After 'The Wreckage,' You Won’t Leave Unscathed
Audible Sessions podcast host Robin Morgan-Bentley's debut thriller spotlights issues around male mental health as one young man’s journey collides with an unsuspecting woman, changing them both forever.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi, I'm your Audible Editor Abby West, and I am tickled pink to be talking today with Robin Morgan-Bentley, author of the sinister debut thriller The Wreckage, a gripping exploration of male mental health. Robin also happens to be an esteemed Audible colleague. Welcome Robin.
Robin Morgan-Bentley: Hi, Abby.
AW: For those on this side of the pond who don't know Robin, he works in Audible's UK office and runs the Audible Sessions podcast, where he has interviewed dozens upon dozens of authors. And I have no qualms about saying that early iterations of my own interviews here in the States were patterned off what Robin was doing when I pumped him for tips when we first met in 2017.
RMB: Oh, stop.
AW: Can I be real here for one second? I was so glad I loved this so much. You know what it is. I'm sure you have friends who have books, who write things, and you're like, "Oh please god, please be good. Please be good." This was not only good. This was great. And I loved every second of listening to it. So I have to thank you for not giving me that awkward moment.
RMB: Good. I've definitely been in that position as well. A friend’s written something or done a documentary or something and you have to be polite. I'm glad you liked it.
AW: Across our team everyone loved it too. So again, it's one of those things like where you know someone, you know they're good, you assume they're a good writer. And then you're hopeful that it is good. And it was a great, great thing to have it be that way.
The Wreckage tells the story of Ben, a school teacher, driving to work who hits a pedestrian, Adam, and the terrifying crazy miles-a-minute fallout from that accident. It's told through alternating viewpoints, particularly Ben's and the deceased's widow, Alice, and explores the consequences of the crash for everyone involved, including Alice and Adam's seven-year-old son, Max.
It was gripping from the start. You built to this frenzy that made me do this thing I do when I get super anxious about the outcome of a scene. I would pause it and then want to skip ahead to just make sure it resolved okay. You have quite a skill with that.
RMB: I wanted people to be right there in the action as soon as it started. I think it's particularly important when you're listening to an audiobook. You want to be taken straight there. And so that is what happens in the first scene of The Wreckage. It's a pretty horrific first scene.
AW: Right from the start. You're right in. I've read that your Audible Sessions conversations were a big part of your inspiration for writing. Had you not always wanted to write novels?
RMB: I've always been someone that's made up stories and has had imagination and been, I guess, creative. But I'm not one of these people that have said, "This is my life's ambition. I really, really want to write a book." And I don't know if that's surprising to hear. Maybe it's more common to hear that someone's lifelong dream is to be a novelist.
One of the things I wanted to look at in this book was that it's so common for men to have anxiety, depression, and issues. You have to talk about it.
It wasn't the case for me. I can remember being a kid, primary school—so in the UK that's up to the age of 11—I was probably about seven actually. And we had to write radio plays. And it was the most exciting thing. And every day when we got to write a bit more, I was like, "Yes! We're writing radio plays." And mine was called The Imposter Queen about a little boy that thought he was, or pretended to everyone, that he was the Queen of England, riding around in royal carriages dressed up as the Queen. So yeah, I've always enjoyed telling stories and imagining characters and imagining crazy scenarios. That's where this came from.
AW: How about this particular story? How long was that percolating? And where did that come from?
RMB: I heard a story from a friend of mine who, it didn't turn out the same way, but the starting premise was similar. Somebody that was driving down the street and was involved by accident in a terrible car incident. And it made me start thinking, “What would happen in a thriller version of that? What would be the extreme way that that could unfold?” And then I just sat down and I wrote that first scene. I imagined the character and how an anxious man would react in that scenario. And it kind of went from there.
I was very conscious of, having read and listened to a lot of psychological thrillers over the years myself, it's often a troubled female. It's often a woman with anxiety or a woman that's a victim or a woman that has problems with substance abuse. I wanted to write a thriller where, at the center, there was a man, in fact, two men that are really having a hard time.
…For a long time, I don't know if this is a British thing or whether you see the same in the States, men have found it hard to talk about having mental health challenges. One of the things I wanted to look at in this book was that it's so common for men to have anxiety, depression, and issues. You have to talk about it. One of the issues that Ben has in the book is that he doesn't talk to people about the problems he's having. He refuses therapy. He refuses medication. He doesn't talk to his family. And I can't help but think that if he had just talked to someone about how he was feeling—maybe not Alice, maybe someone else about how he was feeling—things might have been different…
So you start with Ben, but also the man that jumps in front of his car, Adam, has mental health issues. And I wanted to turn that traditional thing of troubled woman on its head in psychological thrillers.
AW: And you did a good job. No one's perfect in this. Alice is a flawed character herself, even as you're sympathizing with her in the midst of, sort of the wreckage, from both of these men. But you don't glorify her.
But that sense that the parallelisms between Ben and Adam, it took a while for me to see that. The way you built that was very interesting. Had you started off from the beginning to show how it can look differently in two separate people?
RMB: I think so. I think as someone who’s lived with anxiety and depression myself for 20 years probably, it does manifest itself in very different ways for different people and for the same person in different ways. These things aren’t a monolithic thing. Being anxious… what might make me anxious might be very different from what makes my husband anxious, for example. And so I think what you see here are two very different but damaged men.
AW: You talked about having a really good understanding of the psychological thriller. What were some of your other influences for going down this path?
RMB: I've always been attracted to dark fiction, whether that's books or TV shows or film and a few books that I really, really love. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller and The Collector by John Fowles, they're both books about obsession. It was that concept of obsession and how you build an obsessive character that really inspired me to write The Wreckage. I don't know if you're familiar with The Collector. I must've read it 10 times. It's so dark, and it's too dark, I think, in many ways. But it's a really interesting exploration of the fine line between love and obsession. And we get some of that in The Wreckage.
AW: You definitely do. It's hard to talk about it without spoiling it, because I really love the peeling back of layers in getting through the novel, so I don't want to ruin that experience for anyone. I'm going to be very clear: From here on out there might be some spoilers below, so proceed at your own caution or come back after you've listened.
AW: I love/ I'm completely creeped out by the way Ben was so certain of his mission and his morality or his righteousness in what he was doing and just how off he was in even what he thought he saw in Alice's eyes. That sense of delusional space was just really creepy. Well done. How hard was that to do?
RMB: It kind of gradually built. As I was planning it, I knew what the starting point was. I knew what I wanted the end to be, and I didn't plan to stop in the middle. I sort of thought, "How do you build this? What's a convincing thing that could happen next that isn't too much, that isn't too far too quickly?" And then I built it very, very slowly. His enthusiasm of Alice, his obsession of Alice and her son, is gradual, I think. And you kind of don't realize how far he's gone before he's already gone that far, if you know what I mean.
AW: It's funny, before we got too deep into it, I was thinking that maybe he was on the spectrum because of his need for the process and for things to be just so. Was that a fair inference?
RMB: Yeah, I think so. Again, in a similar way to mental health, we talk a lot about the spectrum when you talk about autism or Aspergers. I think he probably is [on the spectrum], to some extent. He definitely has difficulties in recognizing how other people are perceiving him, which I know can be a characteristic of some of these manifestations of autism. But yeah, I think it's really hard to label him, isn't it? What are his intentions? Is he evil or is he just really deluded? Is he autistic or is he just having a hard time? It's very hard to put a label on him, I think.
AW: Yeah, I like that. I like that you don't even have other people putting a label on him. He's popular in college, you can't label him as being totally isolated. He's lived with his parents, but he's also had girlfriends. You're not boxing him in, in a way that makes people go like, "Oh, he's totally that," and then expect the next set of behaviors. So, that has some nuance.
RMB: I remember when my mum read it for the first time, she, I don't want to say the word that she used to describe him, because I think it's too much of a spoiler, but she had such a reaction to him in a particular way that I just totally hadn't seen. And I disagree. I disagreed with it. But I liked the fact that people see different parts of both Ben and Alice.
The different reactions I've had from people reading and listening, some people absolutely hate Alice. And some people say, "Oh, she's just like my best friend." Or, "I could really see myself in Alice." And I liked that. I think it's hard. I think what makes a good thriller or a good book is when characters are nuanced, when they're not one thing or the other, and they're different things to different people. I think it's a book about perspectives. And so hopefully the listener sees that as well.
AW: I agree. The perspectives part is very clear, particularly at the end, which we're not going to talk about, because I definitely don't want to spoil that last chunk for people. But the idea that both Adam and Ben were controlling or trying to control Alice I thought was really interesting. And how that unfurled, the understanding of the ways each one was doing that, was that a particular note that you wanted to hit?
RMB: Yeah. It was a really tough topic to broach because I was also very conscious of being a man writing about something terrible in a way that happens to a woman. And I really wanted to broach it very carefully and make sure I'm speaking to the right people. I had a lot of conversations with Women's Aid, which is a charity in the UK dedicated to helping survivors or people that are in situations with domestic violence. So I really wanted to make sure that I understood the particular scenarios.
I actually spoke to one survivor who had, in some ways, quite a similar experience to Alice, without giving anything too much away. I talked her through some of the plot points and it was actually almost cathartic for her, I think; therapeutic to sit in fiction and to talk about it in a kind of fictionalized way.
But yeah, it needed to be dealt with very carefully. And I hope that people feel like it's not gratuitous. There is a bit of reference to violence but you don't actually see anything too horrific. And it's dealt with in a sensitive way.
AW: I will share that I have some familiarity, personal experience, in this space, and I liked the way that you address how she wanted to protect him in some way, and to shield it and shield him and the world from speculating about it. There's that weird dichotomy of being the person being harmed, but also wanting to sort of rescue the person who is harming you. You hit that note really interestingly.
RMB: Again, in these three situations, to make them real, they have to be complicated. They have to be nuanced. Otherwise it's just not realistic.
AW: And then you end up with caricatures and that are not fun to read. Was thriller your immediate space that you wanted to go into?
RMB: I think so. I've read and listened to a lot. Thrillers are really popular on Audible so as Audible Sessions have developed lately, I’ve met and I've been lucky enough to speak to a lot of thriller writers. So they’re kind of front of mind. And I think it's always easiest, perhaps particularly with your first book, to write what you like to read.
For me, writing in the first person was a good way to write for audio. There’s an intimacy that you get in an audiobook when it's told from the first person.
You can't start diving into another genre that you're not so familiar with. Some people have said, "Oh, you know, it's a thriller, but it's also kind of a family drama." And I think there's elements of character studies. Bits like The Goldfinch that I really love, and A Little Life—it doesn't even reach those levels, but that kind of detailed analysis of people and where do you fit the character portrayal, I think hopefully some of that is in there as well.
AW: That's great. Speaking to the idea of taking what you've learned on the job, knowing that this would have an audiobook, how did that potentially influence your writing as you were going along?
RMB: It totally did. I wrote this with audio front-of-mind, just because it's my everyday. I've been working at Audible for years and I think in those terms all the time, when I'm looking at other people's books or other scripts or in the studio or whatever it is.
For me, writing in the first person was a good way to write for audio. There’s an intimacy that you get in an audiobook when it's told from the first person. Particularly Ben and Alice's first person. When you listen, you might feel like they're literally talking in your ear, and you're really getting one-on-one time with these characters.
Then it becomes important when the dialogue is really sharp because in audio, dialogue is exposed. You can see that sometimes it's sort of police procedural, stuff like that. It's fine when written down, but when you listen to it, it runs into pieces. So a big part of the writing process for me was reading stuff out loud after I'd written it.
So I'd finish a chapter and then I would read it out loud. If there was a turn of phrase or something that didn't sound quite natural, I was able to tweak it as I was writing.
AW: I'm assuming that you had some input on the choice of narrators for this, as you were going along, given your background. How did you land on Emelia Fox, Jack Hawkins, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith? They did an amazing job with this. I was so fully wrapped in and was in each perspective wholly because of the way they did it. How did you come to this choice with these three?
RMB: They're all actors that I've been lucky enough to work with in my capacity at Audible. I know that they're three very distinguished voice artists that would give all the nuances of the characters that I wanted.
Jack is the most amazing actor. And I think he does a very good job at the kind of troubled and slightly haunted young man—if he’s listening to this, it’s no reflection on you, it's just the way you perform. He did one of the voices in The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, and listening to that, I was like, “I really want Jack Hawkins for Ben because that voice, it just sounds right to me.” It's kind of got the right kind of level of posh and not too posh for the character. And so that one was really clear.
And Emelia Fox, I don't know how known she is in the US, but in the UK, she's a bit of a national treasure. She's known particularly for Silent Witness. And she was in the film with The Pianist. And she's also done loads of audiobooks. She's done all of the Jane Austen books. And she's done a lot of psychological thrillers as well. She did The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney. And she's got a real edge to her, I think. She's got real edge to her voice and can at the same time be cutting and warm, which is what I think is needed for Alice because some of her dialogue is pretty harsh.
AW: Harsh, yes.
RMB: She's pretty bitchy. But Emelia's warmth, I think, makes that okay. And I don't want you to see Alice as a bitch. She says bitchy stuff, but she’s also had a hard time. So I think that balance is really struck. And then Kobna, he's known for the Ben Aaronovitch series, Rivers of London. He's an amazing, amazing actor. He's got real gravitas to his voice. And I wanted to make sure that there was a clear distinction in depth between Ben and Adam, not to give anything away.
AW: That was one of the places where I felt your insight and understanding of audio probably came in handy in that understanding that, yes, we have lots of amazing audio performers who can make distinctive characters throughout an audiobook. But when you're going for the level of distinction that you're going for between Ben and Adam, as particularly in that back end of the book, having a very distinctly different gravel in tone was so on point, so spot on.
RMB: And then the other thing for me is that one of my favorite characters is Max, who is Alice and Adam’s little boy. And I've listened to a lot of audiobooks in the past where there was an adult trying to do a kid's voice and it really doesn't work. It jars you. Both Jack and Emelia, who read bits of Max as it goes, I think they really crack the kind of, "I get that this is a child, but it isn't ridiculous."
AW: Right. I really appreciate how you thought about their ability to do the nuance that you've written for these characters. Particularly with Alice, who can say some very cutting things and is again, not always likable, but understandable. Emelia's ability to shift into that one space where she's either questioning herself or questioning the moment, there's a level of vulnerability that wasn't there when she was laying into someone, which is amazing. That was really helpful.
So what's next, Robin? I have an idea but tell us.
RMB: I'm literally in the midst of writing my second thriller. I've been writing today, so it's funny talking about Ben and Alice when the other characters’ names and their lives are kind of on the tip of my tongue today.
It's another thriller about something terrible that happens to a couple who are expecting their first child. I’ve recently become a father. So it's been an interesting process of taking inspiration from my new experience as a father, and also distancing myself from the terrible things that happen in this book that I hope never, ever, ever happens to my son.
AW: That's very bold of you to go into this head space in the middle everything else.
RMB: It was pitched. I don't know how it works in the US, but with my agent in the UK, I had The Wreckage done and then immediately it's like, "What's your next idea? What's the second book?" And so I pitched that. I came up with the idea long before my son was born. And then I found myself in this kind of situation where I've got to write a book about a terrible thing that happens to a family, but there we go.
AW: Oh my gosh. So you said you've been writing for hours already. What's your process like these days now that quarantine is a thing and we're all home?
RMB: Previously, The Wreckage was written in cafes and out and about in libraries and stuff like that. I am someone that likes to listen into other people's, it sounds strange, but I like to have one ear to things that are going on around me, picking up little pieces of dialogue. And I have a little notebook where I write down turns of phrase that I find funny and that kind of stuff. But because of COVID-19, I am in a little room in the back of our flat doing my best, but it's hard.
I think everyone—I’ve probably spoken to authors the whole time—it's hard at this time to be creative. And to tell stories when reality is quite tough, it's hard to shut yourself away and make up a story when there's loads of stuff going on in the real world. But I'm getting there, I had a really good day today, actually. So I'm getting there.
AW: I cannot wait to read this one, even though I have a feeling I'm going to be back in that space where I'm trying to pause it/ jump ahead because it's freaking me out, which is a sign you're doing something right. Do you have a sense of a timeline for the next one?
RMB: It will come out mid-2021.
RMB: Assuming that I finish it. That's the plan. The plan is for it come out around this time next year.
AW: Well, I think I'll probably let you get back to it then. Many thanks for joining us to talk about The Wreckage, which I'm really excited about. It's only been out a short while over here in the States and it's already getting great reviews. I can't wait for more people to listen in.
RMB: Thanks so much, Abby, this was fun.