Please Welcome to Blood Rose Books Today:
You have a background in journalism; did some of the stories, people or events inspire your more recent novels?
Alex Marwood is your pen name for your darker genre novels, why did you decide that you needed to write under a different name? Were you afraid that your books would not be taken as seriously under your real name?
The publishing industry is a labyrinth in which the unwary can be tripped upbyall sorts of hazards and disasters and bad decisions that people on the outside don’t realise about. Retailers, meanwhile, have become very dependent on computerized systems for their ordering, and those don’t show up circumstances, only bald figures, and this has caused a lot of trouble for writers. Writers have always had career ups and downs, but now the downs can literally destroy your career. There are a number of horrific stories, for instance, of authors having their careers badly damaged by having a book come out during the collapse in sales that immediately followed 9/11. Books basically only get a six-week window in which to make their mark after publication before the retailers move on, and people simply stopped buying books for a few weeks, and they found retailers refusing to stock their ensuing titles on the basis of the bald figures, no context. Something similar happened to me, and after struggling on through two more books as people told me they couldn’t find them in the shops, I did what many other writers have done, and changed my name to get away from the curse of the computer records. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
But no, I’m proud of the books I wrote before, and have no wish to distance myself from them. There’s a huge amount of terrific writing in the genres – (rather dark, in my case) romantic comedy, for my first three, then a supernatural thriller – in which I used to write. As to people taking me seriously or not – honestly all I want is for people to read my books and enjoy them, and I’m not bothered by the snobbery in the literary world. Well, not much. Their loss, honestly.
What do you think are the essentials to make a great crime thriller novel?
Oh, lord. One of the reasons I love being under the Crime umbrella is what a wonderfully broad genre it is. There’s something for pretty much everyone’s tastes under its umbrella, and Lee Child’s, or Helen Smith’s, answers to this would be just as valid as my own, though entirely different. For my own books: character, I think. I don’t think you have to identify with, or even like, the characters in a novel, but you have to be interested in them, and feel that the high stakes with which that they’re threatened matter in some way. And my characters’ decisions are generally driven by their personalities, once I’ve got to know them, just like in real life. Actually, Lee Child would probably agree with most of that, except with guns and stuff.
What do you think would be the hardest or most challenging genre to write a novel in and why?
Um… they’re all challenging, if you’re trying to do it well! But for me I guess it would be the Literary genre (because it is a genre), because I’d get so bored!
The Killer Next Door was a very refreshing read to me and was a different take on the serial killer sub-genre. Why did you decide to have a cast of misfits and their stories featured instead of the traditional police based novel?
I’ve always been more interested in how crime happens and the effect it has on not just the victims but on the perpetrators and the wider world, than I have in how the perpetrators get caught. All those bad decisions, the snowballing of misfortune, the tiny incremental steps that lead to terrible consequences, that put us all in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God position, if we did but think about it. Detection and punishment, and society getting its sense of justice, are only a tiny bit of the whole picture.
The starting point for The Killer Next Door was a case that has always had huge resonance for Londoners: the case of Dennis Nilsen, who killed and dismembered a dozen young men in the 1980s while living in similar circumstances to the people in my novel. The thing that has always echoed for me and other Londoners is this: living in our crowded, always-on city, we all have to do a certain amount of blind-eye-turning in order to retain our own sanity and that of our neighbours. I’m sure if the last girl who lived upstairs from me knew how much we all know about her sex life she would have been beyond mortified. And so, though we all play lip-service to wondering how on earth Nilsen’s housemates managed not to notice what he was up to, the grim truth is that we all know only too well. And it’s stuff like that that really interests me.
You introduced mummification and body breakdown techniques in regard to your serial killer The Lover (who is nice and creepy by the way). What type of research did you do to make sure that it was accurate?
An interesting little side-fact: it’s one of the few subjects that are remarkably difficult to find much out about on the internet. Fortunately I’ve amassed a huge collection of non-fiction books about all sorts, and between my ancient civilization texts and my forensics and pathology books and my cultural studies of death rituals and the British Museum, I was pretty much covered. And no, I didn’t have a go at doing it myself, not having a fresh cadaver to hand. Though I did do a little experiment in the freezing of individual sausages, to address my copy editor’s doubts about something, and cooked them up afterwards and ate them for dinner.
The Killer Next Door is a very dark themed novel. What appeals to you about the dark and disturbing aspects of human nature? Are some of the tenants in the building based upon your own experience of living in an apartment building?
Not directly. Though everyone’s known someone like all of these people, haven’t they? Apart, perhaps from the serial killer. But you know, even serial killers mingle with the rest of the world when they’re not at their hobby. I did my time living the itinerant life of the struggling writer in my youth, but we mostly clubbed together and shared flats and houses rather than living in bedsits. But not everyone has the good fortune to have a wide friendship base when they come to a new city, or a new country, and No23 is often the sort of place those people end up. And honestly, that house is a big step up from quite a lot of the circumstances a lot of people end up living in. I had an Iranian boyfriend years ago – not like Hossein at all, though some of the detail of Iranianness I soaked up through him – whose first ‘home’ was the cupboard under the stairs in someone’s house. So really, these guys were a lot better off than some, even the ones who don’t officially qualify as homeless.
The Killer Next Door is going to be adapted for film. What scares you most about this process? Are you worried that your work will be changed too much for the big screen?
I suppose the whole business of being more visible scares me a bit. I’m a typical writer, best suited to staying in bed with my imaginary friends, so this whole ride as Alex Marwood has seen me constantly pushed outside my comfort zone. But I’ve gradually adjusted, and I’m sure I’ll carry on adjusting. And boy, it’s better than the life I was living before!
As to the adaptation, I don’t think one should be too precious about one’s work, once you choose to allow other people get involved. The book’s mine. It’s done, it’s published, it’s been shortlisted for the prizes, it’s in the British Library; nothing bar nuclear war can make it go away now, or change the way it is. And film is a completely different discipline. If anything, I’m quite excited to sit down and study how the screenwriter does their magic with a text I know so well, and have the opportunity to understand their logic, because the whole discipline’s a wonderful mystery to me, and one I’d love to learn how to do.
Do you have any information on upcoming works or events that you are able to share?
My new novel, The Darkest Secret, comes out in January in the UK, summer in the States. When three-year-old Coco goes missing during a birthday weekend, the adults in the party close ranks and lie through their teeth about what happened. Twelve years later, the little girl’s surviving sisters start to unravel the truth when the same group gathers for the funeral of their much-married father. I’m pretty pleased with it, I think.
What is one book on your shelf that you cannot wait to read (can either be a new or old favorite).