Before she became a mother, Sophie Hannah was the author of short stories and award-winning failed-romance poems (“the poetry equivalent of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ ” is how she classifies them). Then, in the hours following the birth of her first child, the British writer had an experience that inspired her to write Little Face, an unsettling psychological thriller published in 2006 by Hodder Paperback and here in October by Soho Press. In it, an emotionally shaky young mother heads off on a postpartum outing and returns to her rural English home to declare that the slumbering new infant in the nursery is not hers. Until the final pages, it’s hard to decide if Alice’s baby daughter really has been swapped or if her not-entirely-likable mommy is completely nuts. If the sustaining of this tension has become the hallmark of this 36-year-old mother of two, you can’t help but wonder what goes on in the mind of an author who can conjure up such twisted criminal motives and such unbalanced characters.
Recently, Hannah spoke to the Weekly about her switch from stanzas to crime solving, how novels by poets scare her, and why she relates to her dark, complicated protagonists. “My friends are often telling me I’m slightly mad and weird and, you know, ‘Oh, God. Strange things go on in your head,’ ” she said, speaking from her home in Yorkshire, England. “My heroines behave in slightly unconventional ways, probably because of what I’m like as a person.”
L.A. WEEKLY: What kind of maternity-ward experience could inspire something as twisty as Little Face?
SOPHIE HANNAH: I’d been in hospital and was so exhausted because I hadn’t slept for three nights. So the midwife said, “Why don’t I take the baby so you can have a good night’s sleep?” and took my daughter off. Then I thought, “I’ve been trying so hard to have this baby, and now I’ve just given it to somebody else.” So I went out to the ward, and the midwife was sitting there at the nurses’ station, holding a baby wrapped in a green hospital blanket, as my daughter had been. I stretched my hands out to take this baby, and the midwife sort of sprang back and said, “What are you doing? This isn’t your baby. That’s your baby,” and pointed to this glass cot next to where she was sitting. I looked in. Sure enough, the baby in the cot did look marginally more like what I thought my baby ought to look like. But if she’d given me this other baby, I’d probably not have suspected anything. It just got me thinking: How weird is it that you could be somebody’s closest relative and not be entirely sure what they look like? From that, I thought I had a really intriguing opening for a psychological crime novel.
Did you know what you didn’twantLittle Faceto be?
I read a lot of crime fiction, good and bad. Some of the more uninspiring crime novels that I read are basically very straightforward murder mysteries. You start off with a dead body, you meet the various suspects who might have killed the dead body, you hear their various motives, and then you find out which one it was. To me, that’s not properly intriguing or mysterious, because you can easily imagine why somebody might kill somebody. You know, if you meet all the suspects, it’s just a question of which one it’s going to turn out to be. I prefer the sort of mystery that makes readers think, “What can possibly be going on here? How is this going to be resolved?” To the point where they’re almost worried that it won’t be resolved.
Do you achieve that sense of mystery organically? Or is it all part of a reader-fooling master plan?
I suppose all writers have their strengths and weaknesses. I think — and I’m sure people who don’t like my books will think I’m wrong about this — one of my strengths is unguessable plots. It’s unlikely that I would ever have a crime novel where the motive is that somebody wanted to inherit some money or somebody was blackmailing somebody.
Your prose style is vivid but doesn’t necessarily suggest a poet trying to break out.
I’m sometimes scared to read novels by poets. They’re sometimes so poetic in a really overt way. When I’m writing my crime novels, obviously I’m trying to make sure the writing is good — but good in an unobtrusive way. The main thing I want my novels to be is gripping and unputdownable.
Did any of your poetry-writing tools come in unexpectedly useful when taking on the crime-fiction genre?
When I write a poem, I am very conscious of the overall structure. In order for me to think a poem works, every single word and punctuation mark — everything — has to be in the right position with relation to the overall structure. It’s exactly the same with a crime novel. I plan my crime novels down to the last detail. Typically, before I start writing them, I’ve done a 40- to 50-page plan. In the plan, I basically race through every single detail of what’s going to happen, including which bits of information are going to be revealed where.
YourLittle Facefollow-up,Hurting Distance, is a huge hit this year in England. It has the same pair of detectives, this time dealing with a possibly disturbed rape victim whose lover has gone missing. Which book do fans consider more sleep-depriving?
Everyone has their own things they find disturbing. I mean, I can’t read anything about execution, but I can happily read about people killing each other. My new novel [The Point of Rescue], which is coming out in the U.K. in February next year, is about a woman who may or may not have killed her daughter and herself. My mum found that incredibly disturbing, whereas Little Face didn’t bother her that much at all. I do write about bleak subject matter. But I think that’s because I’m interested in the psychology of suffering and what happens to somebody who’s had a perfectly nice, successful, happy life and then, suddenly, something awful happens to them. How do they react? Can they keep it together? Or do they go to pieces? How does it change them?
In bothLittle FaceandHurting Distance, a heroine narrates in the first person, then a pair of officers — DC Simon Waterhouse and DC Charlotte Zailer — do the investigative work in third person in every other chapter. How did you come up with the alternating-voices structure?
When I wrote Little Face, I knew it wasn’t just a one-off. I was going to be writing crime novels permanently. My heroine is Ruth Rendell, and she’s been writing a book a year since 1964. I knew I wanted to have series detective characters, because I read a lot of series and I wanted my readers to be able to look forward to the next installment of the Simon-and-Charlie story. But equally, I wanted each book to be a stand-alone thriller in its own right. The danger of books which are just series is that the detective can come across as the only main character in the book and the people who are murdering and being murdered are just a vehicle for Inspector So-and-So to have another outing. I didn’t want that. I wanted a character where everything is at stake for them. I wanted them to be equally prominent if not more prominent than the people solving the case just because it’s their job. So I decided to have my cake and eat it: I blended the series detective character with the police procedural.
Has the success of your books had an impact on how you write?
The better things go, the more pressure there is on me to keep it up. So I’m now writing the fourth in the series, called The Other Half Lives. I think it’s the best title ever. It’s about a man who confesses to the murder of somebody who is still alive.
What kind of whodunit is that?
[Laughs.] When I told my husband about it, he said, “Well, that’s not going to be very good, is it?” I said, “Yes, it is. Why not?” He said, “Well, because people could just say to him, ‘Look. She’s alive. You didn’t kill her.’ And he’d just go, ‘Oh, yeah.’ ” [Laughs.] But it’s not nearly as simple as that . . .
LITTLE FACE | By SOPHIE HANNAH | Soho Press | 310 pages | $25 hardcover
HURTING DISTANCE | By SOPHIE HANNAH | Hodder Paperback | 432 pages | $14.45 paperback