‘I do have a dark mind,’ admitted award-winning crime writer Sarah Hilary in an interview with The Guardian, explaining how a friend pushed her into the genre, telling her to stop mucking about. ‘Your mind is in a dark place already, you should make some money from it.’ Her debut novel ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ is a startling exploration of abuse from an unusual perspective. Pacy, thrilling, often brutal yet deeply moral, it received brilliant reviews in all the broadsheets and praise from authors such as Helen Dunmore who found it ‘very disturbing and builds up to a terrific climax’.
Picked as a Richard and Judy Book Club read in 2014, it was The Observer’s Book of the Month, on The Guardian’s list of top thrillers of 2014 as well as a Silver Falchion and Macavity Award finalist in the US. In 2015, it won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and Sarah joined the ranks of Val McDermid and Lee Child, past winners of the award. Whew! Where do you go from there?
‘No Other Darkness’ published in July 2015 is a harrowing tale that starts with two small boys trapped in an underground bunker. Five years later they’re found. Dead. A chilling plot and 5 stars for ‘unputdownability’ so no surprises that it’s just been nominated for Best Paperback Original in the U.S. Barry Awards. And now Tastes Like Fear will be out on 7th April 2016. This is the third in the series, all featuring D.I. Marnie Rome, a complex and attractive protagonist who has suffered an unthinkable tragedy and now has to make sense of the darkest of family secrets. Another winner with its ingenious twist (which I didn’t spot) and, in Harm, one of the creepiest perpetrators ever. I was lucky enough to have an uncorrected proof copy and you can read my review here
You’ve probably guessed I’m a fan of Sarah’s writing and I’m not alone. In WH Smith’s Best Crime Authors of All Time Sarah was voted in at 33, one below Grisham and just topping JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith. Ha! Is there no limit to her talents? She’s certainly prolific.
Climb into her Crawl Space , the most brilliant of blogs and you’re in for a treat. I began at the beginning on February 1 2008 and found a stash of writers’ gems. She generously shares the successes of other writers and details some of the critical advice she’s been given, including an agent’s debriefing of her work as well as offering her thoughts on point of view ; how to get a literary agent or not and so much more – just take the afternoon off and read right through. Enjoy the interviews, especially the ‘biggie’ with Ian Rankin which reads like a cosy conversation between two great crime writers playing, ‘Show me your technique and I’ll show you mine.’
Sarah’s short stories are also highly acclaimed and she won the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008, the 2010 Sense Creative Award and The Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012. She’s been shortlisted for several awards including the Seán Ó Faoláin competition in 2010 and published in too many anthologies and magazines to list here. A firm fan of Flash, she runs CrimeFest’s annual Flashbang. Bang Bang You’re Read contest where for a tiny fee and the lure of passes to CrimeFest weekend, entrants are invited to ‘commit a crime story in 150 words’. Sarah’s Flashes are widely published and you can enjoy a taste here
Other facts about Sarah. She’s often spotted on the panel at festivals or chairing events; she’s a member of Killer Women – go Google it – and she writes copy for a well-known travel company. She lives in Bath and we’ve met a couple of times, first at our Evening of Readings in October and later in The Chelsea Café, where I found the writer with the dark mind has a light side and is as witty in the flesh as in the Tweets to her 7K+ followers @sarah_hilary . She introduced me to Fred Vargas in our local charity shop, offering to buy me Fred’s The Chalk Circle Man. We both like gin. Enough said.
- ‘Tastes Like Fear’, the third novel in the Marnie Rome series, is out on April 7. Please tell us something about the process of writing it and what’s next for you – and Marnie?
It was an exciting story to tell, partly because the voices were so strong in my head; a couple of characters in particular, who are unique to this story, gripped me and didn’t let go. The twists came very organically. I was still guessing right until the end as to who the killer was and why. I hope it’s as exciting to read as it was to write. I’m working on book four now, which is very different—still exciting, of course, but in an entirely different way. A big part of the story is about Marnie’s relationship with her foster brother, Stephen, who killed her parents when he was fourteen. It feels as if it’s time to tell that story now.
- How did you get started on your writing career and when did you feel confident to list writer as your ‘profession’ on a document?
I’d called myself a writer since I was quite small in fact, but my confidence grew as I started to get short stories published. When I won the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012 that felt like a turning point. I was signed by an agent at around the same time, and after that everything happened quite quickly.
- What is the essence of good crime writing and are there current trends you approve/disapprove of?
Good crime writing is subversive. It asks the awkward questions and looks into the murkiest corners. And it’s psychological—people as puzzles, rather than ‘plot as puzzle’. I don’t pay a lot of attention to trends. A good book – good writing – will transcend all that.
- You and Ian Rankin both confessed to not being plotters but how much research (e.g. accuracy of police details) do you do before you begin to write?
I read a lot of first person accounts, and I do an amount of research as I write, to pin down any niggling inaccuracies. I retrofit the rest of the research, because the momentum and the story always come first. I’m not writing a textbook. Most readers want credible characters, first and foremost.
- What are the themes you find yourself drawn to and are keen to explore in your writing?
Captivity. The idea of what imprisons us, and how we can imprison ourselves. Guilt, and redemption. The challenge of forgiveness. And legacies—of pain, of survival, of hope.
Do you have a writing routine? Favourite time, place and a specific writing process – journals, notebooks etc.? SH: I try and write every day. Straight into my Macbook Air. I keep notebooks of questions, but mostly it’s straight to work, typing the first draft, getting black on white.
- If I say ‘Patricia Highsmith’ what would your reaction be? Please would you tell us about your latest project.
Highsmith is one of my writing heroes. Everything she wrote was different, odd, off-kilter. I was thrilled and honoured to be asked to write a special introduction to three of her novels which are being republished in special editions by Virago in June.
Novels, short stories, flash and even poetry – are there any other forms you enjoy writing (e.g. screenplays – as surely Marnie would make perfect Sunday night viewing)?
My earliest writing ambition was to be a screenwriter. The Marnie Rome series has been optioned for television, and I’m delighted that a talented screenwriter is working on a pilot script. I’m happiest writing novels, but I do like short stories and flash fiction too. Poetry eludes me, as anyone who read my recent ‘Ode to the Ankles of Hugh Laurie’ will attest.
- What do you think are the essential ingredients of a good short story?
Crystal clear setting and characters. Forward momentum. An ending that resonates. No wasted words.
- Beginnings and endings – your thoughts on these? How do you decide when a short story should end?
I like an ending that echoes back to the beginning. My favourite short stories have this circularity. When the reader knows what will happen next—that’s where the story should end. The reader finishes it, in his or her imagination.
- The Bath Short Story Award closes at the end of this month. What tips would you give entrants to help their stories stand out from the crowd?
A memorable and unusual first line that sets the tone and makes the reader curious to know more. If you can raise a question in that opening line, the reader will want to keep going, to find the answer.
- How important is it for a writer to be involved in social media? How do you handle it?
Publishers like it, I find. More than that it helps to make the writing process less lonely and brings you closer to your readers—which is where all writers want to be.
- Which writers, dead or alive, would you take to the Canary Gin Bar in Bath?
Great question. I’d have Dorothy Parker, Max Beerbohm, Georgette Heyer, Fred Vargas, Oliver Sachs and yes, Patricia Highsmith.
- Which novels or short story collections would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?
Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Graham Greene’s short stories, and everything ever written by Helen Dunmore.
- What is the single most useful piece of advice someone else has given you about writing?
Be patient. Fail better.
Thank you Sarah and good luck for the launch at Toppings , Bath of Tastes like Fear on April 7th