Monday, 3 October 2011

Sophie Hannah - The Lichfield Festival

It's funny how things turn out. Yesterday, instead of running a half marathon in Coventry as planned, I was sitting in a rather elegant room in The George Hotel in Lichfield listening to Sophie Hannah talk about her new novel, Lasting Damage. I hope there won't be any lasting damage to my foot, after the marathon training in the summer. The injury meant that I had to defer my entry for The Coventry Half Marathon until next year.

This was Sophie's third visit to the Lichfield Festival and we were told she'd driven from Cambridge that morning. Sophie told us she was going to give us 'the gossip behind the book', her sixth psychological novel. Her first, Little Face, was published in 2006.

The idea for Lasting Damage came to Sophie in early 2009 when she was in the process of trying to move house from West Yorkshire to Cambridge. She'd been Fellow Commoner In Creative Arts at Cambridge University some time before and had fallen in love with the city. The reason for her move to West Yorkshire was her husband's job, which he was all too happy to give up, now that Sophie's writing career had taken off.

In the process of looking at houses for sale in the Cambridge area, Sophie became hooked on the Right Move website and knew the floor plans for every house for sale in Cambridgeshire. She even got dinner party guests to challenge her to match any floor plan with the property in question. It was because of her addiction to property websites that the idea for Lasting Damage came about.

Lying in bed at 1.30am, waiting for her husband to fall asleep, Sophie had the uneasy feeling that something was wrong. She realised she hadn't looked at the Right Move website in the last 24 hours and a new property might have been listed. There was no time to lose! She might miss the house of her dreams. Careful not to wake her husband, she crept down to the office in the dark and opened up the laptop. Her heart was racing. It was like sneaking off to chat to a secret lover on a social network site. Sophie was well aware that her slightly mad compulsion would make an excellent beginning for a novel. Obviously, her character would need a better reason for behaving this way.

Connie, as her character became known, has been stalking a particular house for some time. The reader doesn't know why. In the middle of looking through the virtual tour of 11 Bentley Grove, Connie sees a dead woman lying in a pool of blood in the lounge. She rushes to wake her husband, Kit, but when he looks at the virtual tour, which has been playing in a loop, there is no dead body. Kit doesn't believe Connie saw it. There is no evidence to suggest there was a dead woman on the website and when Connie contacts the police, they don't believe her either.

Sophie said it took her six months from the initial idea to work out exactly what was going on and how the photo of the dead woman got to be on the website for the few seconds that Connie was looking at it. She said she was determined to make the plot work and one day the whole story came to her. I must admit I was intrigued, so downloaded the novel onto my Kindle. In the meantime, I decided I'd try and work it out for myself and then go back to read the novel to see if I was right!

Of all the novels she's written, Sophie said she enjoyed writing this one the most, as she loves houses. Sophie found a house in Cambridge eventually and now lives there, but she still looks at the Right Move website most days. She justifies her addiction by saying that it's research. She even had to put an estate agent's floor plan at the beginning of Lasting Damage. It is the floor plan of a real house that was for sale, and she says she's waiting for the owner to read her book and recognise it and for them to email her. She promised that if this happened, she'd give the owner of the house signed copies of all her books.

I found it interesting when Sophie spoke about the theme of this book and of all her books - that the biggest threat to someone's sanity and/or safety comes from someone close to them. According to psychiatrists, 99% of the extremely disturbed people they see, are like that as a result of the behaviour of someone close to them. Connie's lasting damage is a result of her psychologically nightmarish parents.

Sophie told us that her publishers deliberately didn't market her first novel as crime. There wasn't a black cover; the title wasn't typical of a crime novel title. Sophie likes to think of her books as more literary than traditional crime, yet believes she is the same type of writer as Agatha Christie, because she has the ability to tell a good story. She admires Christie for her 'brilliant plots' and says, like Christie, that she is 'desperate to find out' what happens in an 'apparently impossible scenario'. Sophie derided the traditional formulaic crime novel. However, her novels follow a set structure. She has a female viewpoint character who is 'having a terrible time' and uses first person present for her heroine. She uses third person viewpoint for her 'police procedural' scenes.

One of Sophie's detectives, bullying Inspector Proust, is based entirely on a real person whom she doesn't like very much. She quotes this person's dialogue directly onto the page, but isn't afraid that he will read her books, as he doesn't like crime.

I asked Sophie whether she started writing while mulling over her plot. No, she said, once she had the plot worked out, she wrote a plan and stuck to it. She has to be in control of her characters and that writing for her isn't necessarily an organic process. I think this shows in her rather clipped and spare writing style. From what I've read so far, I feel her novels lack depth and atmosphere. However, that is personal preference and I know some readers enjoy racing ahead to find out what happens, rather than luxuriating in wonderful writing and characters you fall in love with.

It was interesting to hear how a fellow crime writer works. I've now learned that it's a case of 'each to their own' and that there isn't a right way or a wrong way of approaching the novel. We each have to work out what is the best way for us; mostly by trial and error. I no longer try to copy another writer's methods and finally have faith that my way will get me there in the end.

I had a wonderfully enjoyable hour after the talk, walking around Lichfield, which I used to visit regularly when I lived in the area nearly fifteen years ago. It brought back some lovely memories and it was interesting to see how much the city had changed in that time. It's well worth a visit.


CharmedLassie said...

I love Sophie Hannah's books, all of them! It's enjoyable being swept away and then completely surprised by how everything ends up.

I envy your visit to Lichfield!

Claire McComisky said...

An excellent summary Jo. Sophie's humour and warmth made it one of the most enjoyable talks that I have attended. It's always intriguing hearing the gossip behind the book. I have read the book and it didn't disappoint.