How did the idea for the story come about?
The story that became A Thousand Lies was actually Plan B. My initial suggestion for a sixth novel was rejected by my publisher, Orion, as being too literary. I was disappointed (although, looking back, they were absolutely right) and began casting around for another subject. I was stymied until, looking for something on my bookshelves, I came across a catalogue for an exhibition I had seen at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1994. It was called “Who’s Looking At the Family?” and showed photographs of families from the Victorian era to the present day, and one particular set of photos made a great impression on me. They were informal portraits of two little girls in a garden, taken sometime in the late fifties. The children were smiling, the sun was out, and there were pets in evidence – they were, in fact, the standard snaps you might find any family album – but the note on the wall beside them told a different and horrifying story. The two girls were June and Hilda Thompson, and the photographer, their father, was a violent sadist who had abused them, and their mother, throughout their lives. It had been his habit to photograph them either just before, or just after, he had beaten or – when the girls were older – raped them. In 1988, June and Hilda, then in their late thirties, shot and killed their father with the gun he had used to terrorise them for so many years.
As well as being appalled by this, I was utterly bewildered. When I sat down and thought about it, I realised that the source of my bewilderment was a naïve, but nevertheless deeply felt, belief (shared by most people) in the veracity of photographs. All family albums, in fact, tell lies, but some lies are more pernicious than others. It was this that provided the germ of the idea for the book, and – coupled with a rather horrible pop-song – its title.
The idea of the Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, suffered by the protagonist’s mother, came from my own experience. I was accused of having this syndrome by a vet who was treating my beloved basset hound, and, although the accusation was totally unwarranted (and the man apologised profusely for his mistake), it was a very distressing experience. Once the shock had passed, I began to imagine what it would be like to grow up with an MBP parent, and how such a person might react to the discovery – usually made in later life – that they had been made deliberately ill.
A Thousand Lies is set round a backdrop of sexual abuse and degradation. Was this difficult to research? How much of the novel is drawn from real cases?
I certainly drew heavily on the case of the Thompson sisters, although some of the more revolting refinements of the father’s cruelty were my own invention. The idea of victim-hood has always interested me, and I wanted to explore it. There are no obvious parallels in my own life, thank God, but during the time I was writing A Thousand Lies, an investigation was made into certain events that took place at the secondary school I attended – over-vigorous application of corporal punishment in the case of the boys, and psychological (though not sexual) abuse in the case of the girls. All the ex-pupils were invited to submit testimonies to the QC who was conducting the inquiry, and, after much consideration, I decided that there were some things I wanted to say. I do not want to go into details here, but they were things that I had mentally suppressed for many years, and re-living them was extremely painful. Those emotions fed directly into my descriptions of the feelings of the Shand sisters, and of the protagonist, Amy Vaughan.
The pace of A Thousand Lies is relentless. Was it difficult to maintain though it does not seem to come directly from Amy, who appears more of a reactionary to the events that surround her?
One creates momentum through events, but this can, as you suggest, be difficult when your protagonist can only react to what is going on around her (or him). One reason for this is that, just as people seem to expect a degree of consistency from fictional characters that they would never expect in real life, they also expect them to be more resourceful and pro-active than their corporeal counterparts. I’ve never really understood why this should be, or why, as Patty Hearst said, “When you are held captive, people expect you to spit in your captor’s eye and get killed”. People simply do not behave like this (at least, not outside those films where the hero abseils up and down tall buildings clad in a dirty vest and with an M16 between his teeth). Personally, I prefer to have more realism in my novels – after all, Amy is, in her own way, just as much of a victim as the Shand sisters, and everyone knows that the hardest prison to escape from is the one inside your own head. For this reason, and because I had decided to make Amy an ordinary civilian, with no special knowledge or skills, I decided to go for psychological tension and drama, rather than the all-action, shoot-‘em-up variety.
The contents of the book are at times harrowing without ever being gratuitous. Do you feel that crime fiction tends to rely too heavily on the “gore” factor of the genre to make an impact?
Everyone’s worst fear is different, and, for each individual, his or her particular nightmare will be far, far worse than anything one could put down on the page. It’s important to leave space for the reader’s imagination to kick in – I think that with writing about violence, as with writing about sex, less (provided it is done well) is more. It’s true that there was a spate of crime novels a few years ago in which authors – encouraged, I think, by publishers – upped in the ante with violence, torture and so forth, but mercifully, this seems to have abated. I think this trend tends to brutalise readers (myself included) who quickly become jaded.
I see that you were formerly a teacher, an editor of non-fiction books and a writer of children’s history books. Why the switch to crime?
I’d always wanted to write fiction, and, although I did not deliberately set out to write a crime novel, I ended up with three dead bodies on the first page (ghoulish tendencies, perhaps). I was certainly attracted to the discipline of crime novels – the need for narrative thrust stops you being self-indulgent – and to the framework inherent in a plot-driven novel. I’d always enjoyed reading crime stories, so I suppose I was just doing what came naturally. The subjects interested me, and I hoped that they would interest readers, too.
When writing, do you read within the genre? What are you currently reading?
I usually have two or three books on the go – history or biography, a literary novel, and a crime novel. Nowadays, I read for duty as well as enjoyment, because I review crime paperbacks for the Guardian and I sit on the judging panel for one of the crime fiction prizes (that’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading the books, of course – discovering a wonderful new author is always an exciting treat). I am currently re-reading The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh, who is one of my favourite authors, and, for the first time, Havana Black, by Leonardo Padura.
Your previous books have been nominated for a plethora of awards. This must be very satisfying, especially being recognised by your colleagues in the CWA?
Yes, it is – although the scariest five minutes of my life was spent making an acceptance speech in French when my fifth novel, The Lover, won the Prix Du Polar Europeen. Fortunately, the audience at the Bibliotheque Nationale was very courteous, listening politely as I mangled their language, and even clapping afterwards. For real satisfaction, however, nothing can ever quite match the moment when you learn that your first novel has been accepted by a publisher. That is truly incredible, amazing, and… Sorry, words fail me.
What are you currently working on and when is it due for publication?
I am about one-third of the way through the first book in a series featuring DI Ted Stratton. It is set in 1940, and subsequent books will track his career as well as exploring the changing social, criminal and sexual mores as the decades go by… Writing about a policeman is a new challenge for me, and I’m loving it.
The first Ted Stratton novel will be published in Spring 2008.
Will you be appearing at any writing festivals in 2006?
This summer, I’ll be at St. Hildas College, Oxford, for the Crime and Mystery Convention, and at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. I’ll also be teaching a crime writing course at the Arvon Foundation in September.
Give three attributes that an up-and-coming author must have in their locker before embarking on a career as a novelist.
a) A nice big square bottom to sit on, or, failing that, a plump cushion.
b) A supply of “bum glue” to stick above-mentioned rear to chair – ie, stubbornness and a dogged determination to keep on writing, even when the ideas aren’t flowing.
c) Rhinoceros hide. Most successful novelists receive a hell of a lot of rejections before they hit the best-seller lists. Good luck!