SARAH HILARY ON HER DEBUT CRIME NOVEL – Sarah Hilary is having a moment, or rather several, rather fantastic moments. Her debut crime novel, Someone Else’s Skin, published by Headline in the UK, and seven other countries worldwide, has been chosen for Richard and Judy’s autumn Book Club. Her second novel in the Detective Inspector Marnie Rome series is due out in spring 2015 and Sarah is currently working on her third and fourth novels.
The Times describes Someone Else’s Skin as:
“A superb debut and an impressive new cop-heroine, modern, passionate and mixed-up. DI Marnie Rome bears the psychological scars of both her parents being knifed to death by a teenager living in their house. She and her sidekick arrive at a women’s refuge to conduct a routine interview. They come across one of the residents stabbing the husband from whom she was escaping. Rome investigates, then there’s a disturbing disappearance from the refuge. The horror of domestic violence is the thread that runs through the novel, coupled with the failure of the justice system to deal with it.”
I have the pleasure of chatting to Sarah at Novel Nights on Thursday 11 September – but here’s a sneak preview.
SH: It was a necessity, and a privilege. I was jobless and more or less penniless at the time, and the work itself was fantastic. It’s a terrific bookshop, the team is amazing and the customers were my kind of people (readers). I did suffer from a little shelf-envy, it’s true, but it made me more determined to join the ranks of the published, if I could.
Did you always want to be a novelist?
SH: Always. When I was too young to know what a Book Maker was, but old enough to have an ego, I used to think the high street was full of places where my books would be made.
What inspired you to write Someone Else’s Skin?
SH: The idea of a crime with a surfeit of witnesses, and an experiment called The Invisible Gorilla. Those two ideas came together in a flash, and it went from there.
‘So Simons and Levin get these volunteers to watch a basketball game on tape,’ Marnie Rome said. ‘They’re meant to count ball passes. Midway through the game, a two-metre-tall pantomime gorilla walks across the pitch and waves at the camera. In every test, less than half the volunteers see the gorilla. Is that right?’
Noah nodded. ‘Some of them thought Simons and Levin switched the tapes. They couldn’t believe they’d missed the monkey. But they did.’
Someone Else’s Skin
Your main character, DI Marnie Rome, is unusual. Can you describe her?
SH: She’s a survivor, but her survival is fraught with difficulty as she’s struggling to come to terms with the apparently senseless murder of her parents five years ago. She’s secretive, tough and compassionate. I wanted her to be a real woman, rather than a ‘woman in a man’s world’. That mattered most to me, when I was writing her. That and the fact that she’s still keeping secrets, even from me. It’s what makes her such fun to write.
Someone Else’s Skin deals with so many characters – did you ever feel it was hard to juggle them all?
SH: No, because each voice was very distinct in my head. They’re all very real to me.
Someone Else’s Skin focuses on DI Marnie Rome, but the story is told from the point of view of a number of the characters. It’s a refreshing change from the single first person narratives a number of thrillers use. What made you decide to tell your story this way?
SH: I’m a great fan of Fred Vargas, who breaks that rule with aplomb. It made me less afraid to try breaking it myself. It was also essential to the telling of the tale in the right way. I think you have to find the best way to tell the story and go from there, rather than starting out with ‘writing rules’ in mind.
I always think good crime novels seem seamlessly plotted. Did you spend much time plotting Someone Else’s Skin before you began?
SH: I knew what the big twist was, and where it was all headed. But I’m not a great plotter; I get bored. I write to be surprised by the story and the characters. So, yes, a lot of retro-fitting is needed, plot-wise.
There’s a real breadth of subjects in Someone Else’s Skin, from domestic abuse, to female genital mutilation to foster care, with a gay, half-Jamaican police officer thrown in. Were these all issues you were passionate about addressing?
SH: I was fired up, certainly, but I didn’t think of them as issues so much as personal stories. I wanted to tell the women’s stories, and tell them well.
Why do you think crime novels are so popular right now?
SH: So many reasons (I see that the ‘detective as secular priest’ theory is doing the rounds again at the moment), but over-ridingly because the best ones are such damn good stories.
What are your favourite crime novels and psychological thrillers?
SH: The Collector by John Fowles. Red Dragon, and Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Misery by Stephen King. Dracula is a cracking detective story, too.
(I love all of those books! Recently I met up with Sarah to get her advice about writing psychological thrillers since I’m writing one at the moment. She also recommended Helen Dunmore’s Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Sabine Durant’s Remember Me This Way, Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls and Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer. It’s an excellent list that I’m swiftly working my way through.)
Have you got any advice for first-time crime and psychological thriller writers?
SH: Read as widely, curiously and critically as you can. Don’t shut yourself away when you write; the best stories are out there, waiting to be found.