Sometimes you just have to be a little bit cheeky and when I emailed some of my favourite authors about books they would recommend for the summer I then cheekily followed it up with ‘you wouldn’t want to do a Savidge Reads Grills too would you?’ One of the authors who instantly said ‘yes’ was Sophie Hannah who has become a favourite with me ever since Polly of Novel Insights told me I simply had to read the short story collection ‘The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets’ (when I was a bit vaguer in my reviewing) and then I moved onto her rather addictive crime series, the latest of which ‘A Room Swept White’ comes out in paperback today, what a pleasant coincidence…
For those people who haven’t read any of your series (we can call it a series, can’t we?) of crime novels as yet, can you try and explain them in a single sentence?
They are psychological suspense novels with a police procedural element. That was the single sentence; now here are some more sentences, because I’m a rebel and hate doing what I’m told: the mysteries in my novels tend to be ‘high-concept’, because I love impossible-seeming scenarios which are then made possible. I might also describe them as emotional-psychological mysteries. The mystery element is crucial to me – as a reader of crime fiction, the main thing I want is to be desperate to turn the pages and find out what’s going on, and so that’s the feeling I try to create in my books. I have heard some crime writers say that their main aim is to make a political point or discuss social issues, or dissect contemporary Britain/America/Belgium (er, actually, no one says it about Belgium) in their crime novels, but I am all about story. A great novel can manage without a politically relevant theme, but it can’t manage without a fantastic plot and complex, interesting, problematic characters (though it often thinks it can and it sometimes wins the Booker Prize for thinking so!)
They are all very different. How does each book come about? Where are the ideas born?
Firstly, I’m so glad you think my books are all very different! One of the challenges of writing a series – and, yes, they are a series, even though they are also standalones, because I like to have my cake and eat it! – is to make each book sufficiently different to the others so that readers don’t get bored, at the same time as making them similar enough to reassure readers that they are still in the same imaginative world.
For example, Ruth Rendell can move from London to Kings Markham and back again in her fiction, and that’s interesting and creates a healthy sense of variety within her oeuvre, but if she suddenly wrote a novel set in Nashville in which all the protagonists were Stetson-wearing country and western singers, I might (as one of her avid readers) feel rather alarmed!
To answer your question (ahem!), the ideas almost all come from my own life and (extensive) suffering. So, I once nearly mixed up my baby with another baby (Little Face), once had a very problematic relationship with my mother-in-law (Little Face), many times have fallen in love with poisonous narcissistic tossers (Hurting Distance), have been a stressed and bitter mother of small children, wondering who invented the strange form of torture known as parenthood (The Point of Rescue), have been and still am obsessed with art and doomed love (The Other Half Lives). In fact, the only one of my books that was not inspired by my own life was the latest one, A Room Swept White – that’s about controversial cot-death murder cases, and was inspired by true stories such as those of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel and others. Though even in that book, there’s an autobiographical element – although, since the book is so new, I’m still at the stage of pretending the autobiographical bits are fiction!
Do you find it hard thinking of the impossible and then making it possible?
Yes, I find it very hard – but that’s the challenge. And you’ve neatly summarised my mission statement as a writer – well, almost. It’s not so much about finding the impossible and making it possible, it’s about demonstrating, via gripping stories, that what most people believe is impossible is actually possible. In our lives, we often say, ‘But that’s impossible’, or ‘I just can’t believe it’ – but once you know the full story, suddenly it’s a lot more believable. I have a plausibility test that I use for all my plots, which is, ‘Could this story happen once?’ If the answer is yes, then the story is plausible, in my view. Whereas I think, for a lot of people, plausible means, ‘Does this happen regularly and have I been told about endless instances of it by Huw Edwards on the BBC news?’
Do you mind your books being labelled crime, as they are more than that really, aren’t they? The fit into the Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill world of literary crime…
I certainly don’t mind my novels being labelled as crime – it’s a label I’m proud to wear. As a reader, I like being able to head straight for the crime section of a bookshop, knowing I will find books there that contain mysteries. I know a lot of writers protest about being labelled, but it’s useful for people buying the books if they are divided into categories. ‘Crime Fiction’ is a category that contains, as you say, writers like Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill, Barbara Vine, Karin Alvtegen, all of whom are great writers. I’m slightly uncomfortable with the idea of anyone’s crime novels being ‘more than’ crime fiction, because that suggests there’s a limit to what a crime novel can be, and I don’t believe there is. Look at Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Black Prince’ – undoubtedly a crime novel, and also one of the best novels ever written, full of depth and substance and ideas. I like to think that my novels are novels as well as crime novels – just as a Calzone is an Italian meal as well as a pizza.
Your novels are becoming a TV series – how much involvement are you having with it? Was it hard to say yes, because it’s something you created? Who would be your dream cast?
I’m hardly involved at all – I’ve had the odd lunch and phone call with the TV people, and they send me updates, but I’m definitely at one remove. I feel rather like a parent of a child at boarding school, and Hat Trick and ITV1 are the house master and… Hm, this metaphor’s getting too complicated. It wasn’t hard to say yes – I love the idea of the books being adapted for telly. The telly versions will be very different, but that’s fine, because the books will still exist. My dream cast? Well, the cast is being assembled at this very moment, so I know almost definitely who is going to play Charlie Zailer for example (can’t say, I’m afraid, in case it falls through!). My dream cast will be the actual cast, once I know who they are. I will be so chuffed that they are willing to play my characters – it’d be outrageous of me to prefer anyone else to them.
Are you working on any poetry at the moment? Have you always wanted to write both fiction and poetry or does one have a particular place in your heart over the other?
I am writing the occasional poem at the moment, but mainly I’m concentrating my energies on my crime fiction. This isn’t as unfair as it sounds – I have written hundreds of poems, if not thousands, and only six crime novels so far, so I think a little bit of positive discrimination is in order!
Do you think that having two rather literary parents has anything to do with you becoming a writer either by genetics or the environment you grew up in?
Genetics – I doubt it. Environment? Yes, definitely. Everyone in my family was and is obsessed with books. I was a writer waiting to happen.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was it an easy thing for you to do?
I was never aware of wanting to be a professional writer – writing was simply my hobby, what I did when I was supposed to be doing school work, college work, university work and then, later, secretarial work. I never had the chance to want to write, because I was always writing. Then, at a certain point, people started to suggest to me that I should send stuff off to publishers, and I did – and it was great when my work started to reach an audience, but I don’t remember ever thinking, ‘I’d like to be a writer.’ It sort of happened organically. I always assumed I would never make any money from writing, and that was fine – and then, when I started to earn my living as a writer, that was even better. But I will always write, whether people pay me to do so or not – I’m obsessed with writing.
How long have you been writing for? Which books and authors inspired you to write?
I think I wrote my first poem when I was six. It began, ‘However young, however old/a bear will never catch a cold’. My free-verse-loving detractors might argue that my style hasn’t evolved much since then! Many, many authors have inspired and continue to inspire me: Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Daphne DuMaurier, Iris Murdoch, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Karin Alvtegen, Jill McGown, Wendy Cope, Edna St Vincent Millay, George Herbert, Robert Frost, E.E Cummings, CH Sisson, Douglas Kennedy, Diane Setterfield, Robert Goddard, Jesse Kellerman, Nicci French… Oh, and my favourite newish writer: Tana French, who is absolutely brilliant. I would advise anyone who cares about fiction and crime fiction to read her latest, ‘Faithful Place’.
Are there any books you wish you had written yourself?
No – because I’d rather read my favourite books, in awe of the writers, than have written them myself and be unable to see them clearly and appreciate them. One’s own books are always viewed through a veil of neurosis!
Which contemporary authors do you rate who are writing right now?
Everyone on the above list who isn’t dead, plus: Jane Hill, Sophie Kinsella, Tim Parks, Geoff Dyer, M R Hall – there are so many!
Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
I write between 11 am and 7 pm, with an hour’s break for lunch – weekdays only, unless there’s a deadline emergency! Since giving up smoking, I have taken to chewing a needle while I write. It’s a mental thing to do, but it’s non-carcinogenic.
How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your books or is it something you avoid at all costs?
You’re asking the wrong person! I regularly complain that I can’t put a video tape into a machine any more and record TV programmes, and when people start talking to me about SkyPlus I nod and smile, but have no clue what they’re talking about. I’m not against new digital thingies, but I’m too busy to find out what they are or take part in them – so I’m stuck with the technology that existed before I became too busy. But I do sometimes read blogs, especially yours, because you say nice things about my books. I also find time to surf property websites, I’m a Phil and Kirstie addict…
What is next for Sophie Hannah?
Funnily enough, my next thriller (out next Feb) has a property website theme. It’s called ‘Lasting Damage’. Here’s the blurb: It’s 1.15 a.m. Connie Bowskill should be asleep. Instead, she’s logging on to a property website in search of a particular house: 11 Bentley Grove, Cambridge. She knows it’s for sale; she saw the estate agent’s board in the front garden less than six hours ago.
Soon Connie is clicking on the ‘Virtual Tour’ button, keen to see the inside of 11 Bentley Grove and put her mind at rest once and for all. She finds herself looking at a scene from a nightmare: in the living room there’s a woman lying face down in a huge pool of blood. In shock, Connie wakes her husband Kit. But when Kit sits down at the computer to take a look, he sees no dead body, only a pristine beige carpet in a perfectly ordinary room…