An Interview with Sophie Hannah by B. Lynn Goodwin
Seeing Things From a Different Angle
The what-ifs just keep coming in Sophie Hannah’s A Game for All the Family. This story tells a psychological thriller like none other. I expected the book to be about whatever pulled the narrator away from her career as a TV writer, and pulled her into a new life in the country, but this story barely touches on that mystery.
Instead, shortly after her daughter Ellen enrolls in a new school, she begins to withdraw. When her best friend is expelled for something that wasn’t even his fault, she’s outraged, as only a 14-year-old can be. When her mother goes in to set things right, though, the headmaster tells her that Ellen’s best friend, George, never attended the school. Who is she to believe? For that matter, who are readers to believe? What is really going on, and what will it take to root out the whole truth?
In the following Q&A, author Sophie Hannah answers questions about mysteries, pathological liars, and what makes stories work.
BLG: Tell us about discovering your love for Agatha Christie books and how it led you to your career.
SH: I discovered Agatha Christie when I was twelve. I was instantly addicted and read them all in two years! It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the genre, so when I started writing I knew I had to write crime novels. Agatha Christie has always been a huge influence — her twisty plots, the way she hooks you in with an apparently impossible scenario, and then those ingenious, unguessable solutions. Very early on, Agatha's novels gave me the blueprint for what an ideal crime novel should feel like from the reader’s point of view
BLG: How do you plot a story like A Game for All the Family?
SH: I always start with either an intriguing hook that will grab the reader, or a surprising solution or ending. With A Game for All the Family, it was the mystery that the narrator sets out to solve: a boy at her daughter’s school is expelled, but when asked about it the head teacher says she’s never heard of him — he doesn’t exist! What on earth could be going on…? I love making readers ask that question.
Once I have what I feel is the perfect beginning or ending, the rest of the plot seems to assemble almost spontaneously. A Game for All the Family was driven by a desire to write about lies and lying — but not the kind of lying you usually get in crime fiction, which is sensible (‘No, I didn’t commit the murder!). I wanted to look at pathological lying — lying for no reason, even when it’s not in your best interests, because it’s a psychological compulsion. I also had to put a cute dog in the book because my own Welsh terrier, Brewster, insisted!
BLG: Ah. You are a woman after my own heart. Eddie McPuppers says, “Way to go, Brewster!”
What drew you to this story about the costs of lying, and how do you get inside this narrator’s head?
SH: A while ago, I found myself, for the first time in my life, in a relationship with a true compulsive liar. This was someone who lied even when all their elaborate lies could be (and were) easily disproved. I realised these lies were so preposterous, the objective could not have been 'to be believed.' Everyone said to me, 'Avoid that person, have nothing to do with them,’ but I thought, 'Are they crazy? How's avoiding this going to solve the mystery?'
It was a genuine, real life puzzle and I cannot resist a mystery! I found the whole thing fascinating, and knew I wanted to write about it. Justine, the narrator of A Game For All the Family, is the person who has to deal with a liar in this novel. She’s based on me - well, a braver and more reckless version of me!
BLG: How did you pick the character who would be your narrator, and which came first, the narrator or the plot?
SH: The plot always comes first. I invent the narrator or protagonist later, and they always develop from the needs of the plot.
BLG: You are an expert at mysteries. What tips can you offer for keeping a reader guessing?
SH: Mislead the reader, but do it fairly. You have to show them all the clues, and give them all the relevant facts, but in such a way that they don’t see them in the right order. Also, allow your readers to mislead themselves — we all make unconscious assumptions in certain scenarios. That can be used to great effect in suspense fiction. And don’t have a conventional mindset. If you do, you’re less likely to come up with unpredictable stories. Always try to see things from a different angle to everyone else. Write about the truly oddest things that have ever happened to you.
BLG: What was the most fun part of writing A Game for All the Family?
SH: Interwoven with the main story is another story, written by the narrator’s daughter Ellen as school homework. It’s a murder mystery set in the same house as the main plot, and of course it ties together with the bigger narrative. I loved writing it. I wrote A Game For All the Family immediately after The Monogram Murders, my first book featuring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. It felt like blending a contemporary psychological thriller with the outlandish, clever and cryptic plotting of the golden age, within the same book.
BLG: This is part of the approach that makes your style distinctive. What is the best piece of advice you ever got from an editor?
SH: When I finished the first draft of my first thriller, Little Face, I showed it to my agent. He said, ‘It’s 150 pages too long — cut out the entire subplot.’ I did, and it made the book vastly better and much more focused.
BLG: What advice do you have for emerging writers seeking a mainstream publisher?
SH: Focus on telling the most original and surprising story that you can. Ideally it should be one that you can pitch in one or two sentences, and something that makes people go, 'Ooh - I MUST read that' on hearing the idea alone. Do not jump on bandwagons. Do not cynically rehash stories or characters that have been done a million times before.
BLG: Wise advice. What are you working on now and where can readers learn more about you?
SH: I’m making the final edits to my next psychological thriller, KEEP HER SAFE, which is set in Arizona. It’s published in the States in September 2017.
BLG: Sounds like a book I will want to read. While I’m not crazy about all mysteries, I love psychological thrillers because I want to know what goes on in the minds of others and what motivates their actions.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience with us, Sophie. Writers can learn a lot from you.
You can keep up with Sophie Hannah and her prolific writing career at http://www.sophiehannah.com.