Sophie Hannah is an internationally acclaimed author, whose psychological thrillers have sold millions of copies worldwide; she is also an award winning poet and short story writer. Her novels have been televised as the popular crime drama, Case Sensitive, featuring female detective, Charlie Zailer. 

Journalist Sonia Kilvington had breakfast with Sophie in Harrogate at the 2011 Festival, where she hoped that she would share with readers the secret of writing a bestselling suspense novel.

When building up suspense in your novels, do you try to recreate feelings you have experienced in real life?

My daughter had an audition with the St. Catherine’s college girls’ choir, which is the only girls choir associated with the university in the whole of Cambridge; it’s very prestigious. There were eleven of them, for two places, and so we thought she would never get in. When the email arrived from the choir master, I looked in my email inbox and saw his name and I knew that in that email (she did get in, which was great!) would be the answer that we had been waiting for. Before opening it, I had a minor fission of fear, it was like, ‘oh no, now I can find out if I want to, and I have to perform the action which will lead to me finding out!’ I was quite nervous because it affected my real life, but in a thriller, I think you get a version of that, so when the detective says, ‘let me tell you who it was and why they did it, or whatever you experience a bit of that nervous feeling, where you desperately want to find out, but you are a little bit scared of finding out.

Do you think it’s a feeling that readers recognise in their own lives?

If you are just reading a crime novel, I am not sure where that feeling comes from, because you are not really scared to find out who killed who, in the fictional novel you are reading, but maybe it’s because you are used to having that feeling in real life; when there is about to be a revelation  you get a bit nervous, you are about to find out something important and unconsciously, you want to pull back from it and put a bit more distance between you and that fact.

Is there a formula for building suspense?

I think that form related fear works really well in fiction. It means that for the first three quarters of the book, you are desperate to find out, and then when it starts to approach the end and you are going to find out, the excitement comes from a different source; do I actually want to know? The feeling in life is from the possibility of receiving bad news, but in a crime novel it’s from a different source, ‘I have so enjoyed not knowing and being in suspense, what if when I find out the truth it’s a disappointment?’ A bit like the end of the Wizard of Oz, when you find out he is just a bloke. Sometimes in crime novels the most fun for the readers is to be held in suspense, it’s the not knowing.

Why do you think some thrillers are less successful at creating suspense than others?

Sometimes in crime novels, and I read a lot, some of them don’t have it; they have the question that needs to be answered, its usually ‘here’s a dead body and a range of suspects’ and at the end I will tell them which one is the murderer, and they think that’s enough, some writers think that it is sufficient to build up suspense, but it’s not enough. I think you need more, and it’s hard to say what the formula is, but I think the writing needs to be very taught, each individual sentence should be tight and not flabby, so that the tension is embedded in the writing.

What about the characters, is it more important for them to find out the truth, or better for the police to solve the mystery?

There needs to be at least one character in the book for whom that desperation to know is absolutely all consuming, because if it’s just the police who want to solve the mystery in the course of their normal every day work, you don’t get that level of suspense. Because the police don’t feel that way about their job, they try and find out, but they are not full of suspense. I also have in each of my books a heroine who is particular to that book, for whom everything is at stake, she is desperate to solve the mystery as not doing so will ruin her life. In the case of Lasting Damage this is Connie, as she is sure that her husband has some link with 11, Bentley Grove, but she is unable to prove it, and there is this unexplained mystery of this address in her satnav, listed as home. That is another way to maintain suspense, with a main character in the book who is as desperate to find out as the reader is.

Connie didn’t seem to know where she wanted to live, was this due to her parents influence over her?

Interestingly, when I wrote that book I didn’t know why that was, but I wanted to include it because that was how I felt when I was looking for a house and it alerted me to a possible psychological issue that I had. Most people I know know where they would like to live. They might not be able to live there, because perhaps there they cannot afford it, but they know. If you ask them, ‘do you want to live in a rural farm house surrounded by greenery or in the middle of a beautiful city?’ Most people can tell you like that, but I can’t and still don’t know where I should be living. In one way I am definitely suited to living in the city, because I am not very good at shopping or cooking, it’s nice to be able to live out of restaurants and go round the corner to the shop, but on the other hand, aesthetically, I need the rural calm and quiet which comes from living in the countryside. When we were looking at houses, I didn’t know where I wanted to live, and it freaked me out that I didn’t know. I now realise in hindsight, and after writing another book which goes into a whole aspect of psychology in some depth, that Connie’s family are so controlling and she is so enmeshed with her parents, their requirements and wishes and consciousness, that she has never been allowed to develop her own identity and that is why she doesn’t know where she wants to live.

Sophie Hannah at Old Swan Hotel at 2011 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

In Lasting Damage, was it difficult to create an effective ending, when the possibilities seem limited at the beginning of the story?

One of the challenges for me is that at the beginning, unlike in some of my books, where there is any number of things that might have happened and the reader just can’t get, in Lasting Damage you pretty much know at the beginning, either Kit is lying or Connie is a bit mad, so sustaining the suspense when there is only two possibilities is was quite hard, because, which ever way it turned out, whether it’s Kit’s a baddie or Connie’s mad, you don’t want the reader to think ‘oh yes it’s that…’ It was quite hard to make it turn out that, yes, the address did mean something to Kit, but yet the ending, hopefully, was not disappointing as exactly how it had happened and why and what is still a big surprise.

How do you feel about violence in your books?

Although there is some violence in my books, that’s not what I am interested in. In my books there is as little violence as possible. So, In Lasting Damage there is a fairly horrific scene at the end, when Connie goes into the house, finally, and finds the horrible thing that’s in there; it’s horrific, but not violent.

When your novel The Point of Rescue was televised the title was changed; did you mind?

No, because they changed it for TV which I think is different. They wanted a series title, because they hope to do all of the books eventually. They may not get to do them all, but hopefully they will do another two or three. They wanted a series name, so the next one, I suspect, will be called Case Sensitive Two: subtitle, The Other Half Lives, which is the one they are doing next.

The Other Half Lives is my favourite of your books, is it yours too?

People who love my books like that one best because all of the things I represent about crime fiction. That book has most of them. It’s sort of the most extreme of all the things I am known for, such as twisted psychology, complicated plot; but people who don’t like my books or like them a bit, that’s one they like the least, as they think it’s too complicated, too twisted, too Baroque. People either love or hate that book, whereas Lasting Damage seems to be more universally liked. A lot of people think, that book is the best. I am very fond of The Other Half Lives; it’s very spooky and for the whole first half of the book you don’t even know if there has been a crime committed at all, and yet there is lots of spookiness and atmosphere, but none of it comes from ghostliness; it’s not supernatural in any way. In that book I was deliberately trying to see whether you can be spooky just using human beings and no ghosts.  It should be on television in March, that’s when it’s scheduled.

Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah is out now.

When Connie Bowskill clicks on the ‘virtual tour’ button of an estate agents website, she finds herself looking at a scene from a nightmare…When your eyes tell you one thing. Your husband tells you another. Who do you trust?

For more information visit Sophie Hannah’s website

Interview By Sonia Kilvington