For this novel, as for my previous English-set thriller The Crooked House, and the one I have just finished – although not for any of my Italian books – I worked out the whole plot before I began writing the book in a scene by scene plan, much more than a synopsis, something around a hundred pages long. It doesn’t at all feel as though I ‘begin writing’ when I set out to write the novel itself, as an awful lot of quite developed writing has already happened. I do it this way because I need to understand the characters and develop them before the plot takes shape. Even a plan as detailed as this, though, allows for changes and digressions. One clue or plot twist or character can end up taking much more space and significance than another, for example and ideas can occur to me as I go along. But there are much less likely to be any big changes, such as who did it.
What is the most interesting thing you have learnt when creating your books? Do you learn new things about yourself?
You learn how dull and uninteresting you are, quite a lot of the time! Putting your thoughts and yourself down on paper can be rather testing, when you only think ooofff how boring. I try very very hard not to be boring, that’s my idea of total failure as a novelist, so I suppose I set the bar very high.
Was Nathan a difficult character to research? He seemed to have a lot of psychological problems that gave him power to control people that should have known better?
I don’t really research characters, or indeed anything in my novels aside from some small specific technical details. I just sort of accumulate bits of information about criminal or unpleasant behaviour – about bad people whose quirks and characteristic behaviours can be given away in chance remarks or newspaper stories. Such as: when the infamous Rosemary and Fred West were tried, a neighbour said of Rose West that she was astonished she could have been capable of such terrible acts because ‘she kept her children’s hair so nice’. Small unexpected or telling details like that are gold dust, and they can come from all sorts of places – not least amongst one’s acquaintance; usually not from people one knows well but from passing encounters. I don’t seek them out or write them down, but once heard they are never forgotten. There are plenty of men a little bit like Nathan out there: men who need to control their wives or lovers or girlfriends, and disguise that control as loving care.
How did you feel when you heard your novel was going to be optioned for a three-part drama by ITV studios?
I was absolutely delighted, of course! When you write – and I have written eleven novels now – practically the first thing anyone ever says is wouldn’t it be great if it was turned into a TV series/movie? Of course I know quite well what the odds are even of being optioned, let alone the film or series actually getting made, so my heart always sank when the question was asked. But my books are all in their way cinematic, not least because I focus a lot on setting, and always have a very strong visual idea of what is happening and where. And trying to decide on one’s perfect cast list for one’s characters is every author’s favourite daydream (not least because it ends with us being rich and famous).
What does your usual writing day routine consist of?
My usual writing day routine consists of getting the children out of the house to school (this is easier than it used to be as I only have the last of five children at home now), sitting down at my computer (which is in my bedroom, facing the wall so as to present no opportunities for distraction) and writing for two hours, roughly. This was established when I started writing and I had a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old, a five-year-old and a three-year-old. When the last baby came along a couple of years later, two hours was an absolute maximum because that was how long she would sleep after I had wheeled her home in the pram from dropping the others at school. My husband makes me one cup of the best coffee in the world after about ten minutes, and I make myself a second (less perfect) one when I have got to five hundred words. I write a thousand words a day roughly, never less, occasionally more. When I started writing I used sometimes to go over it again in the evening for half an hour, with a glass of wine in my hand. I do that less now, but it works pretty well as a light self-editing technique. As long as you only ever do it on one glass of wine.
Have you ever written a scene that has scared you enough so you have had to walk away for a minute or two?
I don’t get scared exactly by my own writing, as generally I have a resolution worked out – though I have had the hairs rise on the back of my neck. For example, when in The Loving Husband Fran goes up into the attic of the grim old house she lives in: I hadn’t really worked out what it was she was going to find there when I began writing it so it was more about closing my eyes and thinking of what a dark spidery attic feels like, the space, the smell, the rafters, the quality of the shadows and that sense in many crowded attics that something might be waiting in there.
Where does the darkness in The Loving Husband come from?
I think the darkness in The Loving Husband comes from my understanding of the very risky business of motherhood, the fears and burdens it brings, and of committing yourself to another human being for life, very often when you know very little about them. People regularly turn out to be darker and more complicated than you first realise, when they present their sunniest, most upbeat face to you and the world; sometimes they conceal their true selves from you, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes they change with major life events such as having children. The thought of revealing your most vulnerable, needy self, your deepest self, to someone who then either rejects or abuses or manipulates you, is horrible to me. And if you add in the need – as in The Loving Husband – to protect small children, plus a hostile alien environment, what you get is terror.
Do your characters stay with you after you finish writing or do you leave them on the page?
Some of my characters stay with me long after I’ve written the novel in which they appear. The best ones do – and the ones you mine yourself most deeply for. In my Italian detective series, of course, (five novels so far) I have come to think of my principal characters as my own family. I know I am going to see them again, and look forward to it.
Have any authors or novels particularly shaped your writing style?
I don’t think I write like any other crime writer, if I am honest. I often wish I did – but those who have inspired me are Patricia Highsmith for her deep uncompromising darkness and understanding of the criminal urge, Daphne du Maurier for her wild imagination, her delight in bold drama and her intense involvement with landscape, and Georges Simenon for his fine cool economy with description and detail and characterisation, his understanding that what is really interesting in a crime story is human nature. I think Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine is really the mistress of the powerful hybrid that is the literary psychological thriller and she was the model who gave me confidence to write something more elaborate than a simple ‘mystery’ while not losing sight of the mission to entertain and excite and terrify.
Did you have a favourite bedtime read as a child? If so, what did you particularly love about it?
I loved Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series (though when I was a child I think she had only written the first four). Black Hearts in Battersea was my favourite, I think. I loved her fine eye for physical detail and her brilliant way with character – feisty misfit girls, evil governesses, lumbering sidekicks – and her strong sense of adventure, of what a child responds to, and beauty. There was a wonderful scene in Wolves of Willoughby Chase when the two main characters, young girls, escape in deep snowy winter from an orphanage by scaling the wall and are met by a friend driving a cart loaded with sheepskins where they can burrow down and stay warm even in the frosty night, safe from pursuing wolves.