Meet the Bradford-born Author Making a Difference
Jess Kitching is a Bradford-born author now based in Sydney, and her Northern roots have inspired her latest thriller, Lucky Number 11
The middle child of three, Jess describes herself as a ‘typical bookworm’, and she studied English Literature at the University of Huddersfield before qualifying as a primary school teacher. ‘I actually taught at the same school in Eccleshill that I attended when I was a child,’ she says. ‘Cassie, the protagonist in my second novel How to Destroy Your Husband, was a teacher in homage to the career I had and loved before coming to Australia.’
Jess’s uncle emigrated to Australia in the 1990s. ‘Whenever we spoke, I always thought it sounded like the most incredible place,’ she recalls. ‘I mean, they had a swimming pool in their garden – as a child, I was in awe! When I was a teenager, we were lucky enough to visit. We spent a few weeks touring around and I fell in love with the place. So as soon as I started working, I started saving. Then in 2018, I travelled the US with friends and then Australia with my partner. Once here, we were lucky enough for things to fall into place so we could stay and explore this incredible country.’
Touring Australia was always one of Jess’s dreams, as was writing a book. ‘I was always the child with the overactive imagination and a story to tell,’ she explains, and her parents and teachers encouraged and supported this. ‘After graduating, I went into teaching but I always wrote around my job. I wasn’t the most confident when saying I wanted to be an author. In fact, as an adult, I pretty much wrote in secret and never shared my work with anyone. But the anonymity and freedom of travelling gave me the space and confidence to chase those writing goals.’
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Thrillers and crime fiction are Jess’s favourite types of books. ‘I love a twist and the shocks that come hand-in-hand with this genre,’ she says. ‘There is something that’s hard to put down about a book that puts everyday people in impossible situations and explores how they react. As a writer, exploring that tension and the darker, more complicated parts of human life was too intriguing for me not to focus on. Writing thrillers means that not only do I get to do the job I love, but I get to have fun doing it! Thrillers are also a great way to raise awareness of and discuss heavier subjects. My books have looked at themes like the impact of bullying, being a survivor of violence and the impact of toxic masculinity. These are all big topics to unpack, but putting them in the context of a thriller means they run alongside an entertaining, gripping story.’
Outside writing, Jess is proud of her advocacy work in different areas. ‘I have a facial birthmark, so I talk and write about beauty diversity, representation and anti-bullying,’ she continues. ‘I am also a sexual assault survivor, so speak on issues linked to this. I have fundraised for anti-bullying charities and children’s literacy charities in the past, and I’m keen to do more of this in the future.’
Now Jess is signed to Kingsley Publishers for an eight-book deal, with three books already released, as well as audiobook and translation deals. ‘When I say this is a dream come true, I mean it,’ she says. Jess’s novel Lucky Number 11 follows Hannah Allen, a woman who was abducted by serial killer Peter Harris when she was 14. She ended up being his only survivor, a fact that earned her the nickname ‘Lucky Number 11’. Ten years later, therapy and friendship have helped Hannah rebuild her life, but then a true crime novel about the killings is released. When someone uses the book as an instruction manual for murder, they bring Hannah’s nightmare back to life. ‘Lucky Number 11 takes the well-known serial killer trope and re-centres the story on the survivors,’ Jess says. ‘To me, they are the people worth reading about, not the perpetrator.
‘A story about a survivor has been something I have wanted to write for a very long time. I feel passionately about changing the narrative of “what can women do to keep themselves safe?” whenever a violent crime is committed. Really, the discussion should be “what can we do to stop people committing violent acts?” Women do everything they can to keep themselves safe – they text when they’re on the way home, they avoid certain routes, they limit how late they are out. Writing a book that explored the reality of surviving violent situations and how dangerous that attitude is was important to me. I wanted to show the impact of being part of a story like Hannah’s, and how the voice of the survivor deserves to be heard more than the voice of the person doing the crime.’
This book is set in the North, and Jess is passionate about her roots. ‘The North always has a special place in my heart,’ she says. ‘Post Covid, I've been home for a few weeks or months each year and there truly is no place like it. The people are so friendly, the scenery is so beautiful and there is a real warmth to being there. The place just embraces you with a hug! I wanted to pay homage to my roots, as well as reference the fact that as someone from Yorkshire, I grew up in a place that had a dark history of a serial killer. I was born in the 90s, long after Peter Sutcliffe (aka The Yorkshire Ripper) was around, but I know so much about him. Everyone has a story about themselves or someone they know that links to that time, so having this understanding of a community that has been so heavily impacted by such horrific crimes was a good place to start when writing Lucky Number 11.’
Dreamscape Media have also produced an audiobook of Lucky Number 11, voiced by the award-winning voice actor Penelope Rawlins. ‘Having a Northern accent in the audiobook made listening to it feel like coming home,’ Jess continues.
Of course Jess always hoped her books would do well, but everything that’s happened since her first release (The Girl She Was Before) has far exceeded her expectations. ‘Earlier this year, I flew to Denmark for the launch of the Danish translation of my debut book,’ she says. ‘I was lucky enough to speak at [annual crime book festival] Krimimessen alongside authors such as Alice Feeney, Chris Carter and Ann Cleeves. That was a true “pinch me” moment, one I don't think my eight-year-old self would dare to believe would happen. When I first signed my book deal, I wanted my writing to connect with one person. That was my goal and is one of the reasons my writing covers some of the themes it does. When The Girl She Was Before was released, I received countless messages from people touched by the way the story deals with the trauma legacy of bullying. To have people reach out and share their stories with me really was humbling, and something I will always be proud of.’
A writer who inspires you?
The book that made me want to write thrillers was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but my biggest inspiration has got to be Jacqueline Wilson. When I was a child, I was obsessed with her books. I loved that they put big, sometimes difficult, themes in an accessible way and that she never shied from facing hard topics. Her readers were never talked down to, she never sugarcoated things, and she trusted you to build empathy for all characters. As a child, reading books that did that was rare. Through her writing I got to understand and be introduced to such a diverse range of characters. Jacqueline Wilson once visited Yorkshire on a tour for her book Midnight and I was lucky enough to hear her speak. She signed a book for my birthday and it will always be one of my most treasured possessions.
What do you love so much about being Northern?
I think being from the North has given me a great grounding as a person. It’s a very down to earth, friendly and open place, and those are some of my personality traits that I am most proud of. They allow me to appreciate every moment. I never take for granted how wonderful it is to have the opportunity to meet and speak to readers from around the world. I also enjoy the love that my accent gets. If I’m ever speaking at a book club in the USA or Australia, I cannot count how many times people say they love the way I talk!
A book or series you recommend?
Book: Asking an author this is almost cruel! There are so many great books out there, but I recommend Gillian McAllister's Wrong Place Wrong Time a lot. It is such a unique concept for a thriller, it blew me away.
Series: I am really enjoying Only Murders in the Building. I'm a huge fan of Steve Martin and Martin Short. I saw their stand-up tour a few years ago, and it was incredible – so mixing their humour with the twists of a thriller is a winner!
Favourite place to walk in Yorkshire?
This is hard to pick because there are so many beautiful spots, but I love walking by the river in Ilkley. Whenever I go home, I always make a point of going there. I also love Otley Chevin – it was actually where I went on my first date with my fiancé. Again, it’s another spot I make a point of going to when I am home.