"Writing Is a Weird Job"--Kate Hamer in Conversation with Fiona Barton

ErinIn this conversation between Kate Hamer and Fiona Barton, they discover they have more in common than penning best-selling psychological thrillers featuring abducted children (eek). Hamer's wonderfully chilling, The Girl in the Red Coat, follows the aftermath when a child vanishes at a local festival, and in Fiona Barton's The Widow, a Stepford-ish wife may be hiding her late husband's very dark secret...Here they dish about unreliable narrators, balancing writing and promoting their books, and much, much more.

KH: Hi Fiona, nice to e-meet you! My view is that the psychological thriller or suspense novel has always been around, but these days publishers are marketing them in a far more defined way. I always think of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as the ultimate psychological thriller and that’s been around for a while! That getting under the skin of the character, the creepy atmosphere and the sense that ‘bad things are happening’ - we’re just not sure what. It’s a genre I adore. I think the fact that they often get inside the minds of the characters gives them an air of realism too because as a reader you can’t help but start looking out through their eyes.

FB: Hi Kate, lovely to virtually chat with you. Totally agree that this genre has been around forever but maybe the new appetite is being fuelled by the fresh crop of domestic noir novels. As a former reporter, I’ve often thought that most journalism is domestic noir! And as a reader, I love the edginess of watching ordinary people faced with life-changing events; that thrilling shudder that comes with knowing this could have happened to me…

I loved the premise for The Girl in the Red Coat. Where did you find the idea for the story?

KH: The Girl in the Red Coat began life as an image and an atmosphere. At the time I had no real idea where it came from but I was plagued by the picture of a little girl standing in a forest and wearing a red coat. I knew she was lost, that was for sure, and that there was something strange or different about her. She ‘followed’ me round for several weeks before I sat up in bed one night and wrote the first chapter straight off… It’s only when I finished the first draft that I began to see certain influences there - Little Red Riding Hood and so on. I find writing’s weird like that - sometimes it’s only when I come up for air that I begin to see these things!

FB: For me it was an image and a voice. The image was a wife, sitting in court, hearing in the most gut-wrenching detail, the crime her husband - the man she chose - is accused of. I covered a number of stories where the wife hovered, anonymously, on the edge of the main story and I always wondered what she knew or allowed herself to know. The voice was Jean Taylor’s - the widow in the title. She was there from the start - my earworm. And it was her phrase “No more of his nonsense” that set the mood of the book.

For me, the crime came later. It was not about the disappearance of a child for quite a while whereas you began with the disappearance of Carmel. Her voice is so strong in the book and I wondered how you managed the child narrator.

KH: A child narrator can be a bit of a challenge but I very much didn’t want to ‘talk down’ to Carmel and make her too childlike. I guess I always thought of her as a person who happens to be eight. I’ve also always felt that children have rich inner lives of their own and hopefully Carmel’s voice reflects that. She’s not perfect though; she can be judgy sometimes and she’s on the cusp of an age where her relationship with her Mum is becoming a little bit ‘push me, pull you.’

I found Jean’s voice in your book so compelling yet very complex. Was it your intention to create a morally ambiguous figure?

FB: I love the unreliable narrator - you’ve already mentioned Rebecca, my favourite - and I knew that Jean had secrets she wanted to keep and disclose at the same time. She kept me guessing as well at times. I suppose people think she is morally ambiguous because she calls Glen’s behaviour “nonsense” but I felt she was trying to make it easier to cope with. The alternative was to lose everything. It’s interesting to me that readers have been surprised by her age - they thought she was older because she is quite old-fashioned in her approach to marriage.

It’s a very strange thing when people tell you how they see someone you have created, isn’t it?

KH: It is strange - that experience of a book going out into the world and taking on a life of its own. I did an event recently and two women in the audience started arguing with each other about a certain point in the book and I found that rather wonderful. It was like the book had taken over and I really didn’t need to be there!

How do you work? Do you carry out fairly intricate plotting beforehand or do you write without a road map?

FB: I am an unashamed plunger. I have an idea and write it in my head - journo habits that cannot be cured - then I set off. I did know from the start the beginning and the end of the book so I was always writing towards something but at the outset, I was planning to have just one narrator, Jean. Gradually, I realised my story was too broad for one voice and Jean needed to be in the dark about some aspects so I plucked Kate the reporter from the chorus line and then Bob Sparkes, the detective, and Dawn, the mother.

KH: Sounds quite similar to my method. I wrote the beginning and the last couple of paragraphs of The Girl… and I’ve done exactly the same for my second novel so I always knew where I was heading. I’ve just finished the first draft. I know people who excel spreadsheet their books but I like the element of surprise.

How are you finding balancing writing the book with all the publicity for The Widow? It must be pretty crazy!

FB: Completely bonkers. Being a newbie, I hadn’t really thought it through. I assumed you handed over your book and then started the next one. Silly me. Am whirling around doing talks and interviews when I should be working. Hey ho, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. Book 2 has been such a different experience in every way. For a start, there was no one expecting anything when I was writing The Widow. Because no one knew I was writing it. Now, there are expectations. All a bit scary.

KH: Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head about book two - it’s a tricky balance and it always takes me a day or two to get back into writing after being away. ALL writers I’ve met working on book 2 have said the similar things about the experience being a bit scary too.

A big surprise for me has been the events and the fact I’ve really come to enjoy them - literary festivals, book clubs and so on. It wasn’t like that at the start. My best friend from school reminded me recently that at school I was literally too shy to stand up and do a bible reading in class. My first event here was the Cheltenham literary festival, which is quite a big one, and my legs were shaking so much I could hardly climb up on the stage. Now I can’t see what my problem was. The audiences are all avid readers, just like me, and I’ve had such moving, hilarious and interesting conversations with people I just wouldn’t have met otherwise.

If you’re at home how’s your writing routine? I know with me if I haven’t really got down to it by mid-afternoon I’ve kind of lost the writing day.

FB: Sadly, ditto. Need to do it first thing and have ended up writing in bed so I cannot be distracted by the day. Not good for my back but it seems to work for the writing. Once I’m up and out of my jimjams, I am a first class procrastinator. Am working on my routine to be able to write in clothes!

Are you a desk or duvet novelist?

KH: Ha - that’s hilarious! There certainly seems to be something about that morning energy. Sometimes when I feel a bit stuck I do the ‘morning pages’ - writing long hand very first thing in the morning. It really works for me, as it’s a time where the brain seems quite free and floating. For the epic slog though it’s the desk and clothed!

What’s the best writing tip of yours? *sits with pen ready to copy it down*

If only I had one. I listen, I watch, I squirrel it all away. As a former reporter, I cannot help myself. Last week, I was at an event and had breakfast in the hotel dining room. When I came out, I could tell my husband what everyone ate, what they were wearing, who’d had a row before coming through the door and who could do The Times crossword quickest. I love that sort of detail - it was what made stories sing for me when I was reporting.

How about you? *licking pencil point ready*

KH: That’s quite a feat first thing in the morning! For me - and it’s pretty basic - it’s just trusting your gut with the story. You know deep inside what’s working and what’s not. Trust those instincts. Oh, and read Stephen King’s On Writing - it’s brilliant.

FB: It’s a strange thing this writing lark. But I am loving it…

Thanks for the chat - and would love to meet up properly. Perhaps our paths will cross on the literary tour route. Very much looking forward to reading your next.

KH: Writing IS a weird job, basically sitting in a room with a cast of people who don’t exist, but I love it too. Thanks, it’s been great fun and yes, would be fab if our paths crossed properly. Best of luck with book 2 - I’ll look out for it.


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