On Sophie Hannah

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.

13 thoughts on “On Sophie Hannah

  1. oh, I’ve read one of Sophie Hannah’s thrillers – can’t remember the title but I remember enjoying the book while my mom REALLY loved it. She sounds like a wonderful speaker – I am always thrilled when writers can speak well about their craft – Joan Didion was a huge disappointment in that arena. I just don’t think it is natural for all authors.

  2. I don’t know why I’ve not yet read her as her books very much appeal to me–and now so even more as she sounds like such an interesting speaker (and I bet that all comes out in her books!). I may just have to pull out her first book and put it on the top of my pile now!🙂 And as for Rebecca Stott–I read her newest and liked it actually–have only recently seen a few reviews/mentions that were shall we say less than flattering. I wonder what it is that I saw (or the other readers saw) that made us respond so differently? Thanks for sharing the talk–I’d love to go to something like that someday!

  3. She sounds immense fun and now I’ve just recalled that I heard Howard Jacobson speak a couple of weeks ago, meant to post and forgot completely! I so enjoyed your description. I’m a sit in the middle sort of person myself.

  4. I enjoyed reading your post. I have never been to a reading by an author and never felt tempted. I can’t really say why. I like to read interviews though. I don’t know what to make of her books. I read a few blurbs and reviews and somehow none really made me want to order/buy anything. The genre appeals to me, she sounds like an interesting person and I know she has a lot of fans. I’m waiting for one of your reviews now.

  5. Your first paragraph made me laugh out loud! The Sophie Hannah talk sounds like it was really interesting. I don’t know who she is but I am intrigued, so please read one of her books so I can hear more about it🙂

  6. I keep thinking I’ll read one of her books, but you know how it is! Sounds like a fun speaker. I had a look at the line up for the Lit Fest and I wish I lived somewhere with such a good set of speakers. The very large population up here doesn’t seem to deserve one. It seems the image has to be rural or academic, like Oxford or Hay. Ah well – gives one more reading time!

  7. In university I usually sat near the front of the class so I could be more involved, especially when I liked the professor and the topic. I’ve looked at Sophie Hannah’s books and I’m not sure about reading them, but then I’m not into mysteries/thrillers at all lately. I have read a poem or two of hers and liked it though. I am intrigued by her ability to switch from poetry to thrillers, that she found a popular niche for herself and didn’t feel it had to be relentlessly highbrow and exclusive. Although her poetry, of what I read, seemed more funny and casual than most poetry. (The one I’m specifically thinking of is “Before Sherratt & Hughes Became Waterstone’s”, about making out in a bookshop!)

  8. Policeman friend who turned out to be a psychopath?! Can I press you for more details? And do you happen to know which of her books is being adapted, or is it all of them? I’m not sure I could quite take it. The sudden shift in the husband’s behviour in ‘Little Face’ was so disturbing to read I can’t imagine watching it (says the woman who cowered her way through the entire last series of Waking the Dead).

  9. Sophie Hannah sounds a little bit like a name cooked up by marketers to appeal to a mass audience. And as much as I’m not that keen on psychological thrillers, this post does make me curious to see what her books are like. And well done to Mister Litlove for his insightful question. Did you go to any other talks at the festival?

  10. I love going to see authors speak about their work. Just hearing about this talk through you had made me want to read one of her books.

  11. I’ve read a couple of her books, and it was so interesting to learn more about her background. Somehow, you never think of someone who writes thrillers as having much of a sense of humor. Her books are rather dark, too, so it’s even more intriguing.

    It sounds like an interesting evening -from wherever one happened to be sitting!

  12. Courtney – I think you’re quite right – and there is such an emphasis these days on authors performing in public. It must be a nightmare for those who prefer their four walls and an active imagination to real life (which I thought was a lot of writers!). I’m so glad to know that you and your mum liked Sophie Hannah’s books.

    Danielle – I do think you’d like Sophie Hannah – we must BOTH get to her books some time soon! And I’m also glad you liked the Rebecca Stott. Sometimes I think that exaggerated expectations get in the way of reading a second novel when the first one has been good. It’s probably a perfectly fine novel!

    Lilian – ah, just like Mister Litlove! And I’ll bet Howard Jacobson was fun – he seems like a man with a lively sense of humour. I hope to hear all about it when you’re ready!

    Caroline – yes, I think other books would tempt you more. As for writer events, I only go because they are on the doorstep and that makes it very easy! You do have to be in the mood. I am looking forward to trying one of Sophie Hannah’s novels and will definitely post the review here.

    Stefanie – oh bless you – I love it when people get my jokes! I’m definitely going to try her soon and I will certainly let you know the outcome.🙂

    Bookboxed – being hugely picky, I thought last year’s line-up was better than this, but often it’s the new authors and the less sparkly events that end up being interesting. I am surprised you don’t have a lit fest near you – I would reckon it’s only a matter of time… and I DO know how it is. I would read everyone tomorrow if I could.🙂

    Carolyn – yes, that’s exactly what her poetry is like. I really love those kinds of poems. At the talk she spoke about liking Wendy Cope and I think they are indeed similar in approach. Actually anything that makes me laugh wins my devotion! Not everyone is a thriller-type person – it’s very cool that you know her through her poetry.

    Jodie – oh I wish I had more details but that is all she said. However, the good news is that the first television adaptation is of her third novel. I can’t recall the title, but it was definitely not Little Face. So you are safe! yay! If this programme attracts more than 4.5 million viewers they will go ahead and adapt the rest. I sympathise with the cowering – I get most of my films screened first before I watch them, being hugely squeamish and easily freaked!🙂

    Pete – I did, I went to the publisher’s talk. I’ll put up a post about that in a bit (it was very interesting too). Some people evidently had the stamina to spend the whole day seeing authors but two events was enough for me! I will definitely read one of her novels very soon and let you know how it goes!

    Kathleen – I only go when the festival is in town, but it’s really nice to have the opportunity. It certainly does make you intrigued about the author’s work!

    Becca – she was SO funny! I thought she could probably do stand up comedy if she gets bored of thriller writers. So many comics are depressives, I suppose it’s only fitting that people who write dark, disturbing novels are really rather jolly!

  13. How fun! I love it when authors are entertaining, like Ian Rankin was. They don’t all have to be quiet and awkward!🙂 I’m not much of a thriller reader, but I do keep Hannah in the back of mind for whenever I want something like that. How interesting that she’s a poet as well — I wouldn’t have made those connections between poetry and thrillers, although I do have a friend who’s a poet and a mystery writer. Now that I know how Hannah links the two, it makes perfect sense.

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