Cally Louise Taylor is the first to admit she uses a lot of her own fears to send shivers up the spines of her readers, in her tense psychological thrillers.
Her novels – The Accident, The Lie, The Missing and The Escape –have all become hits, selling more than a million copies in the UK alone, while two have been optioned for TV.
The bestselling author, who writes as C.L. Taylor, explains: “Writing helps me deal with my anxieties. You are accessing your deepest fears, but when you’re done, it’s very freeing because you’ve worked through that fear and put it behind you.”
She wrote about a missing child (The Missing) when her son Seth was a toddler; The Lie centred on female friends who turn against each other, something she has also experienced; and her first psychological thriller, The Accident, featured an obsessive ex-boyfriend, inspired by her own experience before she met her current partner, Chris.
“Before Chris, I’d been in a four-year emotionally abusive relationship and there was a fear – because I was settled with someone else and we had a baby – that this person from my past would somehow reappear and destroy that happiness.”
In The Accident, the fictional ex is violent and sexually abusive. This wasn’t the case in real life for Taylor, but, she explains, the abuse took other forms.
“In my real relationship, he was very manipulative, judgemental and controlling. I went into the relationship with very high esteem and confidence and by the end of it, I was walking on eggshells. If we went out for dinner with friends, I would warn my friends not to mention certain subjects in front of him because it would set him off or he’d bring it up again at home.
“He’d accuse me of being unfaithful,” Taylor, 44, recalls. “He was very jealous, controlling and paranoid.”
She tried to leave many times, but he talked her back and made excuses for his behaviour, she says. “When I finally did decide to leave him, he turned up on my doorstep in Brighton and just continually rang the bell for about 15 minutes. It was horrible. Then my phone would ring constantly and he would send me messages through my author website, begging me to come back or blaming it on me.
“I started to worry that he was going to be waiting for me when I went to work in London. I was worried that he could turn. You often hear that people go from being emotionally abusive to physically abusive. I was genuinely worried about what he might do.”
In the end, it took a stern phone call from her father to warn him off, threatening to call the police if he didn’t stop harassing her.
“It was really scary. It fuelled my first book.”
She has now changed tack, choosing real news stories on which to base her fictional crime, having rid herself of her own demons.
Her fifth psychological thriller, The Fear, was sparked by the case of teacher Jeremy Forrest, who triggered an international manhunt when he went on the run to France with a 15-year-old pupil in 2012. Forrest was jailed, and later released in 2016 after serving just less than three years for abduction and sexual activity with a child.
“It wasn’t so much about how he groomed her but what her life would be like afterwards. I’m really interested in how crime affects ordinary people,” Taylor notes of how the story informed her novel. “That would have been her first experience of love, in a twisted way. When she meets other men, how is she going to respond to them? Is it going to feel less exciting and is she always going to need a man who’s overpowering?”
The Fear sees 14-year-old Lou run away to France with her 31-year-old teacher, who has clearly groomed her. When he begins to show his more aggressive side, she finally contacts the police.
Fast-forward and Lou is now 32, her life in tatters, when she resolves to return home to confront the man for the damage he has caused. Discovering that he is now focusing his attention on a 13-year-old girl, she sets out to do something about it.
“Although Lou is originally his victim, she ends up locking him in a cage, so it’s more about empowering a female heroine,” says Taylor.
Born in Worcester, Taylor has been writing since she was eight, when she sent a little manuscript to Ladybird publishers and duly received her first rejection.
“I wrote terrible poetry in my teens and then dabbled with short stories in my 20s. Then, when I was 33, one of my best friends from school had a brain aneurysm and died. It was a huge wake-up call for me and made me realise you don’t necessarily have all the time in the world, and if you’ve got something you want to pursue, you’ve got to do it. I wrote like a woman possessed after that.”
At the time, she was single, living in a one-bedroom flat in Brighton, with a full-time job in IT working as a web developer in an e-Learning company. She wrote after work and at weekends.
She found herself an agent and her first two books, written under the name of Cally Taylor, were both rom-coms. They did quite well in China and Hungary, but not so well in the UK.
“It was towards the end of the Bridget Jones boom. I’d just had my son, Seth, (now six) and my editor said the age of chick lit was over and we needed deeper reads. I felt a bit lost, really. I almost felt like my career had ended before it had begun.”
But having seen Before I Go To Sleep, the hugely successful debut novel by SJ Watson which was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, she felt the industry was on the verge of a big boom in psychological thrillers.
Her first, The Accident, became the 10th bestselling debut novel of 2014, selling five times as many copies as her second rom-com. Taylor had found her niche.
Her next book, The Lie, became her first Sunday Times bestseller and topped the Amazon charts for three months. Subsequent novels have followed suit.
Her literary success has changed her life, she reflects, albeit fairly modestly; she lives in a three-bedroom terraced house in Bristol and still has a mortgage.
“I was able to give up the day job. I’d always dreamed of working from home with a dog at my feet, and now I’ve got the dog as well.”
These days, she tries to distance her subject matter from her real fears.
“Having mined my own life for the first three books, I’ve covered my demons now.”
The Fear by CL Taylor is published by Avon tomorrow, priced £7.99.