Sophie: Someone said to me recently that they found it strange we openly say we like each other's work, when we should surely regard each other as "the competition." I found this idea really weird. As far as I'm concerned, the only competition any writer ought to be interested in is the competition between good writing and bad writing. So, while I get very cross and resentful when a book that I think is terrible does well, I love it when books I think are great do well--I feel that the right side, i.e. good writing, is winning the competition, which I feel benefits me as much as anyone else, because I want to live in a world where brilliant books are valued. Also, if I think a book is better than anything I could write, then I want it to do better than my books in order to reflect that. I suppose what I'm saying is that I want there to be a meritocracy of literature. Would you agree or disagree?
Tana: I'd definitely love a meritocracy of literature--both for reasons of principle (same as you, I get jumping-up-and-down outraged if I see a good book sidelined in favor of what I consider a crap one) and for very practical reasons. It sort of ties in with why I've never seen you as "the competition." I love what you write. I think it's good. If someone picks up one of your books and reads it and likes it, I think it'll whet their appetite for good books--and, specifically, for good psychological crime. That makes them more likely, not less, to go looking for more and wind up reading something of mine.
Sophie, is there anything you wouldn’t write about for ethical reasons? I think mystery’s one of the most moral genres--it’s all about exploring right and wrong, finding truth, achieving justice, how these things are never black and white. We spend a lot of our time thinking about the more dangerous far reaches of morality and immorality. Any ethical lines you wouldn’t cross as a writer?
Sophie: There are no subjects that I think writers shouldn't write about--anything is a valid subject for fiction, and it's possible to handle any subject sensitively or insensitively. I think the ethics are in the way a writer treats a subject, not inherent in the subject itself. Having said that, there are things I don't think I could write about because I find them too horrible--the main one that springs to mind is state-sanctioned execution. If a film or book contains legal execution, I can't watch/read it. I find it too upsetting. The other subject I find too upsetting is fatal illness, especially when the terminally ill person is the loved one of the narrator--so, I guess since I wouldn't read about those things, I wouldn't write about them either! How about you, is there anything you wouldn't write about?
Tana: The one huge ethical issue, for me, is making sure that I give murder and murder victims the weight they deserve. I don't ever want to write something where the victim is simply a prop that's necessary in order for the story to get under way. Murder, taking another human being's life, is so earth-shatteringly huge: it doesn't just take one life, it affects everyone who comes into contact with it--families, friends, detectives working on the case, people who knew the killer.... I feel like using something so immense as a throwaway plot point would be unethical and cheap. I've got a responsibility to show that immensity, as far as possible.
I can't see myself ever writing about child abuse, but that's partly because it became so common in mystery books for a while there--either child abuse was the big secret that was revealed at the end, or else it was the killer's reason/excuse for murder. It got cheap. Apart from that, though, I'm not sure I can see myself avoiding a subject (not permanently, anyway) simply because it wrecks my head too badly. One of the reasons I write crime is in a attempt to understand things that I simply can't get my head around--how one human being can kill another, or deliberately damage another (like the sociopath in one of the books). So I tend to come back to the things that horrify me most, trying to understand them by writing about them.
People ask me a lot where I get the ideas for my plots, but someone recently asked me for the first time where I get the ideas for my characters. I thought that was a very cool question, so I’m passing it on. Where do yours come from?
Sophie: I agree with you absolutely about giving the crime the weight it deserves. Which is why I write books that some readers find upsetting. People should be upset about crime! The good thing about crime fiction (usually!) is that it attempts to deal with the worst things that can happen in a way that is uplifting--either because justice is done in the end, or because the light of understanding is shed upon the darkest corners of the human psyche. Even if all you do is understand why a monster behaves monstrously, it helps. I almost think understanding something does more good than fighting against it.
To answer your question, my characters come from the plot idea, always. I always start with an intriguing or mysterious situation, and then I work out how that plot starting point could develop. Usually, in order for it to develop as well as it can, it requires a certain kind of character. For example, in my novel The Dead Lie Down (published as The Other Half Lives in the UK), the opening mystery is that a man appears to be confessing to the murder of a woman who isn't dead. His girlfriend, to whom he confesses, knows that this woman isn't dead--and she's the one who keeps pursuing this until she finds out the truth. I needed her, therefore, to be the sort of person who wouldn't say, "Hang on a minute, you're a nutter, I'm off to find a sane boyfriend." So I thought, "What sort of woman would stay with a man she believed to be deluded?" And that was how the character of Ruth, the heroine, came into being--I gave her a past trauma that explained why she would cling to this man that loves her, even though he's driving her crazy and talking apparent nonsense. So I suppose what I'm saying is, plot comes first for me, and character follows shortly afterwards. Which comes first for you?
Tana: I'm with you on understanding it--I don't think it's possible to fight against evil unless you understand it or at least work to understand it. Otherwise, you're shooting in the dark. There's also the fact that I think the root of all real evil is lack of empathy--the inability to believe at any deep level that other people, people who are different from you, are still real. If I don't accept that people who do evil are real, if I see them as two-dimensional and don't at least accept the possibility of empathizing (not sympathizing, obviously) with their motivations and drives, then I take a step towards evil myself.
Plot and character--I work the other way around: I start with the character of the narrator and with a very basic premise, and then I dive in and hope to God there's a plot in there somewhere. With Faithful Place (my third book) I started out with the image of a battered old suitcase I'd seen thrown away outside a Georgian house that was being gutted--it made me start wondering where it had been found, and what if someone had hidden it there and meant to come back for it and never got the chance.... I had that, and the character of Frank Mackey--he showed up in The Likeness, as Cassie's undercover boss, the guy who'll do absolutely anything, to himself or anyone else, to get his man. I started thinking about the two things together--what if it was Frank's first love who had hidden that suitcase, what if they had been about to run away together, what if he always thought she had dumped him, and what if the suitcase resurfaced...
Sophie: I read a really interesting book recently about human evil. It's called People of the Lie, and it's by M. Scott Peck. Its subtitle is "Towards an Understanding of Human Evil." It's a superb book, and Peck's theory is that evil people are not necessarily those who do great harm, but those who cannot face the reality of their own faults, who have to lie to themselves and pretend they are always good, always in the right--thus making everyone wrong and worse. Peck believes that it's those who constantly lie to themselves about their own undiluted goodness, and sweep all the evidence of their moral flaws under the carpet of their own consciousness, who are truly evil. He sees the lying as a crucial part of the evil. So he would see someone who says, "Yeah, so I killed her? So what?" as less evil than the person who says, "I killed her because she's bad and I'm good, and so it was right to kill her." A lot of "baddies" do harm and don't care--which is obviously terrible, but Peck would say the people who do harm and believe it's good are worse--so people like Hitler, Saddam Hussein. Gordon Brown...just kidding!
Tana: Ooh. Interesting. The idea that evil isn't only in the action itself, but in the distortion of the surrounding reality, the destruction not just of people but of truth. ("We just sexed up the dossier...") That definitely ties in with mystery writing, where everything spins around the deep human impulse towards truth--the whole arc of the books is the movement towards truth, through various obstacles.
Sophie: Do you have a favorite of your books, and, if so, is that the same one as the one you think is the best? I can never decide which of mine I like best--I like them all in different ways, and I think they're all best and worst in different ways!
Tana: I'll probably always have a soft spot for In the Woods, simply because that was the first one and that was the one where, in some ways, I was taking the biggest risk--I put so much time and work and heart into it, I actually turned down acting work to finish it (if you know any actors, you know that turning down work is a HUGE deal, actors are the only people who always want to be working more)--and it was all just on hope, without any reason to think that this book would ever go anywhere except under my bed. I can't be objective enough to have any clue which one's the best, though. I don't think it helps that (maybe because of the different narrators) they're all very different in stuff like pace and tone. Apples and oranges. With the first two, by the time I'd finished all the copy-edits and proof-reads etc, I never wanted to see the bloody book again. That lasted till I saw the advance copies and was so stunned by the fact that this was a real book that I stopped hating the sight of it very fast! With Faithful Place, though, I've finished the proof-reads, haven't seen advance copies yet, and I still don't hate it. I'm hoping this is a good sign. Are there stages in the process when you like/hate yours?
Sophie: My favorite of yours would have to be In the Woods, but I think the best one is Faithful Place. Which means I should like it best, right? But there was one particular thing in In the Woods that I loved--Rob and Cassie's relationship and the way he ended up behaving. I've never come across such a good analysis in any other book of the way commitment-phobic men behave! I love my books when I have the idea, when I write the first hundred pages, and then again when they're in book form with their nice covers on! I hate them between page 100 and when they're finished--because that's when I'm laboring over them, and wondering whether I can make them fulfill the promise of the initial idea--and the end isn't in sight yet, so I feel weary. How important are titles to you? I can't start writing until I've got the title--it's a central part of the inspiration. My American titles are generally different, but I love them--I love all my titles. I hate thriller titles that just sound generic, like Dead Kill or something like that!
Tana: My favorite of yours is probably Hurting Distance because I love the fact that it doesn't focus on a murder. When rape comes up in mystery books, it's usually as an adjunct to the "real" crime of murder, rather than being the crime itself. I also think, without giving away too much, the angle on evil in that one is different from anything I've ever seen explored anywhere else. My favorite of your titles is A Room Swept White, though. I'm truly awful at titles--Faithful Place is the only one I came up with myself, I'm not even going to tell you what the first two books were called when they were living on my computer. I hate the generic wordplay-type titles too, but what I come up with if I'm left to my own devices isn't much better.
Tana French is the bestselling author of In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and of The Likeness. She grew up in Ireland, Italy, Malawi, and the United States, and trained as an actor at Trinity College, Dublin. She lives in Dublin with her husband and daughter.
Sophie Hannah is an award-winning poet and crime fiction writer whose novels are international bestsellers.
From Publishers Weekly
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