Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Erin Kelly’s first novel, a psychological thriller titled The Poison Tree, was released to rave reviews in Britain last summer and has just come out in the U.S. to a similarly positive reception. The tale of a strait-laced student named Karen, whose involvement with glamorous, bohemian Biba and her enigmatic brother culminates in murder, has been described as compelling, twisted, and wonderfully evocative. Erin is making several appearances in the U.S. this week. Visit her website at http://www.erinkelly.co.uk for a list of her bookstore stops.
Erin was born in London in 1976 and grew up in Essex. She has worked as a journalist since 1998, writing for newspapers including The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Express and various magazines. She lives in London with her husband and daughter.
Q. The Poison Tree has had an extraordinary reception from reviewers and readers. Were you prepared for this, or has all the attention taken you by surprise?
A. It would feel like tempting fate to prepare myself for anything! But it’s great to know the book is finding its way onto people’s shelves.
Q. An obvious question: What – or who – inspired the story? Can you tell us briefly how and when the story and characters took root in your imagination and how they evolved into the finished novel?
A. There’s no single inspiration behind the novel. Although I wrote it quickly, it had a very long gestation period. While I daydreamed characters, plots and locations, a few themes and ideas kept recurring. I love coming-of-age novels, especially when the narrative is from the perspective of middle age. And I wanted to write about the glorious irresponsibility of that time between college and real-life. I wanted to write a London novel, because that’s the city I know better than any other. When I decided to set the action in Highwater, a leafy, wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city, everything came together.
I’m often asked who Biba is based on. She’s actually a composite of various people I’ve met over the years, although in some of these cases I’ve actually toned her behavior down. That doesn’t stop my friends being convinced they ‘know who she is’, though.
Q. Was this an easy book to sell, or did you face a few rejections along the way?
A. The first time my British agent shared the book with publishers in London, there was some initial interest but nothing came of it; publishers were concerned that it was difficult to pigeonhole – was it women’s fiction, crime or commercial?- they were worried about how to sell it. A few of them expressed doubts about the original ending, which was quite ambiguous; they said that part of the appeal of mystery and suspense fiction is that you close the deal with the readers.
So I went away for a few months and polished the book, reworking the ending to make it more conclusive, and I’m so pleased that I did: the ‘new’ ending feels absolutely right for the novel. This time the straddling of different genres was seen as a positive and publishers called it crossover fiction. It went to a four-way auction, which was fantastic after the initial rejection. In the US, things were much more straightforward; I was picked up by my editor at Viking within a few days of her receiving the manuscript.
Q. Have you written other, unpublished novels? Have you always wanted to be a novelist or is this a recent ambition?
A. I don’t have any novels gathering dust in my desk drawer, no. But I have always wanted to write. I became a journalist largely because I heard that once you had a track record in print, it was easier to get a book deal. Then I got rather seduced and distracted by the job, and it wasn’t until I got pregnant in spring 2008 that I decided it was time to actually sit down and write the novel I’d been thinking and talking about for years.
Q. Daphne du Maurier, Ruth Rendell – does comparison to those legendary writers intimidate you at all? Do you feel your work fits the same mold as theirs?
A. Of course I’m hugely flattered. You don’t have to be a sleuth to spot that both Rendell and du Maurier have greatly influenced my own work. Both writers create a strong sense of place and deal with themes that appeal to me, such as the past intruding on the present. I’ve read Rebecca at least once a year since I was fourteen. I love the way du Maurier marries nail-biting suspense with unabashed romance.
Q. What other authors have influenced your writing, and in what way? Which current writers are on your must-read list?
A. I like beautifully-written page-turners and all of the following make me want to raise my game: Kate Atkinson and William Boyd both prove that suspense and plotting can co-exist alongside great writing. Tana French writes dialogue that’s second to none. I admire Kazuo Ishiguro and Josephine Hart for their restraint – I don’t know how they do it. Going further back, I love Patricia Highsmith, Jean Rhys, Graham Greene, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and – yes! – Edgar Allan Poe.
Q. Your next book, coming out in the UK later this year, is titled The Sick Rose. You seem to have something of a nasty horticultural theme going. Is that intentional – or had it even occurred to you before I asked you about it?
A. Both books take their titles from William Blake poems. The Poison Tree had a dozen working titles, while I knew what The Sick Rose was going to be called before I wrote a word. My friend and proofreader Helen suggested The Poison Tree as it was a good companion to The Sick Rose. Green places do inspire me: The Sick Rose is set in an ancient garden, while the city wood is central to The Poison Tree. I like the idea of using another Blake quote for my third book, but I think I’m done with nasty horticulture for now!
Q. What draws you to psychological suspense, as opposed to murder mysteries or conventional thrillers? What can you do in a psychological suspense novel that you might not be able to do in a different type of crime story?
A. The stories that have most inspired me are those of ordinary people out of their depth, which is a good definition of a psychological thriller. I’m interested in the other side of the traditional murder mystery – it’s what happens before the cops turn up that interests me. I love finding the dramatic and the gothic in the ostensibly mundane.
Besides, most conventional, or procedural, thrillers require a recurring protagonist, usually someone whose line of work means they repeatedly come into contact with crime. I shy away from this for two reasons: firstly, research is my least favourite part of the writing process as no matter how thoroughly I do it I’m always terrified I’ve omitted some vital detail, and it would be picked up! So many writers do this so well, and crime readers are so switched-on. Secondly, while I love to watch characters grow and develop over a series of novels – I’m thinking in particular of Kate Atkinson’s private eye Jackson Brodie, who’s a brilliant, real, compelling character – I don’t like the idea of committing to the same character book after book. I like to know that I can kill off whoever I want when I’m writing with no repercussions for future novels!
Q. Do you plan to continue working as a journalist, or do you want to concentrate on fiction full-time?
A. I’m enjoying concentrating on fiction now. I hope I’ll always be able to do both, but it’s hard to juggle the two professions as they require opposite mindsets. To work well as a journalist you have to be constantly switched-on, reading all the newspapers, on top of the trends, always checking your email and within arm’s reach of your phone. To write good fiction I find the opposite is necessary: the more disconnected and uninterrupted the better.
Q. In addition to your current appearances in the U.S., will we see you at any of the big mystery conventions, like Bouchercon?
A. No plans in place at the moment, but I do love meeting readers and other writers. They’re the best place to find out about new authors – I always come home with a long shopping list!