By Chris High
Pigs, necrophilia and disembowelment? All part of the job forCrime writer, Mo Hayder.
Having tried for two years to secure an interview with Mo Hayder – former Japanese nightclub hostess, security guard, barmaid, film maker and now the best-selling writer of gruesome crime fiction – it came almost as a disappointment to find the author is, quite possibly, the nicest person you could ever wish to meet.
Far from being the dizzy “Essex Girl” stereotype she is often made out to be, neither is Mo Hayder a raving psycho with murderous tendencies, though her work might say otherwise. In fact, one the biggest surprises is that somebody so at ease with herself and her abilities should be reluctant to be interviewed at all – but more on that topic later.
Mo’s first four novels – Birdman, The Treatment, Tokyo and her latest, Pig Island (Bantam) – are all highly acclaimed and have reached best seller status the world over. Featuring such pleasantries as necrophilia, occultism, disembowelment, war crime, social-preconception and porcine slaughter of a non-too humane nature, there isn’t too much family entertainment involved. ‘Actually, I’m really quite dull,’ she says, ‘I don’t do sky diving or mountaineering or anything like that. In fact horse riding is the closest I get to danger. I love spending time with my four-year old daughter, Lotte, just walking in the park and feeding the ducks and simply hanging out with friends. I even write in bed, that’s how adventurous I am.’
Mo’s first writing venture, Birdman, took two and a half years to write and was initially only sent to agents by the fledgling author in the hope of getting free advice.
‘I’d had little formal education having left school at fifteen and didn’t know a soul in the writing business. I was also incredibly naïve. So, when four of the five agents I sent the manuscriptto wanted to take it, I was understandably delighted.’
Although Birdman pushed back the boundaries of crime fiction, thanks in part to its disturbing somewhat content, the book also came under fire from some “old school” authors and critics who felt Hayder had gone a little too far. Mo, however, remains unrepentant about writing so graphically. ‘In most crime novels the violent act, usually the murder, is the engine. Take that away and there is little left to drive the story along. So I do get a little cross with authors who aren’t precise about the violence they’re using to create tension because I feel they’re being dishonest with their readers. If people don’t like the blood and violence in my books, fine, they can always close the cover and put it aside and maybe read a romance instead.’
Mo believes her readers should not be patronised and books should not force an author’s own opinion onto their readership. ‘I watch a lot of movies and prefer European film to Hollywood epics. They allow audiences to make their own decisions. Inserting incidental music at vital times to dictate an emotional reaction is a trait I loathe in many a Spielberg movie, for instance, and I hate it when writers do similar things with words. It would be so condescending to read: “Jack Caffrey was so upset looking at the body of another dead girl he went away in tears”. The writing should be enough to convey individual character emotions without trying to convince the reader how they should be feeling. Some authors, I think, let their readers off the hook far too easily.’
Being let off the hook when reading a Mo Hayder novel is not an option. Her work is incredibly atmospheric without ever being sensationalistic and gives the reader the same sense of dread supplied by Doctor Who. You can hide behind the sofa as much as you like, but you’re going to have to look sometime and see the Daleks exterminate someone. ‘The graphic nature of my work is something of a backlash to the way in which I was brought up, I think. My parents were very anti-violence and my mum especially so. Tell any kid not to do something and they’ll automatically go ahead and do it. I was no different. Trying to steer me away from the darker side of life only served to make me more inquisitive. My third novel, Tokyo, is just one example of what happens when my curiosity is piqued.’
Mo left school at 15 with a couple of ‘O’ levels before heading off first to London then Japan. She returned to gain her ‘A’ levels and two MAs – without studying for a Bachelors – and, subsequently, took a teaching role in Bath where she now lives. ‘Returning to get an education might have been family influenced – a little bit of sibling rivalry, maybe, as I come from a family of academics,’ Mo says. ‘I also love the learning process and I’m constantly learning about this business. I still know next to nothing about market trends and stuff like that and have no clue who is currently number one in the bestseller lists. As for the teaching, I just like being able to boss people around,’ she laughs.
Mo’s latest novel, Pig Island, sees the remote islands of the Hebrides come to the fore almost as an additional character. ‘I wanted to set the story in a place from which there was no escape,’ Mo explains. ‘Originally, I thought it might have been on a boat, such as in the Nicole Kidman film, Dead Calm. Fortunately for me, from a research point of view because I suffer terribly from seasickness, we took a holiday in Scotland. When I took out my mobile phone I found it had completely lost the signal and from there everything sort of slid into place.’
In the novel, a journalist, Joe Oakes, makes a living exposing supernatural hoaxes. A born sceptic, Joe believes everything has a rational explanation. But when he visits a secretive religious community, everything he thought he knew is challenged. ‘The novels from the so-called “Golden Age” of crime are all mostly set in closed communities in which people are cut off from the outside world. The characters in Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express and Ten Little Indians didn’t have mobile phones or Emails or such like and I wanted to recapture that sense of isolation, but in the modern world. The Hebrides fitted the bill perfectly.’
Mo is currently working on two new novels, the first of which is due for publication in later this year. ‘The books see the return of Jack Caffrey, from Birdman and its sequel, The Treatment, which see him team up with a female police diver. The first has the working title of Throwing The Bones and is currently in its earliest stages, but going well.’
So, after writing four hugely successful novels, does the pleasure of seeing the finished article on the shelf still endure? ‘Oh yes, very much so, but there was a moment recently to eclipse even that. My four-year old daughter spotted my photograph in a magazine and shouted out for everybody to hear “Mummy, mummy that’s you”. Now that was really special.’
Pig Island by Mo Hayder is available from Bantam Books. For more information, visit www.mohayder.net
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