WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Yrsa, I am so excited to talk with you about your work. You have an amazing history of publishing some of the best in crime fiction today. I would love to start with how you found yourself a professional writer. When did you realize you were a writer, and when do you feel you had your breakthrough? What novel do you feel is the book that really set you up for being one of the most important voices in crime fiction today?
Yrsa Sigurdardottir: I never imagined myself becoming a writer, not as a child, not as a young adult or as a semi grown-up. I was very content being an avid reader. I read non-stop and as an example, the year I turned twelve I set myself a goal to read one book a day – no graphic novels or baby books were allowed. I managed all the way to my birthday in August when I was given Gone with the Wind as a birthday present. I started reading and was immediately hooked, but the sheer number of pages meant it took me three days to finish instead of one and I was unable to recoup from that. Having spent my childhood with my nose between the pages of a book I was certain that the best way of becoming an empathetic person with broad horizons was to read. It allows you to place yourself in a variety of situations by entering the characters’ minds in a way that movies, TV and computer games do not – much less life as it is limited by your surroundings and individual circumstances. I also believed that if you do not read as a child you will not read as a grown up. When my son was about eight and showed zero interest in reading I became extremely stressed that he would grow up to be a bad person. I found that the books available to him at the time were not likely to fuel his interest and decided to write books for kids like him. I ended up writing five kids books and winning the Icelandic Children’s Literature prize for the last one (and the least one in my opinion). But my son never read them. He did however to my great surprise ending up becoming a reader when he was older. So I was wrong in assuming that just did not happen.
With regards to my realizing I was a writer and when I felt I had broken through – oddly enough I have a hard time seeing myself from the outside and in (if this makes any sense). I just love to write – when I don’t hate it. The hate bit helps because at some point during the writing process of every book I feel that I am not doing a good enough job and wallow in depression for a few days. This keeps me on my toes and ensures that I am very critical of my work. No author wants to write a bad book so I am sure I am not the only one that goes through the wringer while writing.
MT: You write multiple series, and also standalone novels as well. How do you decide which mystery or storyline belongs in a standalone novel, as opposed to one of your series? How do you determine what story belongs with what character or set of characters?
YS: Usually I make a conscious decision to write a standalone or not before I start thinking about the story itself. This happens during the writing of the book that precedes it. There are differences in the setup of each as the characters in a standalone have limited space for their “journey”. Their story must fit into one book, along with the developments in the underlying crime investigation. Characters in standalone novels are furthermore disposable which allows for more freedom in a way – as the writer you can kill them all off if that fits or feels right. In a series however the main characters have more space to develop and an added bonus is that you have them set up already when writing all other than the first installment. The downside to this is that it can be tricky to introduce these characters in a way that explains them to someone entering mid series without boring to death the readers that have read the previous installments.
MT: When writing so prolifically, and having characters so diverse, complex, interesting—how do you keep up with so many characters, and stay true to how you’ve envisioned them? Do you ever find problems with keeping up with so many different characters’ worlds in your novels?
YS: I do not find this difficult because I purge the previous book from my head when I am done – aside from the central characters if I am writing in a series. The fact that the characters in each book relate to the topic I am addressing helps a lot as well. A book that revolves around bullying for example (The Absolution) will introduce a very different set of characters than one about surrogacy for example (the book I just finished – working English title: The Fallout).
MT: One of my favorite of your novels, I Remember You, is labeled “a ghost story.” First, I’m wondering how you think literal ghosts are connected to crime fiction, but also, in film school we were always taught every character has a “ghost,” or a history which propels the character forward in their journey. What do you think the importance of this sort of ghost—a haunted past, for example—in crime fiction, and why do you feel it’s necessary for a mystery or crime novel today?
YS; I love stories where old sins or “ghosts” come to life and refuse to stay buried. To me it is a form of justice that you seldom witness in real life and I prefer my alternative reality to be different. If perpetrators of evil within my pages think they got away with their bad deeds, they should think again. However, this is not a universal truth. Occasionally the bad guy does get away in my books - to keep the readers on their toes.
MT: When you are in contact with fans from different countries, or me now, speaking English, do you ever feel more pleased with the translations of some books over others? I remember Boris Pasternak’s daughter being displeased with one of the English translations of Doctor Zhivago. Have you ever felt that way about a book having been translated?
YS: The only translation I am able to read with any sort of success is the English language one. Although I could worm my way through the other Scandinavian languages and the German one, I would not be able to judge their quality at all. I would be lucky to follow the storyline, even if it is my own. But I am extremely lucky with Victoria Cribb who does my English translations as she is just fantastic to work with and very, very good at what she does. In general, it is the translators that I never hear from that I worry about. There is always going to be something in the Icelandic text that needs explaining as the books are written for the original Icelandic readers. Victoria spots the places where someone not local will not understand what is being referred to or is not explained due to familiarity with Icelandic society and/or geography. She will point these places out and give me the opportunity to pad the text so that all readers will get my drift.
MT: Of all your books, which is your favorite? Which are you most proud of? Which do you think will have the most long-lasting effect? What is your writing process like, and how do you balance so many different books and projects? Your mysteries are obviously layered endlessly and brilliantly, and I wonder how you map out these vast, complicated, and expansive worlds. Do you mind briefly elaborating on this?
YS: I have a very hard time picking a single book but as the thumb screws are on I am going to say “I Remember You”. This is due to two things, the first being that I am a horror aficionado and it was such fun to write. Secondly, I built the book up in accordance to a theory I had regarding the difference between thrillers and clean-cut crime novels. By running the story through two separate threads where one followed a thriller structure (abandoned town) and the other, opposing story followed a crime structure (dead hide-and-seek son) – I was able to keep the tension high throughout.
I do not have a hard time layering or keeping track of threads etc. as I work in project management for large, mostly power plant projects, and a storyline is child’s play in comparison regarding complexity. I have this dream of setting up a huge idea board and connecting stuff with string in my office when working on a book idea. But it has never come to fruition. Presently my office has been taken over by a squatter (my daughter) so this is not likely to change very soon.
MT: Returning back to I Remember You, there are two separate storylines inside the novel (or so it seems) which intersect and affect one another in various ways. How do you go about making this work, and how does this affect real life? I’ve recently been watching The Bridgeafter my mentor suggested the show, and it’s so interesting to see so many different lives in the show playing out, intersecting, and bringing a massive story together. How do you feel your fiction, and your favorite crime fiction, reflects real life?
YS: I try to keep everything that I possibly can realistic and thus a reflection of reality. By this I mean the characters, society, landscape, culture, dialogue, and urban settings. Doing so one obtains a single degree of freedom that allows you to make the crime/murder more elaborate than what commonly happens.
To set up and connect various storylines or threads, a lot of thinking is required. As the author you control everything, the magic is in finding a way to weave everything together so that it does not appear random. It helps to keep in mind that none of us are exempt from the butterfly effect and therefore not masters of our own universe. Other people’s actions and decisions will affect us so it is not hard to see this happen to one’s characters. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how character A’s life can intersect or collide with character B and end up acting as a catalyst for the misguided actions of character C etc., etc. etc. It helps that I know what I am attempting to do, i.e. I know how what the end result of the intersections is supposed to be.
MT: What are your favorite books you return to when you need inspiration, if you cannot figure out a plotline or story problem, or perhaps if you’re exasperated and need a reminder of why you write? I know a lot of different writers have different books they turn to for this last question, the reminder for why they write. Do you credit any books for your need to become a writer, and for your success? What books helped inform you most in your formative years?
YS: Well. Although it might sound odd the writers that influenced me into becoming a writer were really the crap writers. The writers of boring children’s books. If it were not for them I would still be a very content reader. Today there is an abundance of fantastic book for kids so I guess I am lucky to have had my son when I did. But with regards to my go-to book I can’t recall any single novel that I revert to when I am feeling exasperated. There are so many good books available that I tend to read something new when I want to refresh. When it comes to my informative years, I know exactly the book that sent me on the path that I now tread, i.e. that of fascination of all things horror. This was a text book for doctors belonging to my father who was at the time taking a specialist degree in medicine and it was called something like The Complete Clinical Collection of Infectious Diseases. It contained the most horrible photos of boils, ulcers, pox, rotting digits etc. and me and my sister (aged about 10 and 7) would use every opportunity we had to peek inside. This lasted until my dad found out and removed the book from our house. It was however too late. We had been introduced to the lure of the awful and there is no going back. Decades later I still remember the page number with a picture of a girl our age missing a cheek, the back row of molars all visible.
MT: You’ve begun a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and the police investigator Huldar. The series is widely celebrated and here in the US much anticipated—with every new volume a welcome relief from all the crime fiction that seems like a regurgitation of the same plots and ideas. The first two books in this series released in America have been widely embraced and loved, and I wonder how you developed this series, and where you send it going, and if you have a specific end in sight?
YS: Just over a week ago I finished the last book in the series, number six. I find that it is best to quit before I get tired or the characters get stale. I chose to write this series with themes where the central crime revolves around social injustice or social ills. This made writing each installment interesting and fun. Soon I must decide what my next series will be like, who is the protagonist, will it be urban or more remote and so on. Once I have something that I feel very enthusiastic about I can start thinking about the first case. But I have a year to do this as my next book is to be horror, something akin to I Remember You.
MT: What’s your biggest criticism about crime fiction today? What do you love most about fiction in general—crime fiction and any other genre as well? If you were to give one of your books to everyone in the world in the hopes of creating some kind of change, or perhaps developing an understanding of some sort—what book would you suggest, and what effect would you imagine?
YS: I thought hard about criticism and must say there is nothing glaringly obvious that I don’t like about the genre status today. This is probably because it is so diverse, i.e. as a reader I am able to select what I am likely to enjoy reading and leave the ones I certainly won’t on the bookshop shelves. Sometimes I do get annoyed at the “necessity” to insert a “defective detective” into the mix as all of the good defects are already taken and hence they become increasingly outlandish.
The book of mine that I believe could have an effect would be the Absolution – the book about bullying. But as I mentioned earlier, bullies are not readers so they are unlikely to be affected. If they did however I would hope to scare them into being better people and draw their attention to the fact that they are pitiful. No content person bullies others. The book also contains a harsh solution for parents of children that are subject to horrendous bullying, i.e. lawyer up. Sue the bully for the loss of a life ruined. As parents are responsible for their kids in most legal systems this is a surefire way of getting them to address their problem kid. When faced with losing material possessions or money, the problem will suddenly become real and urgent to amend. As much of bullying is now online the burden of proof is simple, as is proving damages. Lost time off work, falling grades and so on. If a kid breaks your window or scratches your car you seek compensation from the parents. I do not see it is much different if a kid breaks your child’s happiness. I should note that I have never been bullied and my kids are lucky enough to have escaped this as well. But I have seen a few of my friends’ kids go through hell because of bullying and I cannot begin to describe how much I detest this behavior. It is unacceptable, no matter what your age.
MT: Before you published your first novel, how many drafts did you work through, and how many books did you write before your first book was actually published? What advice do you have for new authors? Anything from larger, broader advice and to perhaps very specific and unique suggestions are certainly welcome here.
YS: The first book that I wrote was published so I was one of the lucky few or perhaps it is easier here in Iceland to reach a publisher’s attention. I don’t do drafts. There is no first draft, second draft etc. There is only the one draft that I edit regularly while writing. I write ten chapters, then I read them through and distance myself from the authorship, i.e. read it like a reader. This helps me pinpoint pacing lags and storyline lacks and I amend this before continuing. I do the same after twenty chapters and after thirty. Usually my book is thirty something chapters so following the third review there is little left to do - other than taking the story by the hand and leading it across the finishing line.
This process includes sending each chapter to my editor when it is finished. Because I do it this way, once done I am done. There is no dreading the return of a redlined manuscript or the horrid re-write. The book I just finished was sent to print less than a week after I wrote the last word. For me this is the best way of doing it because you catch problem areas or dead ends, before they grow a strong root system that is entwined into the whole manuscript.
My recommendation to new writers are many. For one, write the book you would like to read, not the one you think will sell or be commercially successful. Authenticity is something you cannot fake when it comes to writing. Another thing that is very important to keep in mind if not yet published, is that a lot of aspiring authors start writing a book but not many finish it. It is hard to find the drive to keep going but persevere. Writing is hard, ungrateful work the first time around, no matter who you are. Keep in mind that your effort will be in vain unless you finish what you started.
MT: When completing a novel, how do you decide, “This novel is done. The climax matches everything the book has been building up to be—everything pays off, and I’ve accomplished a great novel, a great story, a great piece of writing I’m sure people will enjoy”? What do you do when you doubt yourself, and how do you decide when something needs to be changed, as opposed to a period of insecurity or doubt about your work in progress?
YS: Oh I am always filled with doubt and I never experience the feeling of having written a great book. My editor says he has kept the emails that I write him at the end of the writing process and will hand them over to me one day. They are extremely critical and every time I am trying to explain to him that the book should not be published because I am so afraid it is shit. Thankfully he is more grounded during this period of the process and manages to calm me down.
But I am in a better place when I am not about to hit send for the last time. As described above I quell doubts by reading what I am writing as a reader and amending when I find it not up to par or boring. This systems suits me very well and keeps the writing process challenging as to fix a lagging story I sometimes add something into the story that I have no idea how I am going to make work for the whole. After adding something like this I take a few days to think about how this will be seamless and fitting. Being the puppet master of what transpires on the pages it is always solvable.
MT: If you were a detective or investigator of some sort like in your novels, and able to solve any case in the world, cold case or new unsolved case, what might you start off with? What true crime case, solved or unsolved, intrigues you most?
YS: I heard the story of the Mary Celeste as a child and have ever since been absolutely enthralled by the mystery of what happened to those on board. Although there is no way that this can be solved today, I would so dearly want to know what transpired. Also the unsolved Hinterkaifeck murders in Bavaria come to mind and I would not be Icelandic if I did not want to know what happened to both Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, two men that disappeared in Iceland in the 70s. Recently, the convictions of those found guilty of these murders at the time were overturned, but the fate of the two missing men is still unknown. The official handling of this case has thrown a cold dark shadow over Icelandic society for decades and still does.
MT: Can you give us an overview over what we can expect from you in the coming years? The US is very often last to have translated versions of your novels released here, so we are lucky in already having books ready for our consumption. Your books are always stunning, and I’m sure your fans are eager to have some clue at what they might be able to expect from you in the future. Do you have any big books up your sleeve?
YS: Due to the translation process there are still 4 books in the Huldar and Freyja series yet to be published in the US. The next one to hit the market will be the Absolution which takes on social media bullying. I hope it will be well received although I do not think it will have an impact on those who bully as bullies are not typically readers. This is followed by Gallows Rock, The Doll and the Fallout – the last book in the Freyja and Huldar series.
The next book I will be working on now that I have put Freyja and Huldar behind me will be a standalone horror novel that I am presently mapping out in my head and very much looking forward to writing. It will however be some time before it will be available in English. I am also going to work simultaneously on another project that might be available sooner in English but that is sort of undercover at present. Long term (before I die) I hope to manage another six book crime series, an apocalyptic novel and possibly one sci-fi book. Being a smoker it remains to be seen if I can fit this all in.
MT: Crime fiction is now known to be read most widely by women, and the best books—in my opinion and others—are written by women. While this could be a random trend, do you have any opinion why minorities are turning toward crime novels, thrillers, suspense, and mysteries, and dominating the genre over the major writers a century ago, mostly straight white men?
YS: I am not sure why this is the case but I would assume that part of the success of women crime writers (and by success I mean the quality of the work, not only commercial) would be the fact that women are more inclined/adept at writing psychological angles and credible character traits. This is likely related to women having to solve issues through other means than force through the ages as well as being more disposed to empathy. But I should note that I do not see women as being a homogenous set of angels that always surpass men in the emotional department. An individual is an individual. There are shitty women out there as well as shitty men. Also, with regards to minorities in general, I think the crime novel is a fantastic venue for airing social injustice and ills - something that minorities get more than their fair share of. So this would very likely encourage good writing, i.e. personal experience of being wronged and a deep longing for justice.
MT: Yrsa, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. We love your books, your writing, everything about you. We cannot wait for more of your work to be translated and published here in the U.S. Your books are not just our favorites, as you’re something of a celebrity in the literary world here. We can’t wait to see what you release next, and feel welcome to leave us with any closing words, thoughts, ideas, or anything else you might want to add.
YS: Thank you so very much for all the kind words contained in the questions. I’m blushing a bit since I am of the generation when compliments were kept to a minimum as they were considered dangerous. They could end up causing people getting big heads you know. I could feel mine expanding as I typed.
But joking aside, thank you for your insightful questions and the opportunity to reach out to readers. I hope whoever reads this will find an interesting tidbit in at least one of my answers.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, guys. I am excited to talk about The Lying Room, your newest fantastic novel. I loved the book so much, and I can’t wait to reread it when I have the chance. Who came up with this idea? How did you decide it would be a standalone, and what do you two usually argue about (if you argue at all)?
Nicci French: We’re so glad you enjoyed it! It never feels right to say that one or other of us had an idea. Our books come out of conversations we have, things that we can’t let go of, things that get under our skin. As to what we argue about, we’re just as immature and petty as everyone else. We argue about who didn’t do the dishes, who left the socks on the floor. But we don’t argue about the books. Really, it’s all about trust. We know that we both want what’s best for the story. More than that, in a strange way, when we work together, we really become this other writer, Nicci French.
MT: Were you two already published authors before you met? How did you decide to go into the industry together?
NF: When we got married, in 1990, we were both journalists. In fact, we met on the New Statesman magazine. We didn’t really decide to ‘go into the industry’. Because we were both writing journalism, we started talking about whether we could collaborate one day, whether it would be possible for two people to write with one voice. Then we came across the controversy over recovered memory – people going into therapy and recovering memories of terrible childhood abuse. Being writers, we had a double reaction: we saw it as a tragic social problem and we also saw it as a great subject for a new kind of thriller. And because we’d come across it together, we decided to write it together.
MT: What is the editing process like? Do you both edit at the same time, or is editing a more than one at a time thing? Do you both need to be reading the book at the same time and commenting and making it great through whatever process you have? You’re quite prolific, so I’d like to understand that too—how the two of you work so fast and who contributes what to each project.
NF: Do we really work so fast? It doesn’t always feel like it! But we work all the time; it’s part of the fabric of our life. Our process is rather cumbersome and messy. One person will write a section and then send it to the other, who is free to rewrite, change, cut, add to, whatever. They then continue writing and send it back to the other. We’re constantly discussing as we write. Then, when we finish the first draft, we both read through it, talking all the time, taking detailed notes. One of us goes through the whole book, then the other goes through the whole book. It’s not for the faint-hearted!
MT: You have a murder, what appears to be a killing staged and prepared for the protagonists, and a lot of great suspects. What makes you decide a minor character or, rather, anyone who isn’t the protagonist can be a suspect, and what do you do to make the person seem suspicious and possibly play a role in a murder? I felt this was so important in The Lying Room.
NF: There is a technical answer to this and there is an answer that involves the emotional truth of the story and they are the same answer. The Lying Story could be seen as a kind of domestic noir. It’s a story of how mysterious we all are to each other, even those closest to us, our partner, our child, our friends. It’s about the vulnerability of ordinary life. It was important to the story that there was nobody Neve could feel entirely sure about, nowhere she was safe.
MT: What books do each you feel were helpful during your formative years, books which influenced you to become writers, and also books which you turn to for inspiration or ideas if you’re run dry?
Sean: ‘Helpful’ doesn’t seem quite the right word. I grew up passionately reading, watching movies, watching plays. I think I was influenced by all of it. But I’ll single out a few: I loved Sherlock Holmes’s London, the fog, the sense of mystery; his relationship with Dr Watson. John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Coldmixed the technical skill of Agatha Christie with the literary skill of Graham Greene; and nobody has written menacing dialogue better than Hemingway did in his miniature masterpiece, ‘The Killers’. Nowadays, I get inspiration the way I always did: reading all sorts of books, listening to music, looking at pictures, drinking wine, going for long walks with NIcci.
Nicci: Like Sean, I’m an ardent reader – not just of thrillers, but of many different novels, both contemporary and classic, and then biographies and histories, poetry books, recipe books… I remember when I first read Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte I was completely bowled over by the passionate and angry voice of Jane. I go back to that book year after year. But maybe the books I read and loved and pretty much knew by heart as a child were the ones that most formed me: Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, Alan Garner’s uncanny novels. My mother read Wilkie Collins novels to me when I was about eleven and I’ve never forgotten their Gothic wonderfulness.
MT: What do you feel your greatest strengths are as writers? Do you think you complement each other, and that helps, or do you think you both have to work on the same issues to be better writers?
NF: That’s for other people to say! But I think that something mysterious happens when we write together. There’s a French expression, folie a deux, which describes two people who get together and commit crimes they would never have done alone. Think Bonnie and Clyde. There’s something in that about us. When we write together, we become something different, we perhaps push each other into areas we would never reach alone. But then, after almost twenty-five years of it, it’s still as mysterious to us as it is to anyone else.
MT: Is there a book you want to write—together or separately—which you feel is the book you’ve always wanted to find and read yourself? What would it be like? Or have you already written this book?
NF: That’s always the next book!
MT: The Lying Room is frightening in that it creates this world—our world—where a simple mistake, a risk, a bad choice leads to the destruction of life as we see it, learning of secrets we don’t want to hear, and yearning to rewind things just a bit and avoid this small mistake which led to something bigger. This is truly frightening, and all too real and common. What about that is so scary, and why did you decide to focus on a mistake so small (at least in my opinion, in relation to what happens later) and let it be blown out of proportion?
NF: You have to write ‘your’ book, and we always write about what frightens us. For us this is not a story of a huge terrorist plot. What frightens us is that fragility of ordinary life, how we are only one bad decision, one piece of bad luck, from finding ourselves in a horror story. The idea that we are all, all of the time, on thin ice: is there anything more frightening than that?
MT: What do you think is so important and interesting about the people closest to you having these crazily dark and daring secrets which they hide from the protagonist? Why is it so much more interesting with family members?
NF: Anyone who lives in a family has enough material for a lifetime of psychological thrillers. All families have their secrets, the mysteries, the things that aren’t talked about. Of course, families are good! We love our family! But also, family is the part of our life we didn’t choose, the thing we can’t escape, however hard we try.
MT: When something like this happens—like the experiences Neve has in the book—do you really think she can ever return to whatever her “normal” life was before?
NF: We really don’t think that. Every story is a journey and the characters are different at the end from what they were at the beginning. You can never go back, even if you want, and usually you shouldn’t want to. As the old saying goes, you can never step into the same river twice.
MT: When crafting Neve’s character, I wonder how you decided who she would be, and how her character was crafted to fit this murder, or was the murder crafted to fit Neve’s personality and make her more paranoid and such after finding the body?
NF: When we talk about a book, the story and the characters always come together. What character does this story need? Neve couldn’t be a young woman in her twenties. This is a story of people who have been married a long time, who have old friends, who are starting to feel stuck. Neve really chose herself.
MT: Both of you are married to writers, so I wonder: what is it is like to live and be married to another writer? Adam Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, warned me never to marry a writer, and instead a surgeon “or something.” Can you explain this experience and lifestyle?
NF: If we were completely separate writers, the situation would be entirely different. We do our own writing, of course, but even so we explore the world as writers together, and we do interviews like this together. We can’t imagine it any other way. On the other hand, Philip Roth said that when a writer is born into a family, the family dies. Maybe one writer in a marriage is either one too few or one too many.
MT: People like to say “complex character” (or “complex women”) but I like to refer to them straight-forward as “unlikable women.” Complexity doesn’t necessarily make someone likable or unlikable. What do you think of the rise in popularity of unlikable women? I don’t know if I view Neve as unlikable—I rooted for her, but then again I love a well drawn out character going through a crisis, dark stories and such, so I may not be the best judge of this. Why do you think people are so attracted to even just the idea of unlkable women?
NF: You need to create drama and part of the drama should be between the book and the reader. You want to have a complicated relationship with the character. We love Hamlet but we also worry about loving a man who kills Polonius and drives Ophelia insane. Neve is a good person, we really feel that, but she makes mistakes, big mistakes. Even Neve isn’t sure what she thinks of Neve.
MT: Who do you feel are your true peers or even rivals today? Other than your own work, who do you think is creating the greatest crime fiction today and why?
NF: There is so much interesting writing at the moment. Just sticking to the UK, we could name Sophie Hannah, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Erin Kelly and we’d only be scratching the surface.
MT: If you’re both honest, which do you prefer—writing a series, or writing standalone books? What sort of series do you prefer—those which could go on indefinitely, or the series which are set up with only a certain number of books in mind?
NF: We enjoyed writing the Frieda Klein series, following her and her friends as they changed over the years. It felt like a very particular challenge. But when we came back to writing a standalone with The Lying Room, it did feel like we were coming home.
MT: Sort of in the same way of thinking, what book of yours do you feel is your favorite, and what’s the best or most important in your mind?
NF: In a strange way, our very first book, The Memory Game, is a favourite. It’s the book we wrote in secret, when we had four tiny children and were working full time and ‘Nicci French’ didn’t yet exist. From then on, we can stand back and look at them rationally. Each one of them represents a year in our life. Does one have a favourite year?
MT: What can we expect for you next? Is there another book already in the works? We are all excited to see what you release next!
NF: We’ve finished our next book. It’s called House of Correction and it’s about a woman who has to solve a murder while in prison, facing a charge of committing that murder.
MT: Thank you for talking with me. It is such a pleasure to read your work, and I cannot wait to read more. Please let us know anything we didn’t ask or I didn’t go into enough. I would love to hear about anything. For now, I’ll say goodbye and I hope I get to interview you and promote your novels again.
NF: The pleasure was ours!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Linwood! I’m really excited to talk about your nonstop thrill ride Elevator Pitch, which is sped along with a determination, force, and precision of a number of Jeff Abbott’s famous novels, and the dangers of living in today while haunted by the history of tomorrow. How did you come up with the premise?
Linwood Barclay: I was listening to the news in Toronto, where there has been an explosion of highrise condos, and heard that the city did not have enough elevator inspectors. And the idea, of a serial killer who sabotages elevators, was instantly in my head.
MT: The title Elevator Pitch works on a number of levels, at least two easily understandable to readers. Can you think of other ways the title works in the context of the novel and also our modern world, and how important is a working title to you and do you often change the working title before printing?
LB: There was never any other title. (Okay, at one point I suggested Going Down, but that sounded like a different kind of book.) The elevator pitch for Elevator Pitch is that someone is sabotaging elevators so that they pitch right down to the bottom of the shaft. It’s the only possible title.
MT: Your books are amazingly propulsive. As I said, they remind me of Jeff Abbott, the hands down master of suspense and thrills, able to capture the reader in any and all of his books. Everyone from my grandmother to other writers and such are able to appreciate your work—I mention my grandmother because she’s a famously voracious reader in the crime community and I always trust ARCs and such by her. She’s a big fan. What books and authors do youturn to for inspiration, for understanding characters, setting, story, and what books are just simply your absolute favorite, crime fiction or not?
LB: I tend to read writers I think are way better at this than I am, so the list is long. James Lee Burke immediately comes to mind. But I don’t read strictly crime fiction. I loved a recent bio on Mel Brooks. My favorite writer ever is Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer novels I discovered in my teens, and which made a huge impression on me.
MT: The world’s in a state of turmoil in most places, and I always feel like crime fiction—and all fiction is often crime fiction in one way or another—helps provide a certain balance to everyone who can’t make sense of other things. What book do you turn to in times of turmoil, and what book do you think more people should read, and which might help readers in general?
LB: I need to just turn CNN off for a week to reduce my angst level. When I am looking for the literary equivalent of comfort food, I read one of the early Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker. There’s solace in seeking out things you loved when you were younger, when there were fewer problems personally, and globally.
MT: You put out about a book a year. How are you so effective and productive? Do you feel real life ever gets in the way? What is your general schedule like, both for an average day for the great Linwood Barclay and also for each individual session of writing, editing, revision, rewriting.
LB: I spent 30 years in newspapers, so writing is a job. You get up and go to work, and aim to get 2,000 words done before the whistle blows. I’m at my desk usually by 8:30 and go till about 3 p.m. with plenty of wandering about in between. I think life gets in the way on occasion no matter what you do for a living. Writers are not special that way.
MT: For those people who want to be “the next Linwood Barclay,” what advice do you have to give to upcoming and new writers, and what do you think the crime community is missing today? Recently, Agora was launched, promising great crime fiction by diverse authors. I’m very excited to see this, but I was wondering what you’ve thought about different authors, diversity in crime fiction, and where we’re going with the genre.
LB: I don’t honestly think about the big picture a great deal. I write to my strengths, do what I think I am good at, without thinking about the genre as a whole. But more diversity will only make the crime-writing community stronger. As for advice, if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. And if you think you want to be a writer, but aren’t currently writing, then maybe you’re more in love with the idea of it than the actual work.
MT: Are there ever books you want to give up on? How many books did you write before first being published? I know some have only written the one, never failing, while others have written three, seven, and some numbers are outrageously high and too often to list.
LB: I wrote several novels in my late teens and early twenties I could not sell, and we can all me thankful for that. But after 25 years in newspapers I was ready to give it another go, and that novel was published.
MT: I’m also writing a piece on fiction writers and their most undervalued or overlooked works. I was wondering if you had any ideas for who you would name—and what titles you would list—for most overlooked work by a great author? How do you feel about your own books? Is there one book you feel never sold well or reached as wide of an audience, despite the blockbuster author you are today? What would that be, and why do you feel more people should read it?
LB: One writer I believe deserves an even greater readership than he currently enjoys (and he’s not doing at all badly) is Michael Robotham, from Australia. As for my own work, I may be too close to judge. I think last year’s book, A Noise Downstairs, was one of my best and I would not object if more people decided to pick it up.
MT: Elevators are scary for a lot of people—they not only provide height, but machinery that isn’t always reliable, as shown in your book—especially if, in extreme cases like the story depicted in your book, a fictional character was able to control the elevators and kill people this way. What are the scariest things for you, and what can you absolutely not write about? There are a few things that I can’t write about, but mostly they are things I found gross, my abject, the things that make me feel sick when I look at them or talk about the issues.
LB: I don’t know that there’s any subject I absolutely would not write about, but there might be limitations in HOW I write about it. There’s violence in my novels, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the gory details. The reader can fill in those spots with their own mental images.
MT: We know the elevator, or something involved the elevators, will kill so many people. What do you think about this keeps people reading, despite knowing where most of the danger is involved, and why do you think you’re able to keep them in suspense we know so much will revolve around the elevators? What do you think the secret to building and keeping suspense continuous through the whole novel?
LB: A thriller needs momentum. The plot is a kind of engine, and the writer is putting his or her foot to the floor. You’re in that car and it’s not safe to jump out so you might as well enjoy the ride.
MT: You mention one way to die—a scarf, I believe, getting stuck in an elevator—which was a very memorable and frightening thing for me—elevator, heights, suffocationand possible decapitation, depending on the circumstance. There was a scene like this in the movie Final Destination, or one of the sequels, and I also read Wes Craven added a scene into Scream 4, one of his final films, where he’d seen in the news a police officer was shot in the head but kept walking. What do you feel are the best sources of inspiration for bone chilling death scenes which keep the reader terrified and interested in both the most thrilling and worst ways? Most people wouldn’t believe Wes Craven’s story if it weren’t listed in the news, and so I wonder if anyone has actually questioned anything similar in your books?
LB: Not that I can recall. And anyway, my answer is: it’s a thriller. I want to root it in the believable, but I’m going to take a few liberties along the way.
MT: Recently, with the death of Toni Morrison, I think our country has finally realized literature is significant, her loss felt so intensely by so many of my friends, many of them not even big readers or members of the literary community or crime community. What authors do you regret not being able to interview, talk to, befriend because of their death? One I’ve thought about often is Reynolds Price. I love his work and he died in 2011, not far from my home in South Carolina, and it’s a big regret of mine how I never summoned the courage to meet him.
LB: I would love to have met Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake. I’m lucky to have met, and had dinner with, Ross Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar) and his wife Margaret Millar when I was 21. And I very much miss Margaret Laurence, and wonderful Canadian novelist who was a mentor and friend to my wife and me. I wish we could still sit around her kitchen table and trade stories.
MT: What’s next for you? You’ve written standalones, series, trilogies—what book or books do you have in mind? How far ahead do you write, and how far ahead do you plan? Do you plan out each book step by step, and do you ever give yourself wiggle room for any sort of improvising or unexpected writing you feel is necessary to the rest of the novel?
LB: Once I have a hook for a story, a “what if,” I figure out who did what and where I want to end up. I have the big picture in mind before I begin, but I don’t know the opportunities that exist in the big “mushy middle” of the novel until I get into it. As for what’s coming next, I’m not saying a thing.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us at Writers Tell All, Linwood. I cannot wait for your next book (which I’m sure will be out soon, and will be great!). Feel free to tell us anything about the book so we can go ahead and pre-order, and for any readers who haven’t already read Elevator Pitchand Linwood’s other novels, please do so at your earliest convenience! His books are unforgettable.
LB: Elevator Pitch will have to keep you entertained for the time being. But not to worry, I’m hard at work.