WRITERS TELL ALL
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!