Room 101 with Sophie Hannah

Following Lee Child’s sell-out Room 101 event with host Christina Patterson at this year’s Festival (click here to listen to live clips from the event), ‘You’re Booked’ wanted to carry on the game with a virtual Room 101…with you as the host!

We ask authors to give us their very own list of pet peeves and we want you to decide if each one should make it into Room 101.

Our very first virtual offering comes from Sophie Hannah, author of five internationally bestselling psychological thrillers –Little Face, Hurting Distance, The Point of Rescue, The Other Half Lives and A Room Swept White. Her novels are published in 20 countries, with more foreign rights deals under negotiation. The Other Half Lives was shortlisted for the 2010 Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year Award and is currently shortlisted, under its US title The Dead Lie Down, for a Barry Award. Little Face and Hurting Distance were both longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, and Little Face was longlisted for the IMPAC Award. The Point of Rescue, Sophie’s first thriller to be adapted for television, was broadcast on ITV1 in May 2011 under the series title Case Sensitive. For further information visit http://www.sophiehannah.com/

We invited Sophie to discuss her top 3 crime writing pet hates. But will she persuade you to consign them to a fate worse than death? Are they worthy enough to make it into Room 101 and thus into oblivion? Let us know what YOU think. Read Sophie’s 3 detailed  arguments and then cast your verdict…

1) The Phonecall from the Person from the Past

Having read as much crime fiction as I can get my hands on for years and years, I find I am becoming increasingly intolerant of the sort of staple plot devices that crop up again and again, long after they’ve ceased to be interesting.  The one that bugs me most, and that I encounter most frequently, is The Phonecall From The Person from the Past.  There is never an interesting twist to enliven this cliche. Here’s what always happens: our protagonist is going about her business in the present, and we see that she has a functional and occasionally idyllic life.  Perhaps she’s chuckling with her husband and children around a granite-topped kitchen island, or busy in her office, handing important-looking files to underlings. Wherever she is, her sense of well-being and everything she’s worked so hard to achieve in spheres professional and domestic is about to be threatened. Her phone is ringing. When she answers it, an ominous voice will say, ‘It’s me.’  Our heroine’s blood will freeze; her heart will skip beats.  So far, so good – if this were the plot of only one book. But the trouble is, I have read at least thirty novels that begin in this way, and they always take that ominous opening in exactly the same direction. So, the person from the past always turns out to be someone with whom the protagonist has done something very dodgy at least a decade previously – murdered someone, usually. An occasional variation is that our heroine believes she murdered someone and it later turns out that she didn’t, and really it was the person from the past who did it, and who is letting her believe she was responsible in order to keep her frightened. This watered-down version of the person-from-the-past plotline has also been used too often, and strikes me as cowardly – like one wallpapered ‘feature’ wall when you’re too chicken to paper the whole room! If you’re going to have a main character who is plagued by guilt and fear of reprisals, let her at least have something to feel properly guilty about. And don’t underestimate your readers by assuming they won’t be able to identify with or like someone who has done something very wrong. If they can’t, that’s their problem – they have unrealistic illusions about human beings!

It’s bad enough that every single person-from-the-past who telephones the hero/heroine of a crime novel at the end of chapter one has exactly the same motive (a desire to use the old crime as some kind of blackmail); what I find even more depressing is that every single protagonist-in-the-present responds to his or her person-from-the-past in exactly the same way: fear, guilt, hoping the problem will disappear, trying desperately to keep it secret from friends, family, colleagues.  No clever protagonist has ever (in my mystery-reading experience) called the bluff of the blackmailer on the phone by saying in a loud, jolly voice, ‘Oh, hi! I was just about to ring you funnily enough – remember that gory murder we committed when we were nine? How great to hear from you! I must tell my husband it’s you – we were just gossiping about you. Hey, Geoff, it’s that old schoolfriend of mine on the phone – yes, that’s right – my murder-buddy!’ Wouldn’t that totally take the wind out of the person-from-the-past’s sails? Why has no writer ever thought of it? Or another way of making it more interesting: the protagonist hasn’t got a clue who the person from the past is. She doesn’t recognise his voice, has never done anything she’s kept secret or is ashamed of; she has no past that might catch up with her – so who is this complete stranger who seems to think she has, and that he is it? That too would be more interesting. In the current climate (that of persons-from-the-past being giant yawns) something spectacular would need to be added to this well-worn device in order for it not to make me groan and hurl the book across the room.

2) The Twist That Isn’t a Twist

I have firm views about what a twist is and should be. A twist is what we call a moment in a crime novel (usually at the end, but occasionally in the middle) when we find out that things are very different, somehow, from what we believed them to be. All is not as it seems.  That’s all a twist is, right? No. Wrong. I think a twist should be a bit more than that. Yes, we must of course find out that what we believed to be the case is not the case – that attribute of twisthood is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient. And I believe so passionately in what I’m going to say next that I’m going to put it in bold: A twist should always be more interesting, exciting, shocking, resonant and gasp-inducing than the incorrect interpretation it replaces. An example of a good twist is in the film The Sixth Sense. [SPOILER ALERT]. The twist in this movie is that Bruce Willis, our hero, turns out to be dead – a ghost. Before we find this out, we think he’s just a guy. Now, whereas his being just a guy is entirely ordinary, not particularly interesting and par for the course, his being a ghost is miles more exciting because…well, most people aren’t ghosts! And he is! And we didn’t guess (even though he got shot at the beginning, and his main mate in the film bangs on about seeing dead people, and there are generally loads of ghosts knocking about)!

A twist should not merely provide a different solution to the puzzle – it should provide a better solution, one that achieves lift-off and takes the story to a higher level of narrative excitement, structural harmony and general all-round perfection. Twists should have some sparkle and wow-factor about them, otherwise what’s the point? So, the kind of so-called twist I don’t like is where you think Derek killed Fred because of the inheritance, and then it turns out Maureen killed Fred because of the gardening gloves. And you (or rather I) think, ‘Oh, right. So instead of that person for that reason, it was this person for this equally boring reason.’

3) Unsuccessful Crime Writers Reviewing Crime Fiction

Recently I read a viciously negative review of a crime novel by a very successful author, written by an unsuccessful crime writer, and published in a respectable newspaper. Now, I’m not impugning the reviewer’s motives – I’m sure she tried very hard to be objective and not to allow professional jealousy to sway her – but the fact is that no matter how hard we try to be objective, we simply cannot be if our own egos are involved.  After reading this sneery review, I quickly totted up how many regular crime reviewers for newspapers are failed or failing writers in that very same genre. I counted at least five. From the point of view of those newspapers’ literary editors, this is a lunatic policy. Think of a reviewer who slates an internationally bestselling crime novel for being too gory, when his own more genteel gore-free mysteries are being turned down by every publisher in town, or being published but selling fewer than 1000 copies. Think of that same hardly-selling writer giving a famous writer a brilliant review, in the desperate hope that what goes around will come around – ie, that the famous writer will be so grateful that she will supply an enthusiastic quote for the cover of his next book. Since self-advancement and jealousy cannot be ruled as motivations, why not avoid the problem by asking keen and intelligent readers who are not also writers in the same genre to review the books? Even putting the issue of possibly tarnished motivation to one side, what about the fact that…these unsuccessful writer-reviewers have proved (often over the course of several books) that in some fundamental way, they are less able to do this thing than the people they’re slagging off? How can that not be a problem?

Would I ever be asked to judge a Political Celebrity Dieting Competition in which the entrants were David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg? No, I would not, because – and here’s the crucial thing – I am demonstrably and unambiguously much more rubbish at being thin than they are. The two party leaders who lost would feel far less of a sense of injustice if, say, Kate Moss was the judge, because she is excellent at being skinny. If I were the judge, they might say, ‘What right does that chubby bint have…’ Etc.  I think that’s an accurate, if fanciful, analogy.

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So there you have it! Which of Sophie’s pet hates, 1, 2 or 3, should make it into Room 101 or should perhaps all make it, or none at all? You decide!

6 thoughts on “Room 101 with Sophie Hannah

  1. Jo Lewis

    I couldn’t agree more – the telephone call from the random person from the past seems crowbarred in now and almost seems an easy option….I also can sympathise with the dislike of getting negative reviews from writers from the same or even different genres. Writers should encourage and support one another..there are enough people to give the negative responses without stabbing each other in the back.

  2. Sophie Hannah

    (Contd) but looks well out of order. 2) all the cases I can think of when I’ve noticed this phenomenon and thought, ‘This is absurd’, the reviewer has been less talented as well as less successful than the writer they’re slagging off. 3) Let’s say I’m asked to review X’s book. I think X is a bad writer, and yet he sells thirty times as many books as I do. Oughtn’t I to have a bit of humility and think, ‘Whatever I might think about his stylistic shortcomings, this guy can clearly engage readers in a way that I can’t, so who am I to criticise?’? Just makes it so much easier/fairer if reviewers are not competitors!

  3. Sophie Hannah

    Dan – success is not only measured by sales. Eg, sales of Crooked Letter Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin have been modest so far, but his work has had a huge impact/influence. Everyone in the crime-writing, crime-publishing and crime-reading world is talking about how brill he is. Same with Stuart Neville’s The Twelve. And yet, some books win prizes and still somehow seem to have little impact, ie they don’t seem to offer anything new or particularly interesting. To answer your main objection directly, however: yes, it is undoubtedly true that there could be a massively talented but unsuccessful reviewer who was a much better writer in the genre than the overrated and much more successful writer she was reviewing. Of course that’s possible, and in that case it might strike one as entirely legit. But, three points: 1) even when legit, there’s the danger that it looks dodgy/compromised. Imagine my gran sponsors a fiction prize. Of all the entrants, I am far and away the best, so I win. Right result but looks well out off

  4. Sophie Hannah

    Susan – yes, disrespectful is a good word. I remember watching a programme years ago in which contemporary crime writers rubbished Agatha Christie. It left a really nasty taste in the mouth, and made me think about Christie’s huge achievement. Isn’t she still the best-selling crime writer of all time? If so many generations of people all over the world devour her books, surely she must have got something right – same applies to Enid Blyton.

  5. Dan Waddell

    I’m a bit puzzled by 3 Sophie. Do we really think that massive sales = high quality writing and low sales = terrible writing and therefore someone is a ‘failed’ writer? Some books don’t do well for a variety of reasons. I don’t think lack of sales should rule people out from reviewing. In terms of pure entertainment, I’d rather have someone with an axe to grind than someone blowing smoke up another’s arse because they share an agent/publisher/predilection for heavy drinking. Maybe, perhaps, the successful crime author’s book was just a load of old rubbish and the unsuccessful crime author was right?

    I couldn’t say because I don’t who you’re talking about! But there are times when big name authors produce a bad book. So I’m told.

    I’d also put in having the killers crazed thoughts in italics. Or at least I would had I not used it in some of my books.

  6. SUSAN HILL

    Spot on Sophie. Especially the telephone call. I am also weary of lit eds employing new graduates to review – always viciously – books by those who write better and know more than they ever will and have spent the past 25 plus years producing fine literature. It’s lazy and of course the tyros sieze the chance to take their elders and betters a peg or three. It is disrespectful and poor value.
    Great idea to have a Room 101.