1. The Dark Rose, your new psychological thriller comes out this week. Tell us something about The Dark Rose.
Like my first novel, The Poison Tree, it’s a mystery rather than a procedural novel. It’s set in and around the alternative music scene in late-80s London, Essex, and the grounds of a ruined 16th-Century mansion in Warwickshire.
Troubled teenager Paul has been led into a life of crime by his best friend and protector, Daniel. One night what started as petty theft escalates fatally, and the authorities send him to ground in a remote garden restoration project until he can testify. There he meets garden designer Louisa, who reacts to him with shock: Paul resembles Adam, with whom she had an intense affair that ended in blood.
The novel alternates between Paul’s point of view and Louisa’s. It’s dominated by the setting of Kelstice Lodge, the ruined Elizabethan hall where they meet but also flashes back to his adolescence in estuary Essex and hers in Kensington. We see them enter into a relationship and confide in each other, but it soon becomes apparent that the past is catching up with one – or both – of them.
2. Some writers focus on a main character and develop an entire series around him or her. Your two novels, The Poison Tree and The Dark Rose are stand-alone books. How do you find creating new characters for each new work?
I love it. Getting under the skin of a new character is a big part of the thrill of writing for me. I like not being constrained by details in previous books, and I like the freedom of knowing I can kill off anyone I like.
There’s another reason I invent new characters and settings every time. I write mysteries but they’re not procedural books; I’m more interested in how crime affects people who have no previous experience of it. Detectives, lawyers and pathologists get only passing mentions in my stories, but these are the characters you need to write to make it credible that crime would touch their lives again and again.
3. What is your writing process like?
It depends where in the book I am. Early on, I like to get out and about for inspiration, making research trips, and sitting in cafes with my notebook. The pace gradually intensifies and for the last three or four months I’m virtually chained to my desk, and barely know what season it is.
4. Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Not from people immediately around me – I know them too well, I’m too invested in them to create distance. I like to see a glimpse of another life, or place, just enough to spark my imagination but not enough to saturate it. TV documentaries and road trips are perfect for this.
5. How do you develop the characters background, their personality, their traits?
I don’t plot my books with a chapter plan and I take the same kind of approach to characterization: I get to know them by writing them. Occasionally I’ll write a scene that I know deep down won’t make the final cut, just to help me explore these people.
6. Sins of the past seem to be a common theme in your works. Is there a particular reason for that?
So many of my favourite stories deal with ghosts from the past: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, The Go-Between by LP Hartley, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Covering a long tract of time gives the fuse a long fuse that lets the story burn slower, gives it room to breathe and lets me stretch the suspense to breaking point.
Much classic crime fiction covers in forensic detail the events that led to murder, but then as soon as the handcuffs are placed on the killer’s wrists, the curtain falls. To my mind, that’s where the most interesting stories begin. I’m fascinated by the long-term effects of guilt, bereavement and lies. I like to spend a long time, perhaps even a lifetime, with a character, and see how they change.
7. How much do your characters go and live their own lives, independent from the pen of their creator? Do you know their fate when you start writing or does it change as you write your novels?
I have a vague skeleton plot before I sit down to write, and so far I have always diverged from this. Usually that’s because I’ve had a specific action ascribed to a certain character but as the novel has progressed a little voice has started to whisper that the person I have got to know just wouldn’t do that. I can ignore this voice for a while, but not forever.
8. After a successful career as a journalist, what made you want to switch to writing novels?
The desire to write fiction came first. I was freelance throughout my twenties and I loved it, but after turning 30 I was ready for a change of pace. I was exhausted by the daily hustle of pitching feature ideas, and ready to unplug a little and commit to something long-term. And then of course there was the fact that this novel I’d been talking about writing for years and years had been quietly but insistently nudging its way to the forefront of my consciousness. In the end I had to write it, just to make it go away.
9. What other stories are you working on?
I’ve just finished my third stand-alone psychological thriller, about a family weekend that turns deadly when the youngest son brings his new girlfriend to stay. After I’ve edited that, I’ll get to work on my fourth.
10. What do you expect readers to find in The Dark Rose?
A story about the darkest side of obsessive love, and a crash-course in heritage gardening.