WAG: The subtle, almost fugue-like complexities
in First Fruits wouldn't seem
to allow for a lot of improvisation during the writing
process. In its final form, at least, it suggests
that you knew what you wanted to do with it from
the beginning. Is that in fact the case or did you
have to rework the original manuscript heavily?
I have never known what is going to happen
before I write. I start with a number of characters
without knowing the parts they are going to play
or even who is going to tell the story. The first
draft rarely looks anything like the final result.
The three or four versions that come after are a
process of getting to know the people, with me half-watching
and half-collaborating with what they are doing.
So far as Kate in First Fruits was
concerned, I knew that she wasn't wicked in the
sense in which she was initially going to appear.
I also knew that I wanted the reader to understand
her, and for things ultimately to come right for
her, but I can honestly say that she had to make
those things happen for herself.
Families and the unthinkable ways in which
they can fail are central to your fiction. What
draws you to the subject?
I love this question because I've wondered
so much about it myself. It's true that I write
about families, and I tend to think that it boils
down to the fact that I am at home, simply writing
about what I know. The nuts and bolts of families
are familiar to me. I grew up in one and have a
family of my own. Growing up is when the very best
or the very worst things happen. People will never
have such power over you again. The consequences
of getting it wrong as a parent or child or sibling
are dreadful, whilst the rewards for getting it
right are sublime. Lots of potential for stories
of love and power there.
Was it hard for you as a parent to write
about an abused child's constant sense of vulnerability
in First Fruits? I would think it
would make the fictional child's suffering particularly
difficult to live with.
It's not so hard to write about vulnerability.
I'm probably giving away the plot of every book
I'll ever write, but the fact is, if there's a child
involved, the child is going to turn out alright.
It doesn't mean that I know from the beginning how
it's going to happen or why. But I repeat: no matter
what happens to everyone else, the child, the one
in danger, is always going to be fine. I know my
books have an irredeemable reputation for being
dark, but there's a lot of wishful thinking going
on with them, translated into the writing.
Both First Fruits and
Freezing (your second novel) have narrators
who seem only marginally reliable at times: repeatedly
throughout both books, we ask ourselves, should
we trust them completely when they make a statement
or should we wait and see if they offer another
version of the truth? Self-deception as a survival
tactic is central, particularly to First Fruits.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine how First Fruits
would work without Kate's narration since it functions
as a primary plot device. What attracts you to unreliable
narrators? And are they harder to work with, since
the effects are driven by shifts in narrative tone
as much as they are by events?
It seems entirely natural to me that
if one writes in the first person, everything is
going to be unreliable. We all see and describe
the world to ourselves in ways we can't control.
Kate's way of looking at the world has been shaped
by her father, so it's going to be more unreliable
than most. It's exactly that jaundiced, poisoned
vision she's trying to escape. To tell the truth,
I would quite like to get away from writing in the
first person, because it is definitely harder, burdening
both me and the reader with a single voice that
might not even be a very attractive one. The trouble
is, I've always thought the all-seeing third person
is a bit of a seductive cheat, because that's not
how we see life.
On a more general level, what attracts you
to psychological thrillers? Would you be just as
happy, for instance, writing literary novels or
I don't know that I am attracted to psychological
thrillers—too scary. So far as I am concerned
I am just writing books. If I set out with the intention
to scare or thrill, then it would be different.
(In fact, I might just give it go, and write something
really, really frightening, just to see if I can...)
The point is, the book market is genre-driven, so
if being labeled a thriller writer gets me read,
that's fine by me—up to the point that it
doesn't drive away readers who avoid genre fiction
out of principle.
There is currently a bumper crop of American
lawyers turned novelists (John Grisham and David
Baldacci come most readily to mind), and you are
also a barrister. Is there some connection between
practicing law and writing fiction?
I'm sure there is a connection between
lawyers and fiction. Lawyers are hidebound by the
truth—very restrictive. Fiction is a license
to lie, so that's great. But really, I don't put
myself in the category of lawyer / writer. I was
a terrible lawyer, completely incapacitated by this
sense of being accountable to my clients. I worked
very hard and never slept, which would have been
fine if I had turned out splendid as a result. But
I wasn't. I was awful. When I gave up law, I felt
I was doing a public service.
Which writers do you prefer to read, when
you're reading simply for entertainment? And do
you favor a particular genre?
Favorite writers? Can anyone answer that?
At the moment I'm obsessed with Haruki Murakami.
I mentioned him at a crime writers conference once
and the panel hissed, 'He's mainstream.' Now I would
say he was the quintessential thriller writer, but
obviously people don't agree. Other writers? Carl
Hiassen, Patricia Highsmith, Tom Savage.
What is your next project?
Next project is another unreliable narrator,
I'm afraid. The most unreliable so far. It'll be
interesting to see if anyone wants to read it, given
that nobody dies a horrible death or disappears.
That said, there's a person looking for clues to
himself, an entire cast of English people trying
to act as if they are normal, a benign kidnapping,
TV cooks, a magic mobile home...I could go on, but
I'll leave it at that.