Out of Twenty: Elizabeth Haynes, Author of Into The Darkest Corner, Answers Nine Questions

Elizabeth Haynes

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Elizabeth Hayne’s Into The Darkest Corner is one of the few thrillers at the top of my summer reading list. In its pages, heroine Catherine Bailey attempts to put here life together after a dangerous love affair leave her with a crippling case of PTSD. Here is what Elizabeth had to say about reading, writing, and how National Novel Writing Month played a pivotal role in her writing career.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

My name is Elizabeth Haynes and I live and work in Kent, in the South East corner of England. Until recently I was working as a police intelligence analyst which partly explains why I write mystery and suspense novels; it’s so much easier to write about a world that’s familiar. I’ve always written since childhood but it was National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo.org) that finally got me writing full length novels. I’ve taken part in Nanowrimo since 2005 and my 2008 novel has now been published as Into the Darkest Corner.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I think it’s vital to have a writing routine. Until 2011, my writing world revolved around November; my friends and family knew I would be pretty much out of action for the whole month. I spent the year nursing a nugget of an idea which I could set free on November 1st and the whole process was (and still is) tremendous fun. I completely immerse myself in the story and the characters and, just for those 30 days, I can prioritise writing above almost anything else. I developed rituals around it – there’s a particular brand of chocolate I’ll save for November, for example – which just added to the sense of occasion. Writing for Nanowrimo is also about being sociable as there are writers all over the world doing the same thing; so it’s a chance to meet other people and talk about writing. I can talk about my characters as if they’re real people and nobody thinks I’m going mad (or if they do, they are too polite to point it out to me).

Now I’m on a two year career break and although I will continue to do my first draft of each new book for Nanowrimo, I am finding it very hard to develop a writing routine for the rest of the year! I can’t eat chocolate all the time after all…

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you about your writing?

I was chatting to an unpublished writer at an event once and he started to tell me all about his work – something that happens often and is normally great, because I think it often helps solve plot problems if you just talk about it (it definitely helps me, which is why if you meet me and you’re prepared to stand still long enough, I will probably tell you the whole of my current plot). On this occasion, however, the man stopped suddenly and said “I shouldn’t tell you all this because you’ll probably go away and write my story and publish it.”

It was a good excuse for me to go and talk to someone nicer, but actually what I wanted to say to him (and didn’t, because I’m no good at confrontations) was “you know what? My head is full of characters and stories that I’m desperate to find the time to write about. Why would I want to use yours? And besides, I write mysteries and you’ve just told me about a spy story set in outer space. Which sounds a bit rubbish.”

What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

The story was partly inspired by my job. At the time I was producing a quarterly report on violent crime and as part of this I read a lot of accounts of domestic abuse. I was guilty of having very fixed ideas about violence in the home and the sort of people who were victims of it, and this stereotype was challenged in every way by the reports I was reading. I’d always thought of domestic abuse as something that happened to ‘other people’, but it affects many couples and families from every part of society and is often very well hidden. In the book, Catherine’s friends don’t realise what is going on right in front of them, partly because they have no experience of violence – it’s something that happens to ‘other people’. Catherine actually isolates herself further because she doesn’t ever manage to be honest (with herself, or with her friends) about what’s going on – either because she wants to protect them, or  through shame or just simply denial.

Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes Book CoverIt can be all to easy to pass judgement on victims who stay in violent relationships but for a lot of victims of violence in the home, there is no easy escape from it. Aside from the emotion, there are so many practical factors that keep people together: having children, the perceived shame of a failed relationship, even something as basic as not being able to afford to move out of the house. And so a difficult situation can be made much worse, and the cycle of violence continues and escalates.

I didn’t set out with this whole plot in mind – in the beginning, what I really wanted to explore was how it felt not to be believed by your closest friends – but as the story developed I found it compelling. I don’t enjoy reading violence, and I never thought I would write about it, but as I worked through the story of Cathy’s trauma I realised I was going to have to write about what happened to her in detail. To have turned away from it at that point would have been an injustice to those people who have survived assaults like this one in real life. 

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I think I am both more critical and more forgiving than I used to be. Before publication I read books purely for entertainment without really engaging with them beyond thinking whether I enjoyed them or not. Now I find myself considering things like structure and character development, and I notice errors much more than I used to. I also recognise however what an immense process it is to prepare a novel for publication and I do really admire authors that manage to do it well (most of them certainly much better than I do).

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?

It’s not really research, but in an earlier draft of Into the Darkest Corner Cathy and Stuart got together as a couple much earlier, and I had to decide on what Christmas presents they would get for each other.  What do you get for someone you really like? You need it to be something really personal that shows how much you think of them, without it being over the top…so Cathy’s present to Stuart was a printed photo book made from the best photos of the year he spent travelling. He gave her a memory card of his photos – and she learned a lot about him by looking at all his pictures!  Stuart’s present to Cathy was a necklace made by a local jeweller. It was a pendant with a diamond that he had to choose, and it was a gold twist in a kind of abstract female form, called ‘the Goddess’. He had to think long and hard about that one.

As it turned out, the book is much improved by delaying their relationship a bit, but I do still miss their lovely first Christmas.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

The one writer who influenced me more than any other was Ray Bradbury. I read The Illustrated Man when I was about ten or eleven years old and I think I started writing short stories around then. I always wanted to be a writer in the same way other kids wanted to be an astronaut or prime minister. It had that similar feeling of being fantasy, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to ‘real’ people.

His death just recently has affected me deeply. I feel I owe him a tremendous debt.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?

‘Scrapped’ is a very extreme thing to do and I don’t think I’ve ever really scrapped anything. I do have an awful lot of writing that sits (backed up) on my computer and will probably never be read by anyone other than me, but everything I’ve ever written has been helpful in some way or other, either by loosening up my writing ‘muscles’, or by developing a character for something else, or even just for reminding me that writing is fun. My first ever Nanowrimo novel, in 2005, was a very bad serial killer thriller which starred my then boss, and was full of people I knew – using real names. There’s no way I could ever show anyone that story, but it was valuable to me because it showed me I could write a full length novel, and that I could write in this genre.

Once I’m involved with writing a book (and usually editing others) I don’t have much time for writing other things. What does happen is that I will write extra scenes or side-plots for the same story, just to explore how things might happen. For example, the courtroom transcript at the start of Into the Darkest Corner was originally written just to see whether Lee could talk his way out of a more serious charge. I showed it to my editor and she insisted that it should be included in the book – mostly though these extra scenes are just kept ‘on file’.

What’s next?

I’m busy with the final touches to my second book for HarperCollins, which is called Revenge of the Tide. It should be out later this year. I’m also working on the edits for my third book, called Human Remains.

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About: Elizabeth Haynes is a police intelligence analyst. She started writing fiction in 2006 with the annual challenge of National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) and the encouragement of the creative writing courses at West Dean College. She lives in a village near Maidstone, Kent, with her husband and son. Into the Darkest Corner is her first novel.

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