Meet Helen Cooper Author Of The Downstairs Neighbour

How far do you trust your neighbours? Helen Cooper explores the theme in her nailbiting domestic noir thriller The Downstairs Neighbour published this week. She tells TW how it was second time lucky in getting published for her and the many inspirations behind the novel. 

Download the ebook of Say No More from Amazon or buy the paperback from Thriller Women's list at Bookshop.orgNB: if you buy books through this link we may earn a commission from, whose fees support independent bookshops.

Book cover of The Downstairs Neighbour by Helen Cooper

TW: Congratulations on the publication of The Downstairs Neighbour. What was your journey to getting your first novel published?

HC: Thank you very much! It’s been quite a long journey, and not an easy one, but 100% worth it! I’ve been writing since I was young but I really started taking it seriously after I did a MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University in 2009-10. The course taught me so much about both the craft and the industry of writing – plus it was the first time I showed my writing to other people and learned how important (though scary) it is to seek out lots of feedback. After graduating, I finished the novel I had partially written for my dissertation, and set out trying to get an agent. I knew how competitive it was, so I was prepared to persevere, and I was encouraged by the fact that a few agents responded saying they liked my writing and my voice but didn’t feel that particular novel was right for them. I took various bits of feedback onboard and wrote another book, feeling slightly more like I knew what I was doing this time (as much as you ever do!). When I submitted it, I was thrilled to hear back from the wonderful Hellie Ogden. I went to meet her in London and signed with her a few days later. It was so exciting and felt like such a huge leap forward.

Hellie has been absolutely amazing, but it still wasn’t plain sailing from there! When we went out on submission with that novel, it didn’t result in a deal. However, because we got so much positive (and useful) feedback, with editors saying they’d like to see what I wrote next, I still felt determined to keep going. And Hellie always kept the faith, kept me motivated. So again I took onboard all the feedback I’d received during that submission process, and wrote yet another book! Finally, this was The Downstairs Neighbour – and this time it really did feel right. I was over the moon when it found a home at Hodder, then later at Putnam in the USA. I’m not sure it would’ve happened if I hadn’t written those other books and learned so much along the way.

TW: Can you tell us about your novel and the inspiration behind it?

HC: The first seed of an idea was an image that eventually became the opening scene: a neighbour in a shared building, overhearing something out of the ordinary from the flat above. We all hear or see little bits of our neighbours’ lives (perhaps even more so during lockdown) – but what if those glimpses became something you couldn’t ignore? I’d also been thinking about the secrets that can exist within a family – how we might discover that the people living under our roof are just as unknown as the people next door.

Bringing in other ideas I’d had in my notebook for a while (for example, the character of a driving instructor who teaches lots of people in the same area, and drives around observing the neighbourhood from a unique perspective), I started building a story about people living close to each other, all with something to hide, and something to discover about those around them. I liked the idea of a shocking event – the disappearance of a teenager from the neighbourhood – acting as a catalyst, unravelling secrets that had been kept for years. Everybody connected to her reads something different into her disappearance, based on their own guilty conscience or their assumptions about their neighbours.

TW: Sounds brilliant! You write the story from various viewpoints of the characters involved. How and why did you decide to do that rather than the more traditional constant first or third person?

HC: I think it was because I created this cast of characters living close together, and all of them felt intriguing to me, so I wanted to write from all of their perspectives! I love reading books from multiple perspectives, so I’m drawn towards writing that way, too. I know it’s not for everyone but for me it keeps it interesting, and it’s a chance to play around with how the characters see one another, and how their lives intersect. With The Downstairs Neighbour I kept adding in more and more voices as the story took shape – there were times I despaired of the task I had set for myself! I loved writing them all, though, and knotting their lives together within one neighbourhood, even one building. I think having multiple narrators throws up lots of opportunities to keep the reader in suspense, worrying about the fates of other characters while they’re off the page, or getting unexplained glimpses of what they’re up to through other characters’ eyes. For me, it’s a lot of fun!

TW: The novel has a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere where no-one knows who to trust. What is it do you think that readers love about domestic noir?

HC: I think it’s that tantalising idea of dark secrets lurking in a seemingly ‘normal’, familiar place. It’s unnerving … in a good way! I think it also means that the story can be about more than just the central mystery or crime – it can zoom in on relationships and families, and really immerse you in the characters’ home lives. That raises the stakes in terms of what the characters have got to lose. Domestic noir is often about people’s everyday lives unravelling, ‘ordinary’ people’s masks slipping, and that threat of losing things we sometimes take for granted.

TW: Who are your favourite novelists and why?

HC: Lisa Jewell has been one of my favorites for a long time. I recently discovered there was only one of her books I hadn’t read, but I’ve rectified that now! She never fails to draw me straight into her plots and make me care hugely about her characters. Similarly, Liane Moriarty – I always feel so immersed in, and moved by, the domestic worlds she creates, and the mysteries she sets up within them. There are many crime and suspense writers I adore (Louise Candlish, Claire Douglas, Rosamund Lupton, Clare Mackintosh, Gillian McAllister, Holly Seddon … so, so many more), but authors from other genres have had a huge impact on me, too, particularly Maggie O’Farrell, Anne Tyler, and Sadie Jones. And I have to mention Daphne du Maurier and Thomas Hardy – absolute masters of atmosphere, character and suspense, whom I’ve re-read many times over the years.

TW: What's your writing schedule?

HC: Most of The Downstairs Neighbour was written on my former commute to work, from Derby to the University of Birmingham. I would think about what I wanted to write as I walked to the station, then write solidly for the one-hour train journey. I also often wrote in my lunch hours, and on the way home if I didn’t fall asleep! Now, I’m lucky enough to be at home most of the time, writing in my lovely new office that looks out onto my garden. I tend to start straight after breakfast, as I’m much better in the morning – utterly useless at night! So I usually write from around 7.30am, until mid-morning when I’ll either go for a run or take a break, then I’ll shower/eat and continue in the afternoon until I run out of steam. Of course there are days when I’m much more productive than others, but once I’ve got going on a book, I write quite quickly. When I’ve finished a draft I like to put it onto my Kindle to read through; it helps it to look and feel different so I can be more objective about what needs to change.

TW: Have you starting writing Book 2 and if so, how have you tackled making it 'same but different' ie keeping your style but with a new story to offer readers?

HC: I’ve just submitted a draft of Book 2 to my agent and my editor (hooray!). Writing this one was quite different – I had more time to devote to it, for one, but I was also writing it knowing that it would be published, that people would read it, and that it would be following my debut. So, a different kind of pressure!

The setting is quite different to The Downstairs Neighbour – it’s set partly in Italy, for example – so that helped it to feel distinct. However, it’s still anchored in families and homes (albeit in a different way), and the disruption caused by big secrets and unexpected crimes. I wanted to stick with the multiple narrators (for reasons discussed above!) but decided to have fewer perspectives this time. Apart from that, I think the new set of characters was the main thing that helped it to feel fresh, and helped me really enjoy writing it. There are so many ways you can write suspense; that’s one of the things I love about it. Coming up with new scenarios, dilemmas, twists and reveals is incredibly exciting – if not always easy.

Quick fire questions:

TW: Flat or house? 

HC: House.

TW:  Ebook or physical book?

HC:  I read both, and like both for different reasons, but would lean towards a physical book.

TW: Reading in bed or reading in the bath?

HC: Definitely in bed!

Thanks Helen!

Photo of author Helen Cooper

More about The Downstairs Neighbour:

In a converted Georgian townhouse in south west London, three families live under one roof.

The large flat that takes up the top two floors is home to the Harlow family: happily married Paul and Steph, and their bubbly teenage daughter Freya. The smaller first floor flat is rented by Emma, who spends most of her time alone, listening to people coming in and out of the building. And the basement flat belongs to Chris, a local driving instructor, who prefers to keep his personal life private from the neighbours.

But their lives are all upended when Freya vanishes. As the police become involved and a frantic Paul and Steph desperately search for answers, they begin to realise that the truth behind their daughter's disappearance may lie closer to home than they were expecting.

When everyone has something to hide, can you ever really know those closest to you? Or will some secrets be taken to the grave?


Come back to Thriller Women next Wednesday for another author interview and book recommendation. It's criminal not to ...


Popular Posts