Hi Lisa, congratulations on being picked for the Richard and Judy Book Club! Who is your favourite character from The Girls?
Oh, my favourite character from the book, gosh. Yes, I’ve been asked “Was Pip your favourite in the book?” – which, no Pip wasn’t my favourite character in the book. I could see that she was the nicest character in the book because everybody else had to be a bit shady for the purposes of the plot and the suspense. But my absolute favourite character to write – in fact, maybe one of my all-time favourite characters to write – was Gordon, because he was just so unutterably dreadful. He had just totally politically incorrect opinions on everything, which is very nice in this politically correct world that we live in to be able to just let somebody spout off and let somebody say anything that comes into their head, and yeah, I just found him such a colourful person and I felt I knew him. Even, for example, when they hang his blazer up on the coat peg and it’s got that sort of slightly ripped satin lining with the sweat stains… I knew him so intimately from the minute he arrived in the story. So, yes, writing someone who you can see every last detail of in your head before you’ve even written a word about them is such a joy, because all the work’s already done really, you’re just a cipher for the person.
What sort of writer are you? Are you spontaneous, or do you like to plan everything out?
I’m definitely not a planner. I’ve moved slightly away from what I was doing before, which was very character-led, romantic novels, where I did very much start with absolutely no idea where I was headed – apart from a happy ending. But the stories I’m writing at the moment, I have to have at least a vague idea of who did it or what really happened, or how I think it’s all going to resolve itself – and when I say “vague”, I mean really, really vague. When writing The Girls, I kept changing my mind about who it was going to have been, who hurt Grace in the garden, right up until very close to the end. So no, I don’t plan at all, I do just start with my question – what if this happened? – then the people come in very quickly, who are involved in the situation; and then the setting; and then I just get going. It doesn’t take me long, once I’ve sat down with my laptop for my first day of writing, and say “I’m officially writing my book today”, I just start writing, and I don’t have any notes to look at. I have started, though, writing down people’s birthdays – which has proved very helpful! And holiday term dates, and what have you – but apart form that, no I don’t do any planning.
Did you always intend to reveal that something bad happens to Grace at the very beginning of the book?
Well no, and in fact that’s what went horribly wrong the first time I tried to write this book – because I started writing another version of it many months before the version which is on the bookshelves at the moment – and in the original version it’s more linear, so there’s no flashback. We’re introduced to the people in the garden, the thing happens to the child, and then everybody wonders who it was; whereas this time I’ve done: the thing happens to the child, you’re introduced to everybody in the garden, and because you know that something’s happened to the child you’re wondering who it might be, who’s going to do the thing to the child, which works so much better than the previous disastrous attempt. So yes, that’s actually what made the whole book come together, putting the bad thing first and then throwing the spotlight onto various people before anything bad had happened.
It’s what kept me reading – you’d introduce someone and you’d think, “oh they seem really nice… but, are they though?” Because something happens!
Yes, there’s some dodgy blot on their copy book, something happened in the past, or they looked a bit strangely at someone. It’s just so interesting, isn’t it, how you don’t really question people until something bad happens, and then you can look at people in a completely different way.
So you’ve said before that you’ve lived in communal gardens yourself; what was it like, taking that setting and making it a bit more sinister?
It was absolutely vital that I did that. Ever since I moved onto my communal garden and was talking to a neighbour who’s been living there since she was 18, and she was full of stories, and it’s a really mixed community in my communal garden. Some of the gardens in central London are full of bankers and what have you, but this is a really mixed community – and I always wanted to write a story set on my garden. But I was worried that would just re-create sub-consciously all the things I knew about my neighbours, who are all just charming and delightful and wonderful; so it was absolutely vital that it had to be a completely different scenario, a completely different atmosphere and a completely different vibe, in order to distance myself from my gardens. I could use all the patterns of living on a communal garden and that kind of lifestyle, but introduce it in a much, much darker way. So yes, I had to do that or I wouldn’t have been able to write the book.
A bit too close to home otherwise?
Yes, exactly, yes.
You discuss relationships between young teenagers throughout the book; how did you get to the heart of that, did you research around it?
I wouldn’t say I researched it. I mean, my daughter who’s now 13 was only 10, pushing 11 at the time, so I could see I was on the cusp of my child becoming that sort of early teenager. But because we live in a communal garden, it means children of my neighbours – unlike most 12-13-year-olds, who haven’t got anywhere to hang out – they’ve all got somewhere to hang out where they can do their own thing, and their parents aren’t there, they’re not in their parents’ houses. So I’ve seen how they interact when they’ve got that freedom and that independence from their parents. And also, I’ve heard stories about certain things that have happened with the tweenagers in my garden, which are kind of shocking, but also not shocking, because its almost like something from a fairytale, what happens to a child from 10-14, and it’s just like things get peeled off and things that were there all the time, dormant, are suddenly bursting to the surface. And so it isn’t like they’ve suddenly become a different person, it was always there, and you always knew it was there. And when they reach those teenage years, they’ve got more opportunity to reach into themselves and look at all that dark stuff in there and find out what they think about, and what they’re gonna do with it. And kids grow up at such different rates as well, you know: there’s one 13-year-old who’s still a kid, and another 13-year-old who could go to a nightclub and pull a 20-year-old man who didn’t have any idea! It’s just such an interesting age, and that’s exactly why I wanted to write about it, because I think a 13-year-old is capable of pretty much anything.
Was there a message or feeling that you were hoping readers would take away from the book once they’d finished it?
I never write messages in my books! I guess my early books were very much, “you can have your happy ever after,” but certainly with these later books I never put messages in my books, they’re always just stories. There’s one thing I very consciously did with this book – because I think I’d been watching Broadchurch around the same time I was writing it. I loved the way each episode looked at a totally innocuous little old man living on his own in a cottage, and it would suddenly turn him into somebody who could potentially have murdered a young boy, and they need to go through this entire community and do that with every single character in the community. So that’s kind of what I wanted to do, I wanted the reader to really look at people and question things.
Do you have a favourite author?
I don’t have favourite anythings! I don’t have a favourite food, don’t have a favourite song, don’t have a favourite movie, favourite book, favourite author; I can’t, I’d always have to have at least a list of 20! But in terms of writers whose books I would generally pick up without reading reviews or reading the back cover, I would say: Maggie O’Farrell is a big favourite of mine; Kate Atkinson, I will always pick up a Kate Atkinson book. Those really solid – not lightweight – literary writers, who know how to tell a story really well. But no, I don’t have a favourite author.