planning to take on your next journey and why?

The Story of French, by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow. My family is moving to Paris this summer. If I want to understand French culture (and I do!) I figure the best place to start is with the language.

Tell us about your latest book

The Marriage Pact is a psychological thriller that hopefully will scare your socks off and make you be nicer to your husband or wife. Jake and Alice receive an intriguing wedding gift—an invitation to join an exclusive organization called The Pact, which promises to help them have a lasting marriage. He’s a therapist, she’s an attorney, and both are eager to make their marriage work.

Initially drawn to the elegant parties and the Pact’s innocent-seeming rules (give your spouse a gift every month, always answer when your spouse calls), they soon realise that The Pact uncannily seems to know every time they break a rule. I wanted to pit an idealistic couple, very much in love, against a powerful, controlling outside force.

I wanted to write a passionate love story with an Orwellian vibe: cultlike totalitarianism, complete with surveillance, labyrinthine rules, doublespeak, and severe punishments for those who try to leave. Think The Firm meets Eyes Wide Shut meets The Giver—(if you notice a strange thread linking film adaptations, you’re not imagining it).

Do you discuss your own work-in-progress with anyone?

My husband! We discuss a novel for months before I start writing it. We bat ideas around and hash out the plot and characters, usually over ice cream. Our son (now 13) sometimes jumps into the conversation with a sensible “why,” poking holes in the story, forcing me to come up with something better.

Then I write for a few months without showing anyone anything. As soon as I write myself into a corner, my husband reads the book, and we talk about where to go from there. He’s been my first reader for everything since the week we met 22 years ago. He’s the only person who sees a novel until the third or fourth revision, at which point I send it on to my wonderful literary agent, whom I’ve been with for 15 years.

What book made you want to write?

Old Hasdrubal and the Pirates, by Berthe Amoss. 

My mother read this book to me dozens of times when I was a child. It’s a swashbuckling tale about how Old Hasdrubal defeated the pirate Jean Lafitte, who sailed into Mobile Bay with nefarious intentions at the end of the 18th century. I loved it for the reference to my hometown, and I loved the rhythm of the language. It ends with a famed treasure map being forever lost in a pot of spicy gumbo. As a child, I was fascinated by the picture of the blonde maiden in distress, rescued by a man in an alligator suit. It taught me that the best stories meld truth and fiction, and that a story only has to be as realistic as you want it to be—the wilder, the better. If you tell it well enough, the reader will go along for the ride.

If you weren’t writing, you’d be:

There are two answers to this question, the realistic one and the dream one. Realistically, if I weren’t writing I’d be an attorney. The week before I was set to turn in my law school application, a writing professor in a pub talked me out of it. The law profession seemed like a good fit because it requires a lot of writing and research, and I really love to argue.

And the dream answer: I would love to have been an astronaut. But I think to be an astronaut you have to be a pilot first and somewhat of a mathematician, possibly. Also, you can’t be prone to motion sickness. In matters of space exploration, I have the desire but not the skill set.

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond is out now in paperback.