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! Sophie Hannah’s new book, The Cradle In The Grave, is a pyschological supense thriller exploring the murders of women mistakenly implicated in the deaths of their own children. Here is what Sophie had to say about reading, writing and her definitive prroof that there is a God!
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?
I am Sophie Hannah, an English poet and crime fiction writer. I’ve published five collections of poetry (most of it rhyming, metrical and about dodgy ex-boyfriends!) and six best-selling psychological thrillers, the latest of which is The Cradle in the Grave. All my novels are about human relationships, warped psyches, emotional anguish and the virtual impossibility of truly knowing other people. In my books, most of the sinister goings-on take place within marriages, within families, behind closed doors. This is because I think most people are damaged far more by those close to them – those who supposedly love them and have their best interests at heart – than by passing serial killers or FBI conspiracies! I try to write thrillers that are so gripping, readers cannot put them down – I do this because the main thing I look for as a reader is grippingness and unputdownability. I’m 40, and I live with my husband and two children in Cambridge, England, where I am a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. My website is www.sophiehannah.com.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the proccess 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?
My main routine is that I tidy up before I start writing every day. I can’t concentrate if any part of my house is a mess. Towards the end of a first draft, I sometimes take up smoking again and eat rather a lot of takeaway pizza. Around this time, also, I start to resemble a life-term prisoner – baggy sweat pants, sallow skin, saggy T-shirts. Then when the first draft is finished, I make myself presentable again!
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it?
Question: What, out of everything in the world, most decisively proves that there is a God?
Answer: The TV series House MD, starring Hugh Laurie, Robert Sean Leonard, Lisa Edelstein etc. Too brilliant to have been invented by mere human beings alone. (If atheists aren’t convinced at this point, I might also mention Seinfeld.)
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. 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?
Three women in the UK – Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel – were accused of murdering more than one each of their babies. All three protested their innocence, and their supporters believed the deaths were SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or crib-death). I became obsessed with these three cases because they seemed almost identical, and yet these women didn’t know each other or have anything in common. Their trials were very newsworthy, and everyone seemed to be on the side of either ‘the doctors’ or ‘the mothers’ – as if it were a team sport! I was fascinated by the way the public consciousness seemed to need to lump these women together, as if they were one entity that must be either guilty or innocent. Suddenly I was desperate to write a fictional version: three women’s stories, three life situations that, on the face of it, seemed similar, but were in fact very different. Which were guilty and which innocent? Telling the story changed me quite a lot; I realised it was more important to be compassionate than to be right.
As a novelist writing in the crime genre, I am expected to save goodies and punish baddies in my books. That’s what readers love about crime fiction – that the moral order is upheld. In The Cradle in the Grave several people commit murder, others make terrible mistakes, and much harm is done by one human being to another. However, I wouldn’t describe the novel as a battle between goodies and baddies. All the characters in the book, without exception, are doing their very best in painful circumstances, even the killers. Especially the killers. Which doesn’t mean society doesn’t need to be protected from those who are a threat to others’ safety – obviously it does. But does it need to put all its venom into moral judgements of ‘evil’ and ‘monster’? Who is that helping? The Cradle in the Grave wasn’t supposed to contain any kind of moral message – it was supposed to be a gripping story, that’s all. But, without my having planned it, the moral grew as the story did, and became this: do not lump individuals together and judge them – everybody’s situation and reasons are different.
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’m currently reading Val McDermid’s new novel The Retribution. It’s very gripping, as all her books are. My favourite authors are Ruth Rendell, Nicci French, Tana French, Val McDermid, Iris Murdoch, Wendy Cope, Douglas Kennedy, Jesse Kellerman – among others. Yes, writing has changed the way I read. I often guess the outcomes/endings of mystery novels, which is infuriating. I am rarely surprised by twists – I feel like the literary equivalent of Christopher Walken’s character in the film The Dead Zone!
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
Yes, I read all the time. Anything brilliant inspires me, whatever the genre. And, actually, reading bad books is inspiring in its own way too – you think, ‘Well, I can certainly do better than this!’
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
I tidy up and do chores/emails/admin between 8.30 and 11. I then have a very early big lunch (often I haven’t had breakfast – I know, skipping breakfast is bad and unhealthy!) at about 11. At 12, I start writing and write until about 6.30 pm, when I stop to say hello to my family and cook dinner. I write the first drafts of my books between November and end of May every year.
If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch – the best novel I have ever read
Coming From Behind by Howard Jacobson – the funniest novel I have ever read
A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine – the best psychological mystery I have ever read
The Body Never Lies by Alice Miller – stunning psychological insights into the human tendency to self-sabotage
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle – philosophy book of unparalleled brilliance
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
In the UK, The Cradle in the Grave is called A Room Swept White. I chose both titles, actually. I knew my US publisher would think A Room Swept White was too cryptic, so I set myself the challenge of thinking of a US title that I liked as much. The Cradle in the Grave is clearer in terms of signalling the subject matter of the novel, and I think it’s got a good rhythm to it – and of course it’s sinister, which is always a good thing!
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?
I was an avid reader as a child. I loved Agatha Christie mysteries – any mysteries, really. And I always wanted to write – not ‘be a writer’, but just write, as a hobby. Actually, it was more of a compulsion – it has been all my life. I never for one moment imagined I might ever earn a living from it! That’s an added bonus!
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?
I can only work on one thing at a time, though vague thoughts of other (easier, more brilliant) projects float around in my brain while I’m wrestling with the intransigent current novel-in-progress.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
By far the biggest surprise was when my first psychological thriller Little Face became a word of mouth best-seller. No one expected it to, least of all me. But it just kept selling and selling. By Christmas, it was no. 1 on Amazon.co.uk. Nos 2, 3 and 4 were John Grisham, Thomas Harris and Ian Rankin. I couldn’t believe it – I thought my husband must have rigged the computer somehow.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
I love to write in my writing room at the very top of my five-storey house in Cambridge. It’s almost completely empty and almost completely white – I like to think of it as the room version of a clear, fresh mind. It has a fab roof terrace and views from my desk of the church towers of Cambridge. Annoyingly, I can’t really write anywhere else unless I’m in deadline panic mode and needs must!
Another psychological thriller, a TV series, a self-help book, a memoir – or else I will die of exhaustion in the bath, a bit like Jim Morrison!
About: Sophie Hannah is an award-winning poet and crime fiction writer whose novels are international bestsellers.