From Page To Screen With Killing Eve’s creator Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings will speak at Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival 2023

Author Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle stories were the inspiration behind the smash hit TV series Killing Eve, starring Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh. Now he’s back with #PANIC – a roller-coaster thriller and an empowering tale of young adults embracing their identities in a world that has tried to marginalise them. Ahead of his #RaworthsLitFest appearance on Sunday 22 October, we catch up with Luke about his new novel and his own remarkable literary journey. 

Your new book #PANIC plays around with different genres, what was the idea behind it?

It’s definitely a mash-up of genres. I was trying to give a new group of people an adventure, people whose stories are normally pushed to the background or marginalised. I thought it would be fun to give them a straight up adventure, a road-trip, as well as an on the run kind of adventure. In a sense it’s a very conventional adventure story and I wanted readers to think ‘will they make it and will they find the truth?’

There’s a cinematic quality to the novel, was that a deliberate decision?

I think we all tend to see life in an almost cinematic way a lot of the time. So I very much wanted #PANIC to be constructed as a series of scenes from a film. The characters have what they’re wanting to have, which is a kind of cinematic experience. Television in the places where they come from is more vital and more real to them than the actual lives they live, so I thought it was right to have them move through this US landscape in a series of long film takes.

You’re a writer and journalist but you actually trained as a dancer. What attracted you to dancing?

I very much wanted to perform but knew I wasn’t an actor and was looking for a world that had nothing to do with the world of my upbringing and the world of Ampleforth College [the North Yorkshire boarding school he went to]. So this was something I could come to completely fresh. I spent 10 years touring and doing shows and it was an adventure. It was a very tight-knit community and I made some very good friends.

At the same time I was very much interested in things beyond the actual performance. I was interested in the stories that the ballets told and in the choreography and in the creative side of it. I knew I was never going to be any kind of star dancer but it was something I was very excited to be part of and to learn its lessons and its aesthetic and its traditions. I internalised all that and I revisit that kind of storytelling in a very different form today as a novelist.

How did you end up becoming a journalist and novelist?

I’d always written for myself. I had ideas for stories but it never occurred to me that I could earn a living from these stories and for a long time I thought I would be a choreographer, but I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I got injured and took that as a sign it was time to move on to other things so I started writing speculative articles for newspapers and magazines and that process evolved into becoming a freelance writer for all sorts of titles like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

I always meant to go into fiction as soon as it occurred to me that the people who wrote fiction were not cleverer than me and didn’t have access to any mysteries that I didn’t have access to. I wrote several books that were politely received and didn’t sell many copies, but were good exercises for me as a writer in training. With fiction it’s a longshot that anything will be picked up and either become a hugely successful novel or have a life beyond being a novel. But there’s always that chance you’ll write something that will make an impression.

I always had this spy thing going on as a backbeat to my journalism and I dipped into that world at fairly frequent intervals and got to meet some very strange and unexpected people, and all of this turned out to be very useful later.

Can you talk about the background to your Villanelle books, which inspired the smash hit BBC series Killing Eve?

The background for Killing Eve was acquired talking to shadowy figures in the bars in the 90s. I was also talking to people interested in the occult and people who were signed up to cults. So everything I’ve done since in fiction was fed by that taste for the odd and the obscure – the world behind the curtain.

Where did the inspiration for the main characters, Eve and Villanelle, come from?

I was getting very bored with conventional spy thrillers and pulp fiction in that the heart had fallen out of it, it seemed to me. It had got very gadgetry and very stereotypical. The idea of these pale eyed loners were all variations on a theme and it had been done well but it had been done and it was time to turn the whole thing on its head somehow. It occurred to me one day this idea of having two female antagonists just might work. It seemed like an idea that was fairly simple but hadn’t been tried with much effectiveness, and this idea of these two characters facing off against each other just came to me in a rush.

The most important thing was this backwards and forwards relationship between the two main characters. The idea of who, essentially, was chasing who? That was the question I needed the reader to be asking all the time. The premise is one I thought worked well in the world of work with two women who are essentially bored. They’re under-appreciated by the people who employ them and they become more interested in each other than in what they’re supposed to be doing, that’s really what it’s about.

Were you surprised how popular the TV series was?

I always knew it was a good idea and I was very pleased to see that it worked. I met Phoebe Waller-Bridge [writer and producer] and she turned out to be on exactly the same page about these characters. It was good to have the validation that she brought to it. She came at it from a slightly different perspective with ideas of her own and really made the whole thing jump off the screen.

What impact has it had on your career?

There’s a huge difference between the characters being famous and you being famous as a writer. So I’m still me with my interests but Villanelle and Eve are out there enjoying the celebrity thing. In a way I do what I’ve always done, which is I get up in the morning and go over to my desk and start to type, so there’s not a huge difference.

Luke Jennings: From Page to Screen | Sunday, October 22 | 11.30am | The Crown, Harrogate.

Book online here or call the box office on 01423 562 303.