Last weekend I had a thoroughly self-indulgent time attending a talk by Sophie Hannah and Jill Dawson.
Hannah has recently written Closed Casket, her second Hercule Poirot mystery, commissioned by Agatha Christie Limited. Meanwhile Dawson’s latest book, The Crime Writer, is about novelist Patricia Highsmith, and according to The Guardian “achieves a wonderful blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy.”
I was keen to find out how they’d each approached their projects, and I was especially interested because Christie and Highsmith represent such different aspects of the genre.
The session was chaired by another crime writer, Jim Kelly, who asked some great questions. These are just some of the topics that came up:
The right voice
Sophie Hannah said she decided to use a different narrator for her mysteries – abandoning Christie’s Captain Hastings – so that there was an organic reason for the tone and style to vary from the original. She said that when she signed up to write the books it was on the understanding that she wouldn’t try to mimic Agatha Christie. Instead, she concentrates on delivering what she knows fans want from a Christie novel – and she understands those elements inside out because she’s a huge fan herself.
She said she loves the way Christie’s novels begin with a seemingly impossible puzzle, and pointed out that she has always started her own psychological thrillers in the same way.
Jill Dawson, on the other hand, was very definitely trying to get Patricia Highsmith’s voice. She said it was made more difficult because she wasn’t given permission to any of Highsmith’s words that had been published in print. However, material from recorded interviews was allowed, so she managed to sneak the odd authentic phrase in that way! She also read and re-read all of Highsmith’s works, as well as her biographies, and talked to one of her biographers, Andrew Wilson.
A sense of place
Each author was asked how they’d managed to inject a sense of place into their books. Sophie Hannah set her latest Poirot mystery in Ireland after travelling there, and found the large country house she used as the main setting on Rightmove. (I love using Rightmove for research too…! It’s definitely not a displacement activity.) Jill Dawson described visiting Earl Soham, where Highsmith lived in Suffolk, and going alone to the local pub. It was almost deserted, and she drew quite a lot of attention from the other drinkers. She could only imagine that Highsmith, doing the same in the sixties, must have been a hot topic of local gossip, and that helped her envisage what life in the village must have been like for her.
Real characters in fiction
Along with Patricia Highsmith, Jill Dawson features the writer Ronald Blythe in her book, and sought his permission in advance. He was a friend of Highsmith’s, but there was a sexual element to their relationship too. There’s an interesting article about him here. Dawson kept in close touch with him as she worked on the book, and at the end he told her she’d stayed true to their connection in her writing.
Sophie Hannah, of course, wasn’t writing about a real person, but she did say she based several of the characters in her book on people she knows in real life. Most interestingly of all, she explained that three of them in Closed Casket are based on her! She said each of these characters represents one of three ways she feels about one of the other characters in the book, who’s based on a real life connection. I’m fascinated now and will certainly have to read the novel to find out more!