Matthew Turbeville: Hello Sophie! I’m excited to pick your brain for a minute. First off, I was wondering where you get most of your ideas from? Do they come to you in epiphanies or from reading the newspaper? I know each writer has his or her own way of creating new work.
Sophie Hannah: Most of my inspiration comes from real life — when something really weird happens to me (which is surprisingly often), it sparks a book idea. Keep Her Safecame from a combination of two real life experiences. One of these started when I was watching television during my first ever US book tour. Everyone seemed to be discussing the case of Caylee Anthony, a little girl who had gone missing. One thing that shocked me about all the commentary was that many people were talking as if her mother had definitely killed her. That kind of commentary wouldn’t be allowed in the UK, as it would prejudice potential jurors. The other experience that informed the book happened when I was staying in a hotel near Manchester, England. The receptionist sent me to the wrong room - one that was already occupied, and into which I barged, merrily singing show tunes, in the middle of the night. I ended up face to face with a naked shaven-headed man! Luckily, I survived the experience and didn’t get involved in any criminal investigations — but it sparked the premise for Keep Her Safe. I thought, ‘What if someone walked into a room that they were never supposed to walk in to and, in 99 out of 100 circumstances, would never have walked into? And what if, in that room, they saw something that somebody really, really wished they hadn’t seen…maybe enough to commit murder.
MT: The setting for Keep Her Safe, the American name of Did You See Melody?, is somewhere near Phoenix, Arizona. What made you choose this place to set your most recent novel?
SH: I love Arizona — it’s my favourite part of the United States. I love the cacti, the pink roads, the swimming pools and of course the spa resorts! I’ve been to a few over the years and decided that a spa resort would be a perfect setting for psychological suspense. It’s a calming, relaxing environment where you can escape from life, but it could also be seen as sinister: a place filled with blissed-out people in white robes walking silently and apparently without aim. The beautiful desert landscape and rolling open spaces seemed a perfect contrast to the tensions inside the spa. Arizona is also the state where you can find my favourite independent American bookstore, The Poisoned Pen.
MT: How did you decide about Cara’s emotional state? How did you focus on when and why she needed time away from her family, and how does this tie in to the novel as a whole?
SH: I wanted and needed her to have run away from home. So I needed to give her a problem — something that would make her feel the need to escape her family. She thinks getting far away will give her the time and space she needs to reflect on her family problems. Instead, she ends up immersed in another family’s problems — which are far more terrifying.
MT: How long did it take you to come up with and write the story of Cara? Why was it important that main character’s name is different in American English as opposed to how it’s pronounced in Britain?
SH: One of the main themes in the novel is a British woman finding herself in America. Not only is she sticking her nose into another family’s problems, but also another country’s. I wanted my central character to have a name that’s pronounced differently in the States to the way it’s pronounced in Britain, because I wanted to highlight the many ways in which her life is different when she’s abroad.
MT: Cara seems as if her family has forgotten her or just doesn’t miss her. What makes this a motivating factor for Cara?
SH: I don’t agree with that. Cara knows exactly how much her family misses her — and how angry and baffled they will be that she’s disappeared without telling them. But for the first time ever, she gives herself permission to put her own needs first. As a wife and mother, she’s never wanted to do that before. But now, for the first time, she knows that the family as unit can only survive (with all members of the family happy and intact) if she acts more selfishly than she’s used to acting. She is also trying to save a member of her family…but I can’t say too much more about that without giving away plot details.
MT: How is Keep Her Safe different from other standalone novels you’ve written?
SH: In many ways! It’s my first book set in the United States, the first one set in a luxury five-star resort, and the first to look at the media’s treatment of real crime cases.
MT: I recently read an article in which you criticize the notion that we shouldn’t show violence against women. In your own words, why is portraying violence against women so important?
SH: It’s only important if that’s the kind of story the writer wants to tell. I wouldn’t try to make people put violence against women into a story where it doesn’t belong. But as long as it’s a real phenomenon, it’s something that needs to be written about and subjected to moral and psychological scrutiny - exactly the same as violence against men, and children of both sexes. Violence is violence, and it’s always awful, but we can’t start to say that we shouldn’t write about it. Sometimes it’s important to write about terrible things. The best crime fiction aims to deepen our understanding of life and all its ugliness, and also to give us consolation. If we see the hero of a great novel surviving a traumatizing experience, it makes us feel stronger.
MT: You also write the new Agatha Christie novels featuring her beloved investigator Poirot. When did you first decide you wanted to take on this role?
SH: It came about by sheer chance. My agent was having lunch with an editor at HarperCollins one day. Completely unprompted (and without asking me!) my agent suggested to the editor that he should commission me to write a new Hercule Poirot novel! The editor politely said the family would not agree to that. As chance would have it, the next day, he had a meeting with the Christie family. Again, completely unprompted, Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard said: ‘This is going to surprise you, but we’re thinking the time might be right for a continuation novel.’ So, a meeting was arranged and we all got on really well. It was just the most amazing coincidence!
MT: How do you inhabit the voices of so many different people? It feels effortless but I’m sure it’s a lot of work.
SH: Writing any book is a huge amount of work. I wouldn’t say that writing from multiple points of view is harder than writing a linear, single-perspective narrative. In real life, I try to look at everything from every point of view — I guess it spills over into fiction-writing!
MT: When you first became a writer, were you aware you would achieve such success? You’re not only celebrated in Britain, but around the world too. What advice would you give new writers to the genre?
SH: I never thought about success. I just thought about what I wanted to write, each time — and then, whether I’d communicated it well and made something I was happy with. My advice to new writers is: don’t even think about success. You’ll always be more successful than some and less successful than others. You will always succeed again, and fail again, so take both for granted as natural parts of life. If you fear failure, you won’t take risks and then you won’t succeed either. All the most successful people in the world are those who have failed many times and still carried on trying new things. Concentrate on writing what you love, and what you think is important.
MT: You are very vocal about violence against women, as mentioned before. I’m also sure you’ve very vocal about your favorite female crime writers. Could you name some of your favorites, both recent and from long ago?
SH: To clarify, I’ve been vocal about violence against women because that specific topic keeps coming up. A book prize was announced, to reward books that don’t mention violence against women at all. While it clearly has noble aims, I think it’s misguided. But in my broader life, I care equally about all violence, whether it’s against men, women or children. I hate it all, and it’s all equally bad. My favourite crime writers include Agatha Christie, SJ Watson, Jesse Kellerman, Ruth Rendell, Nicci French and Tana French.
MT: What is your favorite book you have written? Why is this one so important to you, and what does it mean to you as a novel, and as a work you’ve dedicated yourself to?
SH: All my books are important to me and I have many favourites. I’m especially proud of the huge twist at the end of Keep Her Safe (Did You See Melody?). Closed Casket contains the best motive for murder I’ve ever come up with. The Wrong Mother is an honest and detailed examination of motherhood. The Other Woman’s House is, I believe, the first ever British real estate thriller. A woman is looking at houses for sale online, and on a virtual tour she sees a dead body — then it vanishes. Of all the opening pages I’ve written, that’s my favourite. I also love Little Face, my first novel, and my favourite intriguing scenario: a husband and wife can’t agree on whether or not the baby in their house is theirs.
MT: Besides the upcoming Poirot novels, what else do you have in mind? Are you continuing your series or authoring more standalone novels?
SH: Both! My next novel is indeed a Poirot. It’s called The Mystery of Three Quarters and will be published in August. It begins with Poirot being confronted in the street by a furious woman, who is convinced he has written to her, accusing her of murder. Poirot has sent no such letter, but the next thing he knows, another man turns up, having received an identical letter…
I’m also working on my next standalone thriller, Haven’t They Grown. A mother drives past her ex-best-friend, whom she hasn’t seen for twelve years. The friend is with her children; twelve years ago, they were five and three years old. Now, today, they appear still to be five and three years old. Why haven’t they grown?
In November I’m publishing my first ever self-help book. It’s called How to Hold a Grudge (From Resentment to Contentment — the Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life)and the central idea is that grudges enhance our lives and relationships, and make us more forgiving, and happier.
I’ve also been researching the next in my Culver Valley series, featuring Detective Simon Waterhouse and his colleagues, so they will reappear at some point…
MT: If you could share a book, yours or someone else’s, with the president of the United States, what would you choose and why?
SH: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. It’s possibly my favourite book in the world. It’s all about the innate mysteriousness and unknowable-ness of our fellow humans. I’d recommend it to anyone, but I definitely think that anyone who is or wants to be the president should read it. It’s one of those books that makes you immediately more puzzled (and therefore wiser) as soon as you’ve read it.
MT: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Ms. Hannah. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to pick your brain, so to speak. Feel free to talk about anything else, related to your work or not, now that our interview has concluded. I have to say, I cannot wait for your next book, standalone or not.
SH: Thank you for having me! It’s been lovely to chat.