By The Book: Ellie Keel Dives Head First Into The Darkness With Debut Novel

"If you didn’t want your writing to be talked about you should have just left it on the hard drive"

Ellie Keel Pic: David Sandison

Ellie Keel is bright and bubbly when we chat. It’s not what you expect from a woman who just wrote a haunting thriller about an exclusive boarding school filled with shady secrets and dark deeds.

In fact, the conversation is paused when her cat captures a mouse. She hates mice, she tells us and will have to get her neighbour over to deal with the situation.

Suffice to say, Ellie is nothing like the darkness she writes about in her debut novel. Which makes everything much more interesting…

Hey Ellie! Tell us a bit about, your debut novel, The Four.

It’s a dark academia thriller set in an exclusive boarding school in Devon. What happens is, four 16-year-olds get the first full scholarships to the school and when they arrive there, they find themselves in an environment where there are lots of complex rituals of loyalty, honour, and revenge. The other students are all very posh and quite hostile towards them. They form this close bond of friendship which becomes threatened by a dark secret that one of them has that could save her or destroy them all.

This is your first novel, what’s more nerve-wracking the build-up or having it out in the world now?

I was really daunted, but it is actually really lovely to talk to people about the book and hear their reflections on it, and to know the impact that it’s having. It seems to be having a really powerful impact on people. There are parts of the book that are quite hard-hitting. Some people have had quite a strong reaction to it, which is what I expected. Writing a book is such a solitary, introspective process, and coming out of the tunnel into the blinding light of what everyone thinks about it is quite a process, but it’s great. It’s fun.

Schools like these can feel like a fantasy world, even though they are very much real.

It’s a funny one because it is sort of a fantasy world. High Realm isn’t real, there isn’t a school called High Realm, there never has been and there never will be, but it is not far enough from fantasy. It should be less realistic than it is. There are environments like it, there are people like it, and there are people who hold the politics of people in that world. It’s very nearly fantasy, and I wish it were in a way.


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When you sit down to write, what is the first thing that you do?

Great question. It sounds obvious, but the first thing I do is close all tabs that don’t relate to the book, and I do a mental/emotional version of that as well where I try to cut out all the noise of the world and just think about the story. It doesn’t take me long to get into it actually. Generally, I can quite quickly sink back into the world. Usually, when I’m writing I’m writing about a world I’m fascinated by, sometimes I’m obsessed with it. I try and take myself there in my mind. I think social media is the enemy of creativity sometimes, it’s that kind of checking mentality that steals concentration. As well, as long as you’re on social media you are in your public persona, and for writing you need to be your private self, I think.

Is there a childhood book that has stayed with you to this day?

Oh so many. I feel like my consciousness is steeped in the literature of my childhood. I read so voraciously as a child. I read much more avidly than I do now. I do still read a lot. I’m thinking of the big books of my childhood; Good Night Mr. Tom, and the rest of Michelle Magorian books. Harry Potter, though I feel differently about Harry Potter now. Books by Jacqueline Wilson, which I still love reading. Journey to the River Sea is one of my all-time favourite children’s books, I think everyone should read it. David Almond’s Skellig, Stig of the Dump, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Sorry, that’s such a bad answer because I’m just giving you a litany of children’s books. Because of the age that you read them at, and the fact that you reread as a child, they just stick with your consciousness.

Who are three authors that inspire you?

Three very different ones. Virginia Woolf, because I think she was so brave and she ploughed her own furrow in a truly independent way. She was doing something really different with her books, and she knew it was different and she carried on, and I am just fascinated by her and so admiring of that.

Jessie Burton is one of my favourite living writers. I love the way she writes women. I think her empathy and compassion as a person- I mean I don’t know her as a person- must be enormous because her books just sing with it. Her book The Confession is one of my favourite modern novels.

I know Roald Dahl has become a bit controversial but he really is one of my favourite writers. He’s such a clever and entertaining writer, no one does it quite like him. I don’t agree with his personal stances on the world that have come to light recently, it’s not cool to say Roald Dahl but I love his writing and I can’t separate that.

Can I say Ian McEwan too, I bloody love Ian McEwan. And he’s less problematic than Roald Dahl. There are too many authors to choose from!

What is a book that you will never forget?

I will never forget reading Alice Winn’s debut earlier this year which is In Memoriam. I know lots of people are talking about it, but I think it is a wonderful wonderful book. It got me out of a reading slump, it got me out of a creative slump. It just entertains, and strangely for a book that is in places not cheerful at all, it made me really happy. It wore its passion on its sleeve.

Do you have a favourite character that you’ve written?

Well, I think it would have to be Marta. I didn’t want such bad things to happen to her but I felt that she was as real as she was, her bravery was really inspiring, if you can be inspired by your own character. I wanted to write someone who was a victim but was determined to not be one, and was looking for ways out of that.

If you could go into a book universe, where would you go?

Oh. There are books written by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Cazalet Chronicles. They are a gorgeous series of books set between WWI and WWII and then throughout WWII and I would love to live in that world because it is a beautiful late Edwardian world of decorum but bubbling a-morality, and a world of drinks parties, and formal dinners, and London between the wars.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Comparison is the thief of joy as my favourite piece of advice!

What are the three books that define you?

The Confession by Jessie Burton, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. Those are the books I would keep going back to.

What is your favourite genre to read, and is it the same as what you write?

Yes, I would say it’s similar to what I write. If not thrillers, I like very plot-driven books. I do enjoy literary fiction, but the books I enjoy reading most are plot-driven crime and thrillers.

When it comes to thrillers, there seems to be a formula you have to follow. Do you agree?

I have complicated feelings about this. I’m not interested in playing by the rules of genre. I’m writing fantasy novels just for fun at the moment with my friend and we’re not following any of the rules of fantasy, whatever they may be, because the joy of this, the point of this, is invention. That means you rewrite the rules, you change the rules. Creativity is all in the invention. I don’t know what the rules of writing thrillers may be. I didn’t sit down thinking I am going to write a thriller, or I am going to write a dark academia novel. I sat down and thought I am going to write a story about some people who I felt I knew, and whose story I wanted to tell. It just so happened that it ended up being what publishing would call a thriller. I think the rules of genre change with every book that’s published.


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Do you read reviews? 

I do read reviews, I’m a little cynical about people who say they don’t because I’m sure everyone has their dark moments where they go and read every single remark that’s ever been made. I also think you’ve got to be quite tough with yourself, if you didn’t want your writing to be talked about you should have just left it on the hard drive. I do read reviews, and for the most part, I find it an informative, and slightly humbling experience. There’s no danger of being cocky. For every word of praise, there’s someone who is having a really bad day and wants you to know about it.

Have you gotten comparisons from critics or reviews, like “This is the new ____”. Do you find that strange?

I have had that a few times, it has two sides to it. It can be very positive, but if someone is a very big fan of what your book is being compared to, then they might not agree or find it disappointing. I think it’s always best, if possible, to be taken on your own terms, though comments can be very important for sales.

Where do you get inspiration for your books from?

All over the place to be honest. From conversations I’ve had, from people I’ve met, from places I’ve been, that’s a big one. Big old houses that I’ve seen. My second book is based on a tidal creek that I stayed near in Cornwall that is always completely deserted, and I just imagined a family living there and what terrible things could happen when there is nobody else for miles around. Place is a big influence for me, but also meeting people and hearing their stories. One thing that inspired The Four, in my other life I’m a theatre producer and there was a line in a play that was you can win in a situation, you can be on some sort of crusade or whatever, and you can win, but morally you can lose. I was just fascinated by that paradox of winning but morally losing, and that was one of the things that inspired the four. I’m inspired by the plays I see and produce, and by the writers I work with in theatre.

The Four by Ellie Keel is out now