The Questioning: Jenny Blackhurst and Max Manning

Jenny Blackhurst and Max Manning sit down to discuss their new books, their methodology for writing, and their fascination with psychopaths!

Posted on November 2, 2017 in Author Q&A, Guest Author, The Questioning
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Max: Hello Jenny. It’s so nice to get this chance to talk to you. I know your third novel, The Foster Child, is out now as an ebook, and the paperback will be published on 16th November. I have had the pleasure of reading it and loved its dark themes and killer twist.

What inspired you to have a child as your scary character?

Jenny: Hi Max, really lovely to meet you. I’m thrilled you enjoyed The Foster Child. Although I’ve always loved a scary child in film and fiction (who doesn’t find it more horrific when the evil is coming from someone who we think of as innocent and unspoiled?), the idea for The Foster Child actually came more from a desire to explore themes such as mass hysteria and mob behaviour. In The Foster Child, as you know, the adults who are supposed to be responsible and rational behave pretty reprehensibly, and I wanted to look at the psychology behind rational and reasonable people, and how suspicion and paranoia can lead them to behave certain ways. I love researching the psychological elements of my stories and am fascinated by psychopathology.

Did you do much research for Now You See?

Max: Like you, and probably most crime writers, I find psychopaths fascinating. It would be more accurate to say I am fascinated by their minds. Now You See features a psychopathic killer and I did a lot of research into psychopathology. Before writing crime fiction, I worked in newspaper journalism, including several years as a reporter covering crimes and murder trials. During that time, I met a lot of people who I now realise had psychopathic traits. Not all of them were criminals. Some were colleagues! I believe my years reporting on crime gave me insight into that world and fuelled my fascination with crime fiction.

Why did you decide to write crime thrillers?

Jenny: It’s probably going to sound really corny, but I feel like crime chose me! I started writing after the birth of my first child. There were so many emotions I didn’t know how to explain, among others the feeling of a loss of identity and true self. I’d just been made redundant when my son was four weeks old and I found that, without a job, I didn’t know who I was anymore. It’s a long story, but I got the idea for Susan’s actions following the birth of her son (How I Lost You) being misinterpreted as post natal depression, from the sense that I no longer knew, in my confused and exhausted state, whether I would believe a group of professionals if they told me I had harmed my son whilst in the throes of depression. If I had no memory, would I know what I was capable of? That led to my first crime novel. I’d always read crime so it seemed natural that that would be the type of novel I’d write. I wrote How I Lost You between feeds and nappy changes!

I read that a lot of journalists make the transition to novels. How have you found the change?

Max: I know How I Lost You was a bestseller. I find it amazing that you wrote it with all that going on! Writing Now You See was a bit strange because as a journalist I was used to working to strict deadlines. I also didn’t know if anyone was ever going to be interested in the finished manuscript. Of course I now have deadlines for book two, and it does make you approach the process in a slightly different way. One of the interesting things for me has been going through the stages of revising and editing Now You See, first with my agent, and then with my editor. It started off feeling incredibly difficult, having to change something you’ve worked so hard on, but quickly became exciting because I knew the end result was going be a better book.

You have a fourth book coming out next year. Has the revising/editing process changed for you?

Jenny: Absolutely. Editing book three was much less intensive – hopefully because I’m getting better at it! How I Lost You was the first thing I had ever completed so I had a fair amount of input from both my agent and editor. On book three it went straight to my editor and the structure pretty much stayed in place. I think that there are pros and cons of both experiences – with your first book you have no deadlines and (in my case) no expectations that anyone will ever even read it. That meant I was much freer to write without worrying about sales and marketing and one star reviews and hitting a word count. Once you have one book published it’s inevitable all of those things will be bouncing around in your mind, however much you try to just concentrate on the writing. I also make a concerted effort to grow as a storyteller so I’ve been reading a lot of books about story (Story, Robert McKee; Save the Cat, Blake Snyder; Stealing Hollywood, Alexandra Solokoff). My first draft tends to be a bit of a story dump, then I start to think about the pacing and structure, then I do another read through for atmosphere and character (or what I call colouring in). It does get easier!

Have you started book two yet?

Max: I have started book two, and, no surprise, it has a psychopath in it. One of the challenges has been to make sure that this character is not a carbon copy of the psychopath in Now You See. I think I am managing it. I don’t plot in a particularly organised or detailed way, though the walls of my office are plastered with ‘idea’ post-it notes covered in scribbles that sometimes even I can’t read. The plot for book two came to me while I was halfway through Now You See, so I have had a lot of time to think about it. The hardest thing for me is getting the first draft down. Once I have something on paper it is easier to see what needs doing and rewrite.

Where do you start a new book? With plot, characters, or both?

Jenny: It really depends on the idea as to where I start. With How I Lost You the idea was quite plot driven – it had a hooky premise and I developed the characters dependent on that. My second book, Before I Let You In, was very character led; I came up with the cast way before the story. I’m the same with plotting vs. pantsing – it all depends on what I’m writing so rather than say ‘I never plan’ or ‘I plan every detail’, I let myself be led by the idea itself. Some ideas come fully formed but I have no clue what the characters are like, and I have some characters waiting to be put to use but I haven’t got the right plot for them yet. That’s one of the great things about writing,: the methods are all so flexible, if something doesn’t work for you can just find a way that does.

Max: Thank you so much Jenny. I have enjoyed this opportunity to chat with you. Good luck with the paperback launch of The Foster Child on November 16th. I loved it!

Jenny: Thanks Max, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Now You See and good luck with book two!

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