Hi Stuart, congratulations on being picked for the Richard and Judy Book Club! In Those We Left Behind we meet a new lead character from you – DCI Serena Flanagan. How did you get into her mindset, did you do any research into her character traits?
A certain amount of research has to be done on the procedural side of things, the mechanics of being a police officer and so on; but on her more personal strands of the story, it’s really just observations of things that are in my experience or the experience of friends and family and so on. Everything that’s there will have a touch of reality to it, will be drawn from something. But yeah, it’s just a matter of keeping my eyes open and watching – people around me and watching my own life, pulling all the threads in.
You’ve told the story from three interesting points of view; Serena’s, Ciaran’s and probation officer Paula’s. Why did you decide to offer Paula’s unique perspective in the book?
When I first came up with the idea of the book it was before I really had a series cop, and I think Paula might have been the protagonist at one time. I’d been writing a series based around a male cop called Jack Lennon and when I initially started trying to write Those We Left Behind he was the lead character – he was in Serena’s role – and it just didn’t work, and the book fell apart. He just didn’t have the personality make-up to make that story work. So it was bringing Serena into the story that made the book work all of a sudden, but Paula had always been there as part of the story even before the cop characters. You know if I came up with the characters for that book it would have been the brothers first, then Paula, then Serena – in that order. So she was always there.
Do you believe in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters?
The short answer is: no. The long answer is: every character – other than the hero – is the hero of their own story, that’s the way I’ve always approached it. So even the most heinous villain – as far as they’re concerned, they’re the good guy. That’s why I always like to write from the villain’s point of view through the book. I mean, my books aren’t mysteries; you always know who the killer is fairly early on, because I want to show how they view things. And in their own minds they’ll have some justification for what they’re doing, there will be some reason behind it. And I just find that more interesting to explore.
The greatest example I can think of… if you ask almost any thriller writer, they’ll tell you Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is one of the very best novels ever written. It’s the first Hannibal Lecter book, though he’s only a very small part in that , but people tend to get distracted by Hannibal Lecter and forget that it’s just a really great novel in itself. And the brilliant thing that Harris does in that is – and this isn’t a spoiler for anybody who hasn’t read it – the killer is revealed very early on as being Francis Dolarhyde, and you see everything from his point of view including his own life story up until that point. Where he is, and why he is doing what he is, and obviously the struggles he has trying to stop killing families. And it’s handled so well that by the end of the book, you’re not sure if you’re rooting for him or the investigator that’s trying to catch him; you’re actually kind of willing him to get away so he can fix his life, you know. That had a big impact on me and on the idea of treating the villain as if the villain is the hero of their own story. If you approach it that way it becomes a much more layered story, it’s not black and white.
Do you have a favourite author?
I’d usually say James Ellroy as being my main influence. Again, this idea of villains and so on – what I’ve learned from him is never to morally judge characters, you can let them be who they are in their own world.
If you read something like Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, even his heroes are really horrible people. You know, he’s setting his book among LA cops in the 50’s, who you can reasonably expect are sort of a type of white men at that time; misogynistic, racist, homophobic and all those horrible things, and a lesser writer would have made their character above all that somehow. But Ellroy just lets them be misogynistic, racist, homophobic and all those horrible things, and you just see the world as they do, and he trusts the reader to go along with him. I’ve found – you know, I’ve written books where the protagonist has been a mass murderer – I’ve found readers will forgive a huge amount, so long as you show how that character sees the world and what brought them to that point, and why they did what they did. I think some of these readers are smart, and you have to trust them to be… to not have to have things spoon-fed to them; and again, that’s what Ellroy taught me.
How and where do you prefer to write? Do you have a method?
I tend to write in my local library, depending on what stage I am in the book. If I know I’ve got to get words down, I’ll leave the house at 9 or 10 ‘o’ clock in the morning and go to the library, set up in the sun room there and just start writing. I find psychologically, just leaving the house to go to work helps, and just the environment – you’re kind of there to work, so there’s no daytime TV or the internet, all the sort of shiny things that will distract you through the day. So that’s when I’m most productive, I’m always very grateful to my local library for providing a space for me.
Are you quite a spontaneous writer, or do you have to plan it all out?
I used to be spontaneous, I didn’t plan at all. I’d maybe know what the ending was, but between the beginning and the ending was fair game to go off on all sorts of tangents. But over the last couple of books I’ve started actually outlining in a lot of very heavy detail, to the extent where I now tend to write like a heavily abridged version of the book in longhand, and then go back to the start and sit down at a computer and start the novel from there. But it’s only with the last couple of books that I’ve started to use that approach.