Book Club: With Author of The School Run Ali Lowe

The author chats with The Weekly about competitive parenting, baking and the dark secrets hidden in Sydney’s beautiful beachfront suburbs.
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AWW: You mention in the acknowledgements that The School Run was inspired by a conversation with friends about the school admissions process. What attracted you to the cut-throat world of private schools? And how did you come up with the various schemes Bec, Estella and Kaya engage in? 

Ali: It had to be a private school really because I needed to have a school that would allow me to have this whole concept of gala day, and kids performing in a sporting race and doing an interview in order to be accepted. Also, I quite liked the idea of having all these monied people who really thought sending their child to the most expensive, exclusive school would be the best for them. As you find out later in the book perhaps it isn’t the best option for every child.

I was talking to friends in the playground as my son was reaching the end of year 5, and there was a lot of chatter about certain schools where if you weren’t baptised you might not be at the top of the list. Or certain schools where there was such a long list that it was unlikely that people whose dads didn’t go there might not get a place, and it just really got me thinking about how competitive it could be.

In your research, did you uncover any stories of scheming parents that made you think, ‘That’s too outrageous’? 

Most of my research was very much a case of write what you know, which all of my books are really. When I was writing The Trivia Night I had two kids in primary school and one in day care, so I was very much in that world. Not in the world of swinging I might add! When I was writing The Running Club it was Covid, and everyone was running. So I was very much in that world. The School Run was when my own son was advancing into high school and I was starting to think about my daughter going to high school after him.

It’s fictional license really, and me wanting my characters to do things that were outrageous for the sake of it being a good story. I have heard of families investigating getting children baptised in order to get a favourable chance of getting into Catholic schools. But other than that, there wasn’t anything that was crazily outrageous that I pulled from. I did think about the admissions scandal in the US, with the faked rowing pictures. There was that in the background, making me think about faking things and pushing me into considering what outrageous things women will do for their kids. 

Buy The School Run at QBD Books here.

Bec is an accomplished baker, and we hear quite a lot of vivid detail about how she assembles her creations. Are you a baker yourself?

I really like baking cakes and I do it for my kids for their birthdays. I’ve done all sorts. I’m doing a Taylor Swift one for my daughter next weekend. I’ve done a Paw Patrol one and a Lego one. I’ve got quite limited skills, but I am quite good at doing the fondant thing. I find that weirdly therapeutic.

It’s something that I enjoy doing, so I knew some of the cake terms. 

Sydney’s beautiful beaches are a through line that connect your three novels. What is it about that part of the world that you love so much?

I really enjoyed writing about the beaches. Technically they’re all made-up places but yes, they are set on the beaches of Sydney. I guess it’s my comfort place. They call us the insular peninsula up here. Everything is so clean and safe and lovely, its quite nice trying to find the bad side of paradise.

It’s such a beautiful area but I’ve really enjoyed making it quite sinister and showing that everything with a perfect veneer isn’t always perfect.

I read that crime writer Michael Robotham once told you ‘If you know the ending, then the reader will too’, which is great advice for any thriller author. How far did you get into this novel before you decided who you were going to pin the crime on?

Quite far actually. With The Running Club I really did not know until just over half-way, maybe slightly further, and I said to my husband, ‘I really don’t know who did it. Who do you think it would be? This person or two people together? Or this person?’ It was really a mystery to me.

But it was really good that I’d had that piece of advice because I was able to make everyone a suspect and that’s really important if you’re writing a mystery.

With The School Run the perpetrator came to me just over halfway but I actually added in another fatality, so that wasn’t there in the beginning and that came quite late stages. So things can really chop and change.

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Have you ever finished a novel, and then gone back and changed who the offender was?

Not completely finished but I might have been writing towards the end and thought, hold on, it would be stronger if this person had more involvement, or this person was a co-conspirator or this person had another strong sub-plot. Quite often, even up to the last point, things change.

I’ve just finished my edits for book four and I added extra chapters and little sub-plots. So I think that’s the downfall of not planning particularly well but I also feel like I couldn’t plan. I just don’t think I could be very creative if I planned. I know some people who write brilliant books who use spreadsheets but I think I would get myself in a real pickle if I did that. I prefer to go a bit haywire and a bit AWOL and then reign myself in at the end.

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You have a degree in ancient history. Do you ever think about tackling historical fiction?

Maybe at some point but at the moment I’m just really loving this genre, this suburban noir. Perhaps one day if I get fatigued of that and I might try my hand at something with a bit of history in it but I’ll probably just leave it to the experts and the people who do it so well.

You’ve been editing your fourth book. What can you tell us about it?

It’s a destination thriller set in the South Pacific and it follows a group of holiday makers on a private island who may or may not be there for the right reasons.

The School Run is available now. Read our review here and enjoy an exclusive extract from the book in the April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

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