International bestselling author, Fiona Barton, is the next in our interview series.
Fiona’s debut, The Widow, was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, has been published in thirty-five countries and is optioned for television. Her second novel, The Child, was a Sunday Times bestseller.
Fiona’s third novel, The Suspect is published in paperback today by Transword. It has already won the “Nosy Parker Award” for the Best Amateur Detective at the Dead Good Awards, is a Canadian bestseller and has reached No. 1 in the Kindle charts.
Born in Cambridge, Fiona now lives in Sussex. Previously, she was a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at the Mail on Sunday, where she won Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards.
What inspired you to write?
The power that books have had over me all my life. As a child, I disappeared into strange and wonderful worlds and as I got older, I fell in love, wept with loss and happiness, held my breath for chapters at a time and, occasionally, had to sleep with the light on… I lived in books – just ask my parents – and a fascination with hidden lives took root. I was addicted to the idea that we all have secrets and can never really know anyone completely – even – or, perhaps, especially, those we love. And it was this, I suspect, that led me to writing – journalism first, where seeking to uncover the truth about people became a job.
The questions I asked myself constantly when interviewing people were “What do they know?” “What are they not telling?”
Because I had to know. I still do. But I had to wait until I stopped being a journalist to create and unpick my own webs of deceit as a thriller writer.
What’s your favourite book/piece of literature?
The impossible question… Different books have thrilled me, inspired me, altered the course of my writing life but the novel that I have included in every literary Top Ten I’ve put together is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It awakened a hunger for psychological thrillers when I was a teenager. I’d been a slave to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie for years, devouring all their books. But Rebecca did something else. It didn’t feel like a game of hunt the red herring or outsmarting the author. I was in the head of the second Mrs de Winter from those iconic first lines, chilled and intrigued by the menacing undertow (and the scariest housekeeper ever created).
Where do most of your good ideas come to you?
Everything I write is fed by my experiences as a reporter. I spent decades face to face with people caught up in dramas, tragedies and conflicts and when I finally came to write fiction, I felt as though I had been researching my books for 30 years. It has given me a head full of plots and a wonderful cast of characters to draw on.
Where do you write?
Well… I used to be a duvet writer, propped up in bed each morning like some sort of low-rent Dame Barbara Cartland. But back ache has made me abandon the frou-frou nightie and lapdog for a new shiny shed in the garden. I go straight to my desk – sometimes dressed, sometimes in jimjams and kneel on one of those weird stool things that are supposed to do things for my spine and get on with it. We’ve moved home from France and now, instead of cockerels and cows, I can hear the sea. Another sort of bliss.
What is your writing process?
I’m a plunger. I write a bit in my head, working out plotlines and hearing my characters’ voices while I’m washing up or walking. Then I do dirty writing – chucking everything down on the page and clean it up so other people can understand it, afterwards. My poor editors are probably tearing their hair out, reading this (sorry!) but spreadsheets and plotting each chapter would kill me.
I was the same as a journalist but it has not been a simple transition. I knew how to write – I’d been doing it for a living for more than 30 years – but what I was writing came from other people. Journalism is listening, probing, testing other people’s words and telling a story concisely and often under 500 words. So… Writing my first book, The Widow, meant allowing myself to invent motives and twists, inner voices, events and feelings. It was wonderfully liberating but I hedged these flights of fancy by rooting my stories in real experiences so I can sniff the air, see the colours and hear the voices.
I also had to unlearn a lot of things – like writing short (80,000 words is minimum for a thriller) and frontloading. As a reporter you tell the whole story in the first paragraph (not great for suspense) so I have had to develop my drip, drip, drip skills.
I’d like to say it has got easier but it doesn’t work like that. Each book is a mountain to climb…
Where did the idea come from for The Suspect?
I wanted to turn the tables on Kate Waters, to make her the story instead of the reporter to get a different perspective on the media and I knew that involving her family would be the perfect hook. I chose to set much of it in Thailand because my son went travelling to south east Asia on his gap year nearly twenty years ago and was terrible at keeping in touch. It was telephone or snail mail then…There were stories in the newspapers about gap year kids going missing, being mugged or murdered and I remember lying in bed at night, catastrophizing about what was happening to my child. I used that fear to infect Kate who admits for both of us in The Suspect: ‘Being a reporter means I know that these things happen to people like us.’
How do you relax after a day of writing?
Reading, walking on the beach, a cold glass of wine, Pilates and cooking. Not necessarily in that order…