The Murder Room authors Deborah Valentine and Hilary Norman in conversation about the influence of acting on their work, issues of race and gender, their relationship with their protagonists and the enduring appeal of writing.
DV: Hilary, I’m holding you responsible for ruining two good meals. While reading Compulsion I burned one, thinking, just a few more pages and I’ll take it out of the oven. With Blind Fear, I took it out but then forgot it, thinking just a few more pages . . . Your books are character-driven, have compelling psychological elements and your ‘villains’ are extremely troubled individuals. I know you have a background as an actress. Do you feel this helps in creating your characters? And do you feel you’re acting them out at some level while you’re writing them, or have trouble shedding them after?
HN: I should be apologetic about the wasted meals, Deborah, but I’m actually just glad to have kept you engrossed. Regarding characters, whether I’m reading or writing, however great a plot, to my mind unless you care about those caught up in the story, it doesn’t work. I need to give a damn. I’ve certainly written novels where the characters unquestionably made the book, and I confess that I can get equally involved with my more wicked characters. I like discovering what makes them tick, what’s happened to make them who they are by the time they’ve killed their first victim.
Yes, I do sometimes act out dialogue when working on late drafts, and it’s been fun reading some of my work for audio books. I don’t find ‘role-shedding’ problematical, though. For the most part, I pick up characters where I left off, work with them for a while, get right inside them – and it is that way round, rather than their crawling inside me. Then I put them down, switch off and get back to the ‘real’ world. Just as well, given the darkness of many of my stories.
Your question about role-shedding is interesting because at one point in your first mystery, Unorthodox Methods, Kevin Bryce, a novelist as well as a cop, says that when creating fictional characters he reacts much as when working undercover, finding the roles in both ‘jobs’ hard to shed. So now I get to ask you the same question: do you find it as hard as Bryce to shake off characters? And, if so, is this with certain major characters, or do you live them all?
DV: Some of my characters hang around longer than others. Sometimes I find I’ll take on some of their characteristics while writing. With Roxanne, in A Collector of Photographs, I felt a much chillier person. Didn’t like it at all. Alternately, with the person who commits the final foul act in Fine Distinctions, I was unexpectedly in his head while he was doing it. Horrible. As soon as that scene was done, I had a bath, washed my hair, scrubbed and scrubbed and then he was gone. It’s definitely certain major figures who have the more lasting effects, rather than everyone – otherwise I’d be in a right muddle! Most of them I step in and out of as they appear in the book.
One of the things I noticed in your stories is a pervading sense of compassion. You often have a character who is in a healing capacity – for example, a speech therapist, a child psychologist, a guide-dog trainer. They provide an emotional compass for the reader. However, in Compulsion you portray a woman with OCD spectacularly well, someone who could have easily been quite frustrating to be around as a reader. But the restraint and sympathy in your writing made you feel for her. So, here’s another question on the same theme: to do this, you must have really had to get into her head; can you talk a bit about that, and the use of therapeutic professions in your work? I’d also like to ask, particularly as it’s an interest we share, about your portrayal of the artist in Blind Fear. How did that come about? Because I felt, like Roxanne, that there was an amorality in his work ethic, although I must say, he was much nicer to be around than Roxanne!
HN: I think it’s more empathy than compassion. I’ve become absorbed by Grace’s profession as a child and adolescent psychologist, but it was Cathy’s horrific predicament in Mind Games that seemed to lead me (and Grace) naturally to what she desperately needed. Equally, it was extraordinary and humbling attempting to see the world via Donovan, the blind sculptor in Blind Fear.
I’ve written about artists several times: Alexandra first, in In Love and Friendship; then Nick Miller in Too Close; and Katharine in Spellbound designed stage sets. The fascination with artists definitely emerged out of the fact that my father became an artist late in life, working rapidly and quite brilliantly to considerable success. Nothing, I’m glad to say, that might have inspired the warped brain behind those crimes in Blind Fear! Just my rather strange imagination at work again . . .
And you’ve preempted a question I was going to pose. I did wonder, for a while, reading A Collector of Photographs, if there might be a little of you in Roxanne! You certainly share her keen eye for detail, have a talent for observation, and you sketch marvellous word pictures of places and people.
Sense of place, in fact, is one of the strong aspects of your novels. Unorthodox Methods, the first, set mainly around Lake Tahoe in California; A Collector of Photographs mostly San Francisco-based: Fine Distinctions firmly Irish. You used to live in California, but your writing suggests that you must have spent considerable time in Ireland. Your images are filled with warmth, effectively blended with an underlying sense of danger. Did this atmosphere stem from personal experience?
DV: I lived in Eire for five months, and it was a time of great adventure. It’s good to step out into the void, leave yourself open to the atmosphere, which is what I did. And, yes, I put myself (usually unintentionally) in some uncomfortable situations! I tried to see it through the eyes of those who lived there. The character of McGarrity is a good case in point; he amalgamates the views of many of the people I met, embodies the love of country I found there.
HN: What you say about putting yourself unintentionally into uncomfortable situations reminds me that research trips that don’t go according to plan can ultimately prove of far greater use than smooth sailing. A late-autumn visit to Alsace for Chateau Ella left me snowbound in an almost certainly haunted chateau; I was forced to return in spring, but the direness of the first visit gave me insights I wouldn’t have guessed at in sunny May. My well-planned ‘dream trip’ to Tuscany for Shattered Stars was miserable. Atrocious weather made Florence almost invisible and deeply unfriendly, and was followed by bronchitis and a visit to Siena’s Piazza del Campo, where an ambulance circled the empty piazza repeatedly and creepily as if in search of sudden collapse victims.
Sinister events duly followed for characters in both locations. Most useful of all, however, was my venture into the catacombs beneath Paris, intended as a backdrop for a short chapter in Fascination. I’m not a fan of the subterranean, so a trek through passages lined with human bones was no pleasure, and passing entrances to pitch-black tunnels, realising that a wrong turn could lead to getting for ever lost and entombed . . . Chilling stuff, but once I’d emerged into sunlight, I knew this had to be the location for something far more climactic than I’d originally planned. Result!
DV: Your strong sense of story and atmosphere are captivating for us as readers, but what ghastly research trips! You’re right, though; they’re the ones that prove most profitable creatively.
HN: Something I’ve been wondering is, after three books in their company, how do you feel about Katharine and Bryce and their often frustrating relationship? How much of you is there in Katharine, the talented young sculptor with her secretive past and private soul, striding out bravely, sometimes foolhardily, yet often afraid to vocalise her own emotions?
DV: I read an article recently on David Hockney. His former schoolmaster said: ‘He still does not really believe that an artist needs occasionally to use words.’ I laughed out loud when I read that, it is so Katharine. Bryce, of course, is a writer, words are his raison d’être. They are, in a sense, quite mismatched. On the other hand, like all good relationships, they fill a gap in one other. Bryce has a low boredom threshold, so he always needs a puzzle to solve, which she effortlessly provides. Katharine needs an anchor, which he effortlessly provides, but she doesn’t understand his need to know everything.
They amuse me. They’re a couple who continually evolve. I feel affection for them both, though my relationship with Bryce is a touch malicious. I hadn’t intended him to be a main character; he elbowed his way into the story, took over without permission, and that annoys me. I have a tendency to torture him when I can – my petty revenge!
Except for a slight (in my case) mistrust of ‘talk’, there’s not much of me in Katharine. Of all my characters I believe I’m most like Conor in my latest book, The Knightmare, which isn’t crime fiction. It was several drafts in before I realised how similar we are – quite a shock! Never fails to make me laugh, though it’s not perhaps the most welcome revelation . . .
HN: And do you have a favourite within the trilogy?
DV: Of the trilogy, Fine Distinctions is a favourite. Simply because I knew the characters so well by that time, I was having fun with them and, also, because the love of writing itself grows. It’s like a relationship. You think you love someone, but the longer you know them the more the initial feeling is nothing compared to what you feel as the relationship grows up, gets better.
Now before I ask my next question, I’ve a confession to make. I was reluctant to read Mind Games – it’s set in Florida. I’ve been there, it’s beautiful. It’s also hot, and I loathe the heat. However, when I read your book I so enjoyed the story, and even Florida itself, since I saw it through your eyes. And Grace’s home – oh, you always do such lovely, lovely homes! – made me want to move in. Sam Becket, a black orphan adopted by a Jewish couple – now there is a very well-drawn relationship conveying a wonderful sense of family. What drew you to setting up this unusual family? And also, you’ve tackled the mixed-race issue in Sam and Grace’s romance. What drew you to this? And, finally, what is your relationship with Sam himself? How do you feel about him?
HN: I’m so glad you enjoyed Mind Games. Like your Unorthodox Methods, this first encounter with Sam Becket was intended as a standalone, but reaching the end, I knew I wanted to revisit those characters. I’m not a heat lover either, but aircon and ocean are wonderful consolers. As for that home (especially the kitchen with its big table, good for family dinners and late-night crisis glasses of wine), I make a point of loitering at least once a year near the house on which it’s based: ‘Just taking in the atmosphere, Officer, truly!’ Though so many seriously bad things have happened there, I’ve begun to wonder if they shouldn’t move out . . .
Sam’s background came entirely from my imagination. Nothing drew me to set it up. He and his adoptive parents and brother thankfully just sprang into being, and soon their genuine warmth wrapped around me; and I daresay the nightmarish intensity of the events that brought Sam, Grace and Cathy together played a major part in keeping them close.
Grace, the psychologist, and Sam, the Violent Crimes detective, well understand the potential difficulties of interracial marriage in a southern US state, even with prejudice greatly diminished. They have been fortunate, but there have been ‘issues’ – never more so than in the latest Becket, to be published later this year.
My relationship with Sam? Deep affection and, in view of the Beckets’ many traumas (risks sometimes magnified by his tendency to break rules if loved ones are in danger), I do worry about that man. I was lucky enough to meet an amazingly patient, experienced Miami Beach detective while researching Mind Games, who’s gone on checking my ‘police work’ ever since, helping me keep Sam and Martinez, his partner, as ‘real’ as possible.
Having said that, I laughed at/with your Author’s Note at the beginning of Unorthodox Methods, where you said that your Sheriff’s department couldn’t be held responsible for ‘irregularities of procedure or bad behaviour indulged in’ by your characters. How well that could apply to a few of Sam’s less by-the-book exploits.
DV: It’s also interesting you say Becket’s family just ‘sprang into being’. I’ve had that happen – Angelo, for example – and when it does, they’re such a joy to work with, like they’ve been waiting in the wings to step into your story – wonderful!
HN: You have a fine knack for creating tension and then, after an eruption of activity, your characters tend to deal with the aftermath using highly effective understatement. The same goes for your moments of romantic tension and warmth. In Unorthodox Methods, Katharine says writers who romanticise are the worst liars. Bryce says that’s very pessimistic. Do you share Katharine’s viewpoint? Is understatement a personal trait? And would you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist?
DV: No, I see (most) authors as dramatising rather than romanticising – that’s our job. We do it to illustrate universal truths about how human beings behave. I hadn’t thought of it before but since you’ve asked, understatement probably is a natural trait – it’s just me. Overall, I’d call myself a jaundiced optimist. Pessimism does no one any good, only prevents a person from experiencing joy, and undermines opportunities for accomplishment.
In The Quality of Light, a Bryce book that has not as yet seen print, it’s said of James, when talking about faith in his instincts, he feels first and later uses analysis to pinpoint the origins of his faith. I’m no different. I write instinctively and then analysis comes in small epiphanies. It’s amazing what your subconscious does; I’m continually surprised by it. Working on instinct, later the building blocks become evident. Of course, it could be suggested my tiny little mind can only hold so much information at once, hence my day-at-a-time approach. But if I tried to analyse while or before writing, I would bugger it all up. Analysis starts, wanted or not, in the editing stage, in ensuring the story holds water. It can provide a few ‘oh, goodness me, didn’t realise that and don’t want to know any further’ moments!
Reluctantly, I suppose we should wrap this all up or our chat will end up a book in itself. But I want to ask, Hilary, after an incredible body of work spanning 24 books, what keeps you writing?
HN: I find it hard to believe I’ve written 24 books and am at the preliminary stage of number 25. I know where it’s heading, have a reasonable grasp of my characters, am enjoying some Massachusetts research (away from Florida and Sam & Co. for this one – giving those poor guys a break), and hoping for the best. I still recall my lazy school years, when essays were a chore; though I always cherished reading and spent hours daydreaming – probably the root of my storytelling. I have slowed down just a little and relish time off, able to manage laziness very well on holiday; but I am also still utterly compelled to write. It’s who I am, what I have become. It isn’t all of me, of course, but a major and integral part, and I would be lost without it. If readers can still enjoy what I supply, that’s the most wonderful bonus – and how lovely that the growth of the ebook market has given our backlists new life and, hopefully, new readers.
I have one more question for you too: finally, with such a varied career, with novels, editorships and screenplays already under your belt, as well as Edgar and Macavity award nominations, what are your aims and ambitions for the future, or will you be letting your Muse lead the way?
DV: My aim? To just keep writing. I’m not much good for anything else. In The Quality of Light, Bryce and Katharine take more of a back seat, though there’s definite ‘movement’ in their relationship and a revelation about his past Katharine doesn’t welcome. James comes to the fore as he gets entangled with some north London bohemians whose past catches up to them. It’s set partly in the 1960s, partly 30 years later. And it’s funny – or I hope it is! It makes me laugh but the quality of my humour may be dark!