“My characters only work when they become real to me, and then they let me tell their stories” – Elizabeth Haynes talks to World of Books about her writing, her work, and The Wurzels
Elizabeth Haynes grew up in Sussex and began to write from an early age, even buying herself a typewriter at the age of thirteen. She studied English, German and Art History at Leicester University, and moved on to become a Police Intelligence Analyst. It wasn’t until 2005 when a friend introduced her to National Novel Writing Month (http://www.nanowrimo.org/), that she began to work on her writing with a greater sense of purpose. National Novel Writing month is an annual challenge to write 50,000 words of a story throughout the month of November. Over the next few years (particularly each November) the first draft of Elizabeth’s debut novel, ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ came into fruition. That was in 2008. By February 2011, the book was published by Myriad Editions and featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club. It was also voted as one of Amazon UK’s Rising Stars and won the Amazon UK Best Book of 2011. Since then Elizabeth has released ‘Revenge of the Tide’ in March 2012, and last month her newest book, ‘Human Remains’ was published. Her books have been released in 30+ countries globally and in over 20 languages. Elizabeth now lives in the South East of England with her husband and son.
Q) You’ve given up working as a Police Intelligence Analyst in order to concentrate on being a writer full-time. Are there elements of the work that you miss?
Definitely! I miss it every day. I worked with a fantastic bunch of people and I loved being part of a team, especially one that had an impact on serious and organised crime. It’s hard to beat the buzz of being involved in something that has such an effect on the people’s lives, and on the area where you live. I also find it quite difficult to work on my own, in a quiet environment having previously worked in a busy office – I have to have my radio tuned to Talk Sport because that was what the guys in the office would listen to.
Q) Obviously your books have stemmed somewhat from your experience in this job. How closely did you draw from it?
With each book, I’m using my experience more and more. I think at first I was nervous about accidentally giving away some crucial aspect of police procedure, or, worse, getting something badly wrong and losing credibility. Luckily I’ve managed to get some senior officers to check each one. I’ve always been a bit disappointed that intelligence analysts don’t feature in crime fiction very often, and I wanted to address this oversight which is why my main character in ‘Human Remains’ is an analyst. I’ve also managed to get an analyst into a prime spot in my fourth and fifth books, too. Unfortunately a lot of crime fiction is quite unrealistic and I know many police officers and staff find it difficult to read because of this. It was very important for me to get the details right, whilst still writing fiction that was engaging – quite a difficult balancing act. Real life crime is often visceral, grubby, painful; and also, sometimes, pointless and mind-numbingly dull. When it comes to violent crime, the motive is often something as ridiculous as one party getting drunk and being annoyed at the other party – or there might be no motive at all. It’s much harder than I thought it would be to get the balance right between realism and entertainment, and I’m still not sure I’ve done it. I need more practice.
Q) You’re obviously a great advocate of National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) – why do you think this worked for you so well?
If it hadn’t been for NaNoWriMo, I would never have finished a novel. I had written short stories, extracts of things, ideas, for many years but always got to the ‘this is silly’ stage and put it to one side. If I got stuck, I would give up. NaNoWriMo forces you to get over those stumbling blocks and just carry on writing. I managed to write 50,000 each November but it was only on my fourth attempt that I managed to write a complete manuscript with a beginning, middle and ending. That was the novel that eventually became ‘Into the Darkest Corner’.
Q) How much research did you do for each book?
I still do all my first drafts during November for NaNoWriMo and because of that I don’t do extensive research before I write. I usually know roughly what I’m going to write about (for example, boat renovation and pole dancing for ‘Revenge of the Tide’; decomposition and mind control for ‘Human Remains’) and I research just enough around those topics so that I can write without becoming completely unstuck. Once the story is written, I have a much clearer idea of the gaps in my knowledge and then I can research more into those particular areas before I crack on with the editing process.
Q) You mention on your site that you actually lost the last 5,000 words of your first Nanowrimo story because of a hard disk failure, and so you stress always backing up your work. What other crucial lessons/words of advice would you give to aspiring writers out there?
I’m very good at stating what I think is the bleeding obvious, so forgive me if these tips sound a little basic: firstly, you need to finish something. If all you have is half-finished manuscripts, it’s hard to get anyone to take you seriously as a writer. I think it’s better to have a completed story that needs editing and has flaws, than to have a perfect fragment of genius. Secondly, get used to sharing your work. Let everyone read it, and listen to feedback. That one is particularly difficult when you first start, but it’s a stage you have to go through! Thirdly, and more specifically, I’ve just started using Scrivener to organise my writing and I wish I’d discovered it years ago – I can highly recommend it, especially if you have a complicated story and/or multiple narratives.
Q) Oftentimes authors say that their characters stay with them even when they’re not writing their story. Kathy in ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ has a particularly harrowing back-story – did she, for example, take a long time to let go of after the book was published?
I don’t think I will ever let go of her. I know she is really a figment of my imagination but she did become very real to me and I felt it was important to tell her story and get her out there. In another sense, she will never leave me because I get emails and messages from women around the world who feel like she is real, too. Cathy represents a lot of people for whom violence in the home is a daily reality and not a story. I also get emails from people who want a sequel to the book so that they can be reassured that Cathy and Stuart are safe and happy. I like to think they are, and that Mrs Mackenzie is living comfortably in a retirement home in Suffolk. Unfortunately, in the interests of keeping it realistic, it’s likely that Cathy is going to be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life, isn’t she?
Q) If you had to lose one of the five senses (touch, sound, sight, smell or taste), which one would it be?
That would be so difficult. I think the one I would miss the least would be my sense of smell as at least I’ve experienced that a bit when I’ve had a cold!
Q) What is the oddest bit of feedback you’ve received from a fan?
Quite recently I had an Amazon review for the US edition of ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ which said “I found myself asking ‘why don’t you shoot him when he breaks in’ a lot.” Taking aside the issue of guns not being as easy to come by here in the UK, I thought that if Catherine had shot Lee it would have made for a very short book, wouldn’t it?
Q) Your newest novel ‘Human Remains’ was published 14th February this year. It tells the story of Colin who is very intelligent but socially awkward, and spends his time collecting academic qualifications and attempting to meet a woman. When a decomposing body is found by a female Police analyst called Annabel in the house next door to where she lives, it doesn’t seem like anybody had noticed the woman was missing in the first place. Understandably appalled by this, Annabel then finds evidence that women are going missing all over her home town with no-one raising the alarm, and sets out to investigate. You’ve mentioned that the difference in this book to your two previous releases is the exploration of the absence of relationships and how the loneliness surrounding this can affect people differently – sometimes dangerously. Did you approach writing this book differently because of this? And what sort of reaction are you expecting from your fans?
It’s important to me to make each book different, so initially I did want to explore the absence of relationships and what social isolation does to us. The other main difference with this book is that I’m not writing a past/present narrative but using two main narrative voices: Colin’s, and Annabel’s. It’s the first time I’ve written a male first person narrative and it was hard to do. It was particularly difficult because Colin is much more intelligent than I am and it took a long time for him to start to ‘talk’ to me – it only happened when he realised I wasn’t going to make him a figure of fun, or a caricature of evil. I know that sounds pretty wacky but my characters only work when they become real to me, and then they let me tell their stories. I never have any idea of what reaction I’m going to get! I think this one is particularly dark and grim in tone, but people seem to like that, so who knows? My best critic is my husband, who is unswervingly honest, and he says it’s his favourite of the three.
Q) What two things do most people not know about you?
Most people who meet me seem quite surprised that I’m quite a happy soul and despite how gruesome ‘Human Remains’ is, I’m actually really squeamish. The other thing not many people know is that I’m a massive fan of The Wurzels.
Q) Would you ever try writing for another genre?
Definitely. Before I tried my hand at writing crime I wrote romance/erotic fiction. Not that it was any good, mind you, but I quite liked it. One of these days I’d like to write a ghost story, too.
Q) And finally, World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
The idea of a book being destroyed, unwanted or unloved is abhorrent to me. I believe in passing on books, either because you love them and want to share them, or because you don’t love them and think someone else might. Lovely as it is for me to be able to make a living from writing, the real joy is that there are people I’ve never met, who are reading things I’ve written – that gives me a massive buzz.
Thank you for a fantastic interview Elizabeth!
Don’t miss ‘Human Remains’ out in stores now. And if you fancy reading ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ visit the World of Books store and grab a copy today. For more information on Elizabeth Haynes and her work, visit her site at http://www.elizabeth-haynes.com/