Obsession in the skies

Karen Hamilton
Opinion - Books Monday, 22 January 2018

Karen Hamilton introduces her debut novel The Perfect Girlfriend, Headline's lead thriller for the spring, about a flight attendant who will stop at nothing to win back her lover


Two of my earliest memories are of looking out of a plane window and yearning to become a writer. My early childhood was spent abroad, and we travelled a lot. This, combined with the fact that I love airports, love the sense of freedom that comes from knowing passengers can be scattered around the world in such a relatively short space of time, meant it was only natural that I wanted to be cabin crew.

On leaving school, I obtained secretarial skills and became a temp, supplementing this with part-time evening and weekend jobs in the catering and hotel industry before becoming airline crew. The dream to be a writer never disappeared, though, and I dabbled now and then. Every time I stumbled across a writing competition I thought about entering, but didn't. I subscribed to an online writing course but didn't complete it. The dream ebbed and flowed.

In 2009 I decided to "become a writer". I had no idea what to do, other than to write. And so I did. I set myself a daily word count which I stuck to (as much as possible) and kept pushing myself. I gradually immersed myself in the writing world: local creative writing classes, literary festivals, talks, meet-the-author events. I read even more.

In 2014, having given up my flying career, I joined the Faber Academy's "Writing a Novel" course. There, I wrote about a damaged woman - a character who had been hanging around in my subconscious for a while. The idea for my protagonist, Juliette, first appeared one day when I changed out of uniform before travelling on public transport. I felt a sense of returning to "anonymity", and I began to think about the personas behind the public faces.

I loved almost everything about my cabin crew job: the unpredictability, the shift work, the sense of adventure. And it was all fuel for creating Juliette. When employed by one of the larger airlines, generally you work with a different crew every trip, so you are usually working with people you've only just met. I felt this was the ideal environment to conceal a character as unstable as Juliette, because she wouldn't spend enough time with her colleagues for them to become wary of her or pick up on her erratic nature.

I decided to write a thriller as it's the genre I love reading the most, and it felt natural for Juliette to have a dark side. The work was worryingly good fun! Although no one would be able to condone her behaviour, I hope readers will feel that Juliette is clearly damaged and has seemingly no hope of living a "normal" life. As well as considering the person behind the uniform, I had a sense of a character always on the outskirts. I pictured her walking down a street on a winter's evening, looking into the lit windows of strangers' houses, craving the sense of security she feels must be within. I read a lot of self-help books, and I tried to imagine how someone like Juliette would interpret the advice if she used it to justify her actions, rather than trying to learn or heal.

I enjoyed translating the work of crew into fiction; I tried to create an authentic world based on questions I was often asked about the job. (Though Juliette retaliates when passengers are rude, rather than trying to appease them.) Cabin crew training involves, among other things, survival and self-defence techniques - even learning how to handcuff passengers if necessary. These are all skills I felt that a character such as Juliette would use to her advantage!

It was also great to write about different countries I had visited as crew. I liked the thought of the world as a chessboard, with Juliette chasing the object of her desire, Nate, no matter where he was.

The book also shows how the job affects crew and their families, and gives examples of emergency procedures. So many people are afraid of flying - and they include me! I became nervous after a horrifically bumpy approach and landing during a bad storm one autumn. But it reassures me that after so many years of flying I have never been involved in a really bad incident.

I have loved every moment of writing The Perfect Girlfriend, and owe thanks to so many people for their support. I hope readers will enjoy reading about Juliette and her mission to win back the man she desperately loves. I haven't forgotten my early memory of looking out of a plane window. The airline world that I loved so much is there in my book: it is the world of my characters.

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton comes from Headline on 8 March.

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