WRITERS TELL ALL
Sophie Hannah talks to WTA's Kristi Hixon on the Supernatural and Being Nosy in her new novel PERFECT LITTLE CHILDREN
Kristi Hixon: Ms. Hannah, thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you about your work. Your novels have become integral to my day-to-day routine. I find myself reading or listening to whichever novel I’ve discovered or recently discovered, reading your work in all my spare time. I’m so excited to hear your thoughts, feelings, and answers to these questions.
Your novels fascinate me by how they turn what feels implausible into something that could actually happen. While you deliver resolutions that satisfy, it feels for much of the books like the pieces cannot come together until you expertly make them link near the end– which I find thrilling. How do you decide how a story will end? Is this something you know from the beginning, or do you solve your crimes alongside your characters? Do you ever change your mind about where the story will end? Do you ever consider not providing a solution to the mystery, and are there really any actual solutions in some of your darkest and most frightening novels?
Sophie Hannah:I am never aware of *deciding* how the story will end - what happens, instead, is that at a certain point an idea will present itself (appearing in my head almost like magic!) and I will think, ‘Yes! That is my perfect ending!’ I very rarely change my mind about an ending once I’ve committed to it. In fact, that has only happened once. But, often, I decide to add one detail or a little twist to a pre-planned ending - just something to take it to the next level and make it even better.
I never consider leaving the mystery unsolved, no. I feel I owe it to readers to solve the mystery, but I do like to leave one or two tiny areas of ambiguity for them to wonder about. In Perfect Little Children, I want readers to have to decide for themselves whether Beth’s actions throughout the novel are morally correct or not.
KH: How and at what point do you decide whether a novel will feature supernatural/paranormal elements? What do you feel ties crime fiction with the supernatural and paranormal?
SH: Only one of my novels - The Orphan Choir - has been at all supernatural. I always decide upfront, because I think books should make it clear if they’re supernatural or not from the outset. There’s nothing more annoying than starting to read what you think is a psychological thriller, only to find that the solution to the mystery is ‘ghosts did it by magic.’ I think the link between crime and supernatural is often the mystery. Supernatural fiction is very often mystery-based, like crime fiction. The driving question is often ‘Who is this ghost, what the the heck is he doing, and why?’
KH: Your female protagonists are amazing – complex, diverse, and compelling – are you more likely to base a character on someone you know well, someone you’ve just met, or even yourself? How do you develop characters, and at what point does each person and each voice become real to you?
SH: Most of my female protagonists are imaginary projections of me, as I might be/behave in certain situations. I start with plot and then ask, ‘What would he/she/they do?’ - because plot is real and concrete and character…doesn’t really exist. There is no such thing as ‘character’ as a stable essence within a person. There are simply people and how they behave, and that can change. So I start with plot and then ask myself what my fictional humans would do in response to those plot points.
KH: How do you decide which stories will be part of a series and which will be stand-alone novels? How does your process change based on that decision? What do you have more fun writing: novels in series, or your equally great standalone novels?
SH: All are equally fun to write, and the most fun of all is being able to do one, then another, then another - I am a writer who thrives on variety! If I could, I would move house before starting each new novel! When I have an idea, I just know instinctively if it’s one for Poirot, one for Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, or a standalone.
KH: The stand-alone novels allow you to explore characters at close range but for a shorter period of time and actual text, unlike the time we continue to spend with crime solvers in your series. Do you find it easier or more challenging to give life to a character if he/she will appear mainly in one novel rather than throughout a series? What’s harder or easier about complicating a novel by providing only the one novel and therefore more limited space to the character?
SH: Both have harder aspects and easier aspects - but hard is not bad! I love the challenge of thinking, ‘What’s the constraint/obstacle here?’ and then ‘How can I overcome it?’
KH: Though Simon Waterhouse doesn’t solve the mystery in Perfect Little Children, there is no shortage of strong investigative work. Beth makes a pointed statement about looking out for one’s fellow man as she steps into the role of detective, and her growing investment into solving the mystery surrounding the Braids paints a convincing picture of the appeal detective work holds for its practitioners. How is the experience of giving the investigative reigns to an amateur sleuth different from following the perspective of trained and authorized detectives? Why leave the detective work to Beth and Zannah, and what do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses in the results they find?
SH: This is a crucial point! The central moral question in PLC is: when do we have a moral duty to stop politely minding our own business and start poking our noses into the business of another family? If Beth were a cop, her job would be to investigate, but…she’s not a cop, she’s a massage therapist! So she could ignore her strong suspicion that terrible things are happening in the Braid household - but would she be morally culpable if she did so? (I think she would - and so does she!) But so many people think, ‘I’ll just mind my own business’ and allow terrible things to be done - it’s basically what is known in the political sphere as ‘the bystander problem’. Beth is unwilling to be a bystander.
KH: Wyddial Lane fascinates me. I, like, Beth, was unable to stay away from the appeal of the house and those living inside. It houses such a quirky group of people, even outside of number 16. Were you inspired to create Wyddial Lane by anything in particular? What does Wyddial Lane mean to you?
SH: It’s based on a private road that I know, near where I live. The houses are all well set back from the road and all look as if they’re hiding something. It’s very atmospheric. It’s the kind of road where people obsessed with preserving their own privacy would live - and whenever someone is obsessed with privacy/their house or garden not being at all overlooked, I always wonder what they’re so keen to hide. All the gardens I’ve ever had have been somewhat overlooked and…so what? Someone will see me reading an Agatha Christie book in the garden? Who cares?
KH: Lewis seems like the kind of guy one would meet at a fraternity house – charming, funny, successful. But his unique interest in murmurations is certainly intriguing. How did you land on that particular quirk? What do you feel it adds to the novel and why do you think his fascination (which becomes our fascination as well) is so important?
SH: My husband went through a phase of banging on about murmurations all the time - and making me come and look at them! I thought that, though they were impressive, they could also look quite sinister - and that encapsulates Lewis Braid: impressive in a way, but also (Beth suspects) possibly sinister.
KH: Which did you decide on first – the characters’ personalities or the mystery they’d find themselves trying to solve? Did one influence the other? Does the mystery come into play once the character is created, or does the mystery make the character? Do you think this creative method also reflects on real life?
SH: Mystery first, always! And yes - real life is plot-first too. We only get to see what kind of people we/others are once we notice how we’re behaving in response to the plot points of our lives.
KH: I read Beth’s tenacity as both empowering and limiting, simultaneously. She’s able to break down barriers between herself and the truth that seem to be built firmly in place, but in doing so, she risks discord with Dom, interruption of her business, etc. What is it that drives Beth’s need to know the truth about the Braids, despite the inconvenience of finding out? As a crime fiction writer, do you see that same vivacious curiosity in yourself? There’s danger and intrigue in curiosity, and in so many novels, characters are dragged into place through curiosity, but what else leads them—like the protagonist here—to actually act on their interests and desires regarding the lives of others? (Not a big risk-taker myself, so I’m living vicariously here.)
SH: Beth knows that in order for evil to thrive, it’s only necessary for good men (and women) to do nothing. She doesn’t want to be a nothing-doer. She’s brave and determined not to let something dangerous continue if she can help it! She’s also nosy/curious and wants answers. I can totally relate! I would 100% hunt down the answers if I saw two kids who apparently hadn’t grown in 12 years! If a mystery like that doesn’t get you moving, there’s almost no point having brain cells at all!
KH: Dom seems to be the voice of reason in many ways (though Beth may disagree), interested in what Beth has seen only until he feels that interest threatens his family’s day-to-day. Do you think most crime novels have a character who is the voice of reason, and if so how often do you feel this is actually the protagonist or narrator, if it’s possible for someone pursuing a crime so intensely to be rational and using well thought out plans and ideas?
SH: I find it really interesting that some readers identify with Beth and some with Dom. The cautious voices-of-reason are all on Dom’s side, and the ‘We must find the truth and save the day’ brave, nosy people are on Beth’s side. I am 100% Team Beth. Obsessive truth-hunters work well in crime fiction. No one wants to read a mystery novel in which the protagonist decides that, actually, he/she can live without knowing the answer and making sure the bad guy gets punished.
KH: Even while investigating the mystery surrounding the Braid family, Beth seems like a pretty great mom: she’s somehow managed to get her children to be open with her about school and even their romantic relationships. I’m very impressed by the balance she finds between her own needs in investigating and discovering truths, and satisfying what’s necessary to have a happy family. Do you think it’s possible for people—especially women—to satisfy themselves as well as others, even whole families?
SH: Totally! The family in the book is basically my family, and I always find time to talk to my teenage kids about their issues, however busy I am. And sometimes I find time to investigate real-life mysteries too. Though never (yet) about children who appear not to have grown.
KH: The book is lots of fun – a real-page turner. But it also offers some interesting insight about friendship, family, perception, intuition – I could go on. Other than the thrills and chills we get from reading the novel, what do you hope us readers will take away from the story?
In some of your books, especially Did You SeeMelody?, we see a woman travel to find the truth or peace in something, often in another place, and sometimes in America. What’s important about traveling great distances to reach self-satisfaction and fulfillment?
SH: I want readers to think about families and how they can be great, but how they can also be scary and oppressive. I also want people to be braver and take action if they think something horrendous is going on (especially involving children) in another family.
I love America and do book festivals/tours/events there often - and I started to want to write about it. I especially love Arizona and Florida and often dream of escaping there to sit next to a beautiful swimming pool in the sun!
KH: Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now? I’m so thrilled to see what comes next.
SH: Just putting the finishing touches to my fourth Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, which is out in August!
Here’s the blurb:
Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate. Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. There is one strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there from the rest of the Devonport family.
On the coach, a distressed woman leaps up, demanding to disembark. She insists that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. A seat-swap is arranged, and the rest of the journey passes without incident. But Poirot has a bad feeling about it, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered in the Devonports' home with a note that refers to ‘the seat that you shouldn’t have sat in’.
Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And can Poirot find the real murderer in time to save an innocent woman from the gallows?
KH: Thank you for your time! It’s been a privilege and a delight. Perfect Little Children lived up to my exceedingly high expectations, considering how much I love your writing, your characters, your stories, and everything you put out into the world in general. It’s a book I was able to use as my own escape and journey even in neglecting chores and other responsibilities. I wholeheartedly recommend readers let those dishes pile up as they busy themselves instead with Beth in uncovering the secret of Thomas’ and Emily’s youth. Thank you Sophie, and feel free to leave us with any thoughts or ideas regarding your novels, the questions, or anything else. I’m so honored to be able to interview you.