Very eerie, this. Tell us how you created such a menacing, dark atmosphere.
Creating atmosphere always begins with a place for me – an unsettling place, in this case, the Fens, north east of Cambridge where I live. I have to sit very still and identify what it is about a specific place that spooks me: in a room, is it something in the wrong place, a single shoe where there should be a pair, a stain, a crack in a window pane? In a landscape is it dark and shadow, or is it emptiness that isn’t quite empty, a row of trees that could conceal a human being? In The Loving Husband it is a lot to do with making vivid that vast roaring flat emptiness of the Fenland landscape; it’s a place where you can see for miles and miles, you can hear from long distances, so danger approaching should be obvious, a standing figure should be visible. But approaching danger isn’t always visible. As a writer I have to evoke that feeling we have as children, in the dark, when we can’t see what’s coming or hiding under the bed but we grow surer and surer that it is there. Things we can’t see are always the most frightening, because our own imagination builds them out of our worst fears.
Fran in The Loving Husband has deep insecurities and feelings of guilt we as readers only gradually and partially understand, and she feels a palpable menace in the atmosphere around her that begins with real violence and accumulates other terrors, other possibilities – that she can’t trust anyone, that she can’t trust herself, and that she must above all be a good mother and protect her children, at all and any cost – until the tension threatens to shatter her. So what I’m saying is, really, I try to make the reader feel her fear, too. The darkness comes from there.
Was the story based on any actual event where someone turned out to be very different from the person they appeared to be?
Of course – without wanting to give anything away – there is a relationship between Fran’s situation and current events, actual news stories. Stories that to my sensibility were most shocking, not for their implications for human rights but more the profoundly disturbing idea that one can trust another human being enough to have children with them and then they turn out not to be the person you believed them to be at all. And in fact to a less dramatic degree this happens all the time; having children changes people, cohabiting changes people, people have psychological issues that only emerge under certain conditions and it’s why divorce is so traumatic. The book’s theme did also emerge from a generalised feeling about the world, and in particular the virtual world – having children who feel themselves so at ease in the virtual world while I am deeply wary of it – which I think has made me on the alert for how easy it is for people to pretend to be something they are not. Horribly easy. We run on trust for so much of our lives, we believe that people are not lying to us. Which makes it very easy for a dysfunctional or damaged or malevolent person to exploit us.
You’ve had admiring reviews from fellow authors of the calibre of SJ Watson (Before I Go To Sleep). Is peer-group approval important to you? Are you a confident writer or do you agonise about whether your stuff’s any good?
In theory, I am fairly confident in a reasonable range of my skills: that I can express myself articulately at a sentence-by-sentence level, that I can evoke character, write dialogue, that I have a sense of the architecture of a good story when I read it elsewhere, that I can build tension and atmosphere. But the first time you sit down to try to write (which for me was fourteen years ago) what hits you straight away is how exposing an activity it is: you’re putting yourself down on the page, even if you’re writing about people a thousand miles away who are nothing like you, and you have to take a hard look at how clever or funny or profound you are – or are not! Of course I agonise, all the time, it’s the only way to make sure it’s as good as it can be: I am terrified of reviews. I was happy to be an under-the-radar writer, never really reviewed, because it was one thing less to worry about. And sometimes when you read an utterly brilliant writer (I am deep into Elmore Leonard just now) you just sit back and say, wow. You have moments of thinking about other writers: this is amazing stuff, why would I try to compete with this?
But the truth is we’re not competing, and loving other writers is both the first step in becoming a writer yourself and the reason you keep trying to get it right. It’s a craft – you have to work and practice and learn, it’s not about genius or inspiration for me at all, it’s about finding your place in a traditional craft and learning from others. So of course the approval of my peers is hugely important, and to get praise from a terrific writer like SJ Watson means an enormous amount.
You live with your husband and five children. How do you make the space and time to write?
When I first started writing I had four pretty young children – the oldest was ten, the youngest was two and just had got a place at playgroup four mornings a week. So I found myself with those mornings to do what I wanted with, after eight or so years really only on the margins of the paid workplace doing bits and pieces of freelance publishing work and at a loss as to how to get back into work. Things had moved on hugely across those years – 1993-2003 – in terms of technology. I found the time and space to write because I had to, at that crucial stage. I had to find paid work, somehow, and I had an instinct that I could do it, or at least that it would be worth a try. I had to write for two or three hours every morning the moment the youngest was off my hands because that was all the time I had.
Fortunately, I am a fluid writer, I don’t allow myself anguish over stuff, I get it down and refuse to fiddle. I fiddle sometimes over a drink in the evening, when it all seems less of a big deal to cut a word here or there. Of course I could have spent my mornings hoovering and tidying. Housework definitely suffered but luckily I have brought my family up not to notice dust, so much, so I didn’t get too much grief over that. And some household jobs – ironing particularly – provide good thinking time while you’re doing them. I love ironing. And it turns out I can run the house okay from noon onwards, plus my husband probably does more than me in that department. I do wake up very very early fretting over plot at certain key moments in the writing of a book. It’s a quiet, tricky time, when everyone’s asleep, when it is important to lie still and not panic and let things sift down. But I have come to learn that those morning panics are part of the process, they are useful.
There was a bit of a hiccup when, finishing the second book of my first (two-book) contract, I found out that I was pregnant with my fifth child at the age of forty-two. I panicked that if I told my publishers they wouldn’t give me another deal so I delivered that book, as I always do, in the summer and instead of giving myself any time off to recharge I started immediately on another one. I got about a hundred pages done by September or so, got a new two-book contract on the strength of them and had my daughter in November. Then – and of such things is a writing career made – a wonderful friend lent me a big bouncy old-fashioned pram: I’d never had one before. I would push the baby up to school in this huge contraption to deliver the other children, she would fall asleep, and I would have an hour or two to write, leaving her safe in the hall. The pram in the hall, interestingly, is not at all the enemy of promise!
I delivered that book on time, without a break and I have got to say, I was proud of myself for maybe the first and only time in my life.
I get credit for discipline and time management but actually my children are mostly not at home any more: this September my fourth goes to university. So in fact I should be getting a lot more done. Particularly in the hoovering department.