Hollie Overton: “I knew from the start that this wasn’t a captivity story. It was about the aftermath.”

HollIie Overton PhotoThe manuscript for Hollie Overton’s psychological thriller Baby Doll flew onto our shortlist back in 2015 when reader after reader reported being unable to stop until they’d finished the book. Shortly afterwards, US TV writer Hollie accepted a major publishing deal and, with the paperback out this week with Penguin Random House, Baby Doll has also just been announced as one of the titles for Richard and Judy’s 2017 Spring Book Club

Baby Doll is the story of Lily Riser, who vanishes at the age of sixteen, leaving behind a distraught twin sister and their mum. Eight years later, Lily escapes her captor and reappears with her own 6-year-old daughter in tow only to find her family and old life are forever changed.

Much of the novel is formed by Hollie’s own childhood experiences: “An identical twin, I was born in Chicago, Illinois and adopted at six days old, along with my identical twin sister, Heather and carried home in matching red Christmas stockings. My father was a member of the Overton Gang and spent several years in prison for manslaughter. Unfortunately, he found family life overwhelming. His addictions began to consume him, leading to my parents’ divorce. My mother relocated my sister and I to her hometown of Kingsville, Texas.”

In 2013, when news broke about Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women captive for ten years, Overton was between TV writing jobs after a show she was working on was cancelled. She found herself unable to stop thinking about the women and families in the Castro news story: “The book is about the bond between twins, the beauty and the ugliness that exists in that relationship. Heather and I are inseparable and I simply couldn’t imagine what my life would be like if something had happened to her. That was my jumping off point for writing Baby Doll. And I knew from the start that this wasn’t a captivity story. It was about the aftermath.”

Overton wrote the first ninety pages in under two weeks but had “no clue” what to write next and says her twin was the reason she kept writing: “Heather read those ninety pages (even though I told her not to) and urged me to keep going.  I had to juggle other work, job interviews, various day jobs and sometimes I would think I was wasting my time working on this secret project. But if I went a few weeks without sending Heather new chapters, she’d hassle me. She read every single draft multiple times. When she loved something she said so. If something wasn’t good enough, she’d say that too. Her input was invaluable.”

Did Overton find herself picturing the book as a script as she wrote or did she slip into a different novel-writing gear?

“I never considered Baby Doll as anything but a novel when I started writing it.  It’s a female driven story and Hollywood doesn’t a lot of those. I knew as a book, if it were good, it might actually see the light of day. I also didn’t tell my TV agents that I was writing it. It was really just something I wanted to see if I could do. Of course, once the opportunity arose to work on the film script, I jumped at it, but that wasn’t part of any master plan. If Baby Doll only exists as a book, I’ve already accomplished what I set out to do.”

So how did Overton find her way into writing for TV? “I spent my childhood dreaming of bright lights and big cities. My love affair with storytelling led me to New York City where I studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A few years later, I headed to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a star. My sole TV claim to fame was one episode of TNT’s Leverage, opposite DB Sweeney.”

Luckily, Overton realised her talents were better suited behind the scenes: “I loved acting but I simply wasn’t good enough to make it. Still, I’m grateful for that training. I learned so much about storytelling; analysing plays and screenplays, studying dialogue, creating characters and finding moments within a scene.  Those are all skills I apply to writing. Acting also taught me that pursuing a career in the arts requires grit. You have to expect and accept rejection and keep going. No matter how many people have said that they didn’t respond to my writing (and there have been many) I kept at it.”

Frustrated by the lack of work, Overton started scriptwriting and won a small writing contest run then joined a writing class at UCLA which was essentially a writer’s room and was instantly hooked: “I loved everything about it!” she says. “That first TV writing class opened my eyes up to a career I never considered. On a TV staff, you are part of a team, working together to craft an episode. Everyone’s talking and sharing ideas and making one another laugh. Then you go off and write a script. You have some autonomy but at the end of the day it’s a group effort. It’s that, ‘we’re all in this together,’ feeling.  I knew after taking that class I wanted to be a TV writer.”

In 2009, Overton was accepted into the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. It was a career game changer: “At the time, I was auditioning and working as a personal assistant. The year I submitted, Warner Brothers had almost 1,000 entries (I think they get over 2,000 now). When you’re accepted, you attend classes each week where you learn how to outline episodes, how to pitch, how to deal with executives at the studio and network. It’s boot camp for TV writers.  You write a script and if your work is well received, you’re introduced to agents, managers and showrunners. I was lucky enough to staff on the final season of Cold Case.  There’s no way that would have happened without Warner Brothers.”

After the Warners Workshop, Overton became a staff writer on The Client List where she worked in a writer’s room, pitching ideas, a job she describes as being as intimidating and exhilarating as it sounds: “There was a sense of ‘hooray, I got a writing job,’ and then that moment of, ‘Wait a minute, can I really do this?’ But working on The Client List was a fantastic experience. I made amazing friends and professional connections. As for the writing process, you’re working with very talented writers and producers which means you’re constantly being challenged and pushed to be a better writer.”

Overton describes writing for TV as all-consuming: “They were such long hours; twelve to fourteen hour days, sometimes for weeks on end. But TV writers work hard for six to nine or ten months and then we’re done. On hiatus, we have time to recharge, see our friends and family again, travel or if you’re lucky like me, work on a novel.  Most people don’t get that kind of time off so I appreciate it. And even when you’re working long hours, you’re in a nice office with incredibly smart people, making stories up and eating junk food. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that for a living?”

While Overton clearly relished the opportunity to be part of a writing room, work was not year round and in the spring of 2013, when the Castro story broke, found herself unemployed when a TV project she was writing for was cancelled. “I spent the next few months interviewing for shows and growing frustrated by the constant rejection,” she says. Overton had always wanted to write a novel and felt this was the time to try: “I wanted to get back to that pure place, where I wasn’t writing to try and sell something. I wanted to enjoy writing again.”

Overton is currently a writer for Shadowhunters,  the TV series based on Cassandra Clare’s novels. How does she go about condensing hundreds of pages of a novel into a 47 minute script? “It takes an entire writing staff and hours and hours of discussion. Adapting a book series into a show is a challenge and we take it very seriously. The fans of The Mortal Instruments are incredibly devoted and all the writers on the show felt a huge responsibility to honour the spirit of the books. But we also wanted to craft stories that offered surprises for everyone.”

Once the storylines are agreed, the writers then work solo on an episode script, which is where Overton feels she really learned to wrote: “The entire writing staff comes together to “break story” which basically means pitching story beats until an episode begins to take shape. Once that’s complete, the writer goes off on their own and writes an outline.  He or she gets notes from the showrunner and incorporates them and then it goes to the studio and network for more notes. Then the writer finishes the script and it goes through that same notes process.   Once the script is complete, it’s off to production.  The director will have notes and the production team will have issues as well so you’re constantly rewriting.  Even on set you’ll have to makes changes; so it’s a job where you really hone your writing chops. With Shadowhunters, we have lots of exciting plot points to choose from and our showrunner, Ed Decter, has a very clear vision about what he wants.  But on every show, big moments happen when everyone is the room works together. Usually, the best pitch wins.”

Did Overton write a similarly tight plot outline when she wrote her novel? “I confess that I didn’t when I wrote Baby Doll, at least not the first half. I found the characters and kept writing and eventually the plot emerged. Once I was halfway through the novel, I outlined the last half, so I knew where I was going. But I didn’t have any sort of plan when I started.”

Overton is also now working on a feature script for her book: “It’s like coming full circle since I initially wanted to write features. I’m almost done with the Baby Doll script and really proud of it. It has been more challenging, which I didn’t expect. I had to streamline the plot and lose some scenes that I loved. But there’s something very cool about writing a film, thinking about the visuals, and the actors who might be cast. Baby Doll, the book has to do well in order for the film to become a reality. But no matter what happens, I’ve loved writing them both.”

Does Overton miss the collaborative aspects of the writers’ room or is it a relief to be able to make her own choices?

“When I’m writing novels I miss the writers’ rooms desperately, especially the camaraderie and collaboration.  There are times when all I want is for someone to pitch the perfect plot solve or pitch or character moment. But then I’m in the writers’ room and someone doesn’t agree with my pitch or my script gets rewritten, and I want to be home with my laptop, calling all the shots. That’s why I really love doing both and I hope to continue balancing the two worlds.”

Overton describes herself as a “binge-writer with type A tendency” and is a big setter of deadlines: “I believe very strongly in setting deadlines. When I first started out, I’d start and stop scripts but I never finished anything.  Once I realized that was my issue, I began taking classes and entering contests so I’d be forced to turn in work. The hard truth about writing is that no one is going to make you do it. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. End of story. Even if you’re not getting paid yet, it’s important to treat it like a job.  Because once you have the job, there are no excuses. The showrunner or your editors have schedules to keep, which means you do too. If you get into a habit of doing that when you’re trying to break in, it’ll become second nature.”

Overton describes her path to publication as a “long and twisty road” with plenty of knock  backs along the way: “Once you accept that rejection is part of a being a writer, your life will be so much easier.  Ha… I’m kidding. It’s never easy. Rejection hurts no matter what. I’ve been writing TV for six years and people still tell me that my work isn’t good enough. I still lose out on jobs. It’s an odds game. Maybe one out of 100 people will like something you write but all you need is one yes. Which is why my motto is ABWAlways Be Writing.”  When I finished Baby Doll, I already had two ideas for new novels. I figured if I didn’t sell the first one, I’d write another. You cannot control what someone thinks about your work. But you can control your creative output.”

For all her experience of pitching, Overton admits to being wracked with nerves when her agent was submitting Baby Doll to publishers: “I’ve never been more nervous.  I truly knew nothing about the submission process and spent lots of time googling what would happen. It was like sending my child out into the world and hoping everyone loves her as much as I do.  We sold to Goldmann in Germany first and then in the UK to Selina Walker at Random House. When all of that was happening, I’d wake up at 5am and check my email and callmy US literary agent Eve Atterson  in NY and my UK agent Jo Rodgers. We received our US offer shortly after that when Devi Pillai at Red Hook made an offer. When it was all said and done, I felt like I’d won the writers’ lottery.”

Did Overton ask to know about any passes? “Eve and I never talked about whether I wanted to know who passed. Maybe it’s her process not to say anything unless a writer asks her to. I preferred not to know. It worked out well for me, because whenever Eve called, I knew it had to be good news.”

Overton is a big believer in entering writing contests as a way to test how your work stacks up: “I encourage all writers to do their research and enter reputable awards. I attribute a great deal of my success to how well I’ve done in various contests.  Being part of the Bath Novel award was thrilling. For both the longlist and shortlist announcements, I woke my husband and sister up at five o’clock in the morning to tell them. At first, I didn’t tell my agents because with over 800 entries, it seemed like such a long shot. Once I made the longlist, I let Eve know and in my mind it helped solidify their interest and it gave me that sense of validation. I’m still so proud to be an alum of such a stellar competition.”

I follow a lot of Bath Novel Award writers on Twitter, Robin Falvey, Ian Nettleton, Joanna Barnard, contest founder Caroline Ambrose, and judge Dionne McCullough. I enjoy hearing about the contest and my fellow writers’ journeys. Clarissa Goenawan, winner of the 2015 Bath Novel Award and I have become writer buddies. We’ll chat online, offering on another encouragement. She’s incredibly talented and her work ethic is awe inspiring. I’ve been through a lot of the things she’s going through, getting an agent, going on submission, so I try to advise her and she does the same for me. She’ll say, ‘Have you finished the second book yet?’ and I’ll realize I need to write more that week or she’ll tell me to stop reading Baby Doll reviews so I don’t drive myself crazy. I’ve been in the film/TV world and haven’t had the opportunity to connect with many fiction writers so I’m very grateful that Bath Novel Award has allowed me to to do so.

Baby Doll has been described by Penguin Random House as ‘commercial fiction with a capital C’. Does Overton believe there is a formula for creating a book with mass market appeal: “I wish I knew [a formula]. But I’ve always loved reading commercial fiction, and I gravitate towards stories with well-developed characters and fast paced plots. I love when I pick up a book and can’t do anything until I finish it and I believe that’s what great commercial fiction does.  So that’s what I set out to write. I’m hoping Baby Doll succeeds in that way.”

Lastly, what does she make of being chosen by Richard and Judy for their Spring 2017 Book Club? “It’s such a great honour and I’m excited at the possibility of more readers discovering Baby Doll!”

Find out more about Baby Doll by Hollie Overton at Richard and Judy’s Spring 2017 Book Club list


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