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Working night shift at a Melbourne cinema, Anna Snoekstra dared to dream. Now, her debut novel has caught the attention of Hollywood. By Jan McGuinness.

The rise of ‘Only Daughter’ author Anna Snoekstra

Canberra-raised, Melbourne-based writer Anna Snoekstra.
Credit: SUPPLIED

If Anna Snoekstra had not returned late, tired and distracted to her inner-Melbourne share house after the night shift selling tickets and cleaning loos at Melbourne’s Kino Cinemas, would she have ignited the train of life-altering events that transformed her into that rarest of creatures, a full-time novelist? 

Would she be the author three years later of a debut novel to be distributed in more than 19 countries and adapted for the screen by Universal Pictures from a script finalised recently by Erin Cressida Wilson, whose credits include The Girl on the Train and Secretary?

It is a question that feeds into the paranoia surrounding the novel’s improbable gestation, but all Anna knows is that after that sleepless night high on adrenalin she had a fully formed story by morning and a pile of frenziedly written notes. 

“I was so exhausted I hadn’t noticed when I pulled up outside the house that my wallet had slipped onto the passenger seat,” she says.

“Ten minutes later I was in bed and heard a loud crash. The wallet, of course, was gone, and I lay awake all night feeling shaken and paranoid.”

With a head full of recently viewed films such as The Changeling about a boy who pretended to be a missing son and Anastasia about a woman who impersonated a member of the last Russian royal family, the creative- and scriptwriting graduate’s imagination went into overdrive. What emerged was The New Winter (changed to Only Daughter by the publisher MIRA, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises), the story of a runaway woman trying to escape her past by pretending to be Bec Winter, a girl she physically resembles who was abducted from a small town 11 years previously. Accepted by Bec’s all-too-eager family, she gradually discovers the mysterious circumstances and family secrets woven into her disappearance.

The story is structured as two narratives from the point of view of each woman and goes back and forth so that they feed into each other, giving the reader clues from one character that the other is unaware of.

“The missing or murdered person never has a voice and I wanted her to,” says Anna. “I was interested in taking on the other voice to see how it would work.”  

The fear-fuelled paranoia Anna felt on the night she drafted her story surrounds lost Bec’s disappearance and is mirrored by what is happening in the wider world of the novel. When Bec goes missing John Howard is prime minister and warnings to “be alert, not alarmed” niggle the public consciousness. Eleven years later Tony Abbott’s government is in power, and public fear has escalated. At its heart the novel is an allegory of our political climate and an investigation of how paranoia is fed and exploited. 

Suspense, women doubting themselves, and home becoming a dark and threatening place are subjects that also fascinate the 28-year-old, whose master’s degree in 1940s Gaslight cinema is on hold. Unsurprisingly, Anna’s favourite film is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Rebecca Winter an obvious homage. 

“I wanted also to write something I’d love to read, about female characters that are relatable even when they behave badly. Most of all I aspired to write something that would crawl under your skin and stay there.”

Being an Australian writer is important to Anna, who grew up in suburban Canberra. Her characters shoplift at Myer, squirt vinegar on hot chips at the local pool and wake up to warbling magpies. But after several drafts and rewrites it was American, not Australian agents who responded to the manuscript she began circulating in September–October 2014.  

“There was little if any local response, but American agents were interested straight away,” says Anna, who had already spent a month on the internet researching literary agents and how to approach them.

“I was prepared for a long battle, but within two weeks I had 10 expressions of interest and three firm offers from people wanting to represent me. After signing with Trident Media Group in New York, who I thought understood best what I was after, I got more offers.”

Anna and her new agent did some edits together before the manuscript was circulated among publishers and film agents; three months later book deals started coming in. No sooner had Anna decided to sign with MIRA than a film agent read the manuscript overnight and set up a call.

“I didn’t expect it to go anywhere. But there I was still in my PJs at 7am and he’s on the phone from Los Angeles reeling off the names of film people who were already interested. They all read it very quickly, and because my roots are in film I was very excited by the names.”

Spoiled for choice once more, Only Daughter was finally optioned by Universal Studios to be produced by Working Title Films, the London-based production company responsible for countless hits including The Theory of Everything and Four Weddings and a Funeral.  

A year ago, and despite the entrée into Hollywood, Anna was still cleaning the Kino’s frequently flooded women’s bathroom (patrons leave the taps on), staring wistfully at the Universal logo on the screen wondering whether she would ever see her own film up there and feeling at times as if she had made the whole thing up. 

 Since then she has been to the United States twice and, with her novel just published, has given up the Kino on the strength of her film option and publishing advances for Only Daughter and her recently accepted second novel, Dolls.   

Picking her battles

On the first trip late last year, Anna visited all the studios where executives had read her novel and were interested to discuss other projects she had in hand, including film scripts and her second novel, which started out as a film script.

It was, she says, an exercise in learning how to compromise, pick her battles and when to give in or be firm. Already Only Daughter has been relocated from small town Australia to Arizona. That was a compromise. But she dug her heels in and won when the Hollywood machine insisted on more of a love story. In the novel, pretend Bec has a passing affair and lost Bec has a crush on a co-worker. But friendship is the book’s central relationship, says Anna, and that is very important to her.

Not a bad result for someone who took on the white linen-suited head of Universal Studios single-handedly. 

“I think I got away with a lot because of my naivety and because of being an Aussie and a novelty. They loved it. And they were not expecting me to have written that book and thought I would be someone a lot darker. They all said I was not at all what they were expecting and, ‘How old are you?’

“But I had to learn not to self-deprecate, they don’t like it and they don’t get it because everyone in Hollywood talks themselves up. And they hardly ever tell you anything negative. If you don’t get a response to something, it means they hate it. I call it the Hollywood silence – they are very nice but you never hear from them again.”

In New York, Anna met Erin Cressida Wilson and found her to be engaging and respectful of her themes and ideas suggesting issues of paranoia around 9/11 to play with in the new American setting. However, Anna is yet to see the final script and suspects she is getting the Hollywood silence on that one.  

Meanwhile, she picked up a scriptwriting project for a producer she met in Los Angeles at the American Film Institute. But the highlight of this trip was marrying Ryan Lamb, the bass player in Melbourne indie pop group Alpine. The couple had been together about eight years, and the parents were planning a traditional wedding, which Anna says was starting to make her feel super stressed.

“Ryan came over for two weeks, and we thought it would be romantic to elope instead to Nashville,” she says. “So we combined the wedding and honeymoon and had a big party when we got home.’’

Anna returned to America in May this year to attend the Chicago Book Expo and to do advance publicity for Only Daughter in New York. Publishers Weekly, an American publishing trade news weekly targeted at publishers, librarians and booksellers, listed the novel as a 2016 buzz book, which also gave it a huge boost.

Now back in Melbourne and living in another share house in Thornbury which, unlike her previous abode at least has heating, a backyard, vegie patch and stable kitchen floor, Anna is writing full-time, although barely subsisting, she is quick to point out, on what amounts to the minimum wage. And she has no problem with motivation because despite holding four degrees she has had so much trouble finding employment that she believes it is this or nothing. 

“I’m off to a roaring start and I don’t want to waste it. Besides, I love it. A few times before this happened I thought I should concentrate on getting a real job, but I can’t give this up, it makes me really happy.” 

That she writes at all is another kind of marvel. Anna says she suffered from so many ear infections as a young child that she couldn’t hear and didn’t speak.

“So I had to have special classes because I couldn’t read or write either,” she says. “My sister spoke for me. But two terrific teachers turned it around when I was in year two or three. It was bizarre, but all thanks to those teachers. So when I started writing kids’ stories they were so excited and encouraging that I felt really good about it. They always told me I should be a writer and gave me so much positive reinforcement.” 

Now she not only writes but reads everything, loves crime fiction and before her Only Daughter breakthrough won a Sisters in Crime’s Scarlet Stiletto Award for her story “Out Came the Sun”. Favourite reads include Stephen King, women writers, the classics and young adult fiction, but mostly books that are smart and have a lot more going on beneath the surface level. 

She would like to write a true crime novel along the lines of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But for now her fondest wish is that Only Daughter will deprive its readers of sleep as grippingly as it did her in the making of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Cleaning up". Subscribe here.

Jan McGuinness
is a Melbourne journalist and author.