Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sophie Hannah: New Mistress of Suspense

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Sophie Hannah does suspense the way Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine does it: by using the mundane routines of everyday life to construct a nightmarish trap for her vulnerable characters.

Sophie is a bestselling crime fiction writer in Britain and is rapidly winning readers all over the world with her beautifully written and cleverly plotted psychological thrillers. Little Face, Hurting Distance and The Wrong Mother (titled The Point of Rescue in Britain) have been published in the U.S., and The Dead Lie Down (titled The Other Half Lives in Britain) is slated for American publication.

Before she turned to crime fiction, Sophie was already the celebrated auth
or of three mainstream novels, a children’s book, and several poetry collections. Her poetry is studied at schools across the UK. From 1997 to 1999 she was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, and between 1999 and 2001 she was a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. She lives in West Yorkshire with her husband and two children.

Sophie will appear at Bouchercon in Indianapolis this month and afterward will speak and sign at several bookstores before returning home.

Q. You wrote several non-genre novels before turning to suspense. What lured you over to the dark

A. I've always been obsessed with mystery fiction, since I was a kid. My pa
rents bought me one of Enid Blyton's Secret Seven mysteries when I was
about five or six, and I remember reading it and
thinking, “Stories with mysteries in them are so much better than those without -- why don't all books have mysteries in them?” I've never really changed my mind on that point. I read all of Enid Blyton, then discovered Agatha Christie and read all her books, then Ruth Rendell... I'm a mystery addict, really! I think it's because I'm quite nosy. In real life, I'm always desperate to know something -- what someone's thinking, what's going on behind the scenes in people's lives that they don't talk about -- and the great thing about suspense fiction is that you know your nosiness is going to be satisfied at the end of the book.

Q. Why did you choose to write suspense rather than traditional whodunnits told primarily from the sleuth’s or police detective’s POV? What is it about the suspense form that you find rewarding as a writer?

A. Well, each of my books combines two narrative perspectives. I always have a female protagonist in some kind of nightmarish situation, and half of each book is narrated in the first person by the heroine of that particular book. But then the other half is in the third person from the main detectives' points of view. I decided, when I set out to write my first crime novel, that I would do it this way and it worked so well for me that I've stuck to it. It enables me to look at whatever's going on from two very distinct angles and I think it helps to portray the events of each novel “in the round”, as it were. For the heroine, whatever's going on is liable to ruin her life (if not end it!) unless she can sort it out. For the police, it's their job to solve the mystery and sort out whatever crime might have been committed, so not as much is at stake for them, or rather a lot might be at stake but its usually professional stuff -- their reputation, their career prospects. I like, in my novels, to show what the same crime means to different people.

So, that's my literary explanation, but from a personal point of view -- bearing in mind that I write the books I'd love to read but that don't exist yet -- my two favourite sub-genres within the crime genre are the first-person-narrated woman-in-peril psychological thriller and the third-person-narrated police procedural, so I thought: “Why not have the best of both worlds and combine the two?”

Q. You feature the same police detectives from book to book. Do you plan to develop them more fully and focus on them more in future books?

A. Yes, I do plan to develop my cop protagonists further and keep them in my novels for the foreseeable future. As a reader of series detective novels, I always look forward to the new Inspector Wexford, or the new Inspector Morse, and I think there can be real pleasure gained from having a recurring detective character or characters -- it's like meeting an old friend again after not seeing them for a while! Also, now I'm very attached to my police characters. I'd really miss them, I think, if I stopped putting them in my books. My readers also are attached to them, and regularly email me to check I'm planning to continue their story.

Q. In The Wrong Mother, your portrayal of mothers and their feelings toward their children is brutally honest. How have your female readers reacted? Do they identify with characters who love their kids but sometimes feel burdened by them, or do they consider your fictional mothers abnormal?

A. The fun
ny thing is that I thought some people might disapprove of the negative attitudes towards motherhood in the book, but I've had an overwhelmingly positive reaction -- loads of emails from women saying, “I thought I was the only one who'd ever felt that way, and I'm so pleased you had the courage to write a no-holds-barred account of it.” Even my friends who have loved being full-time mums and are, in my view, perfect mothers said that they loved reading about nasty, selfish mothers resenting their children. I think, even if you are someone who behaves well, it's always fun to read about someone else behaving really badly!

And the nasty-mother scenes were very cathartic to write, I must say! I found it very hard when my kids were little, and I always struggled to do my best
for them, and wouldn't have wanted to do otherwise, but I thoroughly enjoyed inventing a character who shamelessly prioritizes herself over her daughter every time and wishes she'd never bothered having a child. In my darkest moments, I did have some thoughts along those lines. Luckily, extensive child-care provision from nannies, nurseries and babysitters enabled me to get through those difficult early years. Otherwise, I might well have become as deranged as the worst mothers in my novel!

Q. Two recurring themes in your books are mother/child relationships and false identities. What draws you to these subjects?

A. I don't have mother-child relationships in all my books. They're prominent in both Little Face and The Wrong Mother, but I've written two other suspense novels that are child-free. I need regular breaks from the company of children, in writing as in life! But, yes, I suppose mother-child relationships and, more generally, family relationships are a particular interest of mine. There's so much drama in families, so many secrets and undercurrents and hidden resentm
ents. I find them fascinating.

I am also fascinated by the idea of people turning out to be not who they're suppose
d to be -- I think because, to me, the scariest thing I can imagine would be finding out that things are not at all how they seem. If the version of your life that you believe in one hundred per cent turns out to be false, how terrifying is that?

I'm also fascinated by the apparently impossible in a mystery plot -- yet it must be possible because it's happened. Like that moment in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, when one character me mentions to another that Norman Bates lives with his mother and the other character says, “But his mother's dead. If she's living in that house, who is it that's been buried in such-and-such cemetery for twenty-five years?” There's a real thrill in realizing that the seemingly impossible is actually happening. Also, mysteries that seem impossible are harder to solve, and that's an added
interest of mine as a writer -- I like the challenge of finding the perfect solution to an apparently impossible mystery!

Q. In a review of Hurting Distance in the Independent, the reviewer wrote, “This is a far better-written book than any genre label might suggest.” American crime fiction writers are accustomed to that kind of snobbery, but does it surprise you? Do you think mystery and suspense novelists (who, in my own opinion, are producing some of the best writing being published these days) are less respected than they should be?

A. Yes, there's that same snobbery about crime fiction in the UK. I just totally ignore it. Having read A Dark-adapted Eye by Barbara Vine, and Half-broken Things by Morag Joss, and In the Woods by Tana French, and countless other brilliant crime novels, I am in no doubt that mystery and suspense fiction can be every bit as worthwhile, memorable, deep and full of literary merit as literary fiction. My theory about the snobs (some of whom even love reading mystery fiction themselves, but still dismiss it as disposable) is that they're insecure about their own cleverness. They want to prove their
intellectual and literary credentials, and use their choice of reading matter as a way of doing this. Whereas I know I'm clever and don't feel the need to prove it, so I allow myself to read and write the most enjoyable kind of fiction there is: mystery fiction.

Q. How has your life changed since you became a bestselling writer? What is the best aspect of this kind of success, and what are the drawbacks?

A. The best thing about being a bestselling writer is that so many readers write to me to say they love my books, and that's fantastic. It really boosts my confidence, and helps me to trust my creative instincts, because I can think to myself, “I must be doing something right, or all those people wouldn't write me those nice letters.” So now when I have a
new idea that seems a bit scary and risky, I tell myself, “You've got to do it, however scary it seems -- if you hadn't taken those risks before, you wouldn't have written all those other books that readers loved enough to make the effort of writing to you.”

Also, I now have much more money than I had before, which is great. People say that money doesn't buy happiness, but it certainly buys you a lot more freedom, and you can't be properly happy if you aren't free. The drawback of my situation is that with every book I become more worried about letting readers down -- is this book as good as the last? You've got more to live up to, and you have a sense of constantly competing against yourself, which can be exhausting.

Q. How do you manage to write while keeping up a busy promotion schedule and managing a household with children? What is your writing routine like?

A. When I'm working on a first draft, I write every weekday, between about 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. When I'm not working on a novel, I'm touring, or sorting out my house/children. The answer is that I manage by running myself into the ground and being exhausted all the time. I ought to take better care of myself, but I'm too busy to work out how to do that (like the heroine of The Wrong Mother!)

Q. I hope you’ll enjoy this year’s Bouchercon in Indianapolis and your bookstore appearances in the US afterward. Have you been to the US before to promote your books?

A. I was in the US last year promoting Little Face. So this is my second US tour.

In the third week of October, Sophie will appear at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ, Houston's Murder by the Book, and Oakland's A Great Good Place for Books. Check the stores’ web sites for dates and times. Visit Sophie’s web site at for more information about her and her books.


June Shaw said...

Excellent story! Sophie, I'm sorry to admit I didn't know of your work but certainly will read your books now.

And I agree about mothers not allowing ourselves time for us. The protagonist of my humorous mysteries is a spunky young grandma who stuggles with learning to feel good about doing things for herself instead of always putting family first. It's fun!

Julia Buckley said...

What a fascinating interview! Sophie, I look forward to reading your books.