Gloucester author Rachel Sargeant talks her new book ‘The Roommates’, how she became an author and advice​ for students

Local author Rachel Sargeant’s latest suspense novel The Roommates, published by HarperCollins is out now to get your hands on. This psychological thriller which follows Sargeant’s previous novel The Good Teacher is set in a university campus, yet another creative crime-scene from this fantastic thriller writer. When starting university, one of the biggest questions is always who we will end up living with. Rachel’s cleverly created plotline takes this mystery further, as four students attempt to uncover someone’s devastating secret.

Some reviews of this gripping novel include:

“Rachel captures the buzz and excitement in her writing as new students begin to get to know each other as they settle into their new routine…This is a really well-written thriller which you can easily sink into. ”

Hooked from Page One

“A tense and claustrophobic page-turner – the perfectly metered drip-feed of information leaves you constantly hungry for more. The main characters take matters into their own hands as events threaten to overwhelm them, further upping the pace and leading to a terrific finale.” 

Clare Chase, author of the Tara Thorpe mysteries and London and Cambridge mysteries.

I spoke to Rachel myself for further detail on what her new book is all about as well her inspiration as a writer and advice for students looking to possibly become authors themselves…

First off, I have to ask what your favourite thing about writing fictional novels is?

As a writer, I can create a world where people do what I want them to do. I can even control the weather. Sometimes my creation isn’t quite what my editor had in mind and I have to make changes. Luckily, I like the challenge of rewriting, too.

I love that you embrace challenges as a writer! As an English Literature student, I have to ask, is there a favourite book of yours, or a book you treasure? 

Summer with Tommy by Caroline Silver, it’s about a journalist who looks after a rescue pony for a year. As a horse-mad kid, I read it until the pages fell out.

I love a book that’s been loved to the point the pages fray. Your novels themselves often are categorised as thriller or crime novels. What would you yourself say makes a good thriller novel or fiction novel more generally?

First and foremost I have to like the style. I’ll give up in the first chapter if I don’t like the writing, even if it’s a highly recommended bestseller. I like plots that push the psychological thriller genre or police procedural in a new direction. I read so many crime novels that I can often spot the clues that lead to the culprit. Although it’s smugly satisfying to be proved right, I also like to be caught out now and again.

Looking at your website I can see The Roommates is the fourth book you’ve written. How did you get into writing? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?

Writing was always my favourite activity at school, right from infants’ school, but the day I put my pen down at the end of my Year 11 English exam was the last time I wrote fiction because A levels, university, jobs and life got in the way. I never thought about writing again. It didn’t dawn on me that the favourite part of every job I had was creating press releases, brochures, reports, i.e. I still loved writing. It took a palm reader at a party to point out to me I should take up writing stories again. So, I did.

I went to a creative writing workshop where the tutor asked us to write a short piece on the theme he gave us. On the way home I brought Writing Magazine from a newsagent. There was an advert for a crime short story competition. I expanded my hundred words from the workshop exercise into a 1600-word story. I was delighted when my first piece of fiction since school days won first prize. This incredible beginner’s luck made me keep going with my wonderful new hobby. Eventually I expanded the short story into a novel that was published when the publisher ceased trading, they returned the rights to me and my agent sold it to HarperCollins. After I carried out some re-writing and updating, it became The Good Teacher. The 100 words from the workshop still feature on the first page.

That’s crazy how those 100 words slowly turned into your renowned book The Good Teacher. I also see you spent a few years living in Germany before becoming a writer. What was that like and did that have any influence on your writing later on?

It was great to live in Germany for ten years and use my German degree- although the vocabulary I needed for having a baby in a German hospital and getting my car serviced at the local garage was rather different from what I learned in my ‘German Literature through the Centuries’ course.

I didn’t realise at the time, but Germany became instrumental in enabling me to write a bestseller. When I moved back to England, I came up with an idea for a book that I felt would work best in a small, close-knit community. In Germany I had lived on an estate of mostly British expats. It inspired me to create the fictiona German setting for The Perfect Neighbours.

That’s so amazing! Focusing now on your latest book The Roommates, if you had to sum up the book in two sentences what would it be? 

Please can I have three as they’re very short? 

‘Four Students. Four Secrets. One devastating lie.’

Wow that’s intense, I love it! So, from the description and the title itself, I can see this novel is set at a University campus. What inspired you to set the novel here and what impact do you hope it will have on the book and the reader?

Visiting my children at university brought the college atmosphere of my own student days flooding back. I decided that university would make a great setting for a novel. The stories my son and daughter told me about student life were fun and life-affirming but, because I’m a thriller writer, I saw real potential in a dark and twisting story that featured lead characters who were freshers, away from home for the first time.

I hope the setting will appeal to anyone who is at university or who has ever been to university and to parents who are currently on the campus run to visit their student children.

I’d like the reader to enjoy turning the pages as the mystery deepens and to will on my freshers to deal with the danger ahead.

So when comparing this new novel to others you’ve written, is it very different or are there similarities in style, etc?

The Good Teacher is a police procedural that features an ensemble cast of police officers who have to solve the murder of a teacher. The main detective is a 24-year-old, former professional dancer, Pippa ‘Agatha’ Adams. Although it covers some dark themes, it is lighter in tone than my first HarperCollins book, The Perfect Neighbours,which is a slow-burn, sinister psychological thriller. I’d say The Roommates falls between the two in terms of tone. There’s an air of danger and mistrust with plenty of twists as the freshers try to conceal their pasts, but there’s also positivity as the characters gradually learn to work together to protect themselves and each other.

The book sounds amazing. Would you say your writing has a certain target audience?

The Roommates has a wider target audience than most psychological thrillers. Many tend to be aimed at the over-25s and often feature thirty-something characters in domestic or work settings. I wanted to write a book that was still a dark, psychological thriller but that would appeal to my student-age children. Three of the main characters in The Roommates are eighteen, and the fourth is a year older. I’m really pleased that readers in their late teens and early twenties as well as traditional thriller readers have warmed to it. Many reviews mention how nice and unusual it is to see a psychological thriller set in a British university and they also relate to the experiences of my student characters.

It’s definitely a book that would interest our student readers at the University of Gloucestershire as well then. Talking of our student readers my last question for you is if you could offer any advice, for both creative writing students as well as our student readers more generally?

You can’t edit a blank piece of paper so get that first draft written down. Unless you’re a genius, it will be rubbish, but it doesn’t matter as it’s for your eyes only. Honing it for quality comes with the second, third, fourth draft.

Also, read lots. Not just in your chosen genre but widely in other genres, and watch TV dramas and comedies by new writers. Go to live theatre and open mic sessions. You will enrich your vocabulary and spark ideas.

Find a core of fellow writers you trust and share your early drafts with each other. The biggest improvement to my writing has happened because, years after the course has finished, I still exchange feedback with three students from my MA in Creative Writing. 

To students in general, I would say embrace your time at uni. Enjoy the course work and find meaningful hobbies. Never again will you have so much time to please yourself.

Rachel Sargeant’s new book The Roommates comes out this Friday (28 November) and will be available in Sainsbury’s and Asda. Below is a link to it on Amazon where the ebook is currently £2.99 and the paperback £5.75. A perfect read for over Christmas!

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