Sarah-Kate Lynch on The Sounds

Sarah-Kate Lynch, creator and writer of The Sounds, tells TV Drama about trading in her signature rom-com book-writing style for something much more twisty for this Acorn TV original series.

The remote, idyllic Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand serve as the backdrop of a new eight-part psychological thriller. The Sounds tells the story of a missing person and a blissful marriage turned upside down in a sleepy town where nothing is quite what it seems. The Acorn TV original series exclusively premieres on September 3 on the platform in the U.S. and U.K. with two episodes, followed by a weekly episode to premiere every Monday from September 7 through October 12. The drama is created and written by best-selling novelist Sarah-Kate Lynch (Blessed Are the Cheesemakers, House of Daughters, Finding Tom Connor). She tells TV Drama about trading in her signature rom-com book-writing style for something much more twisty for this TV series.

***Image***TV DRAMA: What was the genesis of The Sounds?
LYNCH: It’s quite a good story actually! I was a travel writer, and I take pretty much every opportunity to go anywhere I can. I had gotten the use of someone’s boat in Turkey. My husband and I were in this beautiful bay that’s only accessible by sea. I was reading a book while my husband had gone off swimming. After a while, I put the book down and thought, he’s been gone quite a long time. I started to panic! I got in a kayak and went looking for him. I couldn’t find him anywhere. There were a lot of tourist boats coming in and out and I thought, has he had a heart attack or been run over by a boat or drowned? Then I thought, maybe he’s just gone off to shore to start another life? [Laughs] At which point I completely relaxed actually and stopped looking for him. He did come back. But I thought, well that’s an idea for a TV show!

I thought instantly about where in New Zealand I could set this TV show. It needed to be somewhere accessible by water but not by land. There’s this particularly beautiful area of the country called the Sounds. The next day I broke my arm, and I couldn’t do any of the things you’d normally do when you’re in a beautiful place surrounded by water, so I wrote down the idea [for this show].

I came back to New Zealand and was working on another TV series. I happened to be at the production company and the head of development asked, more or less in passing, You wouldn’t happen to have an idea [for a show] set in a scenic part of New Zealand that’s a thriller and could maybe have a Canadian component to it? And actually, yes, I did! I went home that night and found my handwritten idea, typed it up, sent it in, and they optioned it the next day. That’s just a drop in the ocean of what happens afterward, but the idea remained intact from the day on that boat in Turkey.

TV DRAMA: What are some of the deeper themes you wanted to explore across the eight episodes, against the backdrop of the larger story?
LYNCH: I love when people do things wrong when they’ve got the opportunity not to. I’m always interested in the moment that they make that choice; I think human nature is fascinating. You can take a person who’s got everything, but they want something they can’t have, and that drives them to do things they really shouldn’t. I also love the moment when you realize that you’ve done wrong, and you’ve got a choice again: to keep doing wrong to get what you want or do the right thing and pay the cost. There are those ideas rumbling along, then the idea of the price of not telling the truth, hiding lies—secrets will be uncovered.

I’m also interested in how far women will go to get what they want. Modern women are educated, have amazing careers, but there can be things that when you get to the end of your 30s you think that you can have, but that’s not the case for everybody. If you’ve had 39 years thinking that’s the case, it can come as a bit of a rude shock that the universe may not always be with you, and there are some things you can do about that, but things that you also shouldn’t do. There are those little complications bubbling along that fascinate me.

TV DRAMA: Do you envision future seasons of The Sounds?
LYNCH: I do have an idea for series two. And I’m working on a few other things. When people see The Sounds, hopefully they’ll engage with it. New Zealand is such a beautiful country; we have so much visually to offer. When I first started writing novels, which were sold internationally, I asked my agent in New York if I should set a book in New Zealand. They said, Nobody knows what New Zealand is about really, so no! [Laughs] I got that because I remember the first time I tried to read The Shipping News, which is set in Newfoundland. I had never heard of it, and I couldn’t picture it in my mind. I could understand that from an international-sales perspective, New Zealand 20 years ago wasn’t that alluring, especially in a novel. But now, television and streaming have opened up the world. You don’t necessarily need to know exactly [where a show is set] in order to appreciate the story. Luckily for us, especially in the time of COVID as we can still produce television here [in New Zealand], it’s such an amazing opportunity that adds to it and takes nothing away.

TV DRAMA: How has your other TV work informed how you approached this series, which you created and wrote?
LYNCH: I haven’t done much TV at all. I have worked in many areas of writing, including as a journalist, but I didn’t think I could make a living out of novels anymore. I was thinking about what other areas I could move into that I already had the skills for and liked doing. TV was an obvious answer. I went and observed the work at the production company for Shortland Street. They then asked me to join a writers’ mentoring program, so they taught me how to write scripts for Shortland Street. Then I got asked to write for a show called 800 Words, which is also produced by South Pacific Pictures and is also on Acorn TV. It was while I was working on that show that I walked past the door of the head of development, who asked about the thriller idea set in New Zealand. In the meantime, with another production company, I had been adapting somebody else’s novels into a thriller, with a show called The Bad Seed. That was really something to cut your teeth with. Adapting somebody else’s books is a tricky prospect, and we were adapting two of them into a thriller. What I learned from that is that you just have to be clever, especially with a thriller. You have to be ahead of the audience. You have to have a very focused vision on what you would be able to believe and beyond. As a novelist, you have that anyway. You write an 80,000-word novel, and you’ve got to read it probably 300 times. You have to have that focus to come to it as if it’s the first time each time you look at it. With thrillers, that really helps. Thrillers are such a tricky beast, but that’s why they’re so amazing to watch! There’s another level of entertainment to them.

TV DRAMA: Most of the novels you’ve written are in the vein of romantic comedy, but this is very much a thriller. What are the nuances to crafting a thriller and how did this process of story creation and writing differ from the rom-coms?
LYNCH: Almost all of my novels were romantic comedies, but there was always a twist. There was always a secret, something you didn’t expect, something keeping a character from being their best self because of it. What has transpired is that before, the novels were mainly romantic comedies with food and a twist. Now, I’m just focusing on the twist. There’s always a bit of humor. I’m very keen, with the likes of The Sounds, to get Kiwi humor across; it’s rather dry and quite self-effacing. Small-town New Zealand is quite an interesting place to be, and that carries across. The gift you have as a novelist is that you’re used to creating a world and developing characters. Television is all about character. With a novel, you have to have your characters so crystal clear in your mind that they can sustain the scrutiny of someone reading through 80,000 words and then going back to page 100 and saying, This character wouldn’t have done this over here! That character building has been massively helpful in my TV work.