Niamh O’Connor, best selling Irish crime writer and True Crime Editor of the Sunday World newspaper, talks to crime writing legend Sophie Hannah for writing.ie
So the first time I ring Sophie Hannah, she can’t talk because she forgot her son had chess club. And this is the first issue I want to tackle when we catch up. What is it that draws an academic and a poet, the daughter of a Marxist scholar and a Whitbread nominated mother, whose son is … let’s face it … genetically predisposed to grandmaster glory, to write about the worst aspects of human nature?
But of course I’ve underestimated the psychological thriller writer who’s an expert at subverting the plot that readers thought they’d seen coming. And if I thought she was going to say, ‘crime books are commercial,’ I couldn’t be more wrong.
“I’m not one of these literary writers who looks down my nose on crime writing,” Hannah says. “I love every aspect of the genre. From the age of twelve or thirteen, I loved Agatha Christie. It’s very important to me to absolutely comply with every rule of the crime genre and not be ambiguous about it. I try to play fair within the rules while being as inventive and different as possible and thinking up stories readers cannot guess. And anyway, I’m not an academic. No way am I an academic. [She was a fellow commoner in creative arts in Trinity college, Cambridge and a research fellow of Wolfson college, Oxford!!!] I only scraped a 2.1 in my degree because the 98pc I got in creative writing which pulled me up.”
So that’s that sorted. But Sophie is also an overachiever as a crime writer. After just six years, and with this week’s release of her seventh novel, Kind of Cruel, she’s now one of the most high profile names in a new hybrid of the genre populated with literary writers like Rosamund Lupton, Kate Atkinson and Tana French (Sophie’s favourite), who are pushing the boundaries beyond high-octane, action-driven pot-boilers, and into the more soulful meanderings of the human mind.
But the blend of beautiful writing and killer plots has been a divisive talking point among writers. Rebus creator, Ian Rankin, levelled a broadside at Booker winner, John Banville, for seemingly being ashamed of writing crime fiction. Banville, who writes crime under the pen name, Benjamin Black, had regularly boasted about how easy he found it to lash out a crime novel, while poring over every word in the literary stuff.
Is it a bit like Andrew Lloyd Webber writing house music? In other words, do literary and gritty go? Can pace survive if it’s bogged down with longwinded sentences and obtuse words?
Again the mum-of-two, whose poems are studied at GCSE, A-Level and degree level across the UK, turns inverse snobbery on its head. “What I don’t enjoy is the police procedural where you start off with a body. (Yikes, that’s me in my box!) There’s no mystery there for me. Agatha Christie may have started with a body, but it was always a mystery. That to me is interesting. There are suspects. That’s the way I start. I think of a question.”
It’s impossible to argue with the genius of the premise behind every Sophie Hannah novel. In her first, Little Face, a first time mum goes to the gym and leaves her newborn with dad. When she gets back, she’s convinced the baby isn’t hers, despite the dad’s protestations.
The book sold one hundred thousand copies, playing upon the psychological presumption that mothers know their babies best.
“My husband would always have said, ‘she’s the expert’,” Sophie says.
It’s a formula that she’s made her own. She always narrates her books through the eyes of a female protagonist interspersed with the viewpoint shifts of PC’s Charlie Zailer (female) and Simon Waterhouse who busy themselves trying to crack the crime.
In, Hurting Distance, a mistress believes her boyfriend must have been murdered because he hasn’t been in touch but nobody believes her.
In Lasting Damage, a woman takes a virtual tour of a property for sale and sees a woman lying face down in a pool of blood, but when she wakes her husband to see, the body’s gone.
In The Point of Rescue, a woman who doesn’t tell her husband that a work conference she’d been booked in for had fallen through (so she could have a break from her day life juggling a job and young family) ends up having a one night stand with a man whom, she discovers when she gets home and watches the news, has been murdered.
In Sophie’s new book, Kind of Cruel, Amber Hewerdine resorts to hypnotherapy for insomnia but the words she says, ‘Kind, cruel … kind of cruel” while on the couch lead to her arrest for murder – and she has no idea why.
Sophie is churning out a book a year and her poetry is still being published to much acclaim. But how much time does she feel needs to be spent on planning versus actually writing a crime novel?
“I spend six months thinking about my next story while I’m actually working on another book. In that time, I give myself a question and if I can solve it, it isn’t working, because if I can solve it so can the reader.”
Sophie has revealed in the acknowledgements of her books how beneficial she finds it to thrash out her plots with crime consultant, Lisanne Radice – her former agent, and previously a partner of my own agent, Jane Gregory.
“I need to be challenged and Lisanne does that,” she explains.
Sophie is also bang on trend in choosing memory as a theme in her new book. SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleepis riding high in the best seller lists on both sides of the Irish Sea, and Alice La Plante’s brilliant Turn of Mind, places an Alzheimers victim, at the heart of a murder mystery.
So how does the mum of two young children do it?
“I use a MacBook Air. It’s portable. I like to vary the routine. I have a writing room – we converted the attic – but I think there’s a novelty if you keep changing. I aim to do 2,000 words a day. If I only manage 1,800, I beat myself up for the rest of the day.”
Re-reading what she’s already written slows her down but is worth it when it comes to the redraft, she says. “I’m a perfectionist. I like to read what I’ve done the day before. That can take up half the day’s writing time, but at least it means there’s not as much rewriting when it comes to the second draft. Certainly the main thing (that gets in the way of writing) is not the children, it’s Twitter which is a huge problem. There are not many things that are as appealing – apart from property websites.”
Sophie used the social networking site to row into a recent gritlit debate.
Crime novels are now more popular than romantic fiction, according to Public Lending Rights figures, a UK government body that pays royalties to authors.
But is that empowering women? Should women want to read about their sex being raped and mutilated by men?
“I find it empowering to read about the very worst happening, but then (the very worst happening) being defeated/survived,” tweeted @sophiehannahcb1
And: “All worst things happen in real life. Fiction has duty to tackle so people know not alone in suffering.”
Sophie added: “And: “I’ve written rape, physical and psych cruelty – cos these things happen and bother me so I must respond.”
As a final question, I want to know what reading material is on her locker right now, and Sophie replies, “Into The Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes which won the Amazon first novel prize and Unsuitable Men by Pippa Wright about a woman with a boring boyfriend.”
It seems that in her reading, as in her writing, it is impossible to second guess Sophie Hannah.
Kind of Cruel is published by Hodder (£12.99), and released on February 16th