Helen Monks Takhar Author Of That Woman

What's it like to be at the top of your mid-life game only to have a younger woman coveting your life? This week's interviewee is Helen Monks Takhar whose novel That Woman is published in paperback this week (its hardback title was Precious You) and features Katherine and her nemesis Lily. Who will come out on top? What inspired Helen to write the novel and who would she like to play the two women in a film version?

Download the ebook of That Woman from Amazon or buy the paperback from Thriller Women's list at Bookshop.org. NB: if you buy books through this link we may earn a commission from bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops.

Front cover of That Woman by Helen Monks Takhar

TW: What was your career before becoming a novelist? 

HMT: My stock-in-trade is copywriting and editing, having started out as a journalist. Working collaboratively with various clients on the stories they want to tell will put anyone in good stead for publishing their novel, because it’s a hugely, and maybe to some, surprisingly collaborative process.


TW: What inspired you to write That Woman?

HMT: A common or garden midlife crisis spurred me into writing That Woman – the anger, confusion and desperation that comes when you realise it’s someone else’s turn to be young and if you don’t do everything you can now to do the thing you really want to, then you may be running out of time to make that happen. This was the driving force for the writing and for Katherine’s character.


TW: What was it like to finally get interest in a manuscript after 17 years of trying? 

HMT: After years and years of howling into the wilderness, the first time I got asked for the full manuscript was utterly amazing. There have been ups and down along the way to seeing That Woman on the shelves (anyone whose debut was published in 2020, and isn’t Richard Osman, will likely attest to the ‘character-building’ nature of the experience), but I know it’s practically lottery odds to get this far, so I am, above everything else, hugely grateful and constantly surprised at being published.


TW: We loved That Woman and couldn't stop turning the pages. Its two main characters are Katherine, in her early forties, and Lily who in her early twenties. How do you think the two generations of women differ and why did you write about this theme?

HMT: Thanks so much! It’s not only a vanity thing when people say they enjoyed the book (I mean, it definitely is that too), but also because I realise it’s not always an easy book to love because of the dreadful things Katherine and Lily put each other through! In terms of the differences between the generations, I’d like to argue these are fewer than we’re inclined to imagine, and the more we find our common ground, the stronger we can be in tackling the injustices that face us all – sexism, objectification, harassment, eventual ageism. One of the central points That Woman seeks to make is that if Katherine and Lily had only worked together then they could have been so much more powerful (but then the book would not exist…).


TW: Neither women are particularly likeable. Why did you write them like this and how does it add to the story?

HMT: What’s weird is that I had no idea how unlikeable Katherine was until the book was out there! Lily was designed to be kind of despicable from the off until the story turned her in the light and you could see the sadness that warped her. But with Katherine, I imagined that at first I was showing her as a cynical, slightly broken but darkly humorous woman on the edge, until I revealed the blackest bits of her. But clearly, she’s much worse than that to most right-minded people. I don’t know, I still like her. Not sure what that says about me…


TW: Do you think it's fair to call millennials the snowflake generation? 

HMT: Not at all. The psychological resilience it must take to try and live and work towards a future where you’ll likely be denied the things people my age took for granted – solvency, home ownership, or at the very least, housing security, and being able to afford to start a family – must be deep. And what makes it much worse for younger people is being located in a hate narrative describing them as ‘precious snowflakes’ generated by people who imagine our economic advantages stem from our exceptionalism and hard work, rather than the cohort we work lucky enough to be born into.


TW: How do you think the novel may be different if you wrote it in your 20s?

HMT: The manuscripts I wrote in my twenties were much…sunnier. Also, I wasn’t really thinking of the reader when I first started writing. By the time I wrote That Woman and knew it was going to be a thriller, I really thought about creating a satisfying reading experience, even if it drove readers a little crazy in the process.


TW: What's your writing routine?

HMT: Half the time I get up before five and write on and off until nine (meals, gym, two children not in that priority order and not withstanding). The rest of the time, I keep more regular hours and go on a lot of walks where I ‘think write’.


TW: If you weren't a novelist, which other job would you love to have?


HMT: I think what I’d say is that no matter what I’ve done, or will do in the future, I will always be writing. It’s the satisfaction of turning nothing into something and having somewhere to go where I control absolutely everything I can’t resist. I think that’s why I managed to write so much in lockdown, including an unsolicited sequel to That Woman - it gave me access to a familiar world of my own making where I could spend time with some old friends I didn’t need to keep any distance from.


TW: Who would you love to play Katherine and Lily in a film or TV version?


HMT: Katherine – Rachel Weisz (and can I have Daniel Craig as Iain, please? Olivia Coleman as Gemma?)

Lily – Florence Pugh.


TW: Great choices! What are you working on now?

HMT: I’ve just approved the copy edits on book two, which is out next summer, and book three is out for submission. I’m also working on two TV pilots with my husband, Danny Takhar, who’s a screenwriter and exec producer. There are also three other manuscripts I’m playing around with, deciding which, if any, I’ll focus on next.


Quick fire questions:



TW: Favourite film?

HMT: Can I have four – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terminator Two: Judgment Day, Sideways, Withnail and I.


TW: Favourite music?

HMT: I’m a huge Beatles fan. Also, my crowning achievement of 2020 was learning I was in the top two per cent of global consumers of Lana del Ray on Spotify.


TW: Favourite TV programme? 

HMT: I just re-watched The Wire. Wow.


TW: Favourite book?

HMT:  Can I have three? My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


TW: Who is your literary inspiration?

HMT:  Right now, any writer who persists, who can keep finding ways to find stories readers want to hear and tell them in ways they want to hear them.

Thanks Helen!

Black and white photograph of author Helen Monks Takhar

Exclusive extract from That Woman:


Katherine

I’ve lost you in the neon river of high-visibility vests and chrome helmets flying ahead of my car towards the junction.

You lot all look the same. Is that what they think of us? I can hear Iain say. I fight my exhaustion, rub my gritty eyes and try to find you again.

I slept in my car last night. I had that dream again, the one I told you about, the one I’ve had every night since I laid eyes on you. I’m back at my mother’s farm. A darkness soaks into my bones; a black sky marbled with thick red veins envelopes me. Through the gloom, I see my top half is me today; a short swish of black hair, my strong arms shielded by a leather biker jacket. The bottom half is twelve-year-old me; my mother’s dirty cast-off jeans hanging off stringy legs. I’m starving. Barefoot, at first I’m treading on stubbled grass, but the terrain quickly changes; I’m stepping on burnt pasture, like a thousand tiny razors under my bony feet. My blood begins to wet the parched scrub below. Suddenly, the ground begins to separate into hundreds of deep gullies. My instinct is to freeze, but I know I must go forward; ahead of me is the gate to the far paddock and I have to reach it to end this nightmare and stop my hunger. And I can’t see her, but I know my mother is watching. She thinks I’ll never make it. She thinks me too weak; she always tried to keep me so. She’s willing me to stop, but I keep pushing forward, despite the pain, despite the hungry chasms at my feet that want to swallow me, I force myself to place one foot in front of the other to reach the gate.

I woke up aching, bent double in the backseat of my Mini. My life has come to this because of you: an existence played out slumped in Costa armchairs and the car I can’t afford to insure anymore. This morning I’d decided to drive. I didn’t know where or why until I spotted you on your bike. Then, I knew exactly what I had to do.

I stop-start, tracking you through the clog of traffic edging towards De Beauvoir and into Shoreditch, then the City. At Liverpool Street you snake your way through stationary vehicles and out of my sight. Then, the jam begins to shift, allowing me to edge forward and mark you again, keeping just a few metres behind you as the traffic pushes down Gracechurch Street.

We’re nearly there.

Five cyclists have died on the junction ahead in the past year. Five young lives, just like yours, lost.

The car in front turns to give me free passage to the edge of the advanced stop line at the junction. I’ve got you in my sights. It’s as if the world has finally decided to take my side, but no sooner than I start to move forward, cyclists flood into the void ahead. I’m surrounded once more by glinting handlebars and fluorescent young bodies.

I’m stuck.

I search desperately for you up ahead, then in my rear- view. But you’ve disappeared. You’re going to enjoy another day on this earth; another day in my job, going home to my flat, tucking yourself into the bed my partner and I chose together.

Then, there you are.

You’ve pulled up right next to my door, your eyes focused on the lights ahead. Your body, that close to me again, makes my blood rise. You’re inches from me, I could reach out, grab your arm, and beg you to tell me once and for all: Why? When I was ready to help you, why did you set out to snatch everything that was mine?

You start to move away, squeezing through the other cyclists to the very front of the pack. You flash that smile of yours. Of course, they let you pass. That devastating smile. That smile is like the warmest sun and the brightest light. That smile has undone my life.

Behind you, I move ahead too, breaching the cyclists’ zone and causing various slaps on my Mini’s roof and cries of What the fuck do you think you’re doing, you stupid cow? to erupt as I force them out of my path. You swivel round to see what’s causing the uproar, but quickly turn back towards the lights, knowing they’ll change any second. You don’t notice my car creeping up right behind you, and you don’t wait for the green light before deciding to strike out on your own; up off your seat, powerful calves bearing down onto the pedals as you begin your acceleration. But it’s time you were stopped from getting ahead of me.

Your back wheel fills my sight.

I wonder what your body will feel like under me, as your bones crunch and collapse. I can almost smell your blood, running hot in the final moments before it gushes from you, cooling as it flows out onto the tarmac to drip into the waiting drains and down to an impassive Thames.

Only when this happens can I really begin again.

The lights change to green. I slam my foot down hard on the accelerator.

More about That Woman


There's a new girl at work.

Young, beautiful, confident, she's everything you used to be. You're flattered when she befriends you.

So when your boss starts giving her your work, at first you think it's a mistake.

But then, one Sunday, the new girl turns up in your local pub. The next week, she starts dressing like you...

Now she's taking control of everything. Because she doesn't just want your job - she wants your life...

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