I reckon you could work out an interesting psychological experiment with regard to where people like to sit in meeting rooms and lecture halls. I like to sit at the very back and nowhere else really feels comfortable. I preferred the back even in the days before contact lenses, when I was too vain to wear my glasses. I remember going to see Adam Mars-Jones at the Edinburgh Fringe and coming out declaring to my husband, ‘didn’t that man have strange crinkly hair!’ Mister Litlove gave me a long, level look and replied ‘He was wearing a woolly hat.’
Well this weekend was the literary festival in Cambridge and I went with my contact lens-enhanced vision and saw Sophie Hannah, the thriller writer. Mister Litlove was with me and he is not a back-row boy, so I was dragged further up the room than normal. Sophie Hannah is a large, stately sort of person, who moved with regal calm up the aisle to take her position on a rather high podium. She was wearing flipflops and anyone who figures they can walk serenely in those without tripping over their own feet has a certain amount of reliable physical confidence. She was accompanied by Rebecca Stott (whose novel Ghostwalk some of you might know), who was asking the questions. I couldn’t help but wonder how Rebecca Stott felt, as her latest novel, The Coral Thief, hasn’t gone down too well, and Sophie Hannah, with another novel out and a TV series of her thrillers about to begin, is clearly riding the crest of a wave right now. Literary festivals just provoke that sort of disquieting comparative thought – whose event has sold out? Whose is sparsely populated? Who has a queue to sign books? It’s not nice, but I’ll bet it’s pervasive.
Sophie Hannah was a really good speaker. She had a steady, unhurried delivery and was very funny; for instance, about a policeman friend of hers she used to consult about procedural accuracy, who turned out later to be a psychopath. ‘I really got my money’s worth out of him,’ she quipped. And then about the recent tendency to take individual instances in fiction and television plots and consider them to be social commentary. Her sister had apparently poured scorn on a thriller they’d both read which featured a single mother behaving criminally. Her sister had argued that this was an insult to the condition of the single mother, to which Sophie had replied ‘That’s like saying the film Psycho is offensive to motel owners!’ But there was nothing studied about her recital – she gave the impression of just having a formidably dry sense of humour.
She’s been writing a long time, having had a lengthy career as a poet before moving into thriller territory. Interestingly enough, Sophie Hannah also published a couple of light novels that I know about because I own copies of them, although this part of her publishing history completely disappeared from her introduction and her talk. She did say, though, that when she was writing poetry she felt completely out of the fashionable loop – although interestingly enough the way she put it was that she felt that poets were trying to do the wrong thing and succeeding brilliantly. I figured that Hannah is someone who is extremely creative and who has been searching around for the right medium for a long time. The psychological thriller clearly gave her the commercial oomph that poetry and straight novels didn’t.
The two genres – poetry and the thriller – were similar in her conception of them. She described how her poems rhymed and scanned in traditional ways, with all the different bits fitting neatly together. In both poetry and thrillers what mattered most in their composition was the ‘skeleton’ as she called it, the perfect structure underlying it all. She felt that the psychological thriller was not a lesser genre but a superior one, because it could be properly fun to read and also an intellectual challenge. Certainly her method of developing the idea for a novel sounded quite taxing. She said she was intrigued by unique and bizarre events, things that could only come about once in certain specific circumstances. So, for instance, her latest novel, Lasting Damage, is about a woman who is searching property websites and taking a virtual tour of a house when she sees a dead body in one of the rooms. But when she goes to get her husband to look at the image, the body has disappeared. It’s that kind of twist on a near-cliché of the genre that appeals to her imagination. Then she compensates for the eccentricity of the central problem by grounding the rest of the action in emotional truth and situations that everyone can relate to.
She was intriguingly scathing about families, close-knit ones especially, which she felt always contained something unhealthy. What went on behind resolutely closed doors made her suspicious. People who could behave perfectly well in the real world were capable of saving up their worst behaviour to inflict on their family members, and there was no come-back available. (She said there were no evaluation forms you could fill out, ticking the box that said ‘I strongly disagree that my upbringing was marvellous’.) She recommended a book she was reading, House Rules by Rachel Sontag, which was a memoir about a family that, on the surface, looked admirably balanced and enviable. Only inside the home, they were subject to strange regulations, like they all had to have their fingernails and their hair the same length.
Before the event began, Mister Litlove was giving me grief about the fact that I owned four Sophie Hannah thrillers but hadn’t read one yet. But when we came out she had been enough of a hit that he was now curious to read one of her books. The psychological thriller is not a natural genre for him, so you can see how persuasive she was. ‘Aren’t you glad I’ve got her books?’ I asked, pushing my luck. But she was a very good speaker. For those in the UK, the first TV adaptation will be shown 2nd/3rd May. I am sure we’ll be watching.