SW: Hi Sarah, thanks for having me here. SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN has had a great reception and I can see why. It's inspiring to read a page turner that's so well written. DI Marnie Rome is the cop we'd all want on our case – intelligent and feisty – I can’t wait to read more. I've come to crime novels after a long career as a television scriptwriter. I wrote for many continuing drama series (posh term for soap!), including Coronation Street, Eastenders, Casualty, Holby City, Heartbeat. I also created and wrote a detective series for the BBC, South of the Border, which was a bit groundbreaking in its day – the first mainstream BBC1 series to have a black female lead. Scriptwriting taught me a lot about story and structure. How about you? Where did it all begin?
SH: Fascinating that you came to crime novels after a career in scriptwriting. I'm quite envious, as that was always my earliest writing ambition. (After my parents told me I was "too nice" to be a journalist; if only they'd known...) I'm also very envious of your grounding in story and structure, which I still struggle with. I always loved writing dialogue, though, so I guess we have that in common. THE INFORMANT has been praised for its 'faultless plotting and attention to detail' (Mari Hannah). It crosses two genres, which is increasingly popular.
SH: I do love non-fiction, it's true, but would never underestimate the impact of certain novels on my love of reading - and writing. So Thomas Harris, Patricia Highsmith, Jonathan Kellerman, Helen Dunmore. All very different, all brilliant in different ways. Tell me about how book two is going?
SW: THE MOURNER is finished. I'm waiting to do the copy edit, but all being well it should publish next year. I'm running two protagonists in book two. One is the main character from THE INFORMANT – Kaz Phelps, reformed villain – the other is the cop, now ex-cop, who was chasing her. So it's a complicated structure. I only hope it works for the reader. I've got my fingers crossed! I'm currently sitting down to write book three, which is probably why it's much more fun to avoid the blank screen and write emails to you!
SH: I know that feeling well..! The books sound great, and your background in TV drama must give you clout in terms of grit and realism. I don't think that sort of story will ever go out of fashion. I also think it's great how crime can straddle genres now (not so long ago it would have been resisted, I'm sure). Look at Lauren Beukes, for example, who manages to make sci-fi and crime work so well without ever compromising the emotional impact that makes crime my favourite genre. And I'm with you all the way on the portrayal of women (or indeed anyone) struggling in their lives. It's something else crime does so well: opening all those different doors into stories that ring true. Not being afraid to look into the dark corners, reminding us of the things we've chosen to forget or overlook. Now I'm going to ask you about your main characters. In my series, DS Noah Jake is openly and happily gay. In fact he's about the only character with an entirely happy home life. How about your cast?
SW: Sexuality is an interesting subject. Gay and lesbian characters (or perhaps we should say LGBT) are cropping up more and more in fiction, a reflection of how much times have changed. And I can tell you, as a lesbian, that I'm still always extremely heartened when I read a character like Noah, who is openly gay and happy about it. So thank you for that. When I started my television writing career most producers, including the gay ones, were still responding to ideas involving lesbian and gay characters with a very cautious 'we don't want to frighten the horses' attitude. There was then a brief spate of dramas in the 90's (written by men) in which a character was revealed (shock horror) to be a lesbian and her butch girlfriend would turn up driving an articulated lorry! Like you I'm a Patricia Highsmith fan. She was by all accounts a difficult woman and an alcoholic with ambiguous feelings about her own sexuality – being a lesbian in the 50s was a hard road. I've spoken to many women about those times and turning to booze was common. Still, whatever Highsmith felt about herself and her life, she used it to fuel some fantastic writing. But now watching a younger generation growing up, without the pressures and judgements I suffered, I wonder how sexuality will figure in individual lives if it really does become an open choice. I've encountered many young women who have a fluid and changing attitude to the sexual partners they choose. And they don't necessarily feel the need to call themselves anything. My protagonist, Kaz Phelps, is released from jail and her main motive for changing her criminal behaviour is to impress her lawyer, Helen, who she's fallen in love with. But Helen has political ambitions and though she is very drawn to Kaz she doesn't think a relationship with an ex-con, released on licence, is going to help her career. I'm interested in following Kaz as she discovers her own emotions and how to deal with her sexual feelings. I'm also interested in doing this in the gangster crime sub-genre so that it will reach the widest audience.
SH: I love what you say about Kaz and the plans you have for her character arc, which sounds fascinating. Yes, I guess what I was trying to do with Noah was to have a gay, half-black DS and it not be remarkable, or the cause of lengthy angst/soul-searching. Which is not to say that I imagine it's an easy gig; I'm sure it's not. But I wanted it be normal, unremarkable even. I'm sure you're right about the generational experience/struggle. And the tendency for the media to focus on aspects of the struggle, often heavy-handedly. Everyone struggles; it's how we respond to those struggles that makes us unique. And, as you said earlier, Struggle is Story. I've really enjoyed our chat, thank you.
SW: It was great, Sarah. Thank you!
Set in London and Essex THE INFORMANT is a story of ruthless criminals, corrupt cops, obsessive love and the villainy that operates on both sides of the law. Published 20 November by Macmillan, you can pre-order it here.