Matthew Turbeville: Araminta, it’s so wonderful to get to pick your brain about your astonishingly beautiful at, at the same time, somewhat scary novel: Our Kind of Cruelty. I have to ask first, where did you get the idea for this novel?
Araminta Hall: I’m a massive fan of thrillers, especially the old school ones. But I’m also a massive fan of writers like Iris Murdoch and Margaret Atwood, who I don’t think would be classed as thriller writers, but delve deep in to psychology. I wanted to write a book like this and really wanted to explore obsessional love and how twisted it can get. And I also knew I wanted to write about a delusional man because thrillers are so often concerned with delusional women and in my experience there are as many delusional men as women! But I was also inspired by the Amanda Knox case and how the media made the whole thing about sex, so that there was never a fair trial and no one seemed that bothered by who had actually killed a young girl. It made me see just how biased we are against female sexuality and how much we judge women on gossip as opposed to what they say. It’s how I came up with the idea to write the whole book from Mike’s POV and to effectively ‘silence’ Verity. I want readers to be shocked by the judgements they make about both these characters and to ask themselves why men always seem more credible than women.
MT: You’ve taken the unreliable to a new level—A Gillian Flynn type level—and I’m wondering about how you managed to capture him without going overboard with his thoughts and actions. It’s so obvious midway through beginning the novel before the reader begins wondering: maybe this character isn’t exactly thinking clearly. That’s nicest way I can think to make it.
AH: I think all writing comes down to character in the end and the only way to write a good book is to write a good character. Characters have to be believable and by that I mean you have to believe everything they do, not that everything they do is believable. If any writer has done a good enough job at creating a character then readers will follow them anywhere. I certainly know, as a reader, when someone acts ‘out of character’ it totally interrupts the book for me and makes me not care about what is going to happen. So, I really got to know Mike – everything about him, which is hopefully reflected on the page in that I do give quite a lot of detail about how he got to the place he’s in and why the way he thinks is plausible for him. There’s also something quite strange about writing in the first person, in that you really do enter your character’s mind, which wasn’t always comfortable in this case.
MT: When you begin writing, do you have the ending of the novel in your head already, or do you surprise yourself with how or where you’ve taken the novel? Do you control the novel, or does the novel control you?
AH: I absolutely always have the ending. I teach some creative writing classes and I always say to my students, you would never just get in a car and drive without knowing where you’re going, but you might change routes halfway through or stop for a rest or have an accident, or anything. I think if you don’t know where you’re going it becomes a bit messy, but necessarily the plot can change along the way. It goes back to what I said earlier about character – if you’ve got a believable character they can do most things. But of course I’m in control. I’m writing the words.
MT: Can you tell us about your writing process, just a bit? Are you a morning, nighttime, or a midday type writer? Do you have a word limit or page count per day? What have you found is the most important part of writing a novel?
AH: The most important part of writing a novel for me is thinking. I start with an idea but it takes me ages to understand how I want to write it. I will often spend six months to a year thinking about my book. I will start a few drafts which I know are terrible and have nothing to do with the story, but somehow they’re necessary for me. Then I’ll have a moment where I work out what I want to do and after that the writing seems to flow (so far). As far as a routine – I have three kids so I take time whenever I can find it. But usually I drop the youngest at school, have a walk or go to an exercise class, come home and move dust round the house, then sit down and write for a couple of hours before I have to do the school pick up. That’s on a good day. Often I don’t write at all.
MT: What authors have inspired you? What authors have you come across in recent years who you feel are able to, through their own writing, pursue whatever draft you’re completing?
AH: The writer that has always really inspired me is Patricia Highsmith. I just think she’s a master of the genre. Her characters are totally, uncomfortably believable and her stories are heart-stopping and brilliant. She is just wonderful. I am also always bowled over by Shirley Jackson, Iris Murdoch and Carol Sheilds. As for people writing now I love Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn and Jon McGregor. Also, one of the best books I’ve read this year is Golden Hill by Francis Spufford.
MT: Back to the novel, it feels sometimes like the narrator’s very vision of the world is in fact what raises and skyrockets the mystery of the novel. Was this done intentionally?
AH: Absolutely. But I think the reason it resonates so much is because we’ve recently realized that it’s an exaggeration of a vision which is much more prevalent than we realized. If Me Too has taught us anything it’s surely that we’re not nearly as far along the equality road as we all thought.
MT: Was the novel always the way it is now, or at least similar to how it is now, or did you find yourself pulled in several different directions all at once? How did this concept and draft begin, and did it always end up going this way?
AH: Yes and no. This draft of the novel has changed very little. In fact, I was having lunch with my agent and editor the other day and we were saying how the first 20 or so pages have never changed. And in fact, I barely changed them after I’d written them. We did play around with the ending quite a bit though and the structure. And, like I said before, it took me a long time to get to the point of writing this version. I have about three half completed drafts that you wouldn’t recognize as having anything to do with this book, but which totally brought me to it.
MT: This novel feels somewhat, or a lot like, a Patricia Highsmith novel (one of the greatest compliments I can give to a novel). When did you get turned toward the crime genre, and what was the work, you believe, that helped shape your writing?
AH: And that’s the biggest compliment I could receive as a writer! It’s funny because I’m not an exclusive reader of crime and thrillers, even though I totally love them, but I always return to them. I also think they’re a very freeing genre – you get to tell a great story and make a serious point. And it’s a very unrestrictive genre – almost anything goes which is rare and a real treat for a writer. I’ve always read all the time, but I think the first crime author I read was Agatha Christie at about 13. I can’t remember when I first read Highsmith, but I feel it was more like 18, and she’s been my literary heroine since then.
MT: Megan Abbott once advised me never to judge your characters. Is this one of your mottos, or do you at times feel yourself judging a character despite your best intentions?
AH: I think this is great advice. If you believe in essential human fallibility then you have to be kind to them. Mike is a strange man, but I also sympathise with him because we’ve all got a back story. Just like I sympathise with Verity, because we all sometimes make bad choices.
MT: While still referencing Megan Abbott, she tweeted recently that women not only are the best creators of crime fiction, who are also are among the greatest consumers. Don’t take this quote to heart, necessarily, as I don’t want to misquote Megan. Where do you think women are in literature as opposed to five or ten years ago? Where do you see things going for women in the genre, yourself included?
AH: I do think women dominate crime and thriller and I think that’s because we know all about feeling scared. Just walking down a dark street can be frightening for us. Or riding a lift alone with a man. Or getting your car from a deserted car park. Or being in a bad relationship. Or having a predatory boss. I’m not saying men don’t get hassled or that they don’t understand these feelings, but they’re so common to women we relate to these books in a visceral way. I hope women writers will become more respected and I also hope that we’ll see more female CEOs in publishing companies. But it’s going the right way and it feels positive.
MT: What were your intentions when writing this novel? Who did you decide that this novel is targeting people of a certain sex, sexuality, age, etc, or do you believe your novel transcends limits of a specific audience?
AH: My intentions were to write a good story that got people thinking about issues that are important to me. I didn’t have a particular audience in mind though. It’s funny because someone tweeted me the other day to say they were disgusted that my book is set in London but doesn’t feature any characters of ethnic origin. I thought that was such a strange thing to say because there are lots of characters that could be any ethnicity and that surely says more about that reader that they couldn’t imagine anyone who wasn’t white, British. I always like to leave physical descriptions to a minimum as we’re all going to make our own pictures as readers.
MT: Are you happy with all of the press you’ve been receiving pre- and after releasing the book? It seems to be getting very good reviews, which must delight you!
AH: Good reviews are amazing and I’ve been very lucky. But you always get some bad and it’s a really terrible habit of mine to always focus on the bad way more than the good. Both my publishers in the US and UK have been completely amazing though at getting the book out there and talked about, which is all a writer ever really wants.
MT: Toni Morrison, among other luminaries, says that when you go into writing something, write the novel you’d want to read. Do you think this novel is “the novel you want to read,” or do you think that novel still needs to come?
AH: Yes this is totally a novel I’d read. And I agree, there’s no point in writing for a market or anything like that. You have to fall in love with an idea and get swept up in the writing otherwise your book will feel flat.
MT: I do have to ask: where do you see yourself going from here? Is there another novel in the works, something you can tease these readers with?
AH: Yes, I’m contracted to write another book so I’m working on it at the moment. It’s still early days, but I can say it will definitely be in the same genre and is going to feature another dysfunctional relationship (but in a totally different way). I want to talk about how men and women see each other and the mistakes we make with assumptions.
MT: I’m so glad you were able to speak with me, AH. It was such a pleasure making these questions just for you, and please feel free to point out anything about the novel, yourself, or your writing below!
AH: Your questions were great, thank you. I think we covered it all!