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Interview: March 7, 2019

BEAUTIFUL BAD is Annie Ward’s page-turning debut psychological thriller about a devoted wife, a loving husband and a chilling murder that no one saw coming. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, the Director of Publicity at Poisoned Pen Press, Ward talks about her inspiration for writing in this genre; why she chose to set the novel in exotic and unusual locations like Sofia, Bulgaria, and Skopje, Macedonia; her decision to turn the book, which was originally intended to be a memoir, into a fictional thriller; why she made her story’s romantic love interest such an atypical figure; and her excitement over her next novel, which she is having a lot of fun writing, and the film adaptation of BEAUTIFUL BAD that is in the works. BEAUTIFUL BAD is your first psychological thriller. What inspired you to write in this genre?

Annie Ward: I didn’t really start reading thrillers until my last year in college. I was an English major, and my curriculum was a lot of literary fiction, women’s fiction and classics. Then Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY was published. I absolutely loved it and took a new interest in the genre. Years later I read GONE GIRL. Like THE SECRET HISTORY, it was a game changer for me. I devoured it and then went on an “unreliable narrator thriller” binge and got a lot of great ideas. One of those ideas ended up evolving into BEAUTIFUL BAD.

BRC: One thing that stands out in this story is its variety of exotic and somewhat obscure locations --- such as Sofia, Bulgaria, and Skopje, Macedonia. Why did you choose to set this “domestic” thriller in such unfamiliar territories?

AW: There are really two answers to this. The first is pretty simple. I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, for five very formative years. I was in my 20s, living alone for the first time. I had my heart broken. I fell in love again. I kick-started my career as a writer. Bulgaria was the backdrop for a hugely important chapter in my life, and I always knew I would write about it. There is a more important reason the book has such unusual locations, though. It’s a story about reckless people and damaged souls. It was crucial to this story that the main characters were the type to take risks, and I felt that such people were really only destined to meet in an exceptional and dangerous location. I tried to balance the international aspect with the more familiar scenes set in a sleepy Midwestern suburb.

BRC: The earliest draft of BEAUTIFUL BAD was a memoir. How did you come to the decision to fictionalize it and turn it into a thriller?

AW: It actually wasn’t my idea. The original draft was titled The British Body Guard, and it was heavily focused on my husband’s experiences working in close protection in the British army. Spending 16 years in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq can take quite a toll on a person, and I didn’t shy away from depicting some of the difficulties that come along with being married to a former soldier. My agent (and a handful of editors) felt that the story was too upsetting in its original form and suggested I fictionalize it. I didn’t like that idea one bit at the time. I was very personally invested in the memoir. It was heartbreaking, but I shelved it. It wasn’t until a few years later that my husband and I were talking about it and he joked, “The problem with the memoir was that everyone was waiting to see which one of us was going to kill the other first.” I think I went back and started the rewrite the next day, and the result was a thriller filled with both romance and a lot of head games.

BRC: Your protagonist, Maddie, likes living on the edge in Eastern Europe during the ’90s. What did you like most about living in that same area at that time?

AW: Honestly, it’s hard to narrow it down. There are the easy answers, such as, “I liked the fact that it was inexpensive. The country itself was physically beautiful, with amazing mountain ranges and gorgeous beaches. The food was delicious, and the nightlife was fun.” Really, though, those are not what I loved most. I have to say, the best thing about being in Eastern Europe at that time was the people. My students were smart, proud and feisty, and there was an ex-pat community made up of colorful characters, like filmmakers, writers, aid workers, soldiers, criminals and people who were just escaping their normal life. I met my best friend in that group of people, as well as my husband. It was an extremely happy time in my life, and it was because I was surrounded by people I found inspiring or intriguing, or both.

BRC: Maddie’s best friend, Joanna, is feisty and loyal, but she is also mercurial and often unsympathetic. Was she a particularly difficult character for you to write?

AW: Ha! No! She was a joy to write. I would sit at my computer and laugh out loud as I came up with outrageous things for her to say. She was easy, because I know her like a sister. In the original memoir, Joanna was my friend, Lindsay Moran. One of the reasons that Joanna turned out to be such a mysterious, fearless character is that she was based on a woman who was actually a liar for a living. Lindsay was posing as a diplomat, but years later, when she wrote a book called BLOWING MY COVER, it came out that she had been working for the CIA gathering information on Serbian bad guys like Radovan Karadzic. A mercurial, complicated woman for sure, but I loved writing about her and have always found her to be courageous and fiercely loyal, traits that were crucial to Joanna’s character in BEAUTIFUL BAD.

BRC: Maddie tries to lessen her crippling anxiety with “writing therapy.” Did you have this idea to deliver so much of her story from the very beginning, or did it come to you in the midst of your writing?

AW: The idea came to me about halfway through the first rewrite. I don’t want this answer to end up being a spoiler, but I think I can say this: The writing therapy started out as a way to convey Maddie’s thoughts and feelings about her relationship with both Joanna and Ian. It wasn’t until I had a finished draft that I realized I could go back in and tweak the writing samples in a way that would nicely complicate the plot.

BRC: The center of the dark love triangle in BEAUTIFUL BAD is a damaged and unstable British soldier named Ian. Why did you choose to make your story’s romantic love interest such an atypical figure?

AW: Well, this is complicated. I will start by saying that I’ve read a lot of novels in which the love interest is a wealthy, good-looking, well-educated, unflappable man who knows a lot about flowers, restaurants and wine. I’ve always been a little frustrated by this, as it just seems too perfect. People have tempers, and they do argue. Relationships are occasionally messy. When I rewrote the book as a thriller, I suppose I could have made Ian a more typical romantic hero, but I liked him just the way he was. When I look at his character, I see a man who came from nothing and built his own business, who protected others at his own risk, and who --- despite seeing so many horrible things --- was still incredibly compassionate. Yes, he has a temper and can be frightening at times, but he’s also funny, smart, sexy and even goofy. To me, he’s real. He’s also a lot like someone who I love very much, warts and all.

BRC: More than one character in the book suffers from PTSD, and the story hinges on the aftermath of untreated trauma. What kind of research did you find was necessary to make the characters authentic?

AW: For Maddie, I did a lot of internet research on traumatic brain injuries. To write Ian’s character, I read both books on combat trauma by Jonathan Shay: ACHILLES IN VIETNAM and ODYSSEUS IN AMERICA. Those books were incredibly helpful in understanding the difficulty of reintegration into the “normal” world after war. They helped with terms and definitions, but really, the authenticity is there because I know firsthand what it’s like to live with someone who is truly haunted by things he saw in the past.

BRC: There is a graphic and harrowing boating accident in the last third of the book. Was that scene also present in the original memoir?

AW: Yes. As a matter of fact, it was probably one of the first things I wrote. When working on the memoir, I used the boating accident as a sort of “creation myth.” I’ve often wondered why I decided to take risks that some people would find self-destructive. I concluded that surviving a near-drowning as a child had been a defining factor in my life, leaving me with a false feeling that I was invulnerable. I wrote the boating accident as a way to explain why I wasn’t appropriately cautious --- and it ended up serving a similar purpose in Maddie’s story.

BRC: Your master’s degree is in screenwriting. Why did you decide to switch to writing fiction?

AW: I have always swung back and forth between fiction and screenwriting. Growing up, I wrote a lot of poetry. I had never even considered screenwriting. I wanted to go to UC Berkeley and wear long, flowered skirts and sandals, and write poems, but I didn’t get accepted to Berkeley. I did, however, get accepted to UCLA and spent the next four years hearing all about film and screenwriting. I got the Los Angeles fever for film and ended up getting my graduate degree at the American Film Institute. In between screenplays, I would always go back to my original love of fiction (and poetry sometimes, too, but I’m pretty sure my poetry is bad), so I didn’t really switch. I still do both.

BRC: Your publisher has given BEAUTIFUL BAD the kind of support that indicates a strong sense of confidence that it will be well received. Did you expect anything like this two years ago when you were searching for an agent for your manuscript?

AW: Umm, no. If someone had told me two years ago that I was going to show up to the Seattle Convention and find that the cover of my book was on all the doors, I would have laughed out loud and called them a lunatic. Nothing could have prepared me for the way my publisher has had my back. When the book originally went to auction, the publisher that I chose told me something to the effect of, “We’re going to give you the world,” and I feel they have not only kept their promise but exceeded my every expectation. I feel lucky, grateful and also totally shocked. I never saw this coming.

BRC: Film rights for BEAUTIFUL BAD were acquired several months ago by Warner Brothers and producer Sue Kroll, the team behind A Star Is Born. Will you be involved in writing the adaptation?

AW: I won’t, but I know who will! Warner Brothers and Sue Kroll have already attached an amazingly talented screenwriter to the project. She and I spoke last week about her plans to adapt BEAUTIFUL BAD. Aside from just being a genuinely wonderful person, she is a gifted screenwriter who is passionate about the book. I could not be more thrilled. Producer Sue Kroll made an excellent choice.

BRC: Are you working on another novel now? If so, what can you tell us about it? Will it be another thriller?

AW: I am working on another novel, and I’m starting to have a lot of fun with it.

The story follows Natalie, an awkward but ambitious young woman who puts her life on hold in order to look after her brother while he recovers from a mountain biking accident. She finds herself in Blackswift, a wealthy but remote Colorado town. It’s beautiful and privileged --- the kind of place Natalie would like to fit in. When not caring for her brother, she hikes, goes to the gym, tries to make friends and enjoys looking at the beautiful houses that are for sale. It’s a wonderful, relaxing break from real life --- until a local girl goes missing and Natalie admits she was the last to see her, in a bedroom in an open house. Natalie’s story is odd, and she quickly falls under suspicion. As she learns more about Blackswift, she realizes she is a disposable outsider and a pawn in a much larger game. She can’t trust anyone, especially her own brother.