By JJ Marsh
If I were a bookseller, I’d say you’re hard to categorise. Now you’ve gone and made it even harder with Then She Was Gone. Do you purposely try to stay out of a box/ off a particular shelf?
I don’t really do anything on purpose. I often wish I did. Then She Was Gone
has been such a brilliant success and not only that, almost universally
liked by everyone who’s read it that I would love to be able to
purposely write something that could replicate that reception. But it’s
impossible. Books are so nebulous and I don’t plan or plot so really I
just start at point A and end up at point B with no real idea how I got
there. I think my publishers have found it quite awkward publishing me
at times. I have had a sense over the years of oh God, what have you
brought us this time; back to the drawing board everyone! But as a team
we are trying very hard now to stay on one shelf which means, I think,
that I will need to keep killing off characters so that I can be
published in the thriller genre.
Since your arrival
onto the literary scene in the 90s, your life has changed in all kinds
of ways. How does your own personal development trigger your work?
I wrote my first novel I was newly divorced and newly in love with
someone else, I was twenty seven and kind of directionless. But
incredibly, deeply happy. So although I have always loved dark themes – I
love reading books about serial killers and skipped quite happily
through American Psycho – at that time I was more hormonally and
emotionally geared towards writing light-hearted romances. Then I got
married again, had a baby, lost my mother, had another baby, went
through a long period of time when my husband was physically disabled
and of course I got older and more experienced and braver in many ways.
So yes, life does definitely inform and shape the things you want to
write about and getting older gives you the confidence to push
back over my well-thumbed paperbacks, you seem to be less of a ‘write
what you know’ author and more of a ‘write what you’re curious about’. A
This is mainly true with some grand exceptions. After The Party
was a very closely fictionalised account of the pressures a second baby
brought to bear onto my own marriage, Joy’s marriage to George in Vince & Joy was almost 90% the story of my own first marriage and The Girls
was set in a communal garden exactly like the one I live on in London.
But generally, yes, I feel a sense of curiosity about something and then
find a way to explore that curiosity via story-telling. Obsessive
hoarding disorder was a perfect example of that. I looked through a
dirty window into a hoarded house one afternoon and thought; god, who on
earth lives in there, how did they end up living like this and what
impact must it have had on their family? Then I went home and started
writing The House We Grew Up In.
characteristic I associate with you and your writing is empathy. Not
only do you identify and understand some difficult characters, but you
ask your readers to do the same.
Yes, absolutely. I feel sad, for example, that a lot of readers didn’t see the two sides to Lily in I Found You.
I tried so hard to make her nuanced and not just a two dimensional
cold-hearted witch. But the majority of readers disliked her and found
her gaucheness and abruptness impossible to get past. I thought she was
really funny and just trying her hardest in a terrible situation in a
strange country with no cultural cues to help her. And this was why I
took the reader straight into the heart of Noelle in Then She Was Gone.
I couldn’t see the point of writing about a person doing a terrible
thing unless you could make the reader at least attempt to understand
why they might have done it. Otherwise you’re just creating characters
to move the story along, not to give the story layers. That seems a
wasted opportunity to me.
The trauma behind Then She Was Gone must have put you, as a parent, through the wringer. Did you cry in the coffee shop while you were writing?
the traumatic bits didn’t make me cry. I’m pretty hardcore when it
comes to things like that and if I can read a book about Fred and Rose
West and what their victims went through without crying or feeling
traumatised then I can most definitely write about a made-up thing
happening to a made-up person without finding it too gruelling. But the
epilogue was a last-minute decision. I wrote it after my first big edit
of the book and I still cry every time I read the last line.
got a pretty disciplined routine of 1000 words a day and you say you’re
not a plotter, more an explorer of ideas. Do think the real alchemy is
in the first draft or the editing?
It’s very much a
mix of the two. The first draft is the world you’ve created and if you
get that right then you know you’re onto something. The edit is where
you make sense of the world, put it all into the right order. I love
editing. I don’t do much as I go – apart from the occasional really
dramatic excising of thousands of words or a whole storyline – but once I
get the manuscript back from my editor covered in post notes and
paperclips I get really intensely into it to the point of not noticing
what time it is. And yes, that is when the magic really happens.
It’s coming up to 20 years since Ralph’s Party
was published. In what ways has the world of publishing changed over
two decades, in your view? And is it better for readers and authors?
has become much more risk averse. No one, for example, would have
picked EL James’s 50 Shades books from the slush pile these days. That
only got published because of the huge online success it had had. I
think of the late 90s, when my first book was bought and published, as a
kind of heyday for publishing – there was a lot of money flying about
and publishers were really keen to try new things and see what took off.
Nowadays they tend to want to replicate what’s gone before and pay less
when they do take a risk. But the book world as a whole is incredible
right now – social media has brought authors, readers and publishers
together into the same sphere and there are so many forums for people to
share their passions. Being a reader has become much less of solitary
pastime and more of a wonderful universal experience.
E.B. White in Charlotte's Web
said “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend
and a good writer”. I suspect you’d disagree, as you have a wonderful
circle of authors as friends. How important is it to have an
understanding group of writing mates for you?
is hugely, enormously important and again, a situation for me which has
been facilitated greatly by the internet and social media. When I was
first published and the internet was quite a fresh, new place, a
writer’s husband set up something for a group of us called a ‘chat
room’! We’re still on it, twenty years later and out of that core group
of people have come more groups and sub-groups and every time you do an
event you’re meeting new authors and they get absorbed into your circle
and we all use each for support and reassurance and wine and nights out
and it is just brilliant. My writer friends are one of the best – and
most unexpected - things to have come out of my career. And no, there is
no competition between us. Readers buy up to 50 books a year so there’s
plenty of the market to go round and the more good books there are out
there the better for all of us.
Last question - best of
three. Which book affected you most as a teenager? What’s been your best
read of the year? Which book is your comfort read?
barely read as a teenager. I just listened to the radio and wrote
letters to pen-pals. But in my pre-teen years I read like an animal,
anything and everything, under the covers into the early hours. My
biggest passion then was Agatha Christie – I read four of her books a
week and once I’d exhausted her oeuvre I sort of stopped reading until I
was in my 20s. My best read this year I suspect I have not read yet as I
have five amazing books lined up for a week in Tenerife in October all
of which I am expecting to completely blow me away. But thus far I have
adored The Vanishing Act of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase and, in the thriller genre, Here and Gone
by Haylen Beck. I don’t re-read books so I don’t have a comfort read.
If I were to re-read something from the past it would probably be The Country Life by Rachel Cusk; so incredibly funny.
Then She Was Gone is a Sunday Times Number 1 Bestseller – available now (Century Hardback, £12.99)
Read JD Smith's review on Bookmuse