Paul is dishonest and unlikeable. And yet we end up on his side. Did you start out with that intention or did the story just evolve naturally to get there?
Yes, that was absolutely my plan. I’m so glad you ended up on his side because there was a risk the reader might hurl the book away early on in contempt and horror at his behaviour. I’m always more interested in people who are tricky and complicated – probably in real life too – and how circumstances can draw out different aspects of a personality. Paul is a liar, and a user, but he does genuinely like and respect women, unlike the more obviously morally upright male character in the book, the kind of man who is like someone I once knew who described his wife as ‘a super girl’. Paul knows he is a bastard, which is important – self-knowledge is the first step to redemption. Plus he’s kind to animals, rescuing a bee from the pool, feeding those poor starving Greek cats under the table like my granny used to, and it’s hard to hate a man who does that. It was important, too, for the plot that you don’t feel in safe hands, that you begin to lose trust in your own assumptions and instincts. People aren’t quite who you think they are – which is the nub of it really.
Why Greece? Tell us you’re a Mama Mia fan!
I adored Mamma Mia, but I’m not sure I was thinking of Meryl Streep or Abba when I planned to set the book in Greece! I made up the island of Pyros, though I imagine it somewhere between Corfu and Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea. Islands are brilliant for thrillers, as Agatha Christie demonstrated so deftly, because of the obvious fact that the inhabitants are trapped, and Greek islands have such wonderfully persuasive geography: wild mountainous interiors and jagged coastlines, with all those little coves and bays. So many places to a hide a body. You find all sorts of different kinds of tourism there – the posh middle-class bits always seem to be in the north – which was useful, plot-wise. Also: the heat! I wanted somewhere blisteringly , so that the characters would strip down, literally and metaphorically.
You’re a journalist by background and training. How does that inform your writing, do you think?
When I was doing the weekly interview for the Guardian, I used to find the most important question, whether I was talking to a politician or an actor, was: ‘And then what happened?’ In that sense journalism has been the most brilliant training for writing a novel. They are both all about the story. A newspaper article has to be succinct, you have to fit as much information, or nuance, into as few words as possible and I think that has helped me be more precise. Writers tend to like the sound of their own voice and my natural instinct is to describe weather or places in too much detail. I learnt, doing those profiles, that description was only worth its weight if it told you something about the person you were interviewing. I still structure my day like a journalist, too (a freelance one, at any rate): a huge amount of prevarication and biscuit-eating and fridge-opening followed by a spurt of extreme activity, in which I force out a thousand words by pretending I’m on deadline. At the Independent, where I worked in the late 1980s, when you finished a piece you pressed a button called ‘H&J and Send’, and I still like to end a day with an ‘H&J and Send’.
You’ve written successfully in a variety of genres but this is your third psychological thriller. Do you feel you’ve found your niche?
It’s funny but with Under Your Skin, my first psychological thriller, I didn’t realise I’d written in any particular genre until I’d finished it. I had an idea for a story (and it did involve a dead body, so perhaps I should have twigged), but it is also, like Lie With Me, about marriage, and families, friendship and betrayal, many of the subjects I had written about before. Now I am writing my fourth. I love the darkness of the psychological thriller. I love thinking, ‘what if ’. And I love creating a conundrum, the almost crossword-like intricacy of the clues. It’s liberating, too. When I was at school in the 1970s, we were always told in our English lessons to write about things we knew; but I’ve learnt that it’s much more exciting to write about things you don’t.