In conversation: Sarah Hilary and Isabelle Grey

Crime writers, Isabelle Grey and Sarah Hilary, chat about dark minds, dysfunctional families and the lure of TV crime dramas.

Posted on April 23, 2015 in Guest Author
Tags: Isabelle Grey, crime fiction, sarah hilary

Isabelle Grey: When you came to write your first novel, why did you choose crime?

Sarah Hilary: Short answer? A friend told me that I should be writing crime, on account of my dark mind. I’d always loved reading crime, but was a bit daunted by the idea of plotting, at least until I got stuck into the writing. As for the dark mind—guilty as charged. How’s yours?

Isabelle: My mind? Formed, I think, by growing up with a father who took a knife to people for a living, and clearly enjoyed his work. He was a surgeon, but also a big, imposing man in the days when a surgical consultant was God. I guess I learnt early to associate masculine power with cutting people open!

Sarah: Interesting! What does he make of what you do for a living? My father died, sadly, before I was published, but my poor mother while massively proud of me does worry what friends and neighbours will imagine about my childhood, given what I’m up to now. Families are at the heart of every story I write, but rarely healthy ones. I grew up in a very safe and happy family, but was always fascinated by other people’s.

Isabelle: My Dad died some time ago, before I wrote fiction, but he loved crime novels, and much of my early reading in the genre came from picking up books he’d put down. He always enjoyed the episodes I wrote of TV crime dramas, and was – kindly – quick to point out any holes in my plots! Families are very much at the heart of my fiction, too.

So what comes first for you, the character, some central question you want to explore, or the setting?

Sarah: Always the central question and the characters. My series is set in London, but I’m interested in the anonymity of the city, the camouflage it provides, what goes on behind its closed doors—rather than any grander notion of setting. For me, each story starts with a question, something I’ve become a bit obsessed with, something I can’t stop thinking about. And character drives plot, drives story—so I need a good cast. How about you? Has writing for TV made you approach storytelling in a different way?

Isabelle: No, I think a story is a story. And, like you, I start with a character and a central question. But the way in which you reveal a story in fiction is very different. In a script, you’re describing behaviour, and then the actor inhabits that personality. What still amazes me about writing for television, is how the director or producer’s choice of an actor who isn’t at all what was in my head can shape and re-develop what’s on the page in a really enlarging way. And I miss that – I miss that unexpected alchemy. On the other hand, I now get to describe my world the way I want it seen, so I’m kind of being my own director!

Your novels are in development with the BBC. Do you think you’d find it hard to write Marnie Rome once you’d seen her played by an actor?

Sarah: I love ‘unexpected alchemy’. I think there’s a lot of alchemy in writing, and in reading too. It amazes me how often readers seem to have read a different book to the one I thought I wrote. Not in a bad way, just in the sense that their response to the story feels like the final piece of the puzzle, when it all clicks into shape. I hadn’t thought about how it will be to write Marnie once I’ve seen her played by an actor. That’s a very good question. I’m certainly open to the idea of it. I love getting suggestions from readers about how Marnie might develop, so who knows?

Have you been to any reading groups or book clubs yet? How are readers responding to Grace Fisher?

Isabelle: Thankfully very positively so far! Which gives me a welcome confidence about writing the second book. I went to the meeting of a long-established book club that had read an earlier novel of mine, The Bad Mother, and felt incredibly touched and honoured that something I’d written should spark such a thoughtful and heart-felt discussion. On the other hand, the many Amazon reviews also made clear what readers felt didn’t work! But then, I find that the most consistent criticism tends to shine a light on something I’d really always known wasn’t working, so I hold up my hands! But I like your notion that a book isn’t complete until it’s been read. One of the good things about genre fiction is the awareness that devoted crime readers know far more than me! Do you have a particular (imaginary or real) ideal reader in mind when you write?

Sarah: Other than my editor, not specifically, although I’m always aware of feedback from readers who got in touch after Someone Elses Skin came out. And yes—aren’t book clubs amazing? It’s the way in which people care so much about our characters, or simply respond so strongly to them (not always in the way we expect, either).

Like me, you’re writing a series. Do you have a story arc for Grace that’s worked out in advance and, if so, how many books ahead are you planning?

Isabelle: Yes, I do have a big story arc for Grace Fisher. I want to take her on a journey from Good Girls Dont Die through another three or four books to a place where she really has to question how far it’s possible to be part of an all-encompassing institution, like the police, and not absorb the darkness of it, as well as what’s good. I think, maybe because I come from television drama, I see a series of novels as accomplishing the same large sweep in terms of character as some of the brilliant TV series we’ve had recently, like True Detective or Happy Valley.

What are your plans for Marnie Rome?

Sarah: There’s something epic about those TV series, isn’t there? Like a lot of crime writers, I’ve always loved the Greek myths—and the heroic quest comes across so strongly in a series like True Detective, or even Peaky Blinders with its anti-heroes. I haven’t mapped out a specific arc for Marnie, but I share your sense of wanting to accomplish that large sweep. Marnie’s story is about guilt and redemption. At the outset, she feels that she’s on a quest for answers, the chief one being why did her foster brother kill her parents? But as the series unfolds, we’ll see that there are deeper questions she needs to be asking, such as why she feels so culpable, and whether or not she can forgive Stephen and make peace with her past. I deliberately haven’t plotted it out, however, as I love to be surprised when I’m writing.

Isabelle: A series character does offer an opportunity to go for a big, epic underlying theme, doesn’t it? Like you, I don’t yet know precisely what happens to Grace, only that she wakes up to realise that seeking the power to resolve injustice comes at too high a price.

I can’t wait to read No Other Darkness.

One last question: would you ever see yourself creating a male protagonist, or is there something special about writing from a woman’s perspective?

Sarah: All my early attempts at novels had male protagonists and, if I’m honest, I prefer writing those. Someone told me that it’s about the id vs the superego. I do find that when I’m writing purely from imagination that’s when the writing flows best. I love writing Marnie, but I get a real thrill from writing Stephen, and Noah. And I absolutely love writing Tim Welland, their battered-gladiator of a boss. So I’m definitely not ruling out a male protagonist-led story in future. In fact I have a couple on the back-burner.

A last question for you: would you like to return to writing standalones, as well as the series?

Isabelle: My previous two novels, Out of Sight and The Bad Mother, both psychological suspense, were standalones, but I’m really enjoying the chance to take Grace Fisher forwards into the unknown, and to have the space and time to let her grow and develop. The convention is that a central detective character doesn’t essentially change between books, but I think — led by TV drama — that maybe the time has come to break that rule!

It’s been great talking to you, Sarah. See you in Harrogate in July!

Sarah: Yes, that was great fun, thanks, Isabelle!

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