Sabine Durrant: Writing as a Man

Sabine Durrant: Writing as a Man

There was a male co-narrator, the husband Zach Hopkins, in my previous book Remember Me This Way, but his words were extracted from a diary, and so were already presented at a distance, framed within the context of the main first person female narration. I won’t give too much away in case you haven’t read it, but he was a fairly extreme character. Bliss to create, but you wouldn’t have wanted to spend too much time in his head.

When I had the idea for Lie With Me, it was never in question that the voice of the novel would be that of Paul Morris. His character came to me at the same time as the plot; they are interwoven really. You couldn’t have one without the other. His faults and flaws – they are the line on which the dirty washing of the book hangs. His lies pulse beneath everything that happens. He’s a more complicated figure than Zach; there is more light and dark, more humour and self-deprecation. But he is also a bastard. I hoped he would elicit an ambiguous response, that the reader might loathe him at first, but that their emotional reactions would become increasingly entangled with his. I wanted them to feel genuinely torn as the plot unravels, expecting him to have his comeuppance, but at the same time hoping he doesn’t.

I thought it would be a challenge, but in fact I found it relatively straightforward, writing from a male perspective. I don’t know why I thought otherwise. It doesn’t, in the end, seem that great a Rubicon to cross. Women spend a lot of time studying men – boyfriends, husbands, sons – working out what makes them tick, so that was a help. I did have a sort of underlying consciousness that I was writing ‘a male’ rather than a specific character. I think his prose is more muscular and fast paced than if he had been a female narrator. I might instinctively have spent more time on subtleties of behaviour, or on emotional observation. But mainly it was his personality rather than his sex that drove the story. I think I am more confident as a writer now than when I started out. When I wrote a scene, I used to think ‘how would I react in this situation?’ or ‘what would I notice here?’ but I’ve taught myself instead to wonder, ‘How would my character react?’ and ‘What would my character notice?’ Using Paul as a syphon for experience made that blissfully easy. His preoccupations are sex, his own image, and where his next free meal might come from – in that order. He is a charmer, but he is getting older and what seemed once like charisma is now looking a bit seedy. The things that have got him by aren’t going to work for much longer. The reader knows it and he is just poised to grasp it himself – we’re one step ahead of him, and there is poignancy, as well as humour, in that.

People have asked if I based him on anyone in particular. I know it would be so much more satisfying if I said yes, he is actually an exact replica of an ex-boyfriend. But of course he is a hybrid. I worked in newspapers in the 1980s, an environment that was still pretty misogynistic, where ‘a new man’, i.e. someone prepared to take on equal responsibility as a parent or house-sharer, was to be remarked upon. Most of the women in the office were groped by a Paul at some time or another – often they were handsome, and talented, and charming, equally often married and utterly without scruples. It was still a period when you could scratch a living writing books, or even book reviews, when people talked about ‘Literary London’. Paul, unaware the world has moved on, is still living that dream.

When I went on Woman’s Hour to discuss Lie With Me, Jenni Murray said she thought I fancied Paul. I was horrified. He is not my type at all. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was secretly rather proud of him.