Asia Mackay, who began her career on television, is a young and growing author of spy novels and a mother of four. In an interview with Young Space magazine, she talked about her new book, the search for inspiration, and her writing career.
YS: Can you tell us about your new book “The Nursery”? Is it a continuation of your debut novel?
My books the ‘The Nursery’ and ‘Killing It’ both feature Lex Tyler — an elite secret agent for Platform Eight, an underground branch of the security services. In ‘The Nursery’ (which is the second in the series but can be read as a standalone) the latest threat to Eight, and all the intelligence services, is a headhunting website on the dark web – it connects criminals with traitorous security operatives all with a simple right swipe. Secrets are being leaked. Missions are failing. Agents are dying. Lex and her team need to identify and eliminate the traitor in their midst before they assassinate China’s Minister of Commerce and ruin relations between the UK and China forever. At home Lex has her own problems — a husband who doesn’t know exactly what her job entails, and a two-year-old daughter who’s developed a worrying love of biting. Can Lex have it all, keep it all and, more importantly, survive it all?
YS:How did the idea of combining espionage and motherhood come about?
One night when crawling across my kids’ bedroom floor trying not to wake the baby I thought how if I had special ops training I might mange to make it out of there. It sparked the idea of a secret agent, who was also a new mum, working on missions of international importance and still trying to rush home in time for bath time. Multi-tasking and hostile negotiations with unwilling subjects are standard skills for mothers… and I liked the idea of a hero mum who could be relatable but also inspiring and empowering. I kept thinking about what juggling those two lives would be like.. A gun in the nappy bag… a breast pump being mistaken for a torture device… pretending formula was cocaine… One evening I sat down and started writing and that very first paragraph is still the opening to ‘Killing It’.
YS:The spy novel itself, as a subspecies of the detective novel, appeared relatively recently. Is it important for you, as an author working in this genre, to observe some kind of plot framework and narrative logic or is it always something new?
My books are a little different to traditional spy novels in that I had to come up with plot frameworks where Lex’s role as a mother could be beneficial to her life as a spy. It meant occasionally having to reverse plan – sometimes I needed to think of scenarios where a parenting/ spy situation could cross over e.g. Lex using her elite training to scale a wall and retrieve a USB drive from a high beam in a kids’ soft play area – and then work it into the plot. Why is the handover happening there? What’s on the USB drive?
YS: Which image of the secret service is closer to you, more realistic or romanticized by books and films, as, for example, James Bond?
I have always loved spy novels, films and TV series for all the excitement and escapism their stories usually provide. When I was writing Lex it was important to me for her to be believable both as a spy and as a mother. Lex might be just as well-trained and ruthless as James Bond but whilst his private life is merely about juggling romantic liaisons, Lex is rushing home for bath time, trying to persuade her daughter to eat her vegetables and wondering if she’ll ever get a full night’s sleep again. Whereas Bond might need the flashy car with the machine gun headlights, Lex can get the job done just as well in a Volvo with a rear-facing car seat. I wanted to highlight the realism of Lex’s home life to make her work life all the more extraordinary. She’s a capable, relatable hero who has to battle sexism at work and Mum guilt in among life or death operations. A typical working mum — but the work just so happens to be deadly. A very modern day spy – not least because she’s a woman in a traditionally male-dominated world.
YS: Well, speaking of cinema, is it planned to film your novels? Who do you think could starring in the movie?
I have sold the film rights to both my books and a script is in development at the moment with a Hollywood actress attached – I’m unfortunately not yet allowed to say who but I’m thrilled with the choice as think she will perfectly capture the juggle of Lex’s life as a spy and a mum with just the right amount of humour.
YS:What books had a big impact on you?
I’ve always loved reading and reading all different genres. From classics by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, to thriller writers like Harlan Coben and David Baldacci and authors who make you laugh like Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes. All of these authors and their books have had an impact on me as what started with a love of reading led to a love of writing and trying to emulate the greats.
YS: Do you instill a love of books for your children? How do they feel about their mom being a writer?
My kids all love reading which makes me very happy. I have actually created an app called Book Forest to encourage and organise kids’ reading by tracking all the books they’ve read and want – they also get reward badges and the satisfaction of seeing their tree grow whenever they finish a book. So yes you could say I’ve tried my very best to instill a love of books in them all! My eldest is very proud of me being a writer although very upset she’s still too young to read my books yet [note. — AM: Too many swear words].
YS:You participated in the Richard&Judy’s “Search For A Bestseller” competition, what experience did it bring you as a writer?
When you’re spending evenings alone typing away into your laptop it’s very easy to be swallowed up by self-doubt and fear you’re spending time on something that no one will ever read, let alone enjoy. I applied for the ‘Search For A Bestseller’ competition thinking I had no chance so getting shortlisted meant everything to me – it was much-needed validation that my writing might actually have some potential. Coming second in the competition and being offered a two-book deal was far beyond anything I could’ve expected from an idea sparked when crawling across my kids’ bedroom floor.
YS: You took a course at Faber Academy to write your debut novel, Killing It. Please tell us about your cooperation.
When I started writing Killing It I hadn’t written anything since school. I had the bare bones of a character and a rough plot but it wasn’t until I got a place on the Faber Academy online Writing a Novel course that things really began to take shape. By the end of the seven month course I had a very rough first draft of Killing It. I learnt so much – not just about how to write and structure a novel but how to take constructive criticism as a lot of the course relied on peer-to-peer feedback. It was a great gentle introduction into realising how being a writer means having your work out there for anyone to read and have an opinion on.
YS: How difficult was it for you to get away from the world of media, in which we create everything using facts and details, into a world that you, as an author, must create yourself, albeit based on reality?
Although my books are set in London I had to create my own alternate underground world for Lex and her colleagues to inhabit. Platform Eight, the shadowy assassination branch of the security services Lex works for, is run out of a disused platform at a London tube station. I liked the idea that the public could be going about their normal everyday lives having no idea about the existence of this secret organisation working to keep them safe. I had a lot of fun giving the seemingly mundane things in life a more sinsister meaning eg delays to a tube journey aren’t really because of ‘signal failure’ but because Platform Eight has been interrogating a suspect and shorting the electricity supply…
YS: Spy novels are often written on behalf of the protagonist. Have you ever thought that working with the image of an antagonist would be more interesting?
I think a lot of the appeal of spy novels is that you’re gunning for the hero to take down the bad guys – to see them using their skills for good – the reader gets the pay off at the end when they save the day. If reading a book from the point of view of the antagonist is the reader willing them to fail? Or starting to understand, maybe even sympathize, with them? It’s an interesting idea to explore and although it can definitely be more fun writing antagonists, or any really truly awful character, I know I’d find it tricky to sustain for a whole novel.
YS:What are your literary plans for the future?
I’m taking a break from Lex and her adventures to write more of a straight thriller. My current work in progress opens with a man, woman and two young children having breakfast. The mother goes up to have a quick shower and when she comes back they’re all gone. How could they just disappear? Who did this and why? It’s been a lot of fun writing this — getting to grips with brand new characters has felt quite liberating.
YS:You and your heroine Lex Tyler, work every day in multitasking mode. Can you share life hack with our readers how to keep up with everything and exude as much positive energy as you?
I have four children aged three, five, six and eight so yes… things are busy even before throw in writing deadlines and other work responsibilities. My advice to coping is to plan as much as possible – you need to try to be one step ahead. Do as much as you can the night before to make the morning more bearable. Prioritising your time also becomes essential – some things have to go – for me it was foregoing the post-children-in-bed celebratory Netflix sofa slump for writing on my laptop at the kitchen table. Life might be busy, verging on chaotic, but I wouldn’t do it unless the good days made it worth it. Although usually whenever I dare to sit back and smugly toast myself with a green juice for my awesomeness at fitting it all in, that’s when it all falls apart. I forget to pick up one of the kids from somewhere. One or both of the dogs vomit on our bedroom floor. Microsoft Word crashes losing the edits that were finally perfect. A child says ‘b..b..but Mama I’ve hardly seen you’. And all that can be done is bed with a box of Maltesers and a hope tomorrow will be better (a lot of my positive energy definitely stems from chocolate and alcohol). My advice for anyone who feels permanently stretched and multi-tasking their way through life — feel proud of yourself on the days where it works, and be kind to yourself on the days when it doesn’t — you’re doing the best you can.