Melodies and murder: an interview with Sophie Hannah

My guest on the blog today is crime fiction author Sophie Hannah, whose books have been translated into an incredible 32 languages and who, at the request of Agatha Christie’s family and estate has published two new Hercule Poirot novels since 2014.

With her latest crime novel, a standalone thriller entitled Did You See Melody? (US title, Keep Her Safe) published last month, Sophie kindly took some time out from her busy schedule to sit down and answer some questions I posed about her writing habits and her future plans.

Sophie, welcome to the blog!

Sophie Hannah author photograph

What attracted you to writing in the crime/thriller genre? Was there a particular author that inspired you to do so?

Many, many authors inspired me! I’ve always loved crime fiction and even as a young child I read Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Five Find-Outers mysteries, and then I became addicted to Agatha Christie as a teenager. Then I got hooked on Ruth Rendell, then Joy Fielding, then Nicci French… I love crime fiction because it’s the only genre that has, front and centre, the obvious truth than human beings are often insoluble puzzles to one another. I think crime is far and away the best literary genre that exists!

Did You See Melody by Sophie Hannah paperback photo

Your latest novel, Did You See Melody? was released on 24 August and tells the story of a woman, Cara, who stumbles across a girl long thought to have been murdered – except that she’s alive and well and staying in a 5-star spa resort. What inspired this particular story, and what compelled you to write it?

A spa seems to me the perfect setting for a crime novel – it’s an isolated, enclosed setting where people walk around silently in white robes, while tinkly music plays in the background.

This can be seen as incredibly calming and relaxing, but also as sinister and rather confining.

So I couldn’t resist the urge to set a book somewhere like that. Also (confession!) I spend rather a lot of time in spas myself, and I love them - and it’s always tempting to write about places one loves.

The other strand of my inspiration for the book came from what I’d observed of the American justice system and how crimes are discussed in the media.

Sophie Hannah research photo at day spa 2

I’d researched cases such Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias - both of which were huge news in America, but over in the UK nobody was talking about them. This was something I wanted to explore - as well as the way the media coverage of crime in the US - what commentators are and are not allowed to say on air and in print - affects the public’s views about a famous crime.

Sophie Hannah research photo at day spa 3

The research must’ve been hell? 😉

The things we do for research!

I had to visit all kinds of luxurious spas so that I could amalgamate my favourites into the resort in Did You See Melody?!

Researching the Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias trials, and the American legal system, commentary and media was also fascinating.

Do you outline/plot, or do you prefer to start at the beginning and see where the story takes you? Why do you prefer this method of writing?

I always start with one key idea – either a mysterious and hooky beginning, or something that I think is a great twist or solution – and work either forward or backward from that. And I’m a dedicated planner (though I prefer to call it ‘story architecture’, which is how I see it - a vital part of the creative process.)

I plan everything extremely carefully because this gives me much more freedom when I come to write the actual novel.

I don’t think I’d be able to finish a novel if I hadn’t already written out a chapter-by-chapter plan. I prefer to get the structure sorted first, then, when I sit down to write the book, I can concentrate on bringing everything to life as well as I can, without simultaneously having to worry if all the plot elements are in the right place.

What does your writing space look like?  Do you have any pre-writing rituals to get you “in the zone”?

I have a beautiful writing room that’s the converted attic of my house in Cambridge. It has a fantastic roof terrace, too, and great views. However, I might be about to turn that into a guest room, and make a new writing room for myself on the lower ground floor - it’s nearer to the kitchen and front door, for coffee and postman purposes! Also, I must admit I don’t like to write book after book in the same room. Change always inspires me. Ideally, I’d move house every time I finished a novel - but that would be too inconvenient!

Pre-writing rituals? Walk the dog, tidy the house, look at Twitter and get annoyed by people expressing ridiculous opinions on the issues of the day.

How do you structure a typical day to ensure you avoid distractions and hit your word count targets?

I often fail to do this, because I find it very hard to stick to my plan for the day when the dog wants to play ball and when interesting emails are popping into my inbox all the time. 

It helps if I can get out of the house. I’m more easily distracted at home, and there are four people/dogs to distract me! Luckily, I’m a fellow commoner at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge, so I sometimes escape there where it’s incredibly quiet and peaceful, and it’s easier to concentrate. But to answer your question: I often get to dinner time and find I’m still 1000 words off my daily word-count target - so I end up staying up till 2 am. This is not a great system - with every book, I vow I will start to write in a more sane and disciplined way.

We all occasionally hit a brick wall with our creative endeavours – what do you do to overcome any stumbling blocks?

My only stumbling blocks are interruptions/impositions from other people, lack of time, and the parts of ‘being an author’ that don’t involve writing - touring, interviews, guest blogs, marketing and publicity meetings, feature-writing to promote new books, etc.

I haven’t yet worked out a way to deal with these! I have been very lucky and never suffered from writer’s block. I always have a list of 30-odd ideas that I’m very keen on.

Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah book cover

You’ve written two Hercule Poirot novels at the request of Agatha Christie’s family and estate, The Monogram Murders (2014) and Closed Casket (2016), and these and your own books garner praise from all corners of the world – what has surprised you most about your writing journey to date?

Probably being asked to write the Poirot books. I’ve always been a massive fan of Agatha Christie, and she’s definitely influenced my own writing. But I would never in a million years have expected to be asked to write Poirot novels, and the whole experience has been wonderful. I get to travel all over the world being, effectively, an Agatha Christie missionary - spreading the word about how great she is!

What else have you got planned for 2017?

I’m working on the next Hercule Poirot book, but I can’t reveal any details about that yet - it’s all top secret! I’m also writing a new standalone thriller, provisionally called Haven’t They Grown, and a non-fiction book with a self-help slant.

Other exciting news is that I’ve written (with composer Annette Armitage) a murder mystery musical called The Mystery of Mr. E, which will have its first outing in December 2017 and is due to have many appearances at a range of venues over the next few years. I have big plans for it!

And I’ve just written a Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer short story that I’m very keen on, which will be an Audible exclusive audiobook (this autumn) before being published print form. It’s called Bully the Blue Bear.

Finally, where can we buy your books?

From all good bookshops, as they say, or there are lots of online links on my website: www.sophiehannah.com.

 

Sophie, thanks again for spending time on the blog today!

You can follow Sophie on her social media accounts here:

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