Méabh McDonnell talks to Emily Barr about her writing, trains and the importance of understanding your characters.
Cornwall based author Emily Barr began her writing career as a journalist for the Guardian. She made the move from journalism to fiction after a year spent backpacking around the world – and her first novel the bestselling Backpack came from that experience and nine more novels followed. Since then she has moved home to Cornwall where she now lives with her husband and children and where the idea for her latest novel was inspired by the number of people who live in this beautiful part of England, but who work in London.
The Sleeper takes the unusual story of two women, both of whom are desperately unhappy with their lives. Lara is living the dream with her husband and house in the country – or so all of her friends think – but the truth is she is incredibly bored with her lifestyle. Soon after Lara embarks on an illicit affair while taking the night train to work in the captial, she disappears – the same night, her lover is murdered. As the affair becomes public, Lara’s friends realise that they didn’t really know her and try to move on from the tragedy – everyone that is except her friend Iris, who can’t shake the feeling that there is more to Lara’s disappearance than meets the eye.
Emily told me, “I loved writing it[The Sleeper] and it took me ages to get the plot right, but when it all falls into place it is phenomenally satisfying.” The plot is intricate, as it switches between both Lara and Iris at various stages, and this can be difficult to orchestrate well. Emily was happy to rise to the challenge, “I have used the dual narrative thing before, though never in this way. In previous books I have alternated between two stories, but this time I only did that in the last section. I enjoyed switching narrator. I wrote all of Lara’s first section, and when I wrote Iris’s I was still not sure what had happened to Lara, so I was as baffled as Iris was!”
Both Lara and Iris have a lot to overcome throughout the story, they are women who are stuck going down paths that they would rather be free of. The dramatic potential in this storyline was a huge allure for Emily and one of the reasons she enjoyed writing about Lara and Iris. “Very early on I decided I wanted Lara’s story just to stop, and a new narrator to take over, so the reader would have no idea what had happened to her. Then I knew that the second narrator, Iris, would need to be significantly different from Lara, so the reader would be plunged into a new world and see parts of Lara’s world from a different perspective.”
The Sleeper is indeed driven by this sudden shift between the two leading ladies. We care and are as desperate for Iris to investigate Lara’s disappearance, partly because we have gotten a taste of her compelling nature. Emily found herself drawing on different aspects of her own personality to bring them to life. “There are bits of me in both characters, inevitably. Lara is supremely excited at the opportunity to go to work in London: I am totally thrilled whenever I step off the train onto Paddington station and I was delighted to unleash my love of London through Lara’s narrative. Although I adore Cornwall and plan to live here for a long, long time, I am urban at heart, like Lara. And like Iris I have an extreme tendency to run away and hide when things get difficult. Writing her coming out of hiding was therapeutic in a strange way!”
Iris’ emergence from a ‘hidden’ state of mind is a driving force in the narrative and it is fascinating watching her develop into the knight in shining armour of the piece, “I love female friendship,” says Emily, “ I think it is a fascinating and wonderful thing. I didn’t want Lara to be rescued by a man, as that would have been quite boring. I liked the shifting dynamic between them. When they are in Cornwall at the start of the novel, Lara is the golden confident one and Iris the recluse, and that changes radically by the time they next meet.”
The development of the two characters is just one of the many compelling aspects of The Sleeper, a novel that twists and turns, as good crime should. Emily was initially inspired by the concept of the Sleeper train, a train that makes the 300 mile journey from Falmouth to London every night. Passengers sleep on board and arrive the next morning for work – something which Emily had done herself. “I discovered there is a community of people who do the commute that Lara does in the book, travelling up on the Sunday night train and back at the end of the week. In fact most of them travel home on the 6pm train on Thursday or Friday, getting home at 11 or so, but for fictional purposes I made them get the Friday night train back as it had much more potential! There are plenty of real-life stories around about encounters on the train, and the idea of a night-train affair was the story’s starting place. Everything else fell into place around it.”
Of course one of the most important parts of the novel that needed to fall into place was exactly what had happened to Lara and who the perpetrator was. This was one of the biggest challenges for Emily, “I did find it extremely difficult and it took a lot of drafts and an impromptu trip to London just before Christmas to talk it through over lunch with my editor before I felt I was close to getting it right. Initially the ‘baddy’ was someone different altogether. I didn’t want it to be obvious, but did want there to be clues to look back on. And I wanted the baddy to have already been considered and discarded as a suspect by the reader. It is a very tricky thing to get right, and something I am currently working on in my next book. It doesn’t get easier!”
Emily put extensive research into The Sleeper, finding friends such as an ‘anonymous policeman’ to make sure she had all of her facts straight, “My anonymous policeman (he got me to take his name out of the acknowledgemments at the very last minute) was incredibly helpful. He is a friend’s husband, and happily fielded my lengthy exposition of unlikely scenarios and told me what would happen in these situations. Also, I wanted Lara to have a proper job in London, rather than something vague and woolly, or something in the media. A friend of mine, Amanda, worked as a property developer in London, and I drew on her expertise a lot for Lara’s work. Again, I wanted it to sound convincing, even though it was quite peripheral to the actual plot.”
The importance of detail to crime fiction is something that Emily understood well, being a long-time fan of the genre, “I love crime fiction and have read it for years. The plotting is so satisfying, and a twist that takes me by surprise is a wonderful thing. I have always loved Sophie Hannah’s books. I loved Gone Girl (like everyone else!) and I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Haynes, particularly her first novel, Into the Darkest Corner. I also love Peter James, Harlen Coben (very funny as well as gripping), and Jeffrey Deaver.”
The influence of other authors is something Emily values highly in her work,” Writers I find hugely inspiring are David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood. I would read anything either of them wrote, even if it was a shopping list. I know nothing I write will ever approach what they do. But I truly believe it’s better for a writer to read someone great and say ‘I couldn’t do that’ than to read something less good and say ‘I could do that.’” And even though Emily may not believe it herself, The Sleeper is a wonderful example of how much closer she is getting to those she admires.
I asked Emily how she starts to write when a new idea arrives – she explained: “I write the first draft quickly, making myself write about 3000 words a day (sometimes 5,000 depending how deadline-panicked I am feeling), skipping over bits that I find difficult but writing chronologically almost to the end. Somehow, though, I don’t quite reach the end and always leave that to write on the final draft, when I know everything is in place. I edit and rewrite a lot: it takes much longer than the sketchy first draft. I do the first draft quickly so that there’s something to work on. The whole book feels more achievable that way.”
Some authors write diaries for their main characters to help them better understand their motivation, and I wondered if this was an exercise that Emily used to get to know the two leading ladies in The Sleeper. “I didn’t,” Emily told me, “but I can see why people do it. I’ve also never done the thing where you write out reams of character studies – the ‘what do they have for breakfast? what shoes do they wear?’ type of things. The characters arrive in my head and I could answer all those questions about them easily, but without ever consciously thinking about them.”
JK Rowling has just recently displayed the power of a pseudonym in her own crime novel – I wondered if Emily had considered adopting an alternate identity for her work which has been previously classed as women’s fiction despite having all the twists and turns of great crime. Emily revealed “Yes I have, oddly. I have always written as myself, but for the move into crime my agent and I discussed a slight change to E.M.Barr. I haven’t done it yet but it’s potentially on the cards for America one day.”
So what is Emily Barr working on next? She told me, “I’m working on a thriller set in the Arctic. I’ve been working on its outline for months and have just sent a very detailed synopsis to my agent. I became obsessed by the idea of setting a thriller in the midnight sun, and went away on my own in May, to Svalbard, a long way to the north of Norway. It doesn’t get dark there for months. I had an amazing few days there and can’t wait to get down to work, properly writing the book.
(c) Méabh McDonnell
Méabh McDonnell is a freelance journalist who spends too much time on the bus between Dublin and Galway. She has worked in magazines such as Woman’s Way and Cara and is addicted to books of all ages be they new, old or dropped in the bath. Get in touch with her on Twitter @redridinghood19 or via her blog mcdonnellonline.wordpress.com.