04th Oct2013

Interview with Sarah Hilary

by Lloyd Paige

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Sarah Hilary has written numerous short stories. She is the winner of the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008 and the Sense Creative Award 2010. Someone Else’s Skin is her striking debut novel and it seemed only right for me to get her to speak about it in a bit more detail.


1. Hi Sarah. In a way you are the classic example of someone that has learnt their craft before taking the big plunge and writing a full length novel. Give us a bit of background on the short stories that you’ve written and what were the highlights?

Hi Lloyd. Thanks for that generous introduction. In fact I took the plunge when I was about 15 and wrote some insufferable full length novels which won’t ever see the light of day (my version of what Iain Banks called his ‘million words of crap’). But you’re right that I honed my craft writing short stories and flash fiction too. Back in 2008, I won the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize for a story about Lizzie Borden. A very exciting moment, as it was my first toes-in-the-water of crime writing. In 2010, I won the Sense Creative Award with a short story that was read by Miriam Margolyes at the Dickens Museum in London; that was a thrill that’s going to be hard to top. Most recently, my story Udumbara in Lytham St Anne’s won the Cheshire Prize for Literature. But apart from Lizzie Borden, not one of these stories was a crime story. I was subconsciously saving the crime for the novel, I think.

2. When did you first get the idea for Someone Else’s Skin and did you know from the beginning how you’d go about putting it together?

A couple of years ago I was reading a lot of stories about crimes with no witnesses and I thought, ‘How about a crime with stacks of witnesses, but unreliable ones?’ That’s where it started. At the same time, I’d been reading about the psychology of seeing – how little we use our eyes, how much of what we call ‘seeing’ is guesswork based on experience. I found that fascinating. Putting it together was a challenge. I knew there’d be a flip moment in the middle, but I didn’t know how it would end. And I changed the opening several times before I hit on the right one.

3. Marnie Rome is a tough character plagued by the past, where did you get the inspiration from to create her?

I was sick of seeing strong women on TV (and in books) aka men in drag, or fantasy females like Lara Croft. I wanted to write about a woman who uses female strengths like compassion, empathy and intuition to solve crimes. I wanted her to struggle with those strengths and to fail sometimes – for her compassion to be hard-won. I like to put my heroes and heroines through the wringer, and Marnie is someone who’s fighting every day with her misgivings and her failings, but she’s not drowning her sorrows in drink, or pretending she’s unfit for human company. She’s getting on with it. I think she’s amazingly brave.

4. She has a tense relationship with her foster brother (readers of the book will know why). In the world of fiction anything can happen so, is this something that may take centre stage in a new story further on?

I’m very glad you asked that – you’re the first reader to ask about Stephen and his relationship with Marnie. It’s one of my favourite things in the story arc so, yes! There will definitely be opportunities for this to take centre stage later in the series. In fact I have an idea for book three which would do just that.

5. The book has a complex mix of characters. Was this something that you built on over time or did you have a clear idea for each from the outset?

I knew I wanted a large cast of (unreliable) witnesses, and that the crime would take place in a ‘closed-set’ environment, like a prison or a refuge. The witnesses are all victims in hiding from their abusers, but I wanted to debunk the myth that abused women are all the same, or that all victims are the same. It’s the differences and nuances that fascinate me – all the ways in which people can hurt one another or be hurt, and the different things we do to survive – so I set out to explore those nuances, and hopefully to make my cast feel real and rounded.

6. The main theme of the book deals with a difficult subject matter so what sort of emotions are you hoping to evoke from readers?

Surprise. Shock, even; I want to rock the reader at that mid-point reveal, of course I do. But more than that, I want them to care about the characters, to feel compassion for their plight. An early reviewer of Someone Else’s Skin said the themes were “hard to take but important to hear”. I hope readers feel moved by what I’ve written.

7. Authors often take a while to find their own identity. How long did it take you to find yours and did the fact that you were part of a writing community help?

I spent a lot of time circling around my identity, before I settled. When I look back, my earliest attempts at stories all involved detectives (and spies), so really it was a long road back to my first instinct. And being part of a writing community certainly helped with that journey. Writing is a lonely business, but it needn’t be isolating.

8. In your opinion as an author, what factors need to be taken into consideration when writing a story that either an agent or publisher will consider?

You have to go in strong – straight to the heart of the story – and keep the pace and tension going throughout. Personally, I’m a fan of the slow burn story, but I’ve written one of those and it didn’t sell. There has to be an instant connection between the reader and the character(s) and you have to pose questions from the go-get, so that the reader will follow you for the answers.

9. A debut author’s book release is always an exciting time. You’ll be in the public eye a lot more so what effect do you think it will have on you and those closest to you?

I’m lucky enough to have some amazing people on my side who’ve waited a long time to celebrate my book release, so I expect we’ll have a party (and then I’ll be very happy to get back to the business of writing books two and three).

10. Which authors have you enjoyed reading the most over the years?

Thomas Harris. I re-read both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs at least every three years, and I still haven’t quite figured out how he made those books so terrific. I absolutely loved Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, which for my money is a better book than Gone Girl, and destined to be an iconic crime classic. Helen Dunmore wrote two of the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever read: Your Blue-Eyed Boy, and Talking to the Dead. And there’s a US author, Jenefer Shute, whose book Sex Crimes has a terrible title but is possibly my favourite thriller of all time.

11. What do you think is the best way for an aspiring author to find their own voice after being inspired by different novelists?

Keep writing. But don’t stop reading. Worst advice I ever read in one of those ‘books for writers’ was not to read when you’re writing (the phrase used was ‘books are the devil’s candy’) – you should always read, and always write. Everything else is gravy.

12. Finally, what can you tell me about Long Gone, the follow up to Someone Else’s Skin?

The story starts with the discovery of two dead children in a bunker under a family’s garden. The children aren’t in the missing persons’ database, which puzzles Marnie. As she searches for answers, she starts to sense that something’s wrong with the family who found the bodies. They’re fostering a teenage boy who reminds her of Stephen and, as the story unfolds, Marnie is increasingly scared for the fate of the family. With good reason.

We’re going to learn more about Marnie’s past in Long Gone, and find out how she copes when that past reaches right into her present and threatens the new life she’s trying to build for herself.
It’s going to be twisty and punchy, but Long Gone is darker and sadder than Someone Else’s Skin. I hope I can do justice to the idea in my head; if I can pull it off it should be a pretty powerful book.



Synopsis

No two victims are alike.

DI Marnie Rome knows this better than most. Five years ago, her family home was a shocking and bloody

crimescene. Now, she’s tackling a case of domestic violence, and a different brand of victim.

Hope Proctor stabbed her husband in desperate self-defence. A crowd of witnesses saw it happen. But as

the violence spirals, engulfing the residents of the women’s shelter, Marnie finds herself drawn into

familiar territory. A place where the past casts long shadows and she must tread carefully to survive.


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