Sophie Hannah on Crime Writing
TSM: Tell us about your new book, The Carrier??
SH: The Carrier is the story of Gaby, a woman who finds out that the only man she’s ever loved, Tim Breary, has been charged with the murder of his wife, Francine. Gaby’s convinced Tim didn’t do it, but he’s confessed. The only problem is, he’s told detectives that he had no motive – that he killed Francine for no reason at all. The police suspect he’s lying, but everyone in the house at the time of the murder corroborates his story – a little too conveniently. The Carrier is predominantly a murder mystery, a whodunit and a whydunit, but it’s also a story about obsessive love, unhealthy control and fear in intimate relationships, and what it means to be a good or a bad person.
TSM: What were your experiences like writing The Monogram Murders? Is this something you’ll try again??
SH: I really loved writing The Monogram Murders. It was such an exciting challenge. I planned out the whole plot in meticulous detail before I began writing, so when it came to actually writing the book, it felt quite fun to do because I’d sorted out all the structure and story architecture beforehand. There might well be a follow-up to The Monogram Murders. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that were to happen!
TSM: How important is research in working on your books??
SH: Research is absolutely crucial. Because I write stories, normally, in which something extremely unusual or even the apparently impossible happens, I need all the surrounding details to be absolutely realistic, so that the reader recognizes the world in which the action is set to be a true one; that way, if everything else about the fictional world of the novel is convincing, the reader will buy into the one far-fetched element. So whether the story’s set in the world of picture-framing and artists, TV executives, real estate agents, or pediatricians (and I’ve written about all of these), I have to do as much research as it takes to get all those details right.
TSM: Tell us about some of the poetry you’ve written. Do you find poetry more difficult than novel writing??
SH: My poems tend to rhyme, scan, and make sense. They’re quite formal. I like the patterns formed in structures of language, the sense of balance in the words, if you like. In this respect, I see similarities between my novels and my poetry because both place great importance on structure and balance. I’m a form freak, I suppose! In terms of subject matter, I write about people, human foibles and relationships, social life, and the absurdity of day-to-day happenings. People are far and away my main interest! There’s quite a bit of overlap, subject-matter-wise, between my poetry and my fiction.
TSM: What did you think of the TV adaptations of your works??
SH: I remember I really enjoyed the first one based on The Wrong Mother and I thought the feel of the program, the directing, and acting were really impressive. The second one, based on The Dead Lie Down, really bore no resemblance to my book at all, so I was able to watch it and enjoy wondering whodunit along with everyone else! The main murder in it was one that wasn’t in the book at all.?
TSM: What are some of the events that have inspired your novels?
SH: I’m inspired by real life, mainly, and usually by things to do with interpersonal relationships. I’ve written about obsessive love, sex addiction, the difficulty of being a parent, the stress and misery of having a nightmarish mother-in-law! I’m also really interested in group thinking and crowd psychology. In these days of social media like Twitter, it fascinates me how willing so many people are to follow a crowd rather than think for themselves, even when that crowd is being obviously cruel and excessively punitive. I suppose that people, in the end, often do whatever suits them best. Most of us are quite weak, and it’s this human frailty that I like to explore in my books.
TSM: How do you come up with books filled with mayhem when you live in such a wonderful place as Cambridge??
SH: I adore Cambridge. But before that, I spent eleven years living in West Yorkshire, which was far less idyllic. I always knew I was in the wrong place—for me, anyway. And even the most wonderful places contain human beings who, once their basic needs are met, like to indulge in their favorite hobby of complicating and messing up their own lives and the lives of others. Wherever there are people, there will always be drama and feelings that run high!
TSM: What’s the best thing about being a writer??
SH: Working both creatively and autonomously. I get to decide what happens. I decide on the characters and what they do and how it’s all resolved in the end. And I have no boss saying, “Hurry up, I need that finished in half an hour—stop slacking!“ I can decide my own work schedule. So, if I want to have a whole day off and take my dog, Brewster, for a walk, then I can just go and do that.
TSM: Do you like to outline??
SH: I LOVE outlining. It’s almost the most fun part. I don’t know how anyone can write a book without an outline. It enables me to concentrate first on the structure of a book without worrying about writing elegantly or well, and then once I start the proper writing phase, I can just focus on the prose because the plot architecture’s all sorted already.?
TSM: Who are some of the writers who have inspired you and who you are reading today??
SH: Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell are my two crime-fiction heroes. It was their joint influence that made me fall in love with crime fiction. I also love Iris Murdoch, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joy Fielding, Tana French, Jesse Kellerman, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman.
TSM: What are you working on now?
SH: I’m just putting the finishing touches to my stand-alone psychological thriller A Game for All the Family. But before that appears, I have the next in my Simon Waterhouse/Charlie Zailer series due to be published in July this year by William Morrow: Woman With A Secret. It’s about an apparently respectable wife and mother who is secretly leading a very dangerous double life that her family knows nothing about. After taking one stupid risk too many, she ends up suspected of the murder of a controversial newspaper columnist, but she can only clear her name by risking the exposure of her secret.
TSM: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
SH: Write about what interests and obsesses you. Plan it out carefully. Make sure there’s a gripping, intriguing mystery to be solved. Don’t let anyone put you off.