Thursday, July 2, 2015
Internationally bestselling author Sophie Hannah talks about WOMAN WITh A SECRET, the dangers of social media, pathological liars, writing and more
Sophie Hannah not only a commerical success (her books are in 32 languages and 51 territories), she's a critical one, compared to Ruth Rendell, Tana French and more. 32 languages and 51 territories.
In 2013, Sophie’s novel, The Carrier, won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards. Two of Sophie’s crime novels, The Point of Rescue and The Other Half Lives, have been adapted for television. Sophie has also published five collections of poetry. Her fifth, Pessimism for Beginners, was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Award. Her poetry is studied at GCSE, A-level and degree level 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.
I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for his or her book. What was haunting you that led to this story?
There were two sparks for Woman With a Secret really - a plot spark and a thematic/psychological spark. The first was that I was out walking in the country one day, rehearsing in my mind a fantasy argument with someone who had annoyed me - an argument I knew I'd never be brave enough to start in real life. I imagined myself making many astute points and totally winning the argument - and then I realised that, as a direct result of this chain of thought, I had a brilliant idea that I could put in a crime novel - a reason why a killer might need to murder someone with a knife, but not by stabbing them. So, the murder victim in Woman With a Secret has had a sharp knife taped over his mouth, and he's suffocated to death - and the first question police have to answer is: if you want to murder someone, and you have a sharp knife to hand, why not simply stab them?
The thematic spark for the novel was my growing awareness that for many people, our online lives are increasingly important. More and more, our virtual selves are equal counterparts to our actual selves, existing side by side. This creates huge potential for the leading of double lives that are secretive and deceitful - all of which is a fantastic opportunity for a thriller writer! I was and am fascinated by questions like: which is more real, our secret online identity or the person we pretend to be in our real, public lives? How do we trust people we meet only online - or should we never do so? Is anonymity - for ourselves and others - threatening or liberating? Nicki, the heroine of Woman With a Secret, is a respectable, apparently happy wife and mother on the surface, but her more complex true self seeks an outlet online, which lands her in the middle of a high profile murder case...
Writing a mystery as taut and gripping as this one requires skilled planning--so, how do you do it? Do you map everything out? Do you follow your pen and hope the answers will reveal themselves?
I always plan meticulously. Before I start writing the book, I have a 30 to 40 page chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene plan. I think of it as the equivalent of the architect’s drawing of a house. It's no substitute for the real thing, but it enables you to see and conceptualise the whole construct in miniature, and think, 'Hang on - there aren't enough bathrooms, and the kitchen window's in the wrong place.' This then enables you to make corrections at the planning stage and avoid writing things that don't work into the novel itself. I think you can tell, when you read a novel, especially a crime novel, whether its story architecture is sound or not.
I was fascinated that Nicki’s connection with the victim was all online. How dangerous do you think social media really is?
Very. Dangerous but also exciting - how many wonderful relationships have started online, with just words on a screen? But yes, very dangerous too. We only have to look at Twitter to see how cruel people can be. Jon Ronson’s wonderful and important book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes the problem very movingly and eloquently. Online life can be punitive and compassionless, with not enough thought given to how our certainly that we're right and virtuous might affect the frail egos of other flawed but essentially well-meaning humans. This is one of the major themes of Woman With a Secret. Damon Blundy, the murder victim, is a controversial journalist who makes it his project to defend, against a mob of online detractors, an athlete who has been banned for life after taking performance-enhancing drugs.
I want to quote this line from your fabulous Kirkus Review: “Hannah, who plots rings around most of the competition, shares Ruth Rendell’s shivery conviction that there are still darker secrets than whodunit, how and why.” Can you talk about those darker secrets:
The most dangerous secrets are the ones that we keep from ourselves: who we really are versus who we think we are. How many inadequate bullies prefer to think of themselves as kind and wise? How many desperate sex addicts imagine they are simply normal people looking for love, who just haven't found the right person yet? We all delude ourselves to a certain extent, and the more deluded we are, the darker are our secrets and our secret lives.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
At the moment I’m thinking about pathological liars and the condition known as Pseudologica Fantastica. My next book, A Game For All the Family, is all about that. Pathological lying is really fascinating, and very different from ordinary lying, where you lie to improve your situation or protect yourself. Compulsive liars are different - they lie even when there's not a chance anyone will believe them, when they've been proved to be lying, and when it will actively harm them to lie. They're addicted to deception, basically, even when the truth would serve them better.
On a more simple level, I’m also always obsessed with my gorgeous Welsh Terrier, Brewster. I’ve attached a photo here. As you can see, he is gorgeous. I adore him.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Most people ask me about Agatha Christie and her influence on my writing, since I've just written The Monogram Murders, the first Hercule Poirot novel since Christie’s death. Her work has been a huge influence on my crime writing. I’ve been interested in twisty plots and storytelling above all else since I first read her books at the age of twelve. Her stories are enormous fun yet dark and wise, addictively simple yet absorbingly complex. Agatha Christie created my blueprint for the perfect crime novel and I've followed it ever since. Her books nearly always involved outlandish mysteries - unlikely but possible, and truly baffling. Hence I now write novels like Woman With a Secret in which people are killed with knives, but not stabbed, and have the words 'He is no less dead' painted on the wall behind their dead bodies - not in blood but in red paint. I like to think Agatha Christie would have approved of such a baffling scenario as the opening for a crime novel!