As a massive fan of her reimagined Poirot novels, I’m really pleased to be able to share my interview with Sophie Hannah. She shares a unique insight into her work from the very beginning, so if you’re a fan of any of her work, either her standalones or her Poirots, then you should definitely read what she has to say.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and thrillers?
As a reader I’ve been a mystery addict since I started with Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series at the age of seven. I discovered Agatha Christie when I was twelve, then moved on to Ruth Rendell. My favourite writers have always been crime writers. So, it was probably inevitable that I would gravitate towards crime and thrillers as a writer; I have a very strong affinity with the genre and it’s what I most love to read.
What is your career background and how did you get in to writing?
Writing had been my hobby since childhood, but I first became a published writer as a student. I published my first picture book (Carrot the Goldfish – inspired by my husband’s observation that a piece of carrot peel in water resembled a goldfish!) and two poetry pamphlets while doing my degree and MA. Then when I was working as a library admin assistant after graduating university—I’d chosen a very easy, undemanding job in the hope that I’d have lots of time and mental energy free for my writing, and this plan worked brilliantly! — I published my first full-length poetry book. On the back of that, I was offered the most amazing opportunity: a two-year Creative Arts fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, which is where I started to write novels. I published three non-crime novels before discovering my natural niche of crime, and Little Face, my first crime novel, was published in 2006.
How did you get to become a published writer? What was it like getting your work published?
One of my university tutors really encouraged my poetry writing. He suggested I send off a selection of poems to magazines and then later to a small press publisher, and I started to have regular publication success. People wanted my poems! My first book was a limited edition, 200-copies-only pamphlet, but I really felt as if I’d made it and was now a properly successful writer. The same tutor was also the MD of Carcanet, one of the main UK publishers of poetry, and not long after that he published my first full-length poetry book, The Hero and the Girl Next Door. When it came to publishing my novels though, it was a much harder work.
My wonderful agent at the time absolutely ripped apart my first novel, Gripless, which was agony but she was totally right about everything that was wrong with it. Her feedback enabled me to make loads of improvements and finally it got published. It didn’t sell too well, however, and neither did the next two novels. They simply weren’t commercial in a straightforward way, so I can understand why they didn’t, and I still love them regardless. I then went through two more agents and lots of disappointment before finding my amazing agent Peter Straus, who I’m still with now, and having my big breakthrough with Little Face, whichbecame a surprise word-of-mouth, massive bestseller, sold to 34 countries and led to publishers all over the world saying to my agent and to Hodder (my UK publisher) ‘Please send us lots more books like Little Face by Sophie Hannah’.
Tell me all about your books. Why do you believe readers and critics enjoy them?
It’s always my aim to create an irresistibly suspenseful hook – to present the reader with a seemingly impossible mystery that they won’t be able to resist because they’ll be desperate to know what’s going on. In Little Face, for example, a mother insists that her new-born baby is missing and that an unknown baby has been left in her place. The baby’s father, however, is equally adamant that his wife is lying or insane.
In my latest standalone psychological thriller, Haven’t They Grown, the protagonist encounters the children of her estranged friend who, twelve years after she’s last seen them, are still three and five years old – no taller and apparently no older than they were more than a decade earlier. My readers can be sure of a complex and twisty ride, followed by a satisfying solution. They tell me they never see what’s coming, which is very important to me, because I’m often disappointed by the guess-ability of solutions in thrillers.
How did you find reimagining the Poirot novels? Talk me through your process of making them unique while still being true to Agatha Christie.
Thanks to my lifelong and obsessive Agatha Christie fandom, the blueprint for her particular and genius approach to storytelling is somehow imprinted in my DNA. However, Agatha Christie is the greatest crime writer of all time, so the last thing I wanted to do was to try (and, obviously, fail) to ‘be’ her, or copy her—I was very clear about this from the start. I wanted to stay faithful to the Christie-esque elements that readers love — the irresistible premise, the intricate plot and un-guessable solution — but I’m still writing as me.
How did you come up with the character of Inspector Catchpool? What was it like to create a character as part of such a renowned series?
Poirot belongs very much to Agatha Christie and I didn’t want to seem to be appropriating him. Catchpool is my middleman. I invented him so that he could kind of represent me in the book: he’s a new person working with, and writing about, Poirot, and so am I! To be honest, I have never seen writing continuation novels as being all that different from writing a non-continuation novel. We use true/already-existing elements in our fiction all the time. The novel I’m writing right now, for example, is completely original and not a continuation novel, but it already contains some real places and some real things in the world. Poirot, though a fictional character, is a very real thing in the world.
Are there any other classic crime fiction series that you’d like to reimagine?
I’d love to have a go at Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series! I think mystery is the perfect genre to hook in young readers—why would anyone ever want to read a book that wasn’t a gripping page-turner? That’s certainly how I felt as a kid.
Do you prefer writing non-fiction, fiction, or poetry? Is the process different when writing each type of text?
The process is the same for all of them, really. I don’t have a preference, because whatever I’m writing at any given moment is always the thing I love the most, and the need to satisfy my inner perfectionist means that I have to commit fully to my current project, finish it to the absolute best of my ability and make it as good as it could possibly be.
What books do you like to read yourself and how do they impact on your own writing?
Mainly and overwhelmingly, it’s crime fiction and thrillers: I re-read my Agatha Christie collection every few years. Ruth Rendell, Nicci French and Tana French are also firm favourites. I’ve just read an amazingly gripping book called The Housewarming by SE Lynes, and now I’m desperate to read the rest of her novels!
Is there anything else that influences your writing (places, people, films etc)?
Some of my best ideas come from real-life dramas, grudges and weird experiences. I’m absolutely fascinated by psychology and am always trying to understand what might motivate a person towards a particular action or behaviour. I also have a habit of taking something I’ve seen or experienced in the course of my everyday life and asking, ‘What if…?’ to build up that scenario into something dramatic enough to be the subject of a thriller.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Cameron Mackintosh. I’ve co-written (with my friend, composer Annette Armitage) two musicals: The Mystery of Mr.E (a murder mystery musical) and Work Experience (a musical locked room mystery). Very small and local productions of both have been staged in my hometown of Cambridge, and were huge, sell-out successes. The Mystery of Mr. E also did a small, national tour, which was thrilling. The pandemic has put paid to further plans for the moment but watch this space! And my dream would be to have Cameron Mackintosh collaborate with me to stage both at the West End. So, Sir Cameron, if you’re reading this, please get in touch!)
What’s next for your writing? Have you got any exciting plans to develop it that you can share with us?
My current most exciting projects are, firstly, my online coaching programme for writers, Dream Author, which launched in 2019 and has had the most incredible success so far in terms of the difference it’s made to members’ lives and writing success levels. The programme offers psychological, practical and commercial help (and any/all other help a writer might want or need!) to writers in all genres and at all levels of experience—we have bestselling authors as well unpublished writers just starting out.
I created the programme because I’d noticed that so many writers I knew were creating unnecessary suffering for themselves just by the way they were thinking about their writing, not analysing or challenging the thoughts that were harming both their wellbeing and their ability to work towards their goals. When we learn to think about our writing situations and ambitions in the most helpful way, the positive results can be really dramatic. Anyone who’d like to find out more should visit the Dream Author website: https://dreamauthorcoaching.com/. You can sign up at any time!
I’m also at the moment currently writing Book 11 of my Culver Valley crime series. My detectives Charlie and Simon haven’t had an outing since book 10 in 2016, and I’m hugely exciting about this one coming out later in the year. Details will be available very soon and anyone who’d like to receive news of this latest book, or any of my other projects, can sign up to my newsletter at: https://sophiehannah.com/.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
There is one in particular I’m very much looking forward to but it’s a top-secret project at the moment so I can’t divulge any details! Once it is officially announced there will be lots of excitement, however.
Do you have anything to add?
In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered how much I love podcasting and my How to Hold a Grudge podcast (based on my self-help book of the same name) now has five seasons available on iTunes, Spotify and all podcasty places! I discuss, with various guests, all things grudge-related. In the latest series we’ve covered apologies, complicity, forgiveness, plus the grudge worthy overlooking of Agatha Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels, the US Election and literary prizes.
I’ve also created a private weekly podcast for Dream Author members only, which covers all of the programme’s core topics. There’s a bonus episode on the Dream Author homepage all about building resilience, which anyone can access and you can find How to Hold a Grudge on iTunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/how-to-hold-a-grudge/id1439465411
Huge thanks to Sophie for answering my questions! As a huge fan of your work it’s amazing to find out more about your writing process.