Note: “Author Conversations” is part of a series published by Mystery Tribune which features the dialogue between critically acclaimed crime novelists about their life and work.
Sharon Bolton: Clare, when I read your novel Never Look Back, I was amused to see it follows an investigation of the Major Investigation Team based at Lewisham Police Station, exactly the same team that operates in my books, albeit peopled by different characters. It was a little like peeking into a parallel universe. I have a number of contacts in the Metropolitan Police and my conversations with them over the years have given great colour to my books. For example, the Deptford Creek setting of the later Lacey books was suggested to me by the head of the Met’s Marine Unit and DI Joesbury is based on a real undercover detective whom I met briefly several years ago. (To this day, I don’t know his real name!)
So, I’d like to ask you whether you wanted to write a novel about the Met in South London, or whether the story just demanded to be set there. And also, did you have the same weird feeling when you read my book?
Clare Donoghue: Like you Sharon, Never Look Back began with the story and didn’t actually start out as a police procedural. In fact Sarah Grainger was the main character until I realised I needed another perspective to take me and the reader through the police investigation in the novel. That’s how DI Lockyer came about and I couldn’t be happier.
I chose south east London simply because I lived there and knew the area well.
Sharon, when I read your latest novel, A Dark and Twisted Tide, I couldn’t help being envious of your knowledge of all things ‘south of the Thames’. Do you spend a lot of time researching your novels?
SB: I have never lived south of the river. I did, though, have a pretty good working knowledge of the Thames, from back in the days when I had a proper job and worked for the National Rivers Authority (later The Environment Agency). I already knew quite a lot about the tides, the water quality, navigation rights and responsibilities, its wildlife, etc and really enjoyed the chance to put all that knowledge into my books. What fascinates me about the Thames is that it’s one of the most famous rivers in the world, entirely taken for granted by the millions of Londoners who live and work near it, and yet it guards so many secrets. We’ll probably never know what lies beneath. Deptford Creek was another real find, and I really enjoyed my visits there, especially the thigh high waders.
CD: Waders, wow, that’s above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to research. The plot for A Dark and Twisted Tide was really detailed and well developed. I wondered how you plotted your novels. Do you have a clear synopsis or just begin with an idea and develop it as you write?
SB: I’m in awe of writers who start out with a basic idea and see where it takes them. Straight to the gin bottle is where it would take me. Possibly because my plots are so complex (I try every year to write a simple book, it just never works out that way) I have to do a lot of planning in advance. I’m just finishing off my eighth book and haven’t yet found a sure-fire way of plotting. I tend to do it differently every time. If you’ve found a way to make it work, I’d love to know your secret. Or are you one of those who just let the characters tell the story? Speaking of characters, where did Sarah Grainger come from? And did she turn out how you expected, or take you by surprise?
CD: Well Sharon, I’m a planner for sure. I do a synopsis first to expand on my plot idea which I refer back to throughout the process to check I’m on track but my trick is an Excel spreadsheet. If I wasn’t a writer and appalling at maths I would have made a great accountant! I detail each chapter by date, point of view, detail, background and word count. Not very spontaneous I know but I’m a bit of a control freak.
Sarah Grainger was, I’ll admit, based on me I guess because she was the very first character I developed but she turned out thinner and taller than me so I’m slightly jealous of her now.
What about you? Where did you get your inspiration for Lacey from?
SB: There is a theory that every character ever written is the author in those particular circumstances. It can’t be coincidence that all my heroines are a bit like me, only younger, prettier and a hell of a lot braver. Lacey, to be honest now, was conceived in a very dark place. I’ve long been fascinated by the unreliable narrator as a literary device. When I’m reading, and completely in a character’s head, I get such a kick from realising I can’t trust what that character is telling me. I wanted to do something like this when I introduced Lacey, but I wanted to go one step further: to create a character that was a credible killer, and yet one with whom the reader sympathised completely. When you’re reading a Lacey book, you should never be entirely sure what she’s thinking, and what she’s going to do next. Do you have a similar dilemma with any of your characters? After all, we British writers are known for our dark themes and story lines. Do you, like me, have ‘a love of the night and the unquiet coffin’?
CD: Unreliable narrators are notoriously difficult. You’ve done an amazing job.
As for my darker side, I think it comes from an over active imagination and a genuine interest in psychology and why people behave the way they do. I’m almost phobic of the news, as it’s rarely cheerful, but exploring the personalities of stalkers and killers from the safety of fiction intrigues me. I never intend the books to be dark, in the twisted sense of the word but they often end up that way.
Crime writers are often asked why they chose the genre and what they feel about the violence/gore factor. What’s your take on it? Are there any plot lines you wouldn’t want to tackle?
SB: I never say ‘never’ when it comes to subject matter. There are issues I’m less comfortable dealing with, and certainly issues that are deeply distressing to research, but this genre is too competitive. We’re all desperately searching for the next great idea, the book that will make us stand out from the crowd, and we can’t afford to be at all picky about what we write about. The whole business about crime writing getting gorier and becoming more gratuitously violent is increasingly in the news these days but personally, I don’t believe it. Of course we see the odd book in which gore is used to paper over poor writing or a weak storyline, but generally speaking those books don’t do particularly well. This is crime, when all is said and done, and without violence (or the threat of it) where is the interest? The suspense? The danger? Besides, I think there is a darkness in all of us and you hit the nail on the head when you talked about the ‘safety of fiction’. We love nothing more than exploring our fascination with the dark side of human nature, as long as we can do so without any real danger. What’s the darkest thing you, personally, have ever done, Clare?
CD: Well if you mean personally, as in me, then very little. I’m a crime writer but a total wuss in real life! Although I did once dance around a graveyard when I was about ten as some kind of ritual a friend and I made up. Pointless and weird but true.
In Never Look Back, I found the perspective of the serial killer both challenging and fascinating to write. I felt a definite sense of exploration to the less vanilla side of my personality.
I think you need experience (more than I have) and sensitivity to tackle some of the more difficult issues. I’ve certainly read some shocking scenes but for the most part the crime fiction I read both from the US and UK is more about the plot and characters, rather than the ghastly things that happen. I don’t steer away from the visceral impact of a well written murder scene but my interest and focus really rests with the characters. I’m far more interested in why they do things, not how, if that makes sense?
SB: It makes perfect sense, and it’s a sentiment I hear a lot, but I can’t help wondering whether it’s a bit of a cop out? When writers talk about being more interested in the WHY than the WHAT, I have a sense of them trying to distance themselves from what they do, maybe even apologise for it, and that’s something I will never do. I love my work too much, I love the crime genre and feel no reason to make excuses for what I write. Because, and this is my serious point now – you cannot separate the two. The WHY is inextricably linked to the WHAT. Of course it’s the characters we care about (if we don’t care about them the book has failed), but we care because they are facing the WHAT. And, whilst some readers might prefer the WHAT to be less explicit, maybe seen only through a soft focus lens, there are others who’ll feel the writer is doing disservice to real life crime, by vanilla-izing it.
I’m not suggesting you do give your violence the vanilla treatment, by the way (far from it) just that you shouldn’t feel guilty for writing what you do.
I’m a wuss in real life too. The nastiest thing I ever did was jump off a bus without paying the fare. I was nine.
CD: Vanilla-izing – a brilliant word that I’m going to use, though I’m delighted to hear it doesn’t apply to my work!
I certainly think there’s a line between necessary violence/gore that relates to the plot or characters (as you say) and writing that feels more voyeuristic. Maybe that’s the part that crime writers want to distance themselves from.
I want to spark or sometimes jolt my readers imagination, which, let’s face it, is bound to be scarier than anything I could write.
It doesn’t sound like either of us has an active dark side….maybe that’s why we write crime fiction so we can break the rules and live dangerously through our characters 🙂
SB: I’ve recently posted a question on my Facebook page for my American readers, asking them why they enjoy British mysteries. Around 60 replied and a couple of common themes were very much in evidence throughout. First of all, they said they liked the darkness within British mysteries, the sense that the writer is prepared to explore the murkiest corners of the human psyche, and secondly, they enjoy the sense of place they get when reading about locations that, on the one hand might feel quite familiar but on the other, are at the opposite side of the planet. On this basis, do you expect Never Look Back to appeal to US readers?
CD: Well I hope so as it comes out in the US on the 10th June 2014!
But, seriously, I did consider the US market when I was writing the book, possibly because I read a lot of American crime fiction and love reading about new places. It was important for me to create south east London as accurately as possible so readers from elsewhere could get a sense of the atmosphere and suburban normality that hides a much darker underworld. Not that I’m suggesting there are serial killers in the south east but it is, I feel, a great setting for a crime series as it has such a varied landscape – the London cityscape, the Thames, sprawling suburbs, parkland, back streets all intertwined. It really does have it all.
As for the US readers’ apparent interest in the darker side of British crime and the psyche behind it, I’m with them. It fascinates me and that’s what I’m hoping to explore in my novels. Never Look Back is my first but I’ve just finished my second, No Place to Die and I can’t wait to get started on my third.
Sharon, I wanted to ask you, have you found it difficult to sustain a series? Do you feel a pressure for the next book or, like me, can you not wait to sit down and get writing?
SB: Yes. In a word! Sustaining a series is hard work. I think the one piece of advice I’d give to writers about to start a series is not to load up your main character with too much baggage. Lacey Flint has more baggage than Heathrow airport in an air traffic controllers’ strike, and managing this gets harder with each book. If I explain everything, I ruin earlier books for readers who start part way through the series, but if hold stuff back, readers find the unanswered questions frustrating. I’m having a break from Lacey and her friends for a while (A Dark and Twisted Tide will be the last for a year or so) and going back to stand alones. As to whether I feel the pressure, well yes, I think this increases with every book. Writers who are lucky enough to be under contract to the large commercial publishing houses are, generally speaking, expected to produce a book a year. In the early years, this is great, a guaranteed income to do something you love, but as time goes on, I find the creative tank refills itself more slowly than is ideal. I imagine the temptation to keep churning out books that are ‘just good enough’ is quite strong but one I hope I’ll resist. I don’t want to write a book that I’m not 100% proud of.
If you were asked to describe Never Look Back on one sentence, could you do it?
CD: That’s good to know Sharon. I was mindful of my characters flaws/baggage not overwhelming them and given your experience I’m glad I kept them relatively simple!
Crikey, describing Never Look Back in one sentence….tricky.
Never Look Back is a fast-paced south east London thriller following a stalker, a serial killer and a detective who has to stop them but the cost will be higher than he could ever have imagined.
That’s a pretty long sentence!
SB: I think it sums up a great book very well. Good look with the launch, I’m sure it will be a huge success. It’s been great chatting to you, Clare and I’ve learned a lot. Take care!
CD: That means a lot coming from you, Sharon, thank you. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you.