You were crime novelist of the year in 2014. Does winning that sort of accolade give you confidence or does it make you terrified that the next one won’t be as good?
Definitely terrified! I didn’t really think of myself as a writer because I’d only written one book Unravelling Oliver. I know how crazy it sounds, but I had no expectations for it and hadn’t really thought about writing another novel until Penguin asked me. My second had to be as good if not better, and I thought I’d used up all my story ideas in one book. My pal Marian Keyes gave me great advice: she told me I had to allow time between books for the story well to fill up again. She assured me that the ideas would come and, sure enough, the character of Laurence just revealed himself to me one day and I started to write in his voice. . Originally it was a one-person narrative. It was my editor’s suggestion to make Lydia a character and when I started writing from her point of view, this deliciously cruel and callous villain emerged.
There was an awful lot of re-writing involved in Lying in Wait so that by the time I was finished, I had no idea whether it was any good or not. In fact a few weeks after I’d submitted the final draft, I emailed my editor to apologise for having disappointed her with such a terrible book. She reassured me that she was very happy with it. I guess I was just too close to it to be able to judge for myself. It was really hard work to wrestle the story to the page. Now that Lying in Wait is doing well, I’m terrified that the book I’m currently working on will be a massive flop!
You have a very dark imagination. Is it confined to your novel-writing or does a little thundercloud hover above your head wherever you go? Do you see the black side of any situation, all the bleak possibilities?
I’m actually very light-hearted in person. A lot of my friends ask why I don’t write a comic novel because I see hilarity in the darkest of situations. I don’t know where the darkness in my writing comes from, but I guess my own reading preferences would lean towards the sinister and macabre. I’m attracted to news stories about psychopaths and sociopaths – and I’ve worked for a few in my time! They fascinate me.
Your plotting is intricate and believable. Do you plan out your novels completely before starting to write them, or is there an element of ‘winging it’?
I wish I had some grand plan, but each novel is different. I usually start out with a broad outline but I think the broader the better, because you should not limit yourself as a writer. There are endless story possibilities and I prefer to leave the door open to them right up until the last page. I try not to write predictably, because I want to be surprised by my characters too, so often I will think about what is the next logical step for a character, and then find a way for that step not to be possible. When characters make really bad decisions, you get drama. So yes, there is definitely an element of winging it.
Psychological suspense is very much de jour. Which other writers of the genre do you admire, and are you influenced by any of them?
I’m heavily influenced by everything I read. The classical suspense writers like Henry James, Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith were high on my list and there are some amazing current writers I really love: SJ Watson, Claire Mackintosh, Paula Hawkins, Alex Marwood, Tammy Cohen, CL Taylor and Tana French. But I have a special place in my heart for Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the original whydunnit.