Ruth Ware is an exciting new talent and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
Q: I heard Ngaio Marsh say in an interview that she liked to create a group of characters and then impose the mystery on them to see how they reacted to a crisis. Were you working in a similar way, or did you come up with your story premise first?
A: I came up with the “murder on a hen night” idea first, chiefly because a friend said to me that she had never read one and it instantly seemed like such a perfect idea that I couldn’t resist writing it. The characters were sort of secondary in that sense—they grew outward from me wanting a disparate group of people shoved together somewhat against their will. They’re also partly each an archetype of women I’ve met at bachelorette parties over the years—the one who doesn’t really want to be there, the one from the bride’s past who is completely different to all her current friends, the one who would prefer to be at home with her kids, the one who organised it and is totally stressed about the whole thing—I think they are all recognisable types to people who’ve attended a fair number of these things, and I’ve certainly been most of them over the years, in different settings! Of course, I chose to carry the roles to extreme because it made for better drama.
Q: I liked how tiny the suspect pool was! Very golden age. How difficult a feat was that to pull off?
A: Actually it wasn’t something I really set out to do, but the premise sort of dictated the plot in that respect. I wanted it to be about people being forced together and rubbing each other up the wrong way, and you can only really do that in a confined setting – right from the outset I knew I wanted it to be set in a location where people couldn’t easily escape. It’s also probably a product of having read too much classic crime as a kid, I think some of those structures were coming out unconsciously as I wrote!
Q: One of the things I really, really liked about this book was that while it was a thriller, it was ALSO a mystery, so you were using both thriller and mystery tropes. Do you have a particular preference or do you like both mystery and thriller?
A: I love both. I probably read more mysteries, but I adore a good psychological thriller. If I ever wrote a book as dark and twisty as Gone Girl I would be very happy! I read the two genres quite differently though, and for different reasons; thrillers tend to be harrowing and emotionally immersive in a way that mysteries aren’t (or at least I tend to find them so). I can read a crime novel to wind down, because it’s essentially a puzzle, particularly in the case of classic crime, and “Golden Age” crime novels tend to be quite cool and detached and ultimately quite reassuring. But for some reason that’s not the way I write.
Agatha Christie is very focussed on the puzzle and the detection side of the crime, but for me, the moment I start thinking about a murder, my mind starts dwelling on the victim and the agony of the suspects and the emotional fall-out. The suspect pool in Agatha Christie novels always tend to stand the emotional strain very well and have complete faith in the powers of Poirot or Marple to get it all sorted out. I would be a nervous wreck if I thought someone suspected me of murder, and would be constantly second guessing how I ought to be behaving rather than acting naturally (which is maybe partly why I liked Gone Girl so much—Nick’s constant worries about how the police and public are perceiving him felt very real to me!) I guess In a Dark, Dark Wood reflects that.
Q: Sorry to harp on the “Golden Age” but this book reminded me so strongly of Christie—you refer to And Then there Were None, but I was more strongly reminded of the creepy house and psychological set up of Endless Night. Is Christie a big influence?
A: I wouldn’t have said so before I started writing this, but when I got to the end and read it back I realised that 20+ years of reading her had very obviously bled through into my writing. The set up, with the closed pool of suspects and the geographically isolated location is pretty much directly lifted from her technique. I found myself reminded of bits of The Sittaford Mystery when I read it back—the snowbound house, and the creepy seance. Even the title, with its nursery-rhyme echoes, is a sort of tribute to her I guess; she uses the same technique for so many of her own stories (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Crooked House, A Pocketful of Rye and so on). Endless Night is an unusual Christie, I think. It kind of contradicts what I said above about Christie being quite cool and detached, whereas Endless Night is anything but; it has a sort of nightmarish quality. I read that book as a teen and found it actually quite traumatising! I think I still have a copy but I haven’t read it since.
She is not the only Golden Age writer that I love, though. I also adore Dorothy L Sayers (who wrote so well about the anguish of the writer caught up in one of her own plots in Strong Poison) and Josephine Tey, who proved how much you can do from the setting of a hospital bed in Daughter of Time. I don’t consciously set out to imitate any of them (I can’t imagine Sayers letting her characters behave so badly!) but I can see the influences when I read back.
Q: Who is an influence in terms of contemporary writing? There are some great thrillers coming out of the UK at the moment—I’m a huge Sharon Bolton fan myself.
A: I recently read and loved Disclaimer by Renee Knight—I adore a good twist and this was one that felt absolutely right and not too “plotted” if you know what I mean. And a book from a few years back, but still definitely contemporary, The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly. She does a past/present narrative so well, showing how wounds can fester and reverberate through the years.
In terms of non-Brit writers, I love a good Nordic Noir—Karin Fossum, Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason and so on. The last Erlendur mystery, Strange Shores, had me in bits by the end, although I won’t say why for fear of spoiling it for others!
And in terms of American writers, I love both Harlan Coben and Sue Grafton. I think both do character amazingly well, their characters feel absolutely three-dimensional and real. I’m not sure if all of the above are influences exactly—but they’re all writers I love to read. In general though I am quite a wussy reader, I can’t cope with anything too violent or sadistic so I don’t tend to venture to the more blood-spattered end of the crime/thriller spectrum. A lot of people have said they found In a Dark, Dark Wood deeply scary but I didn’t find it so to write, although maybe that’s partly to do with being in the driving seat and in control of what happens. I think of it as tense, rather than horrifying.
Q: Can we talk about length a bit? I think a lot of contemporary mysteries are far too long, and you avoided this pitfall. Sometimes I almost think the author is too caught up in their own premise to tell a clear, well told story. So, snaps to you for writing a book where I wouldn’t have cut a sentence. I’ve read so many recently I’ve finished and wished the editor or somebody would have cut 100 or so pages. Any thoughts on this topic?
A: I hadn’t really thought about this until you mentioned it. I do love a big baggy novel IF it earns its length, but I have definitely read books where I felt it could usefully have ended 100 pages before it actually did, or started 100 pages later (although the latter is more rare, I think). Diving into a world that sustains you for a long period is incredibly satisfying, but I guess I would always rather leave a reader wanting more, rather than less, if that makes sense. I also instinctively resist over-explaining. I’d rather leave space for the reader to guess, or explain, or decide for themselves. Ultimately though I think it’s just writerly temperament. My imagination seems to run in 90k word chunks! (Now I’ve said that I will probably find my next novel is 300,000 words).
Q: Another thing I thought was very well done is that you seemed to find some sympathetic angle to each character, even if they were a bit obnoxious (Flo) or snarky (Nina). What’s your trick there? I certainly wasn’t reading along as I do sometimes thinking “I hope he or she gets killed soon.”
A: I don’t think I could write a character I didn’t like at all. I think to write a character convincingly you have to inhabit them to some degree—walk in their shoes, understand why they make the choices and react the way they do. And that understanding is the first step to empathy and from there to sympathy, which undoubtedly filters out onto the page. I have read books where characters are consistently vile, and oftentimes they’re very good books, but I find them very wearing to read, and they must be even more intense to write, given it takes so much longer to write a book than to read it.
Q: Is there a pivotal book in your life? I think all of us who love to read have that book.
A: I can’t narrow it down to a single book. Maybe The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford? But that has nothing to do with my writing—I just love it, and I love her as a writer! There are not many writers who can combine comedy, satire and tragedy in such satisfying proportions.
Q: Have you always wanted to write a thriller, or did you start writing, and that’s what it turned out to be?
A: I’ve written all my life in just about every genre you can think of as the mood took me (including some absolutely terrible sci-fi/fantasy as a teenager, which I am super glad never saw the light of day. In fact I might go burn that manuscript now…) This one just happened to be a thriller, but I think it suits my style and my need for lots of drama and excitement to keep me writing. I love reading quiet literary novels of understated beauty, but I think I would have terrible trouble writing one. I’d always be throwing in deaths and near-fatal accidents and emotional scenes.
Q: Finally, what’s next for you?
A: Another thriller—as yet untitled so if anyone has any suggestions! It’s about a woman who witnesses a murder, and then finds the victim never existed. But I can’t say any more at this stage or I’d have to kill you…