Interview: Sophie Hannah, author of The Truth-Teller’s Lie

Having long admired Laura Ellen Scott‘s own writing (and having interviewed her myself in these pages), I’m glad to welcome her in another capacity to Art & Literature. This week, Scott interviews bestselling suspense writer Sophie Hannah about her most recent book and her career in general. To find out more about Scott, visit her own website, Probably just a story. To find out more about Hannah… well, just read on, as Scott guides you into Hannah’s often twisted and always tantalizing world.

Poet and novelist Sophie Hannah is the author of five internationally bestselling psychological thrillers featuring DS Charlotte “Charlie” Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, four of which are available in US editions so far: Little Face, The Wrong Mother, The Truth-Teller’s Lie, and The Dead Lie Down. The fifth book in the series will be released here as The Cradle in the Grave. Frequently compared to Tana French, Hannah specializes in dark, tangled relationships and continuing characters who are as rich as her villains are extraordinary. Released in September 2010 in the US, The Truth-Teller’s Lie examines perceptions of rape and sadism, but we can rely on Hannah’s deeply human detectives to guide us through the shocks to levels of understanding all too rare in crime fiction.

Laura Ellen Scott: Your thrillers start with traumatized people instead of dead bodies. You humanize rather than objectify the subject to take the procedural to a whole new level. Do you think this allows you grapple with more complicated issues, as you do in The Truth-Teller’s Lie?

Sophie Hannah: Well, you’re right to say that I never start with a dead body! My main interest as a writer of mystery fiction is in the mystery and the suspense–I want the reader to be on the edge of his or her seat, desperate to find out what’s going on. So I try to start my novels with a really puzzling or apparently impossible situation. For example, a man confesses to the murder of a woman who isn’t dead (The Dead Lie Down), or a woman claims her baby has been swapped for another baby while she was out of the house for two hours, but no other baby has been reported missing (Little Face). I want readers not to have a clue what might be going on–I even want them to worry that I’ve taken on far too ambitious a premise and will never be able to make it work. And then, of course, the challenge to me is to do precisely that. So, starting a mystery story with a dead body doesn’t appeal to me because those kinds of beginnings are not particularly mysterious, in my view. Generally, the minute you meet the dead body, you know half of what’s happened–someone’s killed someone else. True, you don’t know exactly why, but generally it has to do with the killer not liking the victim very much for whatever reason…. More and more, I’m coming to think of the dead-body opening to a mystery as a kind of shorthand signifying a lack of original and interesting ideas.

Novelist Sophie Hannah (photo: Mark Mather)

To answer your other point: yes, I suppose my books do generally feature traumatized protagonists—or, if they’re not traumatized at the start of the action then they pretty soon will be—but I think this is because I believe that everyone is traumatized to a greater or lesser extent. To me, trauma doesn’t necessarily mean what most people think it means–a huge, headline grabbing event, though of course it can be that. Traumas happen quietly too, on a barely noticeable level, every second of every day. I recently found out that someone who is supposed to be extremely close to my family doesn’t know how to spell my husband’s name, after nearly 25 years of knowing him–discovering that was, for me, a mild trauma. A writer acquaintance, on hearing I’d moved from the north of England to Cambridge, in the south, said, to my face, “I can’t understand why anyone would want to live in the south.” That open, deliberate rubbishing of my choice was another minor trauma. I don’t want to exaggerate here, by the way. Yes, I am sensitive, though I pretend to be tough as old boots, and yes, I got over both these incidents pretty quickly (though, it has to be said, I revised my opinions of both the aforementioned offenders). But I do feel that each and every one of us is a kind of walking collection of all our past traumas, minor and major, and our reactions to those traumas—as well as all the nice things that have happened to us, of course.

The Dead Lie Down saved summer, but the novel’s references to Charlie Zailer’s recent relationship with a sexual sadist sent readers scrambling to find The Truth-Teller’s Lie, which hadn’t come out yet in the US. So we’re a bit out of sequence. Has that mattered?

The out-of-sequence thing happened for logistic reasons too dull to go into, but as of now, from The Truth-Teller’s Lie onwards, the sequence will be correct again. Personally, however, I don’t think it matters in what order one reads the books. They contain recurring police characters whose stories continue from book to book, but they aren’t a series in the traditional sense because the police don’t ‘own’ the whole of each novel, as it were. There’s a protagonist unique to each book—so, Sally in The Wrong Mother, Naomi in The Truth-Teller’s Lie—and those unique narrators are the main focus of each book. Plus, as I always say to chronology enthusiasts, reading a series in the wrong order actually gives you a more true-to-life experience. In real life, we don’t meet most people the second they’re born (apart from our kids, of course!). We meet people at a certain point in their lives and then we gradually, through knowing them now, get to know their back story.

So many of your criminals and victims are artistic. What is your view of creativity and pathology?

Well, I’m creative, and I’m probably also a bit strange (or so people tell me!)—so I guess I just extrapolate from that! No, seriously, I also write about psychopaths who have non-creative jobs. The psychopaths in Truth-Teller’s Lie and The Wrong Mother are not “creative types” in the traditional sense. Anyone can be a loony, creative or not!

Your characters are rich, and even the minor ones feel so thoroughly realized that any one of them could step up to the front, dramatically. I especially appreciate that you allow inconvenient bastards to be themselves without subjecting them to redemption. Will you talk about some of your favorite, so-called minor creations?

I like to make my fiction as true-to-life as possible (while trying to make it more interesting and exciting than real life at the same time), and in real life people generally don’t have great moments of realisation and become better people—usually, an annoying wanker remains an annoying wanker for the duration of one’s acquaintance with him. I love all the minor characters in my books, but probably I love Detective Inspector Giles Proust most of all. He’s so vile and obnoxious, and yet he has no idea. He thinks he’s the good guy in every situation. I would hate for him to become a better person. When a character is unremittingly loathsome—and this is true in life as well as in fiction—they come out with some great lines. It’s the one advantage of proximity to that sort of person; you’ll be able to quote the horrendous things they said and did for months if not years afterwards, and make people gasp with horror.

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