Hi Ruth! Congratulations on being chosen to take part in the Richard and Judy Spring 2016 Book Club! How did it feel when you found out In a Dark, Dark Wood had been selected?
Oh completely amazing! I knew that I’d been shortlisted – I hope I’m allowed to say that – but I almost didn’t want to think about it too much because I was really frightened, you know when sometimes you just completely jinx things by wanting them too much? And my agent said something to me about it when we met up, and she was like “We’ll probably find out about it next week,” and I was like, “Don’t jinx me! Don’t talk about it!”
And yeah, I was at home with the kids making their supper and I got an email through saying, “I hope you’re ready to feel really happy!” and I just went completely crazy dancing round the kitchen, and the children were just like, “What is going on?!” So yeah, it was definitely a red letter moment.
What was the inspiration behind the title of your book?
Well, there’s a children’s book – I think it’s actually called Funnybones, but it’s based on the rhyme that my title is taken from – and it’s about a group of skeletons who live in a house. And I had it read to me as a child, and it’s supposed to be a funny book, but I found it completely terrifying, it’s really really spooky, and the bit at the end where they go: “And it was… a skeleton!” And you always jump! And I suppose from somewhere that just floated up in my consciousness, I knew that – you know, I’d already started writing the book – so I knew it was set in dark, dark wood and that it was about skeletons in closets, so it seemed very appropriate when it came. But I didn’t have the title from page one – for a long time I just called it The Hen Book!
That’s really interesting. I never would have put those two stories together but now that you’ve said it, it actually makes a lot of sense!
It kind of just came to me one day and it fitted really well. And I think another thing that I love about it, is that I didn’t really realise until the end of writing how much I’d been influenced by Agatha Christie. And a lot of people writing reviews have said, “It’s very Christie-ish”, and she often has titles that are taken from nursery rhymes or folk tales, and so it was quite nice to have that. I didn’t do that as a conscious link, but when I noticed it afterwards I found it quite satisfying – a sub-conscious homage!
Who was your favourite character to write?
Nina was probably the most satisfying person to write, because she’s so sarcastic and she says all the things that I would want to say but would be too polite to say! Or you know, that ‘l’esprit d’escalier’ thing where you think of a really funny, witty thing remark in the cab journey on the way home – and Nina doesn’t, she’s very good at just coming out with it there and then, so in that sense yeah, she was a super satisfying character to write. But actually I had real fun with all of them, just kind of making them as unlike each other as possible, and giving them lots of slightly abrasive edges to rub up against each other. So I would say more fun than any individual was just coming up with the dynamics between them and the way they irritate each other was really fun.
How did you research the location for your story? Did you actually go out into the middle of the woods and spend a few nights?
No, I didn’t. When I started I knew that I wanted it to be set in remote woodland, and part of my family is from the CairnGorm area of Scotland, from a little village there called Nethy Bridge which is called the Forest Village because it’s in the middle of the Abarnethy Forest. And the forests there, when you go walking you can walk and walk and walk and you’re still deep in forest, and unless you’ve got a map with you you could get really, seriously lost.
When I came to write the book I realised I didn’t want it to be set in Scotland, just for purely practical reasons, because I didn’t know very much about Scottish law and policing, and I was really worried that I would trip up, I didn’t have anybody that I could ask. So I set it in the nearest equivalent that I could find, which was the Kielder Forest in Northumberland, which I’ve driven through and passed through but never spent a huge amounts of time there. But the glass house and its surroundings I think was heavily influenced by watching too much TV – Grand Designs, you know, where they have these enormous glass edifices in sort of unlikely places? That was definitely a strong influence I think, too much Kevin McCloud!
I’ve actually been to a hen do where we stayed in a cabin in the Forest of Dean, and it had these huge glass window panes. As soon as I started reading your book I thought, “I feel as though I’ve been there… I know exactly how creepy those big windows are at night!”
I’ve never stayed in house quite like it, but I would like to, I really love impressive modernist buildings.
It was beautiful, but it was at the back of my mind “Where’s the nearest hospital? And who’s going to help me if something goes wrong?”
Yes! Especially if you’re a Londoner in particular, you know you’re never out of mobile contact now…even on the tube you’ve got Wi-Fi, so you can always WhatsApp or Skype. And when you get that moment when you’re in deep, deep countryside, and you think “I’ll just look it up on Google Maps!” and you realise, uh-uh that’s not gonna happen here, it’s kind of a culture shock moment.
One of the great things about the story is the claustrophobic atmosphere, it really builds up the tension. How did you go about achieving that?
I think claustrophobia comes about not just when you’re in a confined situation, but in a situation that you want to leave; and so that was a big part of it, having characters who weren’t easy to get along with, they had various sharp edges and forcing them into a situation where they’re closer than they want to be. In kind of difficult social situations as well, you know – lots of the scenes don’t take place inside the house, they’re out and about, they go to a clay pigeon shooting at one point – but it’s more about the fact that they can’t get away from the social situation. This has been prescribed, they can’t leave, you know? So it was about including all those elements, really: giving them reasons to want to get away, and reasons why it was difficult for them to do it, as well as the physical set-up. So the glass house is obviously very isolated, there’s a sense that you don’t know what’s out there, what hemming them in; but also in the present-day timeline Nora’s in hospital, and that’s quite a claustrophobic setting as well – I think we’ve all had that situation of being in a hospital bed really wanting to go home, the doctors won’t sign you off, you’re not quite sure what’s going on…so it’s a very relatable situation that I think most people can sympathise with.
What was the biggest challenge when writing your book?
I would say probably the biggest challenge writing-wise was the two timelines, because there’s the present-day timeline when Nora is in the hospital, and a past timeline where she’s at the hen night. And the structure I’d set myself was to go A, B, A, B, A, B with it swapping, and there were times when that meant that I had to pull out at points where actually I would have rather have carried on telling the story, and so there was a certain amount of juggling and working out when to do a reveal in each section, to kind of make it mesh. So it was quite technical in that sense. I think a lot of people reading it have assumed that it was more plotted than it was – I’ve had people say, “Did you have a grid? Did you have lots of Post-Its?” and I didn’t, I just sat and wrote it as if I were reading, and kind of just judged it by eye about how much I’d had in each section. But yeah, that was definitely something that I was constantly thinking about all the way through.
And in plot terms, I found the ending quite difficult, it changed it three or four times, just how people could find out what they needed to know – I’m trying not to do any spoilers here! – and you know, get the information in a satisfying, realistic way, how it would pan out in a way that people would believe but at the same time, a dramatically satisfying way.
It was really well done! There were a few moments – there’s one where Nora’s in the hospital and she’s got that enormous bruise, and eventually she recalls how she got that bruise, and then we go go back to the hen do itself where they’re all kind of friendly, there’s no hint at violence yet. And you just think “well what happened in between?” – it was brilliant, I loved it!
Thank you. Doing all that withholding of information was really satisfying, but I think it’s a bit of a judgement call because there becomes a point I think as a reader, when it can become really irritating if you can tell that the author is artificially withholding a secret from you. And you have to be conscious of when it stops being tense and starts being annoying.
Well it wasn’t like that all! So was there a message that you’d like readers to take away from the book?
I don’t know really…I’m not sure it’s really my job to tell people what to find in the book. There are moments when I read reviews and people have found something in there that I never intended to put in there, and definitely don’t believe; but you know, if they found that in there, that’s their right as much as mine is. I guess if there’s a moral from my book it would be “Don’t mix tequila and shotguns,” which I think is probably a good moral to take through life! But aside from that, I think it’s just interesting to find out what different people bring to a book, so I wouldn’t want to prescribe it.
Did you have a favourite author as a child and do you have a favourite author now?
I find these questions really difficult! I was a completely voracious bookworm as a child, and in fact I am now, and I don’t think I could pick just one at all! I read and read and read and read, everything from CS Lewis to Elinor Brent-Dyer and the Chalet School books, Enid Blyton, AA Milne…you know, all of those had huge influences on me. In terms of who influenced me writing the book, I read an awful lot of classic crime, as an 11-13 year old I was reading Agatha Christie, but also Dorothy L. Sayers – I fell hopelessly in love with Lord Peter Wimsey – Josephine Tey, and I guess all of that at really a formative age had an effect on how I wrote this book.
In terms of who’s my favourite author now…I really couldn’t pick one! This year I’ve really enjoyed reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, which was just wonderful – beautifully done and so spreading, and she manages this huge cast of characters with such finesse. Its kind of the opposite of my book which is totally contained and very easy for me to keep track of, but she’s got this sprawling cast that it would have been very easy to just lose control of completely, but she doesn’t she really pulls it off and the final bit was really satisfying.