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Ava Glass on becoming an author, overcoming writer’s block, and her desert island books


By Sarah Gill
14th Feb 2024
Ava Glass on becoming an author, overcoming writer’s block, and her desert island books

Here, we catch up with author Ava Glass to chat about everything from her literary greats to the making of her latest novel, The Traitor.

A massive new talent in British fiction, Ava Glass’s storytelling is complex and finely crafted, combining twisting plotlines, intelligent dialogue and ambiguous characters, all skilfully brought together in an epic climax. Never before has spy fiction been so nail-bitingly real.

Film rights to The Chase and The Traitor have been acquired by Ink Factory, producers of The Night Manager, who are currently working on a pilot in conjunction with Sky Atlantic, now in the final stages of editing. Next step will be casting…

Ava Glass

Did you always want to be an author?

When I was six I wanted to be a veterinarian. When I was twelve I wanted to be a nurse. When I started university I had no idea. But when I was nineteen I watched the film All The President’s Men. The next day I bought the book the film was based on and read it cover to cover. A week later I changed my study degree to journalism, and from then on I wanted nothing except to be a writer. My parents were horrified, but it was the best decision I ever made. I’m no good at anything else.

What inspired you to start writing novels?

I took a job as a communications consultant for the government. My focus was counter-terrorism, so my work involved conversations with spies. This was just after a large-scale terrorism attack in London. The setting, the time, the danger – it’s the kind of thing that changes you. You either become an activist, a politician, or a novelist. I chose the latter.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

Two things inspired The Traitor. The first was a vacation a few years ago, when I sat on the beach in the south of France watching superyachts prowl the waves like sharks. There were hundreds of them in the harbour – some as big as cruise ships. Most had helipads, some more than one. It was an education in oligarchs. And I wanted to write about the people on those boats.

The second inspiration is older. A decade ago an MI6 analyst’s body was found stuffed inside a suitcase in his London flat, padlocked from the outside. No satisfying explanation was ever made public for this. It bothered me then and it bothers me now. The Traitor begins with a death very like that one, and the investigation into it takes my spy, Emma Makepeace, on a very dangerous journey.

Tell us about your writing process.

I generally write no more than five hours a day. I find limiting the time focuses my thinking and makes the writing clearer. So I do my other work and all the day-to-day rubbish in the morning. I don’t start writing until 2pm. But at that point, I turn off the internet on my computer, and do nothing but write very intensively until 7pm. Then, wherever I’m at in the process, I stop. Sometimes I stop mid-sentence. I like coming back to it the next day to find I’m in the middle of a scene. It jump-starts everything.

What comes first, the plot or the characters?

For me, the characters drive the plot – I always need them first. Once I feel I know them, the plot comes together.

What did you learn when writing this book?

I learned so much about superyachts. So much. They cost a fortune. The yacht in The Traitor is called The Eden, and she’s based on The Dilbar, a real superyacht owned by an oligarch, which cost $80 million to build. I found blueprints online of real superyachts, and I used those to create my imaginary Eden. The key takeaway from the weeks I spent immersing myself in yachts is: There’s no such thing as too much. Glass elevators, bars, helipads, discos, spas – superyachts have them all.

Do you have any quirky habits when writing?

I like writing in busy places. Coffeeshops, trains, and hotel lobbies are wonderful for me. The background buzz seems to help me focus although I have no idea why.

The first book you remember reading is…

The Witch’s Buttons, by Ruth Chew. I still have a copy. It’s a stone cold classic. A thriller for six-year- olds. Ruth Chew is a genius.

Your favourite Irish author is…

Must I choose? I read every book by Catherine Ryan Howard, Liz Nugent, and Tana French. I’m currently reading Service by Sarah Gilmartin and it’s crazy good. I’m obsessed with the talent over there.

The book you gift everyone is…

Station 11, by Emily St John Mandel.

Three books everyone should read:

This Side of Paradise, by F Scott Fitzgerald

Generation X, by Douglas Coupland

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré

You overcome writer’s block by…

Running away! Just kidding. I change something. The time, the place, the scene. In particular, jumping forward by a day or a few hours can get things moving. But sometimes walking away from it is not a bad thing. If you’re pushing yourself and the words don’t happen, my advice is to stop pushing. Go do something else for a while. Give yourself space.

Do you listen to music when you write?

I listen to jazz so constantly that Spotify thinks my favourite song is ‘St James Infirmary’, which it sort of is, to be fair. I particularly like 1960s jazz from live performances. It forms a soothing, somewhat mad backdrop to my day.

The best money you ever spent as a writer was on…

Books. I never deny myself a book. I would never have written a word if I hadn’t read a thousand books first.

The three books you’d bring with you to a desert island are…

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Circe, by Madeline Miller.

A quote you love is…

‘We have to be continually jumping off of cliffs and building our wings on the way down’. – Kurt Vonnegut.

The book you always return to is…

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.

Seeing your book in shops is…

Stressful. The worst part of being a writer is it has made bookshops anxious places. I never look for my books in case they’re not there.

One book you wish you had written is…

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — think of the money. I’d never have to work again. Also, it’s an excellent book.

How do you use social media as an author?

The only good thing I can find about social media is it connects me to readers. That’s the one thing I like. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time, and I barely use it.

Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?

Believe it or not, authors have very little control over their book covers. The art is presented to us fairly late in the game, usually as a fait accompli. If you really hate your cover, things can get rather tricky. In terms of how you judge a book – I must confess that I own several books solely because of their gorgeous covers. I can’t deny that the cover matters. If I ever get super famous, control of cover art is going to be in my contract. But for now, I just have to get lucky.

Do you find it hard not to procrastinate when writing?

I don’t know what you’re talking about. Excuse me while I pull weeds in the garden, make more coffee, dust something, check my phone, talk to the dog, buy something online, pet the cat, email a friend.

The best advice you’ve ever gotten is…

A friend once told me, ‘You don’t need a master’s degree to write a book. All you need is a pen.’ It took me years to believe him, but he was right.

Your work space is…

Wherever I’m sitting. Right now it’s the kitchen table. Sometimes it’s a coffee shop. My office is just the place where I keep stuff. I can write anywhere. As long as I have that pen.

Your favourite literary characters of all time are…

Nick and Nora Charles. Always and forever.

You can read an extract from her new novel, The Traitor, here.

‘The Traitor’ by Ava Glass is on sale now.