This week Murder Room editor Julia Silk spoke to Harriet Lane, author of the acutely observed and distinctly unnerving ALYS, ALWAYS and HER, and Lesley Glaister, whose TRICK OR TREAT is a darkly witty tale of the paths down which old grudges and thwarted desires can lead us. The perfect Hallowe’en read!
It was the ‘fantasy dinner party’ scenario. Only not dinner. Two of my favourite authors, whose novels I never tire of pressing on anyone who’ll listen, agreed to talk to me (and each other) about their work. And one of them even offered her house and lunch. It doesn’t get much better than that.
JS: Psychological thrillers are THE genre of the moment, but you were both writing the kind of gripping, suspenseful fiction that readers can’t get enough of before it became ‘fashionable’. Your work is much harder to categorise, though. I wonder how you perceive what it is that you do, and how you do it.
LG: Well, my work has been referred to as domestic suspense, gothic suspense, horror – I don’t really understand that; surely horror is something quite different – but I think there is a sense that there is something troubling about it.
JS: But not scary, necessarily. Although you build a sense of unease in the same way that Harriet does, it’s never clear how concrete the threat will turn out to be. For example in NINA TODD HAS GONE, we know something terrible has happened to her and that she has done something terrible. But in TRICK OR TREAT Wolfe is in peril, but it’s not clear whether he will succumb.
LG: Wolfe reminds me of my youngest son. He’s so sweet, so polite, he doesn’t want to cause hurt, and he rationalises what he senses might be a threat by thinking that perhaps Rodney is just odd. Also he has been taught to be wary of strangers, but otherwise polite to grown-ups. Rodney is a neighbour rather than a stranger . . . though he is strange. This is a puzzle for Wolfe.
JS: Yes, because he isn’t really old enough to understand what that threat might be, and he empathises with someone he perceives to be an outsider, like he is, and it overcomes his instinct for danger.
LG: But his empathy serves him well in the case of Arthur. In a way he is like a little old man, too – that’s why they get on so well.
JS: The sense of unease in both your novels is built on the suggestion of a threat that may or may not be realised. Harriet, can I quote a small section from HER? Ben and Nina are together in the garden in France, and Nina is reflecting on Ben’s comments on the novel he is reading:
I don’t say I’ve read it and enjoyed it, although I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are. Nothing like life, which – it seems to me – turns less on shocks and theatrics than on the small, quiet moments, misunderstandings or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.
That to me is the essence of what HER and ALYS, ALWAYS and TRICK OR TREAT are about. The ways in which people disappoint one another, the small hurts which may or may not have a lasting effect. The unthinking way that people behave to one another; the small and larger daily slights.
HL: Ha, yes, I’m really interested in that, in the potential for disaster in the everyday. A quieter sort of jeopardy. But it can frustrate readers who come to my books expecting a more conventional narrative arc: police tape and gore, A leading to B leading to C, a nice tidy cosy conclusion. HER made some readers really angry, people who felt unsatisfied by the revelation of Nina’s motivation, people who hated the open ending. Both elements — the ‘reveal’, which really invites you to re-examine everything you know about Nina, and the question mark you’re finally left with, the novel ending at the moment of maximum discomfort for the reader — were so absolutely central to the way I envisioned the book. But then I don’t really think of my books as psychological thrillers. I use the tricks and techniques, I love a good psychological thriller, but I think I’m doing something a little different. When it came to the US paperback, I fought quite hard to have the phrase ‘psychological thriller’ taken off a rave quote on the front cover. I don’t think that tag necessarily does the book any favours.
JS: It might have sold even more copies if it had stayed on.
HL: It might . . . it probably would, but it doesn’t necessarily serve the book well. Or readers, come to that. It’s a tricky balance.
JS: A very specific type of person recurs in both ALYS, ALWAYS and HER – that thoughtlessness that we were talking about, those girls who are, in Nina’s words ‘Beautiful . . . a bit careless’, born into privilege and completely unconscious of it.
HL: I went to boarding school with a lot of girls like that, I met a few more when I worked at Tatler. Entitlement drives me slightly nuts.
LG: You describe these people so well. And those amazing houses in Highgate – I was fascinated to come here today [to Harriet’s house in North London] to see what it would be like. It’s lovely!
HL: Possibly because I’m visually impaired I like writing about beautiful things: houses, locations, whatever. The business of summoning up those images and getting them down on paper is, I think, part of what makes the writing so enjoyable for me. But there’s usually a darkness there too, a bleakness. I like that tension. I suppose I’m interested in surfaces and what’s going on beneath them.
JS: I was quite nervous to be honest – I grew up around here, went to the school at the top of Highgate Hill. I’m not of those people you write about, though – far too poor and scruffy! This feeling of your characters, particularly Frances, being on the outside looking in – it made me wonder, where do you come from? I’m guessing not from around here . . .
HL: My father was in the Foreign Office, so we moved around a lot: New York, Ankara, Belfast, Port of Spain, Rome. But London was always the place we came back to. It became a slightly mythic place for me when I was a child; maybe that’s why it plays such a central role in my books. I find it endlessly strange and interesting, perhaps because when I was growing up it never felt quite mine.
JS: What about you Lesley?
LG: I don’t really feel as if I’m ‘from’ anywhere in particular. My family moved around a lot – though not so exotically! – when I was a child: Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Scotland and East Anglia. I spent many years in Sheffield – where I brought my children up – and now I live in Scotland. All of these places have been my home but I don’t feel ‘of’ any of them.
JS: Your work, both of you, has a strong sense of absurdity, of the ridiculous, which is silently observed and used by your protagonists (or antagonists, I should say). In Harriet’s case people make themselves absurd or notable mainly through their behaviour. In the case of TRICK OR TREAT this is physical too. Wolfe’s itching skin, Olive’s weight, Petra’s worry lines.
LG: Yes, it wasn’t until I re-read TRICK OR TREAT that I remembered what an extreme contrast there was between Olive and Arthur – she’s seventeen stone, he’s seven stone. Olive is very aware of herself, once she was beautiful but now she is old, massive, she almost disgusts herself – yet she has a spontaneity and authenticity which make her (I think) rather lovable.
JS: That brings us quite neatly to the subject of ‘likability’, which is something I’m really interested in. What does that even mean? Why do we feel novelists have to write likeable characters? Harriet, in HER, during the same conversation I quoted earlier, you have Ben say: ‘I don’t think I like these characters,’. Nina dismisses his comment as ‘an annoying remark, one with which I can’t be bothered to engage.’ Might I assume Nina is demonstrating a fair reflection of your feelings on the subject?
HL: I’m always puzzled when people say, rather disapprovingly, that they didn’t ‘like’ this or that character in a book. Have you noticed that it’s usually female characters that get talked about in this way? Complex multi-faceted male characters are less of an issue. Ha! So yes, I find it curious that some readers don’t want to spend time with complicated women. Personally I don’t care if I like a fictional character or not. All that matters to me is that they’re interesting. Yes, it was important to me, to have Nina express that.
JS: I don’t blame you. I think perhaps people mistake likeable for interesting. Or maybe they’re just in denial! It’s an uncomfortable feeling to recognise characteristics in others that you’d rather not acknowledge in yourself, even if they are fictional characters. Like Nell’s neuroses, especially her obsession with cleaning – it kind of make sense in a twisted way.
LG: Yes, because germs really are everywhere, crawling over everything. And Rodney is basically just a big germ!
JS: So the way she reacts to him makes perfect sense in the end.
LG: Motivation is so important. Readers don’t need to love or even like fictional characters but they should be able empathise with them, to understand why they do what they do even if it’s crazy.
JS: I found it really easy no matter how extreme the behaviour, to identify with why your characters behave the way they do. I can see why Nell is the way she is, and I also couldn’t help admiring [ALYS, ALWAYS’] Frances, taking the opportunity that is presented to her to finally be seen and heard. It seems to me that what you both do is provide your characters with the occasion of sin. They are for the most part opportunists, not criminals. Nell is so damaged and angry and Olive is so sad – you convey their frustration and desperation so convincingly.
HL: Yes, you really made me feel everything that your characters were feeling. Nell and the obsessional cleaning . . . I thought that was so powerful. You know she’s unhinged, and yet you get it, too, you feel her mania, you too itch for the Flash. And the sense of place that you create is so strong too. Those houses, the streets, the hill . . .
LG: It’s actually where I lived in Sheffield at the time , as a single mum with three children.
HL: Like Petra then. Is she you?
LG: I suppose she is how I saw myself. And I always thought the one type of house I would never live in would be a terrace, but then I found myself living in a street just like the one in TRICK OR TREAT. Olive is a combination of one of the neighbours and my great aunt Olive. I had a really small window to write at that time – I would drop the youngest at nursery and then I knew I’d have two and a half hours to write. I would even make a cup of tea before I went out so it would be ready to drink as soon as I got back so I didn’t have to waste writing time making it! I used to dread coming home and bumping in to the next door neighbour, who was a real talker – I’d feel my time slipping away. But one day I stepped out of my house, having just been writing about a bomb hitting the street during World War Two, and there she was, so I asked her about the war (she’d lived there that long). She told me that her house hadn’t been hit, but the one next door had – and the description she gave was almost identical to one I had just written about where Nell comes out of the shelter to find her house undamaged and the back of Olive’s blown to pieces with all her possessions scattered around.
JS: It’s very strange how that can happen – that the fabric of a building can hold all of that history.
LG: That is what it felt like, as if I’d picked up on a memory embedded within the building. Quite spooky. Sometimes during writing the mind seems tuned to a different frequency so that odd things can be picked up, almost as if they’re being channelled. It’s not the only strange thing that happened when I was writing TRICK OR TREAT, either. There’s an episode where Olive gets pulled over by her dog. Only after I’d written that did I find out that exactly the same thing had happened to the lady next door (the model for Olive). I didn’t even know she’d ever had a dog, it had died years before I moved there, but it had been exactly the kind I imagined, a very fat, black and white spaniel.
JS and HL: That is just spooky.
HL: At what point did you know what Nell was going to do at the end of TRICK OR TREAT?
LG: Not until quite a way through the novel. I don’t usually plot, and never know what’s going to happen at the end. That’s why I enjoy writing so much – it’s a process of discovery.
HL: You don’t plot? Really?!
LG: I do try my characters out, though. Things like dressing in the way they would, wearing a pair of shoes I wouldn’t normally wear. I did steal something once, too, in order to experience the sequence of feelings one of my characters did as she shoplifted. It was both exciting and terrifying – I hid in the toilets for ages before I dared to leave the shop and then expected at any minute a hand on my shoulder . . .
[Brief shocked silence. Squawks of delight]
JS: Do you always know what will happen from the beginning, Harriet?
HL: I sketch out an outline, nothing too detailed, but I need to have a feeling for the final shape of the book: what will happen in what order, and how it will end. That gives me the confidence to start. It’s like a banister. I can hold onto the rough outline, and all I have to do is write the blinking thing, and the writing is (mostly) pleasurable and full of surprises.
JS: There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask both of you. A common theme in your work is that neglectful or negligent parenting is responsible for much of your characters’ suffering and the suffering that they in turn inflict on others. Do you, in fact, blame the parents?
HL: Families — people’s desire to make them or escape from them — provide so much rich material in fiction. My own parents are completely brilliant, so I’m not sure where this comes from. Probably it’s something to do with having my own children and becoming much more conscious of how very easy it is to mess up on that front.
LG: That’s an interesting and thorny question. In real life I feel people have more choice and agency than that. People with terrible childhoods can grow up perfectly well through their own strength of character and people with easy, cushy childhoods can end up being enormous pains – or worse! But with fictional characters I think there does need to be some more satisfactory explanation for motivation – otherwise readers can find their behaviour hard to believe in. So I do need to know what happened earlier in a character’s life – for example Nell’s jealousy of Olive, from childhood onwards, motivating her elderly spite.
JS: So in some cases, the way in which these adults experienced their childhood has left something lying dormant in them, waiting for a combination of circumstances to ignite their sociopathy. Nell, for example, is described as being ‘attracted to destruction’. Frances [ALYS, ALWAYS], Nina [HER], Nina [NINA TODD HAS GONE], Nell [TRICK OR TREAT], they’re all a disaster waiting to happen. Actually, it made me wonder just where the border lies between normality and sociopathy and psychopathy.
HL: I think it’s a fine line. For me, so much of the fun of writing is the pleasure of getting out of my own head, with its rather sorry preoccupations, and into someone else’s — even those of rather dangerous people, like Nina and Frances. It’s a blessed relief a lot of the time.
LG: Actually, I was recently complimented on my ability to get into the mind of a psychopath [laughs]. It’s a character in The Private Parts of Women who is to all intents and purposes a psychopath – though I never formally identified him as such even to myself. But after a reading once, a psychiatrist complimented me on my creation of a psychopathic personality and said he used a passage of this character’s interior monologue as a teaching aid! The scary thing is I didn’t find it in the least bit difficult to think like that myself! [laughs].
HL: ‘Normality’ is so ludicrously precarious, anyway, as I discovered when I started to lose my sight quite suddenly back in 2008. Life turns on a sixpence. One day things are toddling along, you feel completely frazzled, of course; you’re barely coping, but it’s ordinary. And then overnight everything is turned on its head and will never ever be the same, and you look back and think: my god, I really didn’t have a clue. That process is terribly painful, but you learn a few things from it, and they’re not all bad. And some of them are even useful when writing fiction.
JS: Thank you both so much for talking to me and letting me into the world of some of the most fascinating characters I’ve encountered in all my reading life – it’s been a huge privilege.
Harriet Lane is the author of the critically acclaimed break-out novel ALYS, ALWAYS, and her second book, HER, was shortlisted for the Encore Award for best second novel. Visit Harriet’s website or follow her on Twitter.
Lesley Glaister is the author of five titles published by The Murder Room, including TRICK OR TREAT and her first novel, HONOUR THY FATHER, the recipient of both a Somerset Maugham Award and a Betty Trask Award. Visit Lesley’s website or follow her on Twitter for more information.