What was the inspiration for The Burning?
The Burning was inspired by two things: a furnished flat I visited a few years ago, and the fact that friendships can be complicated affairs. I could imagine the murder victim, Rebecca, living in the very high spec, glamorous flat – clinging on to her lifestyle desperately. Her counterpart is her best friend, Louise, whose life has revolved around her since university. I wanted to look at their relationship, how the balance of power has shifted over time, and how Louise copes when her friend is no longer there to be the centre of her world.
The serial killer’s modus operandi was influenced in a very minor way by Levi Bellfield’s murder spree in 2003/4. That feeling of being vulnerable when walking home alone late at night – even on familiar streets – was one that I knew would strike a chord with lots of women.
The Burning has two murder cases running side-by-side. Which story came to you first – the serial killer or the case of Rebecca Haworth?
Rebecca’s story came to mind first, but the serial killer followed very close behind! I wanted to write about a young woman whose life was outwardly perfect and exciting, but in fact was living on the brink of disaster. Things are not going well for her, despite her best efforts to pretend otherwise, and as the police discover, there are lots of reasons why she was fated to end up dead – not just the obvious one of running across a serial killer.
With so many twists and plots, did you know how the novel would end when you began writing? Do you plan your novels meticulously before you begin?
I do plan, but things change! I knew who was responsible for what happened in the plot, and how they had done it, but I didn’t reach a final decision how they would be found out, or what the consequences would be until the last moment. One character changed completely during the writing process and developed a subplot of their own that I really enjoyed writing. There are lots of different strands in the book; tying them into a neat bow at the end is fun.
Your first book, The Missing centred around the character of Sarah Finch whilst The Burning features detective Maeve Kerrigan. Are you drawn to having strong female characters in the lead roles?
I am very fond of both of my heroines – I like to see them standing up for themselves. They have a certain vulnerability, but plenty of inner strength that stands them in good stead. Sarah is a very complicated person because of her past, whereas Maeve is more straightforward. She is ambitious, determined to be respected for what she does rather than who she is, and occasionally too feisty for her own good. There are important male characters in both books – especially The Burning – but the stories belong to the heroines.
At the end of the book there is obviously unfinished business between Maeve and Rob. Will she return in any of your future novels, and will this be resolved?
My next book follows on from The Burning and sees Maeve taking on a new investigation. A couple of months have passed, but her relationship with Rob has definitely not settled down. He’s a really important counterweight to her, personally and professionally, and I’m sure he’ll be a key element in any book I write about Maeve.
You’re married to a criminal barrister. Does his job come in useful for your research?
It’s extremely useful to have an expert in the criminal justice system at my beck and call, though I sometimes wonder what people make of the conversations we have in restaurants! As a lawyer, he wants everything to be accurate; as a writer, I want everything to be dramatic. We generally manage to agree in the end.
Which classic novel have you always meant to read and never got round to it?
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may never read Proust. I sort of feel I should, but the motivation is lacking. And I was utterly defeated by The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It isn’t even particularly long . . .
What are your top five books of all time?
Bleak House by Charles Dickens, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, Madame, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart and A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
What book are you currently reading?
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a phenomenal mystery with one of the first great detective characters to appear in fiction, Sergeant Cuff.
Do you have a favourite time of day to write? A favourite place?
I used to write in the mornings between six and eight o’clock – it was so blissfully quiet. But since my son was born, I find myself writing at night, often into the small hours. It’s the only time I get to myself! I often end up writing at the kitchen table. But I have written in lots of strange places: trains, airports, cafes, in the garden, in bed, on the sofa while trying to find somewhere for the cat to sit that isn’t actually on my laptop … anywhere and everywhere.
Which fictional character would you most like to meet?
Captain Wentworth from Persuasion by Jane Austen.
Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time?
For the combination of intricate plotting, unforgettable characters, superb descriptions and his ability to define the era in which he was writing, I have to choose Dickens.
Other than writing, what other jobs or professions have you undertaken or considered?
I never seriously wanted to do anything but write or work with books, and I’ve been lucky enough to do both. I did consider being a lawyer, a diplomat or a psychologist at various times, but publishing won out in the end. My worst ever job was being a sales assistant in the Christmas-tree section of a big Dublin department store. The Christmas music started in September, the customers were grumpy, and I was always covered in glitter by the end of the day, which got me some very odd looks on the bus. It took me a long time to recover my love for the festive season.
Which crime writers do you particularly admire?
I love Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction. She’s such a brilliant writer and really pushes the limits of the genre. I’m a huge fan of Minette Walters’ perfectly pitched novels. Henning Mankell’s Wallander books are superb; I also really enjoy reading Ian Rankin, Sophie Hannah and Nicci French. I’m always a little bit behind with my reading. I think I’m the last person on earth who hasn’t read a syllable by Steig Larrson.
Do you find the writing process easy, or do you suffer from writer’s block? If so, any tips for beating it?
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard! Some chapters take forever. The trick is to realise when it’s not going well because it’s not the right turn for the narrative to take as opposed to when it’s not going well because it’s a difficult chapter to write, but worthwhile. I have deleted great chunks of books and started again – painful, but the right decision. If all else fails, tea and chocolate help. But the main thing is to keep writing. When it’s going well, there’s no better feeling.
We hear the film rights have been sold to The Missing. Who are you secretly hoping will play the character of Sarah Finch?
I didn’t have a particular actress in mind when I created Sarah, but I think Emma Watson would do a fantastic job of conveying her vulnerability and determination. It’s the sort of part that would suit an unknown actress, though, and I’d just love to see Sarah brought to life on screen.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing another book featuring Maeve Kerrigan, a follow-up to The Burning. She’s investigating a very unpleasant series of murders although no one else seems to be interested, as the victims are not very pleasant either! But things are not necessarily what they seem . . .
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Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Karin Slaughter and many more share their personal writing experience with you in our Q&As. Take a look!