To coincide with the mass market paperback publication of No Other Darkness, and its release in the US, I am thrilled to interview crime writer, Sarah Hilary. This is the first feature in my ‘Author on the Couch’ series.
At the The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate recently, Sarah’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the award for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. When the news spread, I remembered how much of a buzz there was about Sarah’s debut just two years ago at Harrogate when proofs of the novel were given out in goodie bags.
Now that Sarah has finally come out about her ‘dark mind’ (see the Guardian piece, the day after the award ceremony, here) I can ask her all sorts of psychological questions about her second novel and her writing in general. Except the ones which involve spoilers, of course.
Sarah, congratulations on your award at Harrogate. Tell us what it means to you.
Thanks, Vicky. It means a huge amount — to win such a major prize and for my debut novel — it’s genuinely humbling, especially when the shortlist was so strong. I’m massively grateful to the judges, and to everyone who supported me during the public vote.
Q & A
1) I don’t look at reviews of books before I read them. When I started No Other Darkness I thought, ah, okay, children in an underground bunker. What you then reveal is so much more disturbing than that. Where did you get the idea for the plot?
The heart of the story came from a first-person account in a newspaper. It stayed in my head for such a long time that I knew I’d have to try and ‘write it out’. I always like my books to be surprising—for the stories to feel familiar at first glance and then to take the reader in unexpected directions. The idea at the heart of No Other Darkness seemed ideally suited to that.
2) I felt that Marnie had changed a bit since Someone Else’s Skin. Did you? If so, was it intentional?
Definitely. She should be changing all the time. I want to pull her in different directions—towards the past, and away from it, for example. That’s the nature of heroic struggle, to be always fighting. Not just the bad guys but her past, and herself. In book two, she’s starting to open up to Noah, and to Ed. But her journey won’t always be upwards; I can see her falling, too.
3) Throughout the novel, I kept thinking about forgiveness and how hard it can be, not just to forgive, whatever that means, but to let go and move on from a traumatic incident. We see it with Marnie and her foster brother, Stephen, and key characters in No Other Darkness. To what extent is the novel about forgiveness and making peace with the past?
To a huge extent. The whole series is about this, in fact. And it’s about redemption, and remorse. One of the characters in No Other Darkness tells Marnie that remorse can be a weapon. That’s going to resonate in book three.
4) Some authors opt for having their detectives at loggerheads. Marnie and Noah have an extremely good working relationship. I particularly like Noah’s caring attitude to his boss. Was this a conscious choice on your part and if so why? Do you envisage their relationship changing?
In Someone Else’s Skin, Marnie and Noah both suffer as a consequence of not working more closely together, and they’re smart people so they learnt a lesson from that and now they’re a better team. In book three, Tastes like Fear, Noah has just revealed to me that he’s been keeping a secret from Marnie which might threaten their teamwork. We’ll see. (In other words, yes, I can see things changing. Because it makes for exciting writing, and reading.)
6)I admire Marnie’s courage and bravery. What characteristics do you like about her and what frustrates you? Do you think her traits are as a result of nature or nurture?
Her courage, absolutely. It’s not bravado, and it’s not noisy. She doesn’t take silly risks, but she’s not afraid to fail or to admit when she’s got it wrong. That, for me, is real bravery. To fall and get back up again—not to be afraid of another fall. Nature versus nurture is a great question, because a lot of Marnie’s native spikiness is what keeps her going but it’s also what drove her away from her family which is something she’s struggling to forgive in herself.
7) In No Other Darkness, the children’s mother has had a difficult time. As a mother, human being and a writer, how sympathetic did you feel towards her?
Extremely sympathetic. I was terrified for her. The idea of losing your mind, or part of your mind — of losing yourself — terrifies me. I hope that comes across in the reading—how scared I was when I was writing those scenes.
8) The case makes it hard for Marnie and Noah to avoid their own family situations. This can be a trope of crime fiction (investigations touching on the personal issues of the detectives) but I see it as being true to life: we all experience things which bring up our ‘stuff’. What is your take on this?
There’s no question that it’s true to life. I’d go further and say that our ‘stuff’ colours everything. We see the whole world through its filter, for better or worse. This was the idea at the heart of Someone Else’s Skin, and it’s at the heart of the whole series.
9) Tell us about Ed. He seems to be a really good ‘fit’ for Marnie. What about him appeals to Marnie and what does Ed like about Marnie?
Ed is the steady point in Marnie’s spinning world. He’s deeply honest, one of the few people who isn’t hiding anything. It makes him vulnerable, but he’s not afraid of being vulnerable. I think that’s the quality that Marnie most admires in Ed. And he sees the vulnerability in her because he’s intuitive and empathetic. He sees the chinks in her armour, but he would never exploit them.
10) Both your novels make me reflect on responsibility and blame. Stephen Keele’s actions are obviously awful. Being devil’s advocate here, given his upbringing, to what extent is he responsible for what he did? If he has deluded thoughts as a result of that upbringing, is that his fault?
I’m not yet sure of the details of Stephen’s upbringing, so I can’t quite answer this. Nor would I want to, as I prefer to keep the doors open for surprises. Stephen has secrets he’s not telling yet. Ask me again after book four..!
11) Other than Marnie and Noah, which of your characters did you enjoy writing? Any you have a soft spot for? (I adore bad boy Adam Fletcher)
I absolutely love writing Adam. He has so many of the best lines, and I love the snark (and the spark) between him and Marnie. I love writing Welland, too. And Noah and Dan, especially when they’re enjoying their downtime.
12) In both your books people do (often very) ‘unpleasant things’ to others. Do you think that when people are on the receiving end of these sorts of actions that they stop loving the person dishing them out? Does it make a difference what the perceived and real motivation is? I am thinking about Archie and Fred, Matt.
In the case of Archie and Fred, I want to believe that they didn’t stop loving the person responsible for their suffering, because losing that love could only have added to their suffering. That said, I don’t believe in love as a palliative. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s the cause of a huge amount of distress and cruelty in the world. Far too many people endure terrible things because they cannot stop loving the wrong people. I’m not sure that answers your question — sorry!
13) How was the process of writing No Other Darkness and Someone Else’s Skin similar and different?
Someone Else’s Skin was written for myself (and then rewritten). No Other Darkness was written for everyone else, including the art department at my publishers and all those with a vested interest in the series. I had to make space inside my head for lots of other voices and opinions, but it was all good and it definitely resulted in a stronger book. Book three has been different again. I hope I’ll always be surprised by the way the process works, always find some alchemy in the writing process.
14) What research did you have to do for No Other Darkness and how did you do it?
First-person accounts are always my starting point. I try to absorb as much real experience as possible of the things I’m writing about. Then I stop researching and tell the story, allowing myself to be guided by its fictional characters and its own momentum. Afterwards, I go back and check key facts.
15) You refer in articles to your own happy upbringing. Where does this dark mind come from then?
I wish I knew. But I don’t question it too much—it’s a terrific asset for a crime writer and I’m very grateful for it.
No Other Darkness – my thoughts
Part police procedural, part psychological thriller, No Other Darkness is the second novel in the DI Marnie Rome series. The plot is self-contained. The author gives readers who are new to the series a couple of useful backstory pointers and these are unobtrusive for those who have read the first book, Someone Else’s Skin.
When the bodies of two boys are found, ‘curled together’, in a bunker in the garden of a house, twelve feet underground, DI Marnie Rome is tasked with finding out what happened. Rome is determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out strands of the mystery, they quickly realise that they are dealing with a crime which is as disturbing as it is morally complex. Sinister discoveries, involving foster children and ruthless property developers, pull Rome further into the maze-like investigation, and yet again she is forced to reflect on the reasons why people commit awful acts and whether it is possible to forgive them when they do.
It is difficult to comment on the plot developments much more than this without spoiling it for readers. The novel opens with a prologue which flashes back to five years ago, before the two boys died. Written from the viewpoint of the older boy, it is deeply affecting and I quickly questioned whether this was going to be a standard story about children in a bunker or cellar. The author is Sarah Hilary. She is highly adept at making you think that one thing is the case when actually there is more to it or it isn’t the case at all. In No Other Darkness, there is no explicit misdirection or manipulation of reader assumptions but the boys’ story is more complicated and devastating than might be imagined.
And this is something else which I think Hilary handles extremely well: nuance. She peels back the layers of how the boys came to be in the bunker and shows us everything through the eyes of Rome, Jake and another key character. From their reactions and comments we gradually learn what occurred and some of the reasons why each person did what they did. Hilary carefully allows the reader to create her own meanings and to navigate her way through the morality of the case.
This is a harrowing tale – as much of crime fiction is. Many of the characters have suffered deeply and still are suffering. However, the story is one which can, and does, happen in real life. For me, I was reading a fictional exploration of various common and uncommon psychological phenomena and I was simultaneously enthralled and devastated. The story is told in such a way that the reader cannot help feeling both sympathy and empathy for all those involved. I noticed in Someone Else’s Skin, and it is the case here too, that the author is extremely good at showing the reader how characters are reacting and feeling. Sometimes she maintains the emotional intensity; others she makes tiny adjustments to the emotional barometer within each scene but without descriptions becoming melodramatic.
For me, it is partly the emotional intelligence which threads through Hilary’s writing which marks her out. The other thing is the writing itself. What I particularly like about it is the way that she uses fresh ways to describe gestures, expressions and behaviour. ‘High overhead, the sky squatted,’ she tell us. And, ‘Rust whispered under her gloved touch, like feathers.’ Some critics argue that if imagery and metaphors are too unusual they can pull the reader out of the story. I’m not sure that this is particularly helpful: what is unusual to one reader might not be to another. Personally, part of the enjoyment of reading is when a phrase or word stops me and makes me think. When a writer takes the time and effort to describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m purring.
In No Other Darkness, Rome continues to sift through the events of her past. As much as she tries to keep her personal traumas and childhood ghosts separate from the ones at the heart of the investigation, she is unable to. I think that this works well as it is what happens in life. Much of developmental psychology and psychoanalytic theory examines how we are often compelled to keep re-visiting – and often repeating – events with which we have not come to terms. Rome is haunted by why her foster brother, Stephen, could have done what he did. A troubled teenager, Clancy, who has been fostered by the family whose garden the bunker is in, reminds her of Stephen. As a result the investigation forces Rome – and the reader – to reflect on whether it makes a difference if someone truly believes that something awful that they’ve done was the right thing, and if their perceptions of ‘danger’ and ‘help’ vary from common ones. For Rome, forgiveness, letting go and moving on are extremely hard. Forgiveness of others and oneself. As they are for many people in No Other Darkness – and in real life.
Throughout the case Rome becomes more emotionally involved than DS Noah Jake, even to the point of putting herself at risk. I really like the relationship between Rome and Jake. In life, relationships and people change, often in an interactive way, and Rome and Jake have overcome some of the tensions which were evident in Someone Else’s Skin. They now have a strong working relationship and genuinely seem to care about each other. Jake, particularly, has his boss’ back in this book on a number of occasions and it reminded me of an intuitive brotherly relationship. Although less overtly than Rome, he is affected by the case, and this prompts him to consider his relationship with his brother.
Another strength of this book is its pacing. There is plenty at stake to keep the plot ticking along, and Hilary ratchets up the tension at regular intervals. Just as the reader thinks things are going to be okay, she chucks a curve ball and the whole game changes. And while the overall goal remains, to find out what happened to the two boys, the author builds in other sub-goals. I was completely gripped by the boys’ plight. And I kept wondering how it was all going to end.
With so many detective partnerships in crime fiction, it can be hard to create characters who are ‘fresh’. And sometimes, in trying to make them different, writers can create a collection of ‘tics’, neuroses and interests. In my view, Rome and Jake work well as individuals and as a cop team. They have issues, as we all do, but they come across as normal people who are getting on with the business of being imperfect human beings in a complicated world. I sense that there is plenty more mileage in this duo, and I am pleased. I am looking forward to finding out more about Jake. Other characters I think work well are Ed, Rome’s boyfriend, and bad boy Adam Fletcher (who, in my mind, is actor, James D’Arcy). Ed and Rome are such a good psychological fit but I love how she is drawn to Fletcher, like an ex-addict is to his fix – yet manages to walk away just in time.
In sum, if you’re looking for an emotionally intelligent, beautifully written crime novel, which will whip the carpet from underneath you, I highly recommend No Other Darkness.
My copy of the book was bought at CrimeFest, and I also bought a kindle version too (coz I like to read in bed!).
Sarah’s website and blog are here: http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.co.uk/
On Twitter she can be found here: @sarah_hilary
Vicky Newham © 2015