The inspiration for my first novel This Secret We're Keeping wasn't sparked by one particular source or story; in fact, it was probably bubbling away in the back of my mind for a good few years. Revelations of teacher-pupil relationships seemed to be cropping up with increasing frequency in the media - or maybe it was that subconsciously I was tuning into them more, sensing as writers tend to do their potential to make compelling fiction.
For obvious reasons, the media often presents these stories in a very sensationalist, scandalous and sex-focused way - and when people talk about them, they invariably divide opinion and ignite fierce debate. Where is the line between right and wrong? Can such relationships ever be about more than power-play?
I often wondered what lay behind the headlines. How did the people involved really feel? If I had to pinpoint one moment when it all came together in my mind, it was probably when I saw a television documentary about these types of relationships and how they'd fared many years down the line. I think it was then that the seed of inspiration for This Secret We're Keeping was well and truly planted. What would happen if - years later with the benefit of hindsight, reflection and a hefty dose of life experience - a teacher and pupil still believed that what they had was true love? In the cold light of day, away from the glare of the media spotlight, could their feelings for one another ever stand the test of time? And crucially, could they ever be justified?
Those were the questions that fascinated me.
So I created my main characters, Jessica and Matthew, who embark upon a passionate affair while she is at school and he is her maths teacher. I wanted to explore if their relationship could still stand up once the media furore has subsided and they are no longer pupil and teacher. Seventeen years later, would their feelings for one another be as strong - or even exist at all? Would they regret their actions? Was the fact that Matthew was Jessica's teacher and she his pupil the driving force behind their relationship?
The main challenge for me as a writer was always going to be tackling the subject matter sensitively. For understandable reasons, this topic is hugely emotive; and I didn't want my presentation of it to be one-sided and salacious. It was hugely important to me that I did not diminish the seriousness of the issue.
For that reason I wanted to create characters the reader could connect with and even root for - especially in the case of Matthew, the teacher. But was this even possible? In my mind, the only way to do that was for Matthew to be, on a very basic level, a 'good' character who does a 'bad' thing. I wanted the book to explore the question: can Matthew do what he did, and still be a good person?
I don't think it's appropriate, or even possible, for me as a writer to say what's wrong or right in any individual situation or circumstance; and of course the law and professional ethics dictate what should and shouldn't happen. For that reason I wanted the book to pose questions, rather than offer definitive answers.
Above all, I hope readers enjoy getting to know Jessica and Matthew. I'm aware the book will make difficult reading for some, and it's certainly a challenging subject area to tackle; but this was the story that just kept nagging away at me - so I knew I had to tell it. I wrote the book around a full-time job, getting up at 4am and spending every evening immersed in metaphors and the finer points of sentence construction (fuelled by that all-important supply of chocolate digestives). Weekends were lost; friends and family regretfully neglected. But of course, the day my agent rang me to tell me I had a two-book deal with Penguin made all the hard work worth it.