Richard and Judy Interview: Stuart Neville on Those We Left Behind

Richard and Judy Interview: Stuart Neville on Those We Left Behind

This is a chilling, emotional and psychological thriller, and a departure from your previous ‘tough’ thrillers. Why did you decide to change style?

There was no conscious decision to change; I don’t think any writer’s style or voice is a voluntary thing, you can only write in your own way. Looking back, it feels like I just burnt myself out on those tough thrillers.

I initially started writing Those We Left Behind in 2012, and it didn’t work out for me using my then-current series cop, DI Jack Lennon. I abandoned the book then and started at least another five thrillers over the next year or so. Every time, I realised I’d written these kinds of characters before: the hard-bitten cop; the relentless killing machine; the corrupt official. It took all that time to realise I was becoming less interested in those kinds of stories, and that I wanted to do something more character-driven and thoughtful. When I came back to Those We Left Behind with that in mind, all of a sudden it worked.

The tough-but-tender character of DCI Serena Flanagan is beautifully written. Is this the start of a new series featuring Flanagan?

Yes, it is. Though strictly speaking, this is her second outing. She actually first appeared as a supporting character in my previous book, The Final Silence. When I was writing that, I started to find Serena more interesting than the story’s protagonist, Jack Lennon. She seemed a perfect way to sidestep some of the tropes and clichés of crime fiction, particularly the lone wolf cop template that we’re all very familiar with.

The simple fact that Serena is in a stable marriage with two young children opens up all sorts of facets of her character to explore. For example, how does she keep a wall between the terrible things she sees at work and her role as a mother at home? It feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface of Serena’s character, so I’m looking forward to learning more about her.

You are a stonkingly successful crime-writer but in your acknowledgements you sound incredibly modest, writing: ‘There have been several moments when I might have given up on this writing lark, if not for those closest to me.’ Why might you have given up?

As I mentioned, when I first tried writing this book, it fell apart on me and I had to abandon it, wasting tens of thousands of words and weeks of work. That really shook my confidence, and, like most writers I know, I don’t have a huge amount of that to spare. I started trying to figure out what to write next, and nothing I tried seemed to stick. It eventually got to the point where it seemed my ability to use the writing part of my brain was shutting down. The worse it got, the more anxious I became; the more anxious I became, the worse it got.

After a while, I had to finally admit I had writer’s block. Many authors, including some I greatly respect, will argue that writer’s block doesn’t exist. But the key piece of evidence for their argument is usually that they’ve never suffered from it. Which is a flawed argument, to say the least. At that time, I began to wonder if I’d ever finish a novel again. I honestly feared that my career was over.

What eventually helped me was reading something by a psychologist and screenwriter called Dennis Palumbo, who specialises in working with writers. He said that in every case of writer’s block he’d helped someone work through, it turned out they were undergoing a change in style that they were resisting. That really struck a chord for me, and I realised my writing was changing from action-packed stories with the emphasis on the body count to something more character-driven and considered. Learning that, and introducing DCI Serena Flanagan as the protagonist, unlocked Those We Left Behind for me. Suddenly, the writing started flowing again. I met Dennis Palumbo at a conference in 2014, just after I’d finished writing the book. I shook his hand and told him he’d saved my life.

That my change in style, however, happened around the same time as my wife having our first baby is hardly a coincidence, though. I do think having a family fundamentally changed what I write and how I go about it. It’s unlikely I could have written about Flanagan and her family without having one of my own.

We found reading about Ciaran’s terrible experiences very moving. You have children. Was this book hard to write at times?

Even when the writing process got going, this book did have its challenges, but they weren’t really to do with having kids.

That my change in style, however, happened around the same time as my wife having our first baby is hardly a coincidence, though. I do think having a family fundamentally changed what I write and how I go about it. It’s unlikely I could have written about Flanagan and her family without having one of my own.