Mo Hayder sprang onto the literary scene in 1999 after a fierce bidding war over her debut novel Birdman. The debut caused a stir of controversy due to the graphic violence contained within the confines of a police procedural, all played out against the backdrop of a pre-millennium South London. The flames of controversy were further fuelled by the fact that Mo Hayder was female, as were the victims of 'The Birdman'.
The book would never have taken the publishing world by storm if her writing was not so skillfully crafted. The novel is a fear-filled odyssey deep into the underbelly of a civilised society, revealing that we are only a veneer away from brutality and madness.
The story revolves around the hunt for the serial killer led by the driven detective Jack Caffery - a man seeking closure from the trauma of losing his brother Ewan, during a troubled childhood. Caffery seeks to find 'The Birdman' almost as if in so doing, he can find peace within himself. Tortured and broken, he functions in world he has come to accept but not like. He remains deeply haunted by the figure of Penderecki, a known paedophile who may or may not be responsible for the disappearance of his brother. Penderecki's shadow provides a counterpoint to Caffery's struggle which remains current as he taunts the detective from his side of a railway line that cuts across their houses. Add a possessive and clingy girlfriend, Veronica, as well as heightened police politics due to the fevered hunt for 'The Birdman', and you get a book that sticks to the fingers as well as clinging to the mind long after the story has ended.
Hayder followed up her debut with an even more grueling odyssey - The Treatment - featuring a missing child, paedophilia and an increasingly weather-beaten Jack Caffery. The horrors in this book were even more pervasive than those of its predecessor, making me question why I was reading such a grim novel. The reason I stuck with it was rather simple - I could not put it down, despite its darkness.
Hayder's pacing is like a Japanese bullet train that does not stop on its journey to the centre of the mystery, with a poetic resolution. Caffery does find the closure that he seeks, but he has to pay a very high price for the journey.
Around the time that The Treatment was unleashed (a Hayder novel can never be merely released) we were still reeling from the knowledge that our children were not safe in our society, especially after the revelations of Cromwell Road and the tragedy of Sarah Payne. Tabloid hysteria further fanned the flames that roared around these cases, but they also revealed a society that had either ignored or failed to acknowledge the veneer that divides us from the evil and madness lurking beneath.
I had the pleasure of asking some of the questions that Mo Hayder's two books had left echoing in my mind, and I hope you enjoy her answers. Whenever I walk on a sunny street, I am always haunted by what my imagination conjures about the dark dungeons of the insane. Her books take you to those dungeons and give you a peek into madness. Once started, they will be impossible to put down as you enter the world of Jack Caffery and his own demons. I consider Mo Hayder's novels deeply therapeutic in trying to understand the evil and madness that co-exists within our society. They are therefore a form of Treatment.
Can you tell me about the genesis of your character Jack Caffery in Birdman and The Treatment?
I think he's made up from a little bit my partner Keith (at his worst), and a little bit my fevered thirty year old imagination about a sexy guy. I also wanted him to be flawed, and I trace this to an incident that happened when I was about 12. The policeman who lived in the house backing on to ours killed his wife and buried her in the back garden. I'd been looking at the tent he'd put up to conceal the grave for about a week before he was arrested in the middle of the night. I was a very straightforward little girl with unimaginative morals and I couldn't believe one of the 'good guys' could behave like that. It made me think about the common ground that all of us inhabit, whatever side of the law we think we're on.
I enjoyed, if that is the right word, the realistic strain between Jack and Veronica in Birdman, especially the way the doomed relationship added to the claustrophobia within the book.
Yes. Poor Veronica is so desperate for her man, she'll do anything. Anything. She's not really a bitch, she's just fighting a losing battle for someone she thinks she loves, and there's nothing sadder than that.
Can you tell me something about Penderecki's backstory?
I lived on a railway line in South London and was fascinated by the houses that backed on to it on the other side. One night I thought 'imagine if someone in one of those houses had done something terrible to you' - you'd never forget, never. As long as you had those houses facing you, you'd be trapped in the memory. Caffery's brother disappeared when they were children and he's fairly certain that Penderecki abducted him, but his body has never been found. And so Caffery is trapped in his memory.
The sub-plot in Birdman involving Caffery and Penderecki, Caffrey's missing brother Ewan and the subsequent disintegration of his family appeared fully realised, but was not concluded satisfactorily until The Treatment. Did you feel any pressure from within, or from your publishers, to resolve the thread - or was the story always a two-book deal?
It was always a two book deal. I was quite clear that I had two Caffery books in me and told the publishers this at the outset. This isn't to say that half-way through The Treatment I didn't change my mind. I had a terrible few months where I did want to go on with the same characters. My publishers, Transworld, were enormously patient, even when I delivered late (to put it mildly).
Had you written anything before Birdman? It really doesn't read like a debut novel.
That is very generous. There is a lot about it I would change. But actually it truly is the first thing I wrote, with the exception of a couple of short stories for a writers course.
Birdman features little touches that tugged at the emotion, such as Caffery's blackened fingernail from Ewan/the treehouse. Where did these touches come from?
Ah - they come from the bottom of a bottle if I'm honest. They come from the late night drunken musings one occasionally has if one is lucky. I don't know anyone with a bruised fingernail so maybe you can properly call that idea a donnd What made you write Birdman - and can you tell us how you got it accepted? It was the classic rags to riches story - the sort of thing that young would-be-writers are told never happens. Birdman went into a bidding war, and from there it just spiralled. One minute I was doing a minimum wage job, scribbling away on my first novel, the next I was flying first class around the world getting excited phone calls from my agent about the latest major deal. It was a real head turner. I'm still horrifically warped by the experience.
How did you feel when Birdman was released with the comparison to Thomas Harris?
Mmmm - ambivalent. I thought it was a good way of telling the reader the sort of book they were picking up but I was uncomfortable with the suggestion that on my first novel I could compare to someone with that track record.
You have cited James Ellroy as an influence. Can you name any other writers as influences?
Actually the list is endless, everyone influences me in some way or another, but briefly: Patricia Highsmith, Val McDermid, John Updike, and believe it or not Mishima, the great suicide story.
You spent some of your teenage youth in the music scene in London, care to comment?
It was great - just after punk and Soho was full of venues and music pubs and you could wander down Wardour Street and bump into a Sex Pistol or two. It was also mad, lots of cliched sex and drugs. I was nuts about clothes - I'd have done anything, sold my own mother for a Swanky Modes dress.
Can you tell us about your life in Japan and what you learned while working in the Far East?
I had a friend in London who was murdered in a horrific, ritualistic attack. Looking back at the injuries he received, with what I know now about forensic psychology, I realise that he was probably killed by someone he knew. Quite soon after that a friend was attacked in Tokyo, and the shock for me was how random it was - she simply hadn't changed the locks on the house she was renting. My life in Japan was pretty weird actually - I was working in a hostess club, earning an absolute fortune, and living alone in a huge dusty traditional Japanese house that was slated for demolition. It's all going in to novel number three which is the story of a British girl working in a hostess club who gets involved with the Japanese mafia (with terrible consequences).
When I read The Treatment, I commented to my wife that I was unsure why I was reading something so unrelentingly grim, but I couldn't put it down due to the strength of your prose. I read it in one sitting (like Birdman). Can you tell us what is what like writing such a dark book? How did it effect your own life?
Thank you so much. The research I did for both the books was horrific, but once I'd parcelled it all up and converted it into a story I found that my lifelong nightmares of violence actually stopped.
The climax of The Treatment almost reduced me to tears - the catharsis is as brilliant as the resolution is poetic and melancholic. Did you waver at what to do vis-à-vis the Ewan issue? Or is the ending how you imagined it always?
It's exactly how I wanted it to be. Some people have disliked the ending, maybe because they would have liked a more conventional tying up, but I always knew, even before I finished Birdman, how it would end. It felt right. Some people say that the ending makes the book linger with them afterwards, and if that's what I've achieved then I'm happy.
When The Treatment was released, were you concerned at the series of paedophile cases emblazoned by the tabloids?
I was half way through writing when little Sarah Payne went missing and for about two weeks I simply couldn't write any more - the parallels to the story in The Treatment were so eerie. I had to force myself to start again. And yes, if I'm honest, I was nervous when publication date rolled around. But the reaction has been very positive. I suppose it's not what you write about but how you write it that counts.
The hardcover design for The Treatment is stunning. Did you get involved at all in the cover design?
No - except saying that I liked the idea of a thriller in a white cover. The horrible little rats are down to Clare, a superbly talented lunatic in the art department.
When you write, do you play music, or do you work in silence?
Sometimes I play music, but I can't listen to anything with lyrics; I tune into the words and get distracted. I can't even hear the tune of a song I know well because I get dragged off on the words I know are there. I've started listening to German music, stuff by Brecht, which sounds very highbrow but it's just so I don't understand the words. The only constant in my working habits is that I sit in bed using a laptop. I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere.
Who/What are you reading at the moment?
I'm struggling with Underworld, (Don DeLilo) and treating myself to chapters of Paris Trout (Pete Dexter) for when I've been good.
Congratulations on becoming a mother. Has that affected your writing process - both from a practical as well as a psychological point of view?
Thank you so much. It's the most wonderful thing I've ever done. Practically, it's made me much more jealous of my time. If I have the time to write I grab it and I'm not so scared of writing without sleep. Psychologically - well I could write pages about how it's changed me for the best, but the jury's out on whether it's seeped into my writing yet.
Can you tell us about your life in Japan and what you learned while working in the Far East?
I had a friend in London who was murdered in a horrific, ritualistic attack. Looking back at the injuries he received, with what I know now about forensic psychology, I realise that he was probably killed by someone he knew. Quite soon after that a friend was attacked in Tokyo, and the shock for me was how random it was - she simply hadn't changed the locks on the house she was renting. My life in Japan was pretty weird actually - I was working in a hostess club, earning an absolute fortune, and living alone in a huge dusty traditional Japanese house that was slated for demolition. It's all going in to novel number three which is the story of a British girl working in a hostess club who gets involved with the Japanese mafia (with terrible consequences). I know it's a wonderful setting for a thriller. I'm also interested in Japan's role in the Pacific war - some of the atrocities committed there were far worse than any a horror/thriller writer could invent. The book is the account of a woman's experiences in a hostess club and the events surrounding the disappearance of her friend.
Can you give us even an approximate date for when we are likely to see this secret project?
Um……. I think I'm going to pass on this one!
Thank you for your time speaking with SHOTS and we wish you success in your next venture!
Birdman is available as a Bantam/Transworld paperback.
The Treatment is available as a Bantam/Transworld hardback and due for paperback release in June 2002.
SHOTS would like to thank Mo Hayder and Prue Jefferys of Transworld Publishers for their time.